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S.C. Logger, Westvaco Team for Conservation
The second generation at Leo Lambert Logging explain how they dealt with succession in a family business.
By Staff Writer
Date Posted: 11/1/1999
GEORGETOWN, S.C. — When Leo Lambert passed away a few years ago, he left his family a growing logging operation and some tough decisions to make. Leo had started his business a quarter century earlier with a pulpwood truck and a tractor and had built it into a success story. Leo’s wife and three sons were faced with a decision that impacts many family businesses — how to deal with succession.
"We’d all worked in the woods all our lives," recounted Donnie Lambert, one of Leo’s three sons. "So we decided to invest together in our future as a family and work as a partnership to keep our father’s company alive."
The result was a four way, equal partnership between the boys’ mother, Gail, and the three Lambert brothers, Donnie, Rodney, and Marty. They have developed a partnership that has come to be regarded as a leader in its field.
Today, Leo Lambert Logging, Inc. employs eight workers in the woods plus seven truck drivers. The firm owns an impressive array of advanced mechanized logging equipment, especially machinery manufactured by Tigercat. On the way, the firm has established itself as a leader among harvesters in the South. From production to environmental sensitivity, Leo Lambert has built a reputation that satisfies even the pickiest customers.
Calling costal South Carolina home, Leo Lambert Logging harvests mainly pine and hardwood. The firm primarily contract harvests for Westvaco, a large forest products firm with land and operations throughout the South. When time and circumstance allow, the company also logs for other landowners throughout the region.
According to Donnie, who laughingly says he acted as spokesperson for the firm only because he happened to be around when TimberLine interviewed for this article, the partnership has worked out well for the entire family. "We get along pretty well and all of us are involved in all major decisions," he said. "We all pretty much know the business and where we want to be in it so it’s pretty easy to arrive at agreements about where we want to go."
Communication has helped drive the success of the partnership. All major decisions are made with input from the family partners. And even when one of the family members has to make a decision on the spot, their familiarity with each other allows them to know where the others will likely stand.
One of the firm’s early tough decisions as a four-way partnership was how to meet the challenge of modern forestry and whether to step out into fully mechanized logging.
"That was a big step for us, but we decided we had to keep up with the times." Donnie recounted. "Our industry is changing pretty fast and you have to try to keep up. If you see something new hitting the market that looks like it will do a better job, you have to try it or someone will get ahead of you, and then it’s tough to catch up."
A driving factor was the firm’s longstanding relationship with Westvaco.
"Westvaco is a first-class operation, and they are very concerned about doing things right when it comes to the environment," Donnie said. "They not only want you to adhere to all the rules, whether they be OSHA or anything else, but they want you to be as careful as they are about environmental issues. We could see that we had to get equipment that could do the best job possible in the woods if we wanted to continue contracting for them."
Paying attention to the environment in the South Carolina region means logging with equipment that can work in wet conditions without excessive rutting and ground compaction. Georgetown is on the Atlantic Coast and is regionally known as the "low country" because of its low elevation.
"Even a small amount of rain takes a long while to run off," Donnie said. "And sometimes you get large amounts of water coming down for an extended length of time. If you don’t have equipment that can operate under those conditions and still not tear up the land, you can’t meet your commitments."
For Leo Lambert, coming through for customers despite the weather meant investing heavily in equipment required to "shovel" log. After a careful search, Tigercat emerged as Leo Lambert’s supplier of choice.
Tigercat is a Canadian company founded by forestry professionals in 1992. According to Ben Twiddy, the Tigercat factory support liaison responsible for Lambert Logging’s region, the firm was founded in association with a high tech steel fabricator, MacDonald Steel, with the express purpose of developing mechanized equipment that "would live up to the expectations of the loggers who use it."
The result, according to Twiddy, was a feller-buncher that can achieve high production in difficult terrain. In 1995, Leo Lambert first purchased the Tigercat 845, a high-tech, track-equipped feller-buncher.
The machine quickly proved its worth. The Lamberts equipped the machine with 36-inch tracks to assure the least footprint possible would be left on the ground — even in swampy conditions.
"It speeded things way up for us," Donnie said. "We found we were hauling a lot more wood than before, and as a bonus, it brought our workers’ compensation down.
The decision to go with Tigercat was not made lightly.
"We looked at all the machines and compared them," Donnie said. "Of all the equipment we looked at, the Tigercat seemed best suited to work in the wet woods, and that was very important to us. They built it high off the ground, and it is very solid compared to some of the machines we’ve seen. You have a lot of money at stake when you do this so you have to know what you’re getting into. Tigercat seemed to be the best choice, and based on our experience since we bought the machine, we definitely chose the right equipment."
