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Quality Helps Oregon Logger Survive, Thrive: Cat TK732 Track Feller-Buncher a Key Machine for RiverRidge Excavating & Logging

RiverRidge Excavating & Logging – Oregon Logger Impressed with New Cat Feller-Buncher

By Staff
Date Posted: 2/1/2009

WALTERVILLE, Oregon — These are tough times for the forest products industry, loggers included, although some are doing better than others. Carl Welle, who owns RiverRidge Excavating and Logging Inc., in Walterville, Ore., is one who is doing better. Business is steady and the jobs come to him; he doesn’t have to spend his time on the phone looking for work.

            If you ask Carl why he’s been able to ride out the downturn so far, he says it’s the quality of the work his company does. “That’s the only thing I’m sure that is keeping us going.”

            Carl started working in the woods in high school. After he graduated, he took jobs thinning small timber tracts and removing hazard trees around houses. He worked by himself, cutting by hand and skidding the trees out with a small, rented track machine. At the same time, he was going to school, studying to become a paramedic. Just before finishing his paramedic training, Carl decided he wanted to be a logger.

            RiverRidge now has 14 employees. At any point, Carl is managing up to four logging projects. “We’re pretty versatile with what we do, anything from tiny back yard jobs to 120-acre clear-cuts,” he said. “Some guys won’t do anything but the great big jobs, where we tend to make good money on some of the smaller jobs.”

            Carl contracts for private landowners and mills. His primary customer is Rosboro Lumber Co., one of the largest privately owned forestry companies in the U.S. Carl also works for Weyerhaeuser and other companies. He prefers contracting for mills because it’s good, steady work. He added excavating services in order to diversify about eight years ago, but logging accounts for 80% of the company’s revenue.


New Cat Feller-Buncher

            These days it’s very rare that Carl gets to run any of his 18 machines. “I would love to be out there with the guys, but I just don’t have the time,” he said. “I have guys that do it well, and I just let them do it. I actually got to load the trucks for a few weeks last summer. That was pretty fun. I enjoyed the heck out of that.”

            Although he still buys some used equipment, about four years ago Carl started buying mostly new equipment because he determined it was more profitable. Productivity and up-time  improved, and landowners and mills like to see their contractors with new machines.

            His latest acquisition, however, didn’t come easy. Last year he decided it was time to upgrade his track feller-buncher. He tried out several machines, including a Cat® TK732 track feller-buncher. He initially decided against buying it. Caterpillar representatives listened to Carl’s suggestions and his requirements, and they made changes to the machine. After a second demonstration later, Carl called his dealer, Peterson Machinery in Eugene, Oregon, and said, “What did you do to this machine?” He bought it.

            “After Cat did all the upgrades on it — the valving, the multi-functioning — the TK732 was above and beyond as far as traveling, swinging, cutting, and especially saw recovery time,” explained Carl.

            “That is where you make your money…not having to sit there and wait for your saw to speed back up. Time is money. It has to perform. Sure I could cut down a great big tree with other feller-bunchers I tried, but then I’d have to wait for the saw to recover.”

            The Cat TK732 also provides excellent control of the tree after it has been cut, according to Carl. “I also like how it gets around, the maneuverability of the machine. It’s pretty steep up where we are working. The stability and the good sturdy cab are important.”

            Carl just has the one track feller-buncher. That’s all he needs because it cuts so much faster than what they can process. “Once in a while, we’ll go out and cut for other folks, because my operator can get so far ahead of us with that machine. He’s probably half again faster than we are with processing and loading.”

            The machinery brand and the dealer were also big factors in Carl’s purchase decision. “We own so many other Cat machines, and we really haven’t had many problems. They are pretty low maintenance machines. We had a starter go out on one of them a while back, but whoop-de-do.”

            “You have to think of your down-time,” Carl noted. “If you have a machine down for a few days, you’re talking thousands of dollars in down-time. And it’s not just that machine. One machine breaks down in the rotation, and I’ve got that down-time, and I’ve got down-time on the other three machines that follow it. If my dealer says they’ll be there to help me out and they’re not there, I’ve just lost $10,000. Boom, gone.”

