Keeping it simple
Simplification and diversification have proven to be successful strategies for Alberta logging contractor Estabrook Construction.
By Tony Kryzanowski
The fact that they learned the ropes in the construction industry helped make the move to forestry in 1988 a relatively easy transition. The company was already well experienced with purchasing, operating and maintaining heavy equipment-Estabrook Construction was incorporated in 1958. Realizing that they lacked logging experience, however, they hired a logging superintendent with nearly 30 years experience.
The company also started with a modest investment in forestry, with only a 110,000 cubic metre contract, and a single feller buncher, skidder and delimber. Sharing of equipment occurs in both directions between forestry and construction operations. The company's logging equipment also assists with oilfield and seismic contracts. Land use regulations governing the size and management of seismic lines in Alberta are changing. Herein lies yet another business opportunity for enterprising contractors. Oil and gas companies face more stringent regulations regarding log salvage on seismic lines and oilfield lease sites.
Estabrook says having quick access to logging equipment improves the convenience factor for his oil and gas customers, as well as builds connections for other, more lucrative oilfield work. "We're probably over-equipped for harvesting 250,000 cubic metres," he says, "but that gives us the flexibility to have one line to work in the oilfield when needed." Over time, diversification into forestry has paid off for Estabrook Construction.
The company's fleet now consists of three feller bunchers, four skidders, four delimbers, and miscellaneous equipment consisting of log loaders and dozers, for a total complement of 16 units. Logging now makes up about half of the company's annual income. It has also provided the company with another measure of stability. "I've enjoyed the logging," says Estabrook, although it has also had its share of tough times. "It doesn't have the big swings that the oilfield and construction industry has, especially with the pulp mill. They always need a certain amount of volume to keep the mill running."
When Estabrook says there is nothing fancy about the company's approach to logging, that also pertains to their selection of equipment and style of logging. That's not to say its fleet is any better or worse-but it has proven itself in the Peace River mixed boreal forest environment. Furthermore, the equipment manufacturer is only an hour away, in Grande Prairie.
Close proximity to parts and service support allows the company to aim for maximum equipment productivity and minimal downtime. Back in 1988, Estabrook Construction began logging with a feller buncher head mounted on a Caterpillar 300 excavator. Now, it also owns a TK923 and a TK1100 series feller buncher, which was designed and built by Risley Manufacturing in Grande Prairie.
"There is always room for improvement when it comes to equipment because contractors always want bigger, better, faster," says Estabrook. "Structurally, the TK series is very sound." However, Estabrook feels that the 923 series is a bit under-powered for their needs, although that was rectified with a larger engine in the 1100 series.
On the delimbing front, Estabrook Construction depends on Risley as well, having purchased four Lim-mit delimbers from that manufacturer. The company owns a model 2000, a 2200 and two 2300 delimbers.
Estabrook says his company has gained tremendous benefit from its close proximity to the equipment manufacturer and that was part of management's strategy to minimize downtime. "I like the idea that if we are in a bind, we can jump in the car, take an hour to drive to Grande Prairie and get any part from the manufacturer right there," says Estabrook. "Also, there were two or three times that we had problems with our delimbers. We phoned down and the owner Reg Isley drove out right away to sort out the problem. That counts for something."
Risley Manufacturing has always had a close association with Caterpillar, and recently the TK line was purchased outright by the company. That was good news from Estabrook's perspective, since his construction fleet is largely composed of Cat equipment. They have had a positive experience with that line of equipment and are familiar with it. While the company has evolved into one of DMI's largest contractors because of its proven ability to perform in a traditional clearcut environment, that alone does not explain its success. Being prepared to go that extra mile also helps to build good relations with clients.
For example, Estabrook Construction has participated in a number of forest management studies over the past decade. One such project was called EMEND, in which the company harvested various patches at different rates between 30 and 70 per cent removal. "What the researchers were trying to do was emulate a forest fire and study how regeneration reacts in these different cuts," says Estabrook.
About eight years ago, the company also participated in a study that investigated regeneration response in a blowdown setting, where all wood was salvaged in one area versus 50 per cent removal in another. "I'd sure like to fly over it and see what it looks like now," says Estabrook. Showing an interest in forest management research can only benefit a logging company's relationship with professional foresters.
While participation in research benefits clients and the scientific community, the logging contractor's direct involvement gives his company advanced knowledge of potential future logging practices and the opportunity to train operators on more delicate logging practices such as select harvesting, commercial thinning and salvage thinning. Being in the loop regarding forest management trends helps in many ways and it can also help make an equipment purchasing decision easier.
Finally, many successful logging contractors have learned the value of maintaining good relations with special interest groups. For example, one of DMI's logging contractors is a local First Nations community. Estabrook has maintained good relations with the area's large aboriginal community, having participated for the last five years in a local road improvement project as a joint venture with a Woodland Cree First Nations group.
It's rare that every decision a company makes is the right decision or the perfect answer. The key is to make enough good decisions over the span of a company's existence so that when a worst case scenario like the recent severe downturn in the softwood lumber industry occurs, a company has the resilience to survive and prosper when economic conditions improve. Estabrook Construction has done a lot of things right over the course of its long existence and represents a model for struggling logging contractors looking for ways to keep ahead of the game.
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