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CONTRACTOR PROFILE

It's in the details

Manitoba contractor John Uhrina has built his logging business with good management and strong attention to detail.

By John Dietz

Contracting for a sawmill has its rewards if you live by the commitments you've made, says a northern Manitoba contractor who's gone from being a chainsaw operator to owning two small forestry companies over the past 26 years. "If you give them a decent product, they'll keep you working," says John Uhrina. Uhrina's companies, John Uhrina Logging and Evergreen Logging, contract for Tolko Manitoba at The Pas. 

John Ohrina started out working as a logger, but set up his own contracting operation in 1992.  "For me, this is more challenging and rewarding.  Managing people is a whole higher level."

Uhrina's cutting area is usually within a 60 kilometre radius of Thompson, northeast of The Pas. Working in the bush is good, Uhrina says. He has about 14 employees today and most will make a career in forestry as machine operators. He depends on their skills and performance commitments to maintain his own relationships with industry and government regulators. Uhrina himself started with a chainsaw in 1972, and still enjoys the work in the bush-but he also wanted more. He wanted the security of a mill contract and liked the idea of being a manager. 

However, managing a crew and forestry company takes commitment to change and lots of responsibility. "When we were smaller and just had a buncher, I would run it," says Uhrina. "It was piece work; you made your own paycheque. Now, you depend on other people to do the production. That's where the management comes in." As a manager, he has to interact with sawmill managers, forest management regulators and union managers as well as his own crew members. 

"We have to be more cautious, more conscientious," he explains. "They look for confidence in a contractor." For instance, it's critical to stay outside the 300-foot buffer along a lake. A contractor who finds his buncher harvesting inside the buffer will face a heavy fine and, perhaps worse, unhappy company managers. "It's not that difficult to follow the regulations if you have the right attitude," he says. 

A Tanguay TS 150 slasher is used to convert tree-length logs into 16-foot lengths for Tolko Manitoba.  "We felt the slasher was the way to deliver the right product," says John Uhrina.

Uhrina became a contractor in 1992 when he purchased a new Timberjack 618 feller buncher and set up John Uhrina Logging Inc. He took his first contract that year for Repap Manitoba. "I still have that 618 and it's still doing quite well out there for us," he says. "We put an Ultimate 5300 processor head on it in 1995, but that's the only real change to it. It's an exceptional logging machine, but our maintenance is excellent, too." It's not an accident that he's still using the 618 as a major piece of equipment. 

His operators have treated the machine well, and the maintenance schedule has been met. Uhrina financed the machine with a "thread and a promise" but he became the owner by meeting his commitments. "You've got to prove yourself along the way. We proved ourselves when we just had the buncher, proved we could do the job." 

John Uhrina Logging has expanded over the last decade to become one of the largest contractors in northern Manitoba. The company now harvests about 100,000 cubic metres annually. Besides the 618, its forestry machine line-up today includes a Timberjack 850 feller buncher and two Timberjack grapple skidders. A John Deere 690 processor with another Ultimate 5300 head, along with the 618, does the delimbing. Uhrina has adapted his equipment and management to meet changing needs at The Pas several times over the past decade. 

To start, in 1992 the new Repap managers wanted more mechanization. They wanted a chipper in the northern bush to send chips to The Pas. Uhrina had enough experience by then, and assets, to purchase the 618 and gain his first contract. During those five years, using the 618, Uhrina's quota climbed to nearly 90,000 cubic metres. "Our only job at first was to knock the trees down and put them in bundles. That was pretty steady. There was hardly any time off," he recalls. 

About 90 per cent of the trees were northern black spruce. In the dense stands, a mature tree might be 100 years old and only five or six inches in diameter. Anything less than about four-inch diameter wood went into the chipper. Toward the end of the period, Repap wanted sawlogs separated and salvaged. Uhrina adjusted to the cut-to-length assignment by putting a processor onto the 618 and purchasing his first delimber. 

Small trees and tops were still hauled away to the chipper, operated by Nelson River Logging. Five years later, Tolko, who had since taken over the Repap Manitoba operation, had a new emphasis. Instead of specializing in chips for kraft paper, sawlogs and lumber would be the main product line. They no longer wanted chips sent from northern Manitoba. "We went to a tree-length system when Tolko came on," Uhrina says. "Some guys had left, so I ended up getting a couple of grapples." Harvesting probably is simpler now, because sorting has been eliminated. 

By 1999, Uhrina's performance led to another opportunity. "Tolko asked me if I wanted to do some slashing for them. That's when I started my second company, Evergreen Logging, and bought the slasher." Evergreen Logging, with two operators, uses a Tanguay TS150 slasher to convert the tree-length logs from John Uhrina Logging into 16-foot lengths. Uhrina settled on using a slasher "because Tolko is very concerned about having perfect lengths." He doesn't like to rely on a computer linked to his older Ultimate processor to measure lengths for cutting. 

"With a computer, if the spikes drive in too far or if there's a knot, it can change and the accuracy might not be there," he explains. "If that piece is too short, they'll have to go down to a 14-foot piece of lumber, or if it's too long, they'll have a problem in the mill. The loss of revenue can be quite a bit." 

Slashing, on the other hand, is dead-accurate. "I felt Tolko would get a better product with a slasher, and that's what they wanted, too. You put the wood on the deck with a slasher, and there's a butt plate, so it's got to be there. If you butt them up right, the saw comes down and cuts them all. It's got to be there." Along the way, meeting his client's needs has enabled Uhrina to meet his own. "My biggest concern is you've got to satisfy your client. We felt the slasher was the way to do it at the time, to deliver the right product for Tolko. 

You keep your client happy and you'll get more work-that's it." Uhrina enjoys the changes and challenges he's been through and he expects more of the same in the years ahead. At times, he admits, the challenges have been tough to face. He gets through and keeps going, however. "For me, being an operator got stagnant after a while. Operators are very important, but for me, this is more challenging and more rewarding. Managing people is a whole higher level. A guy's got to take his resources, any resources, and apply them in a lot of different ways. That's great."

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