            Carl has a good business relationship with Peterson Machinery. “If there is a problem, Peterson has the backing to figure it out and make it right,” he said. “They make stuff happen. And that is what I want to see.”


Quality Job Performance

            “Quality” is what separates RiverRidge from logging companies that are not doing as well, said Carl. What does he mean? Quality means “taking care of the land, utilization of the timber, bucking logs to the correct lengths, getting the sorts and the grades right,” he said.

            Meeting requirements for different mills means one tree could end up at three or four mills. “I might be able to get a log out of the butt cut of a tree for one mill, another log out of the second cut for another mill, and then make a short log from the top to go to a third mill,” said Carl. “The mills deduct for unusable footage, so we get nothing for it when we might have sold it to another mill.”

            Bucking the logs properly and sorting them correctly by grade and length might seem like a ‘no-brainer’ if you want to stay in business, but Carl said not everyone takes the time to do it right. “They’ll just run it out to the longest log they can possibly make out of one tree, buck it off and throw it in a pile instead of sorting correctly.”

            In Carl’s operation, sorts are checked three or four times before the wood is loaded on a truck. Managing the sorts starts with the project supervisor. The shovel operator is also well aware of the sorts and will pull a log if the processor operator has made an error. Carl checks sorts when he makes his rounds, too. Reviewing the sorts is time consuming, but it pays off in the end. “That’s why we’re still working,” Carl said.

            Carl’s wife, Shari, who left her hospital job about a year ago to handle the administrative end of the business full-time, has a different take on what quality means in their business. Based on her assessment, if they could bottle Carl’s personality, attitude and people management skills, they could probably make a little extra income on the side.

            “Carl is so mellow, so easy-going,” said Shari. “He’s compassionate and patient. And that’s important for the guys because it is easy for them to communicate with him. When you treat your employees well, you are going to have a better outcome all around.”

            The crew members are like brothers and have a strong bond, she said. “They will come back to the office and sit in their trucks for hours and talk.” The close-knit relationships pay off because they work well together and take care of each other. Since the company was founded in 1993, there have been no injuries, and turnover is very low.

            Carl’s people skills are beneficial in his dealings with landowners and mills, too. “It’s the same thing,” Shari said. “He’s easy to talk to and work with. He’s got a friend relationship with a lot of the company owners.”

            It’s not just being a nice guy, however. “He’s real good about checking in, checking back and following through,” Shari explained. “He calls landowners and asks if everything is going okay and if there is anything else they need. When we get paid, Carl meets with them and goes over the invoices.”

            When things get tough, Carl keeps a positive attitude. “If I get stressed out over something, he tells me not to worry,” said Shari. “It will all work out. And in the long run, he ends up being right, and it doesn’t do any good to get stressed out.”


Controlling Fuel Costs

            Quality also means watching costs, and fuel is a big one. Carl contracts for all log hauling, but he shares in the fuel costs through a surcharge. He helps control fuel costs by making turnaround times faster and loading more efficiently and faster.

            Carl’s employees also conserve fuel for forestry equipment by eliminating idling. “We either shut them off or we’re running them,” he said. “When my guys are in the machines, there’s not a lot of idle time. They’re working them to their max potential. The feller-buncher is under load all the time — cutting or swinging or traveling.”

            The new feller-buncher consumes about 8-10 gallons of fuel per hour. “I was more focused on productivity than fuel consumption when I was deciding on which machine to buy. If a feller-buncher burns an extra two gallons per hour and I get an extra 25% of production, I’ve way more than made up for it.”

            As for the future, Carl knows the logging business is a big roller coaster, but he’s in it for the whole ride. He is content to keep his company about the same size. “It’s plenty big enough now.”

            Carl has three step-sons who worked in the business for a while, but now they are off on other ventures. He and Shari have another son, Jake, still at home. Carl would like to see his youngest son become a logger. “If he decides to go into the business — great, I’ll back him 100 percent. But if he doesn’t, well, I’ll back him 100 percent on that, too.”


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