January and February 2006
 

 

 

 

Restarting a Family Business

Iron Triangle Logging successful after the ups and downs of the ‘90s.

By Barbara Coyner

 

Sometimes Russ Young wonders what it would’ve been like to use his business education from Eastern Oregon Univer-sity on Wall Street. Instead, he teamed up with Jim Berry in 1998 to take over his family’s logging and road building business in John Day, Oregon, light years away from the nation’s financial epicenter. With Berry firmly focused on the road building half, Young keeps his part of the bargain for Iron Triangle as the logging guy. Some days he figures Wall Street looks a lot easier. Thanks to cutto- length logging technology, however, Young views the future of woods work in remote central Oregon as promising.

“Cut-to-length is what I know,” Young says. “It’s my primary focus. We also do some Cat logging, but with cutto- length, I find we can keep working ahead. We’re big enough to work through volume, and once the guys are done, they aren’t waiting around for me to line up the next job. Cut-tolength is the most productive and costeffective way in the stands we’re in.”

Flanked by three Valmet processors, David Griffith, Ryan McClellan and Bob Mc Connell keep Iron Triangle's cut-to-length operation going strong. All three are long-time employees of the John Day, OR company.

 

Manpower

With Iron Triangle employing 65 to 85 workers and sometimes running up to five logging sides, Young points to reliable crews and equipment as the backbone of the operation. He finds it a scramble to recruit workers in an age of after-school and summer sports programs and relaxed work ethic, but his tried and true employees allow him to concentrate on bringing in the work.

“Sometimes people suggest we should be more layered and use crew bosses, but with my cut-to-length crew, they’re pretty much their own bosses,” Young says. “The technology has made people more independent. They’ve got their machine and they do their work. They knock it down and I have the next job lined up, so I depend on my crew and have faith that they do right by us. Sometimes they’ll be out on a job and know that they have to work together to get home on time, so they just run rough shod over each other to get things done. If you put a hierarchy within the crew, the group falls apart. In our crew, the group dynamics are all about working together. They’re the captains of their own ships.”

Ryan Pettyjohn of Iron Triangle pilots the 2004 Valmet 890.2 forwarder on a job near Ukiah Ore. Pettyjohn, a 5-year veteran with the John Day loggers especially likes the creature comforts of the Valmet cab.

 

Cut-to-length Lineup

The crewmembers heap plenty of praise on the lineup of Valmet processors and forwarders they pilot around the woods. First and foremost, they like the cab comfort and the processor speed. “The machine does most of the work itself,” says David Griffith, who started at Iron Triangle under Russ’s dad in 1983, and now operates a Valmet 500T with a 965 head. “I started logging the old-fashioned way and this system is a lot safer, plus you’re not eating dust and dirt all day. I can fix most things on it, and the major issue is usually blown hoses. It cuts 21-inch wood with no trouble.”

Ryan McClellan operates a 1999 Valmet 500T with 965 head and brags up the self-leveling cab, while 10-year Iron Triangle veteran Bob Mc-Connell likes the speed of the 965 processing head on the 2003 Valmet 520T. Forwarder operator Ryan Pettyjohn does quick loading and sorting with a 2004 Valmet 890.2 forwarder, noting that it handles steep and shorter pitches well. Over on the whole tree side, Lance Woodcock is in charge of a 1999 Valmet 500T processor, while Shane Combs runs a 1999 Valmet 890 forwarder. Young mentions that crew-member Hal Gillman temporarily operates a stroker while waiting to replace a 500T that burned last summer, and Colton Clark, now running a skidder, has his 892 parked awaiting the 500T’s replacement. With a full stable of Valmet processors and forwarders, it is clear Young favors the label.

