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Logging Award Honors Florida Couple

Forest Resources Association (FRA) recognized Usher Land & Timber with the 2003 National Outstanding Logger Award. Employees are key to making Usher Land & Timber an industry leader.

By Carolee Anita Boyles
Date Posted: 12/1/2003

CHIEFLAND, Florida — Ken Griner and his wife, Lynetta, owners of Usher Land & Timber, recognize that their employees are responsible for a large measure of the company’s success.

      “Our employees are what keep this company running,” Ken said.

      The Griners were honored by the Forest Resources Association (FRA) earlier this year. FRA chairman Allen Bedell presented Ken and Lynetta with the 2003 National Outstanding Logger Award.

      “Our employees are the ones who have really earned the honor as the Outstanding Logger of the Year, as much as Lynetta and I have,” said Ken. “It takes all 33 of us to do what we do.”

      Usher Land & Timber has been doing business in the north central Florida town of Chiefland for more than a century. In the early 1900s, E. T. Usher Sr. began a turpentine business in Levy County. Today, this stretch of the western Florida coastline is still relatively undeveloped compared to the intensely urban southern portion of the state.

      By the 1940s E. T. Sr.’s son, E. T. Usher Jr. had joined him in the business.  E. T. Jr.’s interest was more in timber and logging than in turpentine, and he soon had a thriving logging business running.

      “E. T. Usher, Sr. was my wife’s grandfather,” said Ken. “His son, E. T. Usher Jr., and his wife were really the driving force that created the business we have now.”

      E. T. Usher, III — called Tommy by everyone who knew him — joined his father as the third generation in the family business in 1984. At the time the business was operated under the name of the E. T. Usher Company Inc.

      Tommy’s time with the business was tragically short; he was killed in a boating accident in 1989. Lynetta, his sister, was a practicing attorney at the time and Ken was a General Motors automobile dealer. The couple made the decision to join the family business. By 1992 they had become Usher Land & Timber Inc.

      Despite the changes in most of Florida, both Usher Land & Timber and the area in which the company operates have remained true to their roots.

      Today Levy County remains largely rural. Its population of slightly over 35,000 people makes it one of the least-populated counties in Florida. “But we still have all the necessary fast food restaurants,” Ken said. “There’s a really nice small town atmosphere here. And we even have a Super Wal-Mart.”

      The company cuts timber on property owned by both private and institutional landowners and hauls it to 12 mills in the region. “Most of what we cut is pine,” said Ken. “The bulk of our business is pulpwood, but we also cut saw logs and poles.” In one recent week the company’s production was about 52% pulpwood, 25% saw logs, 12% chip and saw, and 6% poles. “That’s a pretty typical week,” said Ken. The company produces an average of 150 loads of wood per week.

      Usher Land & Timber supplies mills within about a 100-mile radius. “But we go further north than we go south.”

      Ken recently has invested in a new Tigercat feller-buncher for one of Usher’s three logging crews. “This is our first Tigercat,” he said. “So far it’s been an excellent machine.  It’s one of the few machines we’ve bought and put to work that we didn’t have to do a whole lot to it. Usually there’s a leak here and an adjustment there, but this one hasn’t been like that. The Tigercat is an excellent machine. It’s very well designed.”

      The company has three John Deere 643 machines and a HydroAx. “We also have a sack full of Caterpillar skidders, 525s and 518s,” said Ken. “We have six of those. We’ve got a John Deer 648G-3 skidder.” For loading operations, the company’s crews are equipped with four Prentice 210 knuckleboom loaders, a Timberjack 430 and a John Deere 335.

      Ken spoke highly of the John Deere machines. “Our history with their engines is very good,” he said. “They have a really good product history with us. That’s the same reason we have so many Caterpillars — they’ve demonstrated their value to us.”

      Usher Land & Timber has 33 employees. Besides the men working on the logging crews, there are 10 truck drivers, three mechanics, and four office personnel. Four employees are certified Master Loggers, which means they have completed the Master Logger training and certification program of the Florida Forestry Association; they attend continuing education classes to maintain their certification.

      Besides using its own crews for timber harvesting operations, Usher Land & Timber also contracts for additional cutting. “We almost always have at least one contract crew going and sometimes two,” said Ken.

      Employees tend to be loyal to the company and stay for many years. One employee was hired in 1956 and today, 47 years later, is still working for the Griners.

      The loyalty stems in part from strong family and community ties. The three mechanics are related to one another – an uncle and two nephews, and the nephews are brothers. Four other employees are childhood friends of Tommy Usher.

      The Griners encourage their employees to be active in the community and the forest product industry, but they do not just stand behind employees and support their efforts; they lead the way. Ken serves on the Loggers Council of the Florida Forestry Association and on the Forest Advisory Committee of the Florida Farm Bureau. He is also the past state chairman and current district chairman of the Log-a-Load for Kids campaign, which in Florida benefits the Children’s Miracle Network at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

      Lynetta is involved, too. She is on the board of directors of the Florida Forestry Association and the Chiefland Chamber of Commerce. She also serves as president of Friends of Farming Inc., an organization that benefits nearby Fanning Springs State Park. She also coordinates the Tommy Usher Memorial Golf Tournament, held annually to benefit the Chiefland Quarterback Club.

      Other employees have followed the example of the Griners. Linda Skiles, office manager and safety director, is a charter member of a local sorority of professional women and currently serves as its treasurer.

