Kleiman Forest Products and Ponsse make a good team both in logging and off road truck racing.
Mark Kleiman, 45, of Wilson, Michigan, has traveled a career path that has presented him with unique opportunities both in logging and in his sport of choice, off road truck racing.
Having grown up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan near Escanaba, Mark’s early years were spent on the family farm raising beef. Although there is a fair amount of dairy and beef farming in the area, the region is more typical of the logging industry with dense mixed forests of spruce, balsam, cedar, pine, maple, oak, and poplar. Starting when he was eight years old, Mark would help cut balsam boughs every fall for Christmas wreaths. Winters were also a time that he would harvest cedar oil brush, which in turn was used for a variety of products such as vapor rubs, cough drops, perfumes, and medicines. Reflecting back, Mark said, “It allowed us kids to have some kind of income. As kids growing up we would cut cedar in the swamps.” Hard work was engrained in Mark in his early years. “I used to cut all the firewood for the farm house. I enjoyed being out in the woods. I guess it was my excuse to get out of doing all the cow work. It didn’t smell as bad either.”
After his school years, Mark opted for the forest over the farm and began his career skidding for a veteran logger, Jim Casperson. He launched Kleiman Forest Products in 1993 with the purchase of a Morbark Mark V harvester and hired his father as his first employee. Twenty plus years later, the business now is centered around three harvesters and has seven employees. In addition to Mark and his wife Reva who handles the accounting, their two sons, Cody and Kyle, Mark’s brothers Larry and Brian and his cousin Joe Ouradnik round out the Kleiman team. Their key machines include three harvesters, three forwarders, a grinder, one logging truck and three chip trucks. Most of their round wood and chip output go to Verso in either Quinnesec or Escanaba, Michigan. The balance of their wood goes to Potlatch in Gwinn, Michigan.
Mark’s logging expertise and connections opened up an interesting opportunity between 2004 and 2007. Working with Marvin Casperson, the brother of Jim Casperson whom he started skidding for at the beginning of his career, he ventured down to Texas and Florida to help with cleanup operations after several hurricanes. The hurricanes, most notably Rita and Wilma, had laid down a lot of trees in their destructive wake. Mark worked in various parks and state lands.
In the winter of 2006 Mark was operating the first mechanical logging operation south of Lake Okeechobee cleaning up parks in the Fort Lauderdale area. The change of winter climate was a plus for Mark. “Are you kidding, pass up 40 below weather to come down to 70. You didn’t have to twist my arm!” Mark added. While he was living out of his camper in the parks he was working in, Mark’s family came down frequently to spend time together. As there are no pulpwood markets in the area, the output was sold to manufacturers for the landscaping mulch markets.
One of his challenges was cutting the Australian pine that had been sand blasted by many hurricanes over the years. Mark recalled, “They were tough to cut because of the hurricanes blasting them, they were very abrasive and hard on saws. You really got good at sharpening saw chains, that’s for sure.”
Fast forward a few years and now Mark’s business includes two recent Ponsse additions. Last year Mark purchased a used Ponsse Ergo six wheel harvester and a used Ponsse Elephant forwarder to complement his pair of Fabtek 133 harvesters and Timberjack forwarder. Jim Charlier, sales representative for Ponsse, worked with Mark to make the acquisitions happen. The purchases have built on Mark’s initial involvement with Ponsse as a sponsor of his off road racing trucks. Mark said, “Ponsse was very impressed with the exposure off road racing had to offer.”
Mark has been impressed with the equipment, the Ponsse people and their technology. He now considers himself a Ponsse loyalist, appreciating the Ponsse focus on keeping the operator productive. Mark observed, “I really like how they work with their people, speaking with their owners, and their workers. They are focused on making sure that you are working. If you’re the next person through the door, it doesn’t matter if you’ve bought 50 machines or one, you’re the next one to get worked on.” He feels that the Ponsse service helps him stay in the woods by assisting in field repairs, adding to his bottom line. “A lot of times they will tell you, ‘This is something you can fix on your own. You don’t need us in the woods to fix this problem.’ They will teach you how to fix it over the phone. It will save you money and you’ll be back to work faster.”
When his older son, Cody, joined the business he quickly became accustomed to the Ergo machine. Mark observed, “It doesn’t matter which one you start with, that’s the one you feel appropriate in.” His younger son Kyle runs the Elephant, brother Brian is a driver, brother Larry runs a Fabtek 133 and cousin Joe Ouradnik operates the Timberjack forwarder. Mark is the catch all man for whatever needs to be done. He runs trucks, operates the chipper, handles equipment maintenance and repair, and generally fills in as needed on any position. “I’m the fireman, putting the fires out,” Mark says.
The stable of heavy machines at Kleiman Forest Products also includes a Bandit 3680B horizontal grinder purchased in 2010. “We worked with Bandit when they first came out with the knife system in their grinders. Initially we were one of the few people around that used that system. We get very good results with it,” Mark said. The output is sold to Verso to fuel boilers at their Upper Peninsula plants.
Having started the chipping side of his operation with smaller machines, he was interested in other options when he attended a Great Lakes Logging & Heavy Equipment Expo. “I was at a Logging Congress and I was eye balling up all the things that were wrong with the machines I used before.” Mark said that sometime later while working a job, “It just happened that one of the salesman for Bandit saw me working. He came over and said that I really should try one of their machines. Bandit arranged a demo, bringing a machine out to a jobsite where Mark fed the machine himself. He did so with great efficiency. “It not only opened up my eyes, but it opened up their eyes too. The first day that we ran the machine we were right up there with some of their records. They said they never had one produce this fast.”
On a typical day, Kleiman Forest Products ships about 250 tons. Regarding the variety of logging, Mark notes, “It greatly depends on what you’re in. Some days you’ll do six to eight loads of chips a day and hardly any round wood. And other days you’ll get six loads of round wood and very little in the way of chips.”
Mark will often subcontract with Triest Forest Products of Spalding, Michigan, which Mark feels has been working out very well. “For the longest time I didn’t want to put all my eggs in one basket. This (subcontracting) takes a lot of weight off my shoulders.”
About 