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Oregon Logger Learns to Adapt to Succeed: A-1 Logging Benefits from Using Log Max Attachments

A-1 Logging – Log Max 7000XT Processor Benefits Oregon Logger

By Thomas G. Dolan
Date Posted: 2/1/2008

McMINNVILLE, Oregon — One reason the ‘rags to riches’ story never fails to inspire is that most of the time the story ends up ‘rags to rags.’ Very few businesses make it.

      Larry Heesacker, president of A-1 Logging, is one that did, albeit after an initial failure. He succeeded the second time around by learning from his mistakes, anticipating changes, and adapting quickly. He also increasingly mechanized his company’s operations, utilizing the latest in technology, including Log Max harvesting and processing attachments.

      Larry first began logging in 1982. He had been working in a mobile home factory. “I wasn’t earning enough to support a family,” he recalled, “so that led me into the woods as a firewood cutter. This guy told me he never saw anybody work so hard for so little. He sold me a CAT TD-8 skidder to set me up as a logger.”

      “In 1983 I was learning how to cut better. I cut 750 cord of wood and hauled 250 cord — some 1,000 cord that year, as well as running the CAT.” At the end of 1984, he got his first contract with a mill. Things seemed to be going pretty well, but financially speaking, they were not. “At the end of 1985, I found out I was broke,” said Larry.

      Larry did not have a good bookkeeper, but he knew that he wanted to avoid trouble with the IRS and to maintain good credit. He contacted the IRS and negotiated an agreement to pay taxes he owed. In nine months, by working two jobs, he paid the IRS and his other debts.

      Larry continued to work in logging but as an employee for someone else. He cut timber by hand for the next six years. “That was one of my favorite jobs,” said Larry. “I never thought I’d ever go back into business on my own.”

      Tree length logging contractors, including Larry’s employer, increasingly turned to mechanization, however. “The trees got felled faster,” Larry said. “I found I was being laid off three weeks at a time.”

      Larry began taking small logging jobs on the side to supplement his income in 1992. Within a few months, though, he had all the work he wanted. “I didn’t realize it, but a lot of people remembered me from the first time around and found I was dependable and honest,” Larry said.

      Larry purchased a new Cat D-4 dozer, a Clark skidder and a Kenworth truck. He and his brother-in-law formed a partnership. They focused on small tracts in a 20-mile radius of McMinnville, which is about 45 miles southwest of Portland. “Logging was pretty good in 1993,” Larry said. “Exports were high.”

      The partners decided to split their business but to continue working together. They formed separate companies: Larry launched a logging business again, and his brother-in-law started a trucking business.

      Not long after that Larry purchased a Cat 229 loader and a Kenworth truck. “One of the first things we figured out is that we didn’t want to deal with chokers,” he said, “so we updated to a Cat 518 swing grapple. Then we still had the problem of getting the limbs off the tree faster, so we purchased a Danzco pull-through delimber.” There were ups and downs in the market, but Larry did pretty well.

      He got a contract in 1999 for a big job, 2 million board feet. He was able to buy a new Cat 322 and a 50-foot yarding tower. When the big job was finished, however, he went back to small jobs again.

      Larry faced a challenge of a different sort in 2000. Three landowners complained to the Oregon Department of Forestry about him. They accused Larry of destroying habitat for otter and blue heron by causing sedimentation in a stream – before his equipment was even on the job.

      Larry did not believe the accusations were true. He talked to the landowners and made special efforts to protect the stream. “We used full suspension to lift the logs into the air over the stream,” Larry said. “Our tower barely lifted one 40-foot log. We had to lift the logs into the air and bring them across the stream one at a time.” Two landowners were satisfied. Larry has an ongoing dialogue with the other landowner, whom he characterized as a “blind environmentalist.”

      Larry was honored later by the Oregon Department of Forestry as the logging operator of the year for northwest Oregon.  “When we got that award, I thought all the mills would want us,” said Larry.

      He immediately added equipment, investing in a Prentice 620 carrier with a Log Max 750 processing head. “Once we purchased it, I found the mills had their logger needs all figured out, so we adapted back to the small private owner. We worked with the 25-30 year old stems we found. Thanks in good part to the Log Max, we made it through that time.” Larry also contracted to Boise Cascade for about two years.

      Representatives of Log Max approached Larry in December 2005 about their new 7000 processor. “I told them I didn’t think I would buy one, but I would hang one on our machine for a week’s demo,” Larry said. “I liked it so much that within a couple of months I purchased two of them.” The Log Max processors are attached to a Link-Belt 240 carrier and a Cat 322 loader.

      Larry’s son, Jeremy, operates one Log Max 7000 and previously operated the Log Max 750. “The 750 was a good head,” said Jeremy, but Log Max improved on it in the 7000 model. “The 7000 is much more heavy duty,” he explained, and requires less maintenance. Log Max also reduced the number of exposed wires and hoses on the newer version. “With the 7000, we just fell the trees, delimb them, cut them to length, and they’re ready to load,” said Jeremy. “The 7000 is more operator-friendly. A new computer system makes it easy to trouble shoot.”

      When Boise Cascade sold its forestland to another company, Larry was the logging contractor with the least seniority. “So we had to adapt again and go back to the small jobs.”

