January February 2005
 

 

 

 

Making Necessary Changes

Surco Logging learns survival means leaving some “old school”ways behind.

By Bob Bruce

For Rod Surcamp, second-generation logger and owner of Surco Logging in Springfield, Ore., finding success in today’s changed timber products industry required embracing the sometimes painful — and nearly always disruptive — process of unlearning some long-held habits and re-learning a new set of procedures and relationships.

Need for Changes
The easiest way to look at it, according to Rod, is to think of the company’s evolution as a shift from “old school” to “new school”. The differences are most evident in three main areas: how the company relates to its employees and the community, how the company relates to various governmental agencies, and how the company interacts with customers.  In the old school days, the logging company was much more closely woven into the fabric of life in Springfield. The company was one of the largest employers in town, and it was very typical for most young men to work at least one summer on a Surcamp logging crew as a natural part of growing up. Rod’s father, Lou Surcamp, was a perennial optimist, and had a habit of accumulating both people and equipment whether business was brisk or even just average. He also felt a sense of continuing obligation both to the people he hired and to the financial health of the community in general. As a result, it was sometimes difficult for the company to quickly resize itself in a down cycle.

Improving the company’s safety record was the first step toward significant change.

New Look at Safety
“My dad was a seat of the pants guy,” says Rod. “He had 100-plus employees, operated 12 to 14 logging sides, and contracted with 50 trucks or more. But he didn’t have much middle management. When you’ve got that many employees and not enough people watching the middle and taking care of things, you can’t see all the things going on and things get out of control.” The most important thing that got out of control was the company’s safety program. Back then, the industry had more of a “cowboy” feel to it, and paying attention to personal safety sometimes took a back seat to bringing in the numbers. “We were on a retro program with our industrial insurance, so if we had a good three-year average for a number of consecutive years we’d get some money back on our insurance. But if we had a string of bad years, the insurance company would want a bunch of money over your standard rate.” “It was like gambling,” says Rod. “If you do good you win good, but if you do bad, you lose really bad. It got to the point for us where it was getting really expensive to insure.”

To survive, they brought in a business consultant who told them that they would be able to get insurance through SAIF, but the company could not be the same company from that point forward. Specifically, there would need to be a restructuring and Lou Surcamp could not be involved. So in the late 1990s, the company became Surco and Rod Surcamp became president. This was somewhat unusual, since Rod had never really intended to continue in the timber industry. “I grew up with logging, but nobody ever said I was being groomed to run the business some day. I was out playing in the dirt when I was three or four, pushing a toy truck around and loading it up with sticks. When I was older I worked on the landing, set chokers. Then I left and did other things, but I came back and started driving a log truck. Then I quit for a while again. I don’t know why I kept coming back – you get sawdust in your blood and it’s hard to get out.”

Rod Surcamp says one of the key changes in the company is how it relates to employees and the community.

New Relationship with Agencies
According to Rod, his outsider’s perspective proved to be a big help in the hard process of putting the company back on solid footing and moving the company’s relationship with various governmental agencies from old school to new school thinking. “In the old days, the Forest Service program was different and the ranger around here was more interested in planting wild fish in the high lakes. He would tell my dad ‘I’m going up to such-and-such a lake. You go out and find some downed trees, draw a picture on a map to tell me where you’re going to be working, and when you get it logged then come pay me for the trees.’” But then the regulatory climate changed and the government began to look for greater accountability and to exercise more oversight. “Now they’ve got timber sale officers out there all the time and they want to know what’s going on. That was hard for the oldschool types to adjust to. Their attitude was ‘We don’t need you around here. We know what we’re doing.’” In contrast, Rod was able to see the Forest Service as allies. “They need me and I need them, so I go at it with my hands open and say ‘I’ll tell you what I need, you tell me what you need, and we’ll work together to get the job done.’” He used the same cooperative approach with OSHA. “In the old days, my dad would say ‘If you ever see that SOB (the OSHA representative) coming, you chase him down the road and get him out of here.’ But I’d invite them in, make friends with them, and treat them like allies.” The result was that Surco’s safety record improved significantly, to the point where they now receive commendations for their safety. “SAIF came in and did a really good job,” he says. “AOL has helped a lot too. The logging industry as a whole has become safer, and I embrace all the changes. I want my company to look good and be respectable again.”

Surco has downsized and is focusing almost solely on logging.

Revamping Size and Customer Relations
The last important old school vs. new school change has been in the area of company size and customer relations. From the company’s peak in the 60s and 70s, Rod has steadily reduced operations to where they now run just four sides. His equipment list includes four Madill log loader shovels, a 2800B, two 3800Bs, and a 4800B; two log processing machines, both Cat 322Cs with 3348 Pierce delimbers; a Madill 124 swing yarder; a Burger Mark 2 slackline 90’ yarder with a Boman Mark VI skycar; two D8K tractor bulldozers; and a Hitachi mobile backspar. He no longer owns or contracts any trucks. Surco has also focused almost specifically on logging, leaving all other aspects of the job —from road building to marking, felling, and transport — to other crews.

To the company is safer, more focused, better managed and poised for a successful future.

Surco now works almost exclusively for Weyerhaeuser, a relationship that Rod admits is both beneficial and sometimes frustrating. “I can do government jobs, private jobs, sensitive jobs, wide-open jobs, any of those. I can even do the marketing if a customer wants it, but it’s easy with Weyerhaeuser because they do all that and all I have to do is manage the logging.” Weyerhaeuser also has enough land that they can provide work pretty much year-round. The problem, however, is that in order to make anything beyond a very minimal profit, outsourcing providers like Surco have to sometimes really “dig and scratch and push and shove.” “Lane County Oregon is competitive, tough, and hard,” says Rod.

“Weyerhaeuser has a computer model for the whole Western region and they say that everyone is going to fit in this model. All they do is punch up the volume, acreage, machinery type, season, whatever, and the computer says how much I’m going to do the job for.” But computer models aren’t always a true reflection of reality. “I’ve been about to quit two or three times this year. I’ve told them, and they don’t believe me. It has to turn around,” he says. “Either they don’t believe me or don’t want to believe me, but that’s the reality. Alot of goods and services have changed price in the last 20 years – fuel, insurance, salaries – but the negotiated rate for cable logging has not.” That’s one reason Rod has gradually downsized his operation to where he now feels comfortable. “It’s much better managing this size of company. I can put more emphasis on getting it better and having a tighter package. You’ve definitely got to operate lean to survive.”

TW

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This page was last updated on Wednesday, March 23, 2005