“We bought our first Valmet in 1995, and we got comfortable with the brand,” Young says. “When you’re far from product support, you have to get familiar with the product and learn how to work on it. We’ve been with Rene [van der Merwe of Modern Machinery in Spokane] a long time and she understands that you don’t just drop off a $400,000 piece of equipment and say ‘here you go.’ You have to have service. We figure on a three-to-sixmonth learning curve and we train a lot, so the operator can produce, and not tear up the machine. Maintenance is high and parts are expensive, and the lion’s share of our work is cut-tolength, so we have to have good training. We first considered Rottne, but it had a lighter build, better for plantation work. The Valmet was beefier, although at the time, the Rottne had more creature comforts. Overall, we chose tracks over rubber, because tracks are more versatile in our area and we can get around a lot easier. We’re huge proponents of the Timbco carrier with Valmet gearing.”

Iron Triangle owner Russ Young at company headquarters in John Day. The company's co-owner Jim Berry oversees the roadbuilding side and has been out of area in Harrison ID for several big jobs in 2005.

 

Working a 50/50 Split

Russ Young plays a lot of angles through his mind as he travels between jobs. He admits that sometimes it’s a lot more appealing to be in a processor cab, instead of processing how to land the next job. With a 50-50 split between government jobs and private contracts, he relies on private consulting forester Phil Jenkins of Malheur Forestry for many jobs, noting that Jenkins connects with different groups to bring in work. Jenkins also marks the trees, which Young says helps his crews work faster. Young cooperates with the four local mills in the immediate area, as well.

“I run the log yard for Malheur (one of three mills at John Day), as well as taking care of their chip haul, and we also take care of the chip haul for Grant Western (located nearby in Prairie City),” Young adds. Additionally, Iron Triangle trucks some of its wood to Kinzua, at Pilot Rock near Pendleton, and delivers about 300 loads annually to a reputable post and pole operation at Parma, Idaho. Angles. It’s all about angles for Young, who recently diversified into bulk oil distribution and convenience stores, and runs a fleet of seven logging trucks. But getting his hands around Iron Triangle was no piece of cake.

Iron Triangle depends on three Valmet processors as the heart of the cut-tolength operation, which netted the company a 2004 Merit Award from the Oregon Department of Forestry.

 

Handling the Ups & Downs

“In a way, we were restarting a family business,” Young assesses, acknowledging that his dad had exposed him to logging and road work all his life, even farming him out to friends’ companies so he wouldn’t be pampered as the boss’s kid. “It wasn’t like‘Here you go. Here are the keys, Son. It’s been a good ride for us.’ It wasn’t that way. My parents helped, but somewhere along the line the industry changed. I partnered up with Jim, but in 1998, the bottom fell out, with 95 percent of the Forest Service roadwork down. Jim learned his side of the business through hard knocks.”

Young too sized up the industry with a different lens. Contracting for chips with the Masonite mill at Pilot Rock, he watched fiber take a dive, closing the mill and breaching the contract. Then his crews started a fire rehab job at Ukiah, but work abruptly came to a halt, thanks to a federal injunction based on environmental conflicts. A rehab job at Unity ended also, due to lynx habitat rulings. The logged timber remains on the ground to this day, rotting.

“With the Ukiah and Unity timber sales, as well as the Masonite closure, we took back-to-back punches, so I just started scrambling. Dad would’ve just as soon sold the equipment, but with that, I didn’t have a future, so I went out to drum up business. I had to push the envelope and use my connections. Malheur Lumber took good care of us on private lands, treating stands that needed it, and bringing in smalldiameter wood. Prairie Wood also kept us busy on cut-to-length Forest Service sales. We just kept moving.”

Now 34, Young notes that his dad, who grew up in Kellogg, Idaho, and his mom, a mill owner’s daughter from Harrison, Idaho, introduced him to logging, road building and the work ethic. The business savvy needed to stay afloat in today’s wood products industry rivals anything on Wall Street, however.

“Your business sense pushes you to make money, but your logging side pushes you to conserve it,” he points out. “Equipment prices are higher, but we’re getting the same prices for product and we’re having to throw in more perks. Dad saw timber in its heyday and saw cut-to-length as his dream for me, a solid start to a new business. It can be a good way to go, if we can live through some of the changes and keep being diverse.”

 

TW

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This page was last updated on Friday, June 16, 2006