      The small contracts are a fairly stable niche for Larry. There are pros and cons to the small jobs. Larry gets a better profit margin, and there is less wear and tear on the equipment. “But we spin our wheels more. We are constantly moving, one to two sites a week. Most of the time you work for good people but sometimes not, and you don’t know until you start.”

      Larry diversified his business in 2006. He began taking contracts for land clearing, building roads, developing park land and maintaining land. He added a CAT 315 track hoe and a Kenworth dump truck. That spring he landed a large contract to clear land for a vineyard.

      “Vineyards are big over here now,” he reported. “It’s a real big change from logging to that type of world, a different culture. And the change isn’t always easy.”

      Larry was used to working with a particular type of people, bidding in a certain way, and it has been a challenge to work with the wine industry. “Sometimes it’s hard to communicate,” he said. “Our language and theirs is almost different. I’ve had to learn to e-mail. I’ve never e-mailed before, but with vineyards you have to. The contracts are definitely different than what we’re used to.”

      Adjusting to serve the vineyard industry has not been easy, but the effort has been worth it because it has helped to grow Larry’s business. In recent years his payroll has gone from 15 employees to 30. “In December we still have 20 people employed, when logging is slow,” he said. “Wineries have a better outlook for next year than logging does. Basically, this helps balance our business year round.”

      Nevertheless, Larry knows that contracting for the wine industry is still a relatively limited opportunity. He foresees a window for clearing land for wineries for the next five to 10 years.

      Meanwhile, it helps grow his business, and the work is easier on the equipment. In addition, Larry may find new business opportunities if he continues to be willing to adapt and change. “We’ve been asked to go into construction work for site preparation,” he said, “which would require us to go to a higher level of expertise. And that change wouldn’t be easy, either.”

      A year ago, Larry and Jeremy learned about the new Log Max 7000XT. This time Larry didn’t wait to be offered a prototype. Instead, he started competing with 15-20 other loggers who wanted to demo the new processor.

      “They needed a local logger with experience, so after a lot of campaigning on our part, Log Max chose us.” Larry picked a CAT 722 TimberKing carrier for the attachment. “We had to work hard to get a special Cat-built harvester boom 32 feet long to hold this new head,” he said. “So you can either clear cut or thin with it.”

      “This Log Max 7000XT is even more heavy duty than the last one,” said Jeremy. “It handles larger wood, is faster, and the log boom is a little longer.” The TimberKing has greater ability to operate in compact areas and works better on inclines, he added.

      “I think it’s the fastest, smoothest, most reliable head on the market today, with extremely low maintenance,” Jeremy added.

      “In a tough market we can still justify thinning 25-year old timber,” said Larry. “During a good logging market, you log the nicer timber. But in a slower time, like now, when the demand is down, you go to the younger wood. It seems that when timber prices go down, the demand for pulp goes up. These jobs go with the economy. This fall it’s been particularly slow, the same as when I started in 1982. I found out a couple of months ago that only two mills would buy logs anymore. So, when the demand is down, you look for work in other places. We feel it’s an advantage to have Log Max equipment at this time because thinning creates an opportunity. Without it we would be hit much harder.”

      Larry also has diversified his business somewhat by occasionally buying land, improving the landscape through select cutting, and re-selling the property. “This has increased the value of the property more than double at times,” he said. “A credit line is needed to do these type projects, which can take several years.”

      The first parcel, 10 acres, eventually was sold for a park and home site. The second project, 100 acres, was split into two home sites. The third, 16.8 acres, currently in progress, will have two home sites.

      When asked about the economy and how it’s affecting him, Larry replied, “The economy is definitely down because of the housing market, all those mortgages failing. There’s a surplus of wood in the system and no demand, which definitely affects us. My guess is that we’re now on the bottom, and we’re preparing for the next year to be slow. On the information I have, we’ll mostly tread water, but will be fine in a couple of years, when I believe the next recovery will occur.”

      When asked why he has succeeded in his second attempt at being in business, Larry replied, “We had to adapt to get to where we are today. That’s what we have to do now. You can’t just wait and be passive. When a market dries up, I make lots of phone calls to find the next market. Within a month or two you can make adjustments. You can never really plan for unseen changes. But when they start, you can see them coming and adapt. Our last bids have been very aggressive to make sure we covered ourselves.”

      Larry competes with other logging contractors. “I think our competitors are very tough,” he said “The last bid I put in, I thought I would be embarrassed. I raised our prices” because of rising costs for fuel and labor. “So I bid where I felt I needed to be. I thought I would be significantly higher than my competitors, but evidently they feel the same. I was relieved to find out we moved up at about the same percentage.”

      Larry has been married to his wife, Donna, for 32 years. They have four children. Besides Jeremy, 29, another son, Ben, 26, works in the company, operating a grinder and other equipment. Jared, 27, worked in the company up to a year ago as a timber feller but now left to become a car salesman. Their daughter, Leanne, 25, is married, and her husband works in the forest products industry.

      Larry, whose main hobby is off-road vehicle contests, is a member of the Association of Oregon Loggers and studied at Oregon State University to become a master woodland manager.

      “I see the industry as evolving very nicely in terms of responding to the environment,” said Larry, and he believes the public is supportive of the changes the industry has made for the better. “Although it will be hard for the industry next year, I see a good future ahead.”

      No doubt Larry will keep adapting to meet the changes and challenges presented to him in the future, including the use of state-of-the-art equipment like Log Max to help him continue to prosper.


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