Connecticut Loggers Focus on Hardwoods

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NE Timberland Investments LLC adds TimberPro TB620 six-wheeled feller-buncher

EAST KILLINGLY, Connecticut — It wouldn’t be stretching the point to say that Sam Hull was born to be a logger. Michael Fahey just has the genes of one.

Sam and Mike are co-owners of NE Timberland Investments LLC, based in Union, Conn. They originally formed the business purely as a holding company for a tract of land that Mike and Sam bought jointly. As their partnership and friendship bloomed, however, the small holding company became a full-scale, ever-growing logging company.

The future merged with the present in 1999, when Sam and Mike combined to buy a 98-acre tract of land in Pomfret and formed NE Timberland Investments LLC. The two already had worked together on and off for several years previously. Their new, formal business relationship took advantage of each man’s skills and equipment.

“Sam had a Timbco 425D feller-buncher, and I had a grapple skidder and loaders and a slasher,” said Mike, “Sam had the ability to cut down trees, and I had the ability to cut them up. After a couple of years of essentially hiring each other, we developed a great relationship. And when the piece of property came up, we decided to go into it together.”

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The relationship progressed from there until they finally decided to join forces and merge their two small companies. It’s been a boon to both.

“Operating solo is messier, slower, more dangerous,” noted Mike. “I was looking into buying a Timbco, but the expense and debt is very difficult for one person to bear, along with managing the business. With a partner, we have an enhanced ability to manage debt, and by sharing the duties, it makes everything easier. We mesh well. Our skills are different, and together we form a well-rounded team.”

Actually, the men have known each other since Sam was in his late teens and Mike was in his early 20s. Sam worked at his father’s business, Hull Forest Products, and Mike worked for a logger who subcontracted for the Hull sawmill. Mike was in and out of the mill often, and he and Sam got to know each other.

Since then, Mike worked for a number of different loggers. When the owner of the last company he worked for switched careers, Mike decided to buy the equipment and go into business, working solo until he and Sam hooked up.

In August, NE Timberland Investments LLC took delivery of a TimberPro TB620, a six-wheel feller-buncher. “We were looking to upgrade from our 1994 Timbco 425D feller-buncher,” said Sam, “and the fact that it was a rubber-tired machine really sold us. I think that’s the way to go in the future.”

The Timbco was equipped with a track carrier, and Mike said the two elected to go with a wheeled machine after “a lot of thought” and analysis. A wheeled feller-buncher would be more efficient, they concluded, because it would save time and help reduce long-term operating costs. “It’s faster across the ground…from tree to tree,” Mike observed. “And it’s certainly more comfortable to operate.” On rocky ground, a track machine bounces the operator “all over the place.” In the TimberPro, “you don’t even feel the rocks,” said Mike. “It’s like you’re floating.”

The only drawback to the new machine was that it is equipped with two-way leveling (front to back), which somewhat limits its ability to work on steeply sloping terrain. The Timbco featured four-way leveling. “Given the terrain we work on, it’s manageable,” said Mike.

The TimberPro is paired with a Timbco felling head equipped with a 33-inch bar saw and with lateral tilt capability. The boom has bucket linkage so the machine can be used for topping trees, too.

Another factor in their decision to invest in the TimberPro was the man behind the machine and the company — Pat Crawford. Pat, Timbco’s founder, sold the machinery business several years ago to Partek Forest. Last year, however, he exercised an option to buy the wheeled machinery division and established a new company, manufacturing harvesting equipment with the TimberPro nameplate.

Mike and Sam considered other brands of machinery but had decided their choice would be either a Timbco or a TimberPro. They flew to Wisconsin in the spring to watch a TimberPro prototype in operation. “We decided at that point to go ahead and try it,” said Mike.

They bought the machine from CJ Logging Equipment in Boonville, N.Y., a dealer the men have done business with before and trusted. “We have a history of working with CJ, and we really like their support services,” said Mike. “They’re there when you need them.”

Mark Bourgeois, president of CJ Logging Equipment, said the two businesses enjoy a good working relationship. “Sam and Mike are a unique pair,” he said. “They are very well educated, and I consider them to be professional timber harvesters.”

“When a customer purchases a unit of this magnitude,” Mark added, “I feel we are partners, and it is CJ Logging Equipment’s responsibility to keep them running. Our support services are very important.”

The TimberPro TB620, at more than 35 tons, is designed for heavier logging attachments. It is powered by a 260 hp Cummings engine and features a tandem bogie axle. The machine, with a spacious, quiet cab, came equipped with Nokian tires.

NE Timberland Investments LLC’s tree-length logging operations also rely on a John Deere 648 G grapple skidder and a Timberjack 460 grapple skidder. The company’s other equipment includes a Cat 215 with a Denharco stroke boom delimber, which Mike and Sam are looking to replace. Situated at the landing are a Prentice 210E loader and a Serco 200F loader; both operate with ProPack slasher saws. The company also runs one tractor-trailer truck.

NE Timberland Investments LLC’s other employees are Christopher Leeder, who operates the Timberjack, Justin LaTour, who runs the new TimberPro, truck driver David Trahan, and Joe Thoreau, a certified forester who cruises timber.