The 845 was only the first in a succession of equipment which has positioned Leo Lambert Logging as a foremost firm in its region. Leo Lambert has the versatility to perform ordinary harvesting and even a form of specialty shovel logging designed to allow harvesting of sensitive wet lands in the low country South Carolina. Today, the firm owns two harvesters, a Tigercat 845 and a Tigercat 720, a Tigercat 860 shovel logger, three grapple skidders — a Tigercat, a Franklin and a Timberjack — and a Hood loader with a CTR delimber and a CTR bucking saw. The equipment keeps the firm’s eight trucks and nine log trailers running steadily to process an average of 2,400 tons of logs and pulpwood per week, 52 weeks per year.
Sometimes in the forest products industry everything old becomes new again. In the early days of logging, especially in the Pacific Northwest, logging was done by oxen. To ease the labor, skid roads made of logs were laid through the woods. The oxen then pulled downed trees along the skid road to their destination.
Shovel logging in the low country of South Carolina and in other often wet areas of the South bears a striking resemblance to the old skid road technique for moving wood. A tracked feller-buncher moves out into the woods to fell trees. A tracked shovel, in the Lambert’s case a Tigercat 860, follows and lays a road of inferior trees destined for pulp along the path of the harvest. Skidders then move felled trees along the log road to the landing, where they are delimbed and bucked. After the harvest is complete, the trees that were put down to provide a path for the skidders are picked up and sent to the pulp mill.
"When the guys are done logging, you can hardly tell where the skidding paths were placed. They leave the woods in as good a shape as they found them, as far as the ground conditioning is concerned," said Twiddy.
Shovel logging is considerably more expensive than more conventional mechanized feller-buncher operations, but Donnie said that it has been worth it to his firm.
"It has meant we’ve had to make a big investment, but it has also allowed us to be out there and logging in conditions other people can’t work in," he said. "This has been a terrible year for weather, but we’ve only missed two or three days of work. The equipment we have allows us to be working somewhere almost no matter what the conditions are."
Despite Leo Lambert’s shovel logging expertise and equipment, some conditions are just impossible to work in. To prevent downtime, the company frequently lines up several jobs at once. Not all will be worked at the same time, but planning ahead keeps the company working. Jobs are scheduled around the weather. In the dry portions of the year, the wettest ground is logged. When it gets too wet, the equipment can be moved onto a job where operations can continue through the rain.
"We do whatever it takes to keep operating while, at the same time, make sure the landowner is getting the best job done that can be done," Donnie commented.
Work among the partners is split evenly with all three brothers operating equipment on a job while Gail, the boy’s mother, manages the office and the books.
"We can all run the equipment, but it works out that each of us has something they do best or like best," Donnie said. "Rodney mostly takes care of the cutting side of the job, while there’s no one who can merchandise the logs better than Marty, the youngest of the three of us. I run the loader part of the time and do the catch-up on loose ends that has to be done around any job."
The transition from more conventional logging practices to full mechanization has been, according to Donnie, a good one for his firm. "You take a big risk and put a lot of money on the line, but we’ve found it’s worth it," he said. "We can get jobs we couldn’t have gotten before we bought the Tigercats, and we’re putting out high levels of production. We think that in the future if you aren’t doing the kind of first class logging job we can do with this equipment, you won’t be able to operate because these days, everyone wants their land treated as gently as possible." Asked what his best advice would be to someone making the shift to mechanized logging, Donnie responded with two comments.
"Make sure you’ve got a good wood buyer," Donnie said. "You can’t afford to pay for the equipment if you have it standing still, so your buyer has to have wood lined up far enough in advance to make sure you’re never out of work. The buyer also has to make sure you have wood lined up in areas you can harvest no matter what kind of weather you have."
Second, Donnie said, "Look at a lot of different logging jobs and be sure you know what will work for your situation before you invest in equipment. This stuff costs too much to make a mistake. When we decided to buy, we looked at all the machines we could find. The Tigercat equipment line just seemed to fit our needs better than some of the other brands did. It seemed to us to work better in the woods, and they built it high up off the ground. It was only after we bought that we fell in love with the quality of the service and the way the Tigercat people take care of you. Both of those things are very important. You have to have equipment that can do the job, and you have to have people who want to make sure you have the support you need to get the job done."
When Leo Lambert founded his company more than three decades ago, he might have been surprised at the direction his company took under the management of his wife and sons. But they have no doubt that he would have been proud of their success. Since the company first started over thirty years ago, Leo Lambert Logging, Inc. has become a firm able to harvest for the most exacting firms under the most taxing conditions. The company owns in excess of $2 million worth of equipment and makes it pay at a time when some are concerned about the industry’s future. As the century ends and a new one begins, Leo Lambert Logging is a fine example of success through transformation.
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