Key to Success Is to Adapt, Says Michigan Logger

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Award-Winning Sidell Forest Products Is Recognized for Safety and Commitment to Industry

CHEBOYGAN, Michigan — Combine a lifetime of forestry experience with a strong desire to promote a charity program for terminally ill children. Toss in a dash of tireless energy and a commitment to industry safety. Mix well. The result? A forestry family with a stellar company safety record, a program called Log-A-Load For Kids, and the National Outstanding Logger of the Year Award.

Dave and Sue Sidell were recognized earlier this year by the Forest Resources Association (FRA), formerly the American Pulpwood Association, as the recipients of the 2002 National Outstanding Logger of the Year Award. The honor recognized their outstanding safety record and their commitment to the Log-A-Load For Kids campaign in Michigan.

The Sidells initially were nominated for the Lake States Logger of the Year Award. “You get nominated for the award by the various mills you supply wood to,” Dave noted. “Weyerhaeuser has nominated us several years in a row.” After winning the state award, the couple competed against five other regional nominees to win the National Logger of the Year Award.

One factor that entered into the Sidells’ winning the award was their involvement with Log-A-Load for Kids. “We’ve been pretty active in Log-A-Load For Kids and have done several harvests for it,” said Dave. The charitable campaign, which is sponsored by the FRA, raises money to benefit Children’s Miracle Network-affiliated hospitals by donations of logs and other contributions.

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To say that the Sidells have been “pretty active” in the campaign is an understatement, according to Neil Ward, spokesman for the FRA. “They’ve been a driving force behind the Log-A-Load For Kids program,” he said, “donating equipment and time to organize charity harvests. If it weren’t for the tireless efforts of the Sidells, there probably wouldn’t have been a Log-A-Load For Kids program on Michigan’s lower peninsula.”

Dave was challenged by another logger and friend, Jim Carey, to support Log-A-Load for Kids. Jim started a benefit timber harvest; the equipment was donated by loggers and equipment dealers, and all the proceeds went to the state organization for Log-A-Load For Kids. “He challenged me to put an event together,” Dave recalled, “so I did. We’ve done three of them now. The last one generated $25,000.”

The Sidells also have been deeply involved in the sustainable forestry movement in Michigan. They not only follow the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) guidelines of the American Forest & Paper Association, they helped implement the guidelines in Michigan. Dave became chairman of the Logger Forester Education Committee in 1994 and encouraged forest products companies to ensure that their employees complete SFI-related training programs, such as the Michigan’s Logger Education to Advance Professionalism (LEAP) program. The Sidells’ logging business also has received the Michigan Association of Timbermen’s Zero Lost Time Award the past eight years.

The Sidells were unable to attend the FRA annual meeting earlier this year, but their son, Doug, who has worked as a forester in the family business, made the trip and accepted the award on their behalf. “If my dad were here, he would want to show his appreciation for his committed employees,” Doug told the FRA audience. “Without them, he’s an army of one. He’s got the team. He expects excellence, and he’s always got it.”

Dave, 52, came to the logging industry through his family. “My father was in the logging business, and I worked for him,” he said. “Then my brothers and I were in business together for a little while, but that didn’t work out too well.” Dave and Sue discussed their options, and the Sidells decided to form their own business — Sidell Forest Products Inc. — in 1977. Dave started small, hand-felling with a chain saw and using a forwarder to get the logs out of the woods. The couple ran the business out of a building next to their house until 1999.

“That was our shop for 20 years,” Dave recalled. The Sidells moved the business into a bigger building in Cheboygan three years ago. “That’s been a big improvement,” said Dave. “The maintenance facilities and shop are a lot bigger than what we had..”

“We started out making pulpwood and did that for a couple of years,” said Dave. “But Georgia-Pacific was switching out round wood and going to whole tree chips, so we started chipping when they opened up the new mill in 1978. We’ve been doing that ever since. Today we predominantly run whole tree chips for Georgia-Pacific and also pulpwood, saw bolts and grade logs. We have a cut-to-length crew going that’s basically for Weyerhaeuser.”

“Our round wood and pulpwood market is stable,” added Dave. “Weyerhaeuser is very consistent, but Georgia-Pacific is more just-in-time. They have a whole tree chip mill, and they keep a pile big enough to last about five days. So if the mill is running good, we’re delivering good. But if the mill stops, we’re stopped. Right now the mill is on a slow production schedule. It runs for about 10 days, shuts down for four, and then runs again for 10 days. This is the biggest particle board plant that Georgia-Pacific has. When things are slow like this, we try to keep the round wood moving because we have a good market for that with Weyerhaeuser. The chip market is sporadic, and when there aren’t any orders for chips, we have to lay people off.” Although the volume of chips supplied by Sidell’s company is down at bit this year because of the soft economy, he has averaged about 60,000 tons each of the past several years.

