N. Carolina Loggers Keep an Eye on Change

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Pack Brothers Cuts with Valmet 3-Wheel and Tracked; Expands into Grading Work with Komatsu

MILL SPRING, North Carolina — Lots of families work together, but some are so tight they become inseparable. Pack Brothers, a North Carolina logging contractor, involves one of those families.
Logging has been a part of the Pack family for many generations. The Packs’ grandfather logged with horses and mules to a portable sawmill powered by a steam engine before converting to diesel. Their father continued the family involvement in logging, which began with cross-cut saws and eventually evolved to today’s modern hydraulics.
Under the tutelage of their father, the Pack brothers grew up in the woods and have become a tightly-woven unit that functions smoothly no matter who is doing which job.
There are three Pack brothers involved in the business. Kevin is the oldest at 43; Kyle is 37 and Bryan is 34. The brothers started out working for their father in his logging company, Ted Pack Logging.
“We used to be one big logging crew,” Kevin said. “We were all working for Crescent Resources, which is the land and timber division of the power company here. Our father went to work for them back in the early 1970s, and he has been cutting their timber since then. As each of us completed school, we went to work with him.”
At that time, Kevin said, several logging crews were cutting big, old-growth timber for Crescent Resources. The company was replanting areas that were clear-cut, and its plan was to have a constant recycling of land and timber.
“But as time went on, they went to over-cutting, and then decided to cut back,” Kevin said. “They kept cutting back on loggers and finally got where they just had our logging crew.”
When the new timber was ready for the first thinning, Crescent Resources wanted to start a thinning operation. It turned to Ted Pack Logging to ask if the existing logging crew could handle it all.
“So in 1991, Kyle and I pulled off the clear-cut crew and took some of the older equipment to start a thinning operation,” Kevin said. “Before long, Bryan came over with us. We did that until 1998, when we decided to form Pack Brothers Logging and Grading. So we divided the equipment and spun off Pack Brothers from Ted Pack Logging.”
Just a year after Pack Brothers Logging and Grading was formed, however, Crescent Resources decided to get out of the timberland business, and it changed its approach to forest management on its land.
“We eventually stopped doing stand management thinning and started doing real estate thinning,” Kevin said. “In other words, we take the value out as the company started to sell off their properties. Instead of taking out half the timber, like a normal stand management thinning, we’re probably taking out about two-thirds. We take out more trees, so we get more visibility through the stand. We leave enough timber for some cover, but it looks good enough to develop. We’ve been doing that on pretty much all Crescent Resources’ property. It’s a shame to see things going that way, because we’re working our way out of a job.”
Once the work for Crescent Resources is finished, Kevin said, he and his brothers will continue in the logging business. “We’ll have to get out and compete with the big mills and the timber brokers,” he said. “That’s going to be interesting.”
As that time approaches, the Pack Brothers are making some changes in what they’re doing.
“We’ve started doing some grading work on the side,” Kevin said, “just to see what we think of it. There’s a lot of development going on in western North Carolina, especially here in our county. So we want to see how doing grading will work along with logging. We’ll just have to see where the road takes us.”
Kevin said all three brothers deeply value their independence. “I just dread the thought of some timber dealer ever thinking he has some control over us,” he said. “That would be real hard for us. That’s why we’re starting to do some grading now.”
The brothers have been investing in more equipment so they can expand into grading work. They have a Komatsu PC-200 track hoe and excavator and a Komatsu D-61 bulldozer, and they are considering purchasing another bulldozer from Komatsu.
“We like the D-61 real well,” Kevin said, “and we’re looking at a D-65. The D-65 machine was on the job where they were working when Kevin was interviewed; the Packs were using it on a demonstrator basis. “They all came from Mitchell Distributing in Ashville, which is the Komatsu dealer here,” Kevin added.
Last fall the brothers bought a Valmet 603 three-wheel cutter with an 18-inch sawhead. “We decided to try the three-wheeler because we thought it would use less fuel and be easier to keep up than some others,” Kevin said. “We looked at all the three-wheelers and really liked the Valmet hands down; we found that it’s just a better-performing machine than any of the other three-wheelers. We really like the Komatsu equipment, and the Valmet three-wheeler has been a really good machine.”
The Packs also have an older Timbco 445 with a 28-inch Quadco intermittent saw that they purchased new in 1999.
“We’ve really taken off with the Komatsu equipment,” Kevin said. “It’s some of the smoothest running hydraulic equipment I’ve ever run. And the bulldozers are the same. They’re smooth and quiet operating, strong, fast……they have the whole package.”
Price wise, Kevin said, the bulldozers and the excavators also were more affordable. The machines were ready to use when they arrived from the dealer; the Packs did not modify the machines at all for their operations.
Although the Packs grew up in the woods and learned the logging industry from the ground up, they also went to school to improve their skills.
“I went to Haywood Technical College in Clyde, North Carolina for a two-year course in wood products,” Kevin said. “I learned the logging and timber trade working with our father.” Bryan went to Blue Ridge Community College in Flat Rock, North Carolina and learned to be a machinist.