Sam, 31, was a baby when his father started the sawmill business. Today, it is one of the leading hardwood sawmill companies in New England, and one of the most well regarded.

Hull Forest Products began in a backyard in Rhode Island when company founder Bill Hull was a teenager. At age 15 he borrowed money to purchase his first woodlot —12 acres of hardwoods. Taking his passion for trees to the University of New Hampshire, Bill earned a degree in forestry, then got his start in the lumber business with an old circle sawmill, sawing white oak logs into whiskey barrel staves. Bill moved the company in 1970 to Pomfret.

Today the family business continues to expand and is a leader in the sustainable forestry movement. Hull Forest Products, co-owned by Sam and his brother, has more than 50 employees. Bill is still at work at the mill. Sam laughed when asked if his father will ever retire.

Besides giving Sam a firm foothold in the forest products industry, his connection to the sawmill benefits NE Timberland Investments LLC. Hull Forest Products buys some of its logs from NE Timberland Investments LLC. Sam and Mike also are able to use a large maintenance shed at the sawmill when their machinery needs service.

NE Timberland Investments LLC recently was working on a 600-acre tract in East Killingly. That job and another 200-acre site in Union will take the better part of the winter to cut. They plan to return to the larger tract in the spring because it is on drier ground and should pose fewer problems when the snow thaws and turns the forest floor wet.

Sam and Mike prefer working on large jobs, where they can cut at least 200,000 board feet. They will do some smaller woodlots, however, and have even completed a few contract jobs. They recently contracted with the University of Connecticut in Storrs to remove some dead — and potentially dangerous — trees along a hiking trail.

Most of the company’s business is in southern New England. In fact, 95% is in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island — and the bulk of that in their home state. NE Timberland Investments LLC Investments is licensed in all three states. “We’ll go out of state, but only for large jobs,” said Sam.

The company’s focus is tree-length logging — usually select cuts — in forests with trees 7 inches in diameter and larger. After delimbing, trees are bucked in lengths from 6 to 16 feet.

Sam and Mike generally prefer to harvest hardwoods, which comprises more than 60% of the company’s revenues. On the job taking shape in East Killingly, about 75% of the log sales will be hardwood. The job, which they are doing for a client, should take about two months. NE Timberland Investments LLC probably will harvest about one-third of the trees on the site.

Besides supplying Hull Forest Products with logs, NE Timberland Investments LLC supplies hardwood veneer logs to other mills in the Northeast and Canada and ships some pallet logs to companies in Canada.

“We’re careful with how we plan our jobs,” said Sam. “If we do a select cut of about 20 to 30 percent of the trees on the site under a good management plan, those trees will grow back and regenerate within 10 or 15 years.”

They know the importance of regeneration and reforestation. Sam and Mike are members of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, and the company is listed as Southern New England Certified Professional Loggers and is certified under the Sustainable Forestry Initiative of the American Forest & Paper Association.

Sam earned a business degree from Bryant College in Rhode Island in 1994, and Mike earned an economics degree from Northeastern University in Boston in 1989. The education serves them well.

“Economics is all about statistics,” said Mike, “and you have to keep statistics and pinpoint estimates in any business, particularly logging.”

Sam’s business education has been a boon not just to NE Timberland Investments LLC but also to Hull Forest Products. The background has been helpful when deciding whether to buy standing timber, forestland, or take some wood out to develop a subdivision, which they do several times a year. The education also has helped them in making decisions about supplying mills with wood.

The hard winter ahead recently had Mike thinking about fish, not cutting timber. And Sam had his sights set on a week in Florida with his wife of five years, who will soon give birth to their first child.

Mike got in a quick voyage off the coast of southern New England for two days of deep-sea fishing. The 37-year-old has been married for 15 years. He has three sons, ranging in age from 6 to 11. They too, he said, love the woods, as well as fishing and hunting.

“This is the latest time of year I can take any time off,” said Mike, “so if I have a chance to get any fishing in, I’ll take it, even if it means I’ll have to work weekends when I get back. We have to be efficient at work and at play.”

Efficiency is vital to these long-time loggers, who have to work hard and fast to meet their goal of harvesting 100,000 board feet of timber weekly.

When they’re not working or fishing, they also enjoy traveling to the West for some serious skiing and snowmobiling. Mike has even done some helicopter skiing – flying via helicopter deep into mountain ranges where he and his fellow skiers are dropped onto untouched snow. “I enjoy skiing, but that’s nuts,” said Sam, shaking his head, who also enjoys relatively untouched areas, like Lake Winnapasaukee in New Hampshire. He can drive there, though.

Above average rain on the East Coast this year has been a blessing and curse. Wet, muddy conditions have kept loggers out of the woods. Mills have not been able to get enough wood, so logs are in strong demand. “Demand has been consistently high, primarily because of the weather,” said Sam.

“The mills just haven’t got the supply they want,” he added, “so we’re looking forward to a good winter, and it’s a big help that our biggest job (East Killingly) is in such a dry area. So we’ll work it for a couple of weeks, work the other sites during the winter, and get back to Killingly in the spring. The demand will still be there.”

So will Sam Hull and Mike Fahey, two New Englanders who are born loggers.