      The company has good retention of employees, and the Griners take pains to ensure that when they hire someone, they get the best person for the job.

      “Employee training is critical to any organization,” Ken said. “We try to hire quality people, and then we train them according to their ability. Regardless of their ability or experience, we expect every new employee to serve as an ‘apprentice’ to an experienced employee until both people agree that the new employee is ready. ‘Ready’ means that he’s capable and fully aware of all our procedures. During this time, the employee-trainee is paid his full hourly rate, so that there’s no incentive to rush or to misstate anyone’s ability or comfort level.”

      Usher Land & Timber’s first priority is safety, which makes Linda’s job one of the most important in the company. She conducts a safety meeting each month, often bringing in outside speakers, such as law enforcement officers or state forestry personnel. Every two years she provides first aid training for all employees. To keep employees on their toes, Linda conducts surprise safety inspections in the woods; wherever the crews go, she may follow. She also conducts random drug testing.

      Linda also developed a program of safety inspections for vehicles and equipment and a documentation system. Truck drivers inspect their rigs each morning. Crew leaders use similar forms — signed by both the crew leader and each crew member — to document proper maintenance performed on the logging equipment.

      Another way in which the Griners encourage safety among employees is through the company’s pay system. “Many companies in the logging industry use some sort of production-based pay,” Ken noted. “Instead, we pay by the hour. We believe that employees who are paid by the hour are more inclined to take their time and be safe than employees who are worried about production.”

      Strobe lights and flashing cab lights on trucks and trailers now are required in Florida.  However, Usher Land & Timber was ahead of the state — they began using strobes and flashing lights before they were required. The company also maintains weight scales at the office to make sure that its log trucks are not overweight and to help ensure safety on the highway.  Ken makes certain that spare trucks, trailers and logging equipment are available so that employees can replace any piece of equipment that is not safe or needs maintenance or repair.

      The Griners take pride in operating an environmentally friendly company, too. The logging operations are conducted in such a way to reduce waste wood. “We’re able to use our tops either in the form of double-bunking or in our pulpwood,” Ken said.  “So we really don’t waste a lot of wood. Most of the time you could clean up our waste with a dump truck.” In double-bunking tops, they are loaded in two bunks on a four-bolster trailer so it can be hauled for pulpwood or another use.

      In addition to being named the recipients of the National Outstanding Logger Award earlier this year by the FRA, the Griners were named the association’s Southeast Logger of the Year in 2002.
And Usher Land & Timber was named Logger of the Year by the Florida Forestry Association and the Southeastern Wood Producers Association in 2001. The company also has received recognition from landowners, timber companies, and risk control consultants.

      Will the Griners’ son, Korey — now a junior in high school — follow his parents into the family business? That remains to be seen.

      “He has an interest in it, but I don’t know in what capacity yet,” Ken said. “And I don’t know what shape the industry will be in 10 years from now. But there are a lot of trees being planted out there now, and I assume somebody will be harvesting them, and we plan to be a part of that.”

      Ken’s main goal for Usher Land & Timber is for it to be the best at what it does. “We work hard every day to improve in every facet of our business,” he said, “whether that’s in the office in accounting or in being more efficient in the woods. We think of our operation as a professional operation, and our main objective at this point is to continue to improve and to be more efficient at what we do.”

      Ken and Lynetta do not plan to expand the business further. “We don’t have any objective to grow,” Ken said. “We’re a manageable size now. We could grow, but I don’t think we could manage the company to our standards. We’re very image-conscious, and we want to be known as the best. I think when you get too big, you can reach a point where you can’t keep up with everything. We’re at the point we need to be in order to maintain our standards of operation.”

      Ken sees big challenges ahead — not just for Usher Land & Timber, but for the entire forest products industry. The reason: economic globalization.

       “Everybody is competing in a global economy,” he explained, “and the pulp and sawmill industries are no exception,” Ken said. “I think every industry is struggling with that. We have a lot of forces here that you don’t have to deal with in other, emerging economies, such as worker’s comp issues, wage and hour scales, OSHA, and so on. We’re competing with people who don’t necessarily have to deal with these kind of issues.”

      The American forest products industry already is being impacted by global competition, according to Ken. “We’re importing a heck of a lot of wood products from other countries, whether they’re in the form of paper or two-by-fours,” he said. “We’re going to have to take our heads out of the sand and address that, just as a lot of agriculture in general is going to have to.  We’re not going to survive unless we’re as efficient as we can be, whether that’s in the industry as a whole or in our particular operation.” Many other industries besides forestry and agriculture are caught in the same conundrum, Ken added.

      “Efficiency is a huge part of profitability,” he said. “And that’s part of how well you run your operation.  In order to compete and to have an edge, you have to be better than everyone else.”

      Ken attributes the success of Usher Land & Timber to its people. “We have just tremendous people,” he said. “That’s the whole key to everything. It’s a lot easier to accomplish things when you hire quality people who are capable of doing what you want to do. We’ve done that, and it’s paid off in the quality of the work our organization produces.

            “There’s nothing we can’t do, whether it’s cruising timber or working on tractors. We don’t have to wait on someone else for anything. That’s just another area that gives us a competitive edge and makes us more efficient. Our people do an MVP kind of a job. I think we represent a lot of where the industry is going, and we’ve just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”


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