The brothers divide up their company responsibilities by how they’re trained. “If anyone does timber cruising and purchasing, it’s me,” Kevin said. “Kyle and Bryan run the knuckleboom loaders. Kyle is our primary loader operator, and Bryan is our loader operator and truck driver. I cut the timber and run the feller-bunchers. But we’re set up so anyone can do anything if we need to shuffle people around.”
Today, Pack Brothers Logging and Grading has four employees, although in the past they’ve had as many as seven.
“One is our cousin, Mike Pack,” said Kevin. “He started working with us last fall. He runs the loader and the feller-bunchers. He’s also getting to where he can run the Timbco and the three-wheeler, and he can cut timber if I need to go look at timber or do something else. We’ve also been having him do some of our grading jobs because he has a lot of experience in grading and land clearing.”
Kevin said a couple of employees quit during the winter because of lack of work. “Along the winter we’ll lose a couple because we don’t get to work so much because it’s so wet,” he explained. “And if we can’t work, we can’t pay them. And the weather has been so bad this month (March) that I haven’t tried to hire anybody else. We’ll wait until the weather gets better and things get going again.”
Another factor in how many employees the company has at any given time: wood quotas. Local wood yards have already handed out some wood quotas Kevin called “stiff.”
“Pine has been moving slow,” he said. “These local wood yards will put you on a quota, and just give you so many loads a week because they slow down. They tell me they have so much winter inventory because the first part of the winter was good, and after the first part of the year it caught up with them. With wood quotas like they’ve been and all the wet weather in early March, we just haven’t put on any more help. We do have a skidder driver coming over for an interview tomorrow, and we’ll probably start trying to pick up more employees in early April.”
Although the Packs would like to offer employees health insurance and other benefits, so far they haven’t been able to do so. “We’ve tested the waters a time or two, but we haven’t been able to go there yet,” Kevin said. “We’re just not quite big enough to do that. So we try to pay them better than the going rate so they can afford to get their own.”
Most of the timber Pack Brothers cuts for Crescent Resources is pulpwood. “Our operation is probably 80 percent pine,” Kevin said. “When we’re on Crescent, it’s 100 percent pine and 80 percent pulpwood.”
Pack Bros. also buys small tracts of timber and cuts them, particularly during the winter.
“Crescent doesn’t like for us to do anything on their property during wet winter weather,” Kevin explained. The company also does contract logging for some sawmills in the region.
In a week’s time, Pack Brothers Logging and Grading tries to cut 1,200 tons of timber. “That’s what we need to make things click,” Kevin said. “We don’t get that every week of the year, particular in the winter, but it’s what we try to average.”
The volume of wood the company cuts hasn’t changed much since the company’s inception in 1998. “It probably runs about the same, and about 80 percent of our work always was, and still is, thinning timber,” Kevin said. “We don’t do any clear-cutting any more unless we buy a stand of timber of our own or contract with one of the local mills.”
However, the overall volume has declined somewhat, largely because of decreasing timber size. “When we first started out, we were thinning a lot of old growth stands, so we were cutting a lot of saw logs and moved more volume,” Kevin said. “Now everything we’re doing for Crescent is young loblolly stands, so it’s 80 percent pulpwood. That was one of the reasons we got the Valmet three-wheeler. We not only wanted to get something that runs more economically, but we wanted something that would cut faster. As the timber gets smaller, we try to cut and move whatever we can because it’s a production game. We’re always geared to try to get more production.”
Pack Brothers’ biggest buyer for pulpwood is Weyerhaeuser’s mill in Elkin, North Carolina. “We’ve had a real good relationship with them,” Kevin said. “They’ve always helped us all they could and gotten us through some tight spots.”
Pack Brothers does not have its own wood yard or a large facility of its own. “Our father has a big garage, and I have a garage at my house,” Kevin said. “We commute every day and have for years. We’re about an hour to an hour and a half away from the job, so we seldom bring equipment in. We do our service in the woods, and if there’s a major breakdown, we take the equipment in to the dealer we purchased it from. And we do all the service we can ourselves to avoid the high cost of service trucks. The only thing we bring to the house is the grading equipment. The grading jobs have been here close to home, and we park that equipment up at our father’s place where we can do service in the garage.”
When they move from one job to another or from one location to another, the Packs simply move the equipment to where it’s needed. They park their trucks at Dale’s Garage, a big truck garage in Morganton, North Carolina, near where the logging operation is centered and more than an hour from where they live. “He does all the service on our trucks,” Kevin said.
At this stage the Packs are considering investing in a processing head. Kevin and his brothers view it as a way to reduce the amount of equipment they need as well as speeding up the time it takes to process a tree and load the wood onto a truck. They have found an example in Georgia, where a logger is using a processing head on a yard, cleaning up timber so the knuckle­boom loader is picking up clean wood to load on the trailers.
The biggest factor in Pack Brothers’ success, Kevin said, is knowing they had some job security by virtue of their contract with Crescent. It has not been uncommon, he said, for the brothers to cut 1,500 to 2,000 acre tracts.
That also leads to the company’s biggest challenge. “As Crescent Resources gradually sells out in the next year to two years, our biggest challenge is going to be getting out and competing to get timber,” Kevin said.