Cheboygan has a population of about 5,000 and is in an area where tourism and forestry are two of the main industries. In the fall, hunting contributes quite a bit to the local economy.

Sidell Forest Products is equipped with a number of pieces of equipment, including a Tigercat 726 feller-buncher, a Timbco feller-buncher, and two John Deere 648 skidders. A Valmet cut-to-length system consists of a Valmet 911 harvester and Valmet 646 forwarder. The company also has a Hood loader with self-propelled carrier and slasher and a Trelan chipper.

The chip crew operates with the Timbco feller-buncher, the Tigercat 726 feller-buncher, the John Deere 648 skidders, the Hood loader with slasher, and the Trelan chipper. Generally, the terrain dictates whether the crew uses the Timbco machine or the Tigercat for felling. Both feller-bunchers are equipped with rotary saws.

“We use the Timbco in areas with more hills,” said Dave, “because it is mounted on tracks and can maneuver more safely on slopes. Plus, the tracks are easy on the ground.” Timbco feller-bunchers have a leveling feature to keep the machine and cab level while working on slopes. In addition, track carriers are known for their ability to operate in even muddy conditions while reducing disturbance to the forest floor.

In areas where the terrain is flatter, the chip crew relies on the Tigercat 726 feller-buncher. In flatter terrain, the Tigercat 726 is fast and productive. Dave has been very impressed with the performance of the Tigercat machine. “We’ve had it two and a half years now,” he said. “It’s been a fantastic machine. Those people did their homework. It’s the best rubber-tired machine I’ve ever seen.”

One feature of the Tigercat 726 that Dave particularly likes is the windshield design. “The top of the windshield is away from you,” he said, “and the bottom slopes toward you. That way, nothing stays on the windshield. No rain sticks to it, no snow sticks to it. You don’t need a wiper because nothing ever lands on the window!”

Dave had pragmatic reasons for selecting Valmet’s cut-to-length machines. “We went with Valmet because we’re close to both a good dealer and the factory,” he said. “I picked the particular machines I did because I have friends who own them, and they have a good reputation.” The company has had the harvester just over a year and the forwarder for four years. Both machines have performed well, and Dave described the Valmet 646 forwarder as “bullet-proof.”

Dave has owned several different brands of loaders through the years. “The Hood was a good deal,” he said, and he was especially interested in the self-propelled carrier.

Dave enjoys hunting and fishing, and the Sidells have a cabin on the upper peninsula. “It’s an hour and a half drive, and we have 120 acres,” he said. “That’s where we spend a lot of our weekends.” Dave hunts deer and grouse. His companion while hunting grouse is a springer spaniel named Cooper, who spends as much Time with Dave as he will permit. “His name is right on the passenger door of my truck,” Dave said. “He’s in the truck with me most of the time.”

Dave is a member of the Cheboygan Sportsman’s Club, and he and Sue are certified by the National Rifle Association as handgun instructors. “Michigan just passed a new handgun law here a year ago, so we’ve been pretty busy putting on classes.” They also lend their volunteer services to the Michigan Hunter Safety program. “We help them whenever they need help on the range,” said Dave. He and Sue also have been involved with forestry exhibits for the county fair.

Doug, who has worked as a forester for the company for the past couple of years, now is attending Michigan State University to earn a master’s degree in business. “He’s finishing his master’s degree and getting married in June, and I really don’t know what his intentions are after that,” said Dave, whose business employs a couple of cousins.

Dave remains optimistic about the future of Sidell Forest Products and the forestry products industry in Michigan, but he pointed out that both the company and the industry are facing some significant challenges in the near future.

The key to staying in business and remaining profitable during a time of a slow economy and other uncertainties is the ability to adapt to changing conditions, said Dave. “At this point, I’m not sure what changes we’re going to make,” he said. “We’ve looked at various systems, and there are other ideas out there that are really good. But it’s a matter of tackling the big price of switching from one system to another. The market is changing faster than people can change with it.”

His willingness to adapt and change is part of the reason that has made him successful in the forest products industry, said Dave. “I’ve been willing to work and to match the market. We just have to ride it out and make a change when we know it’s the right time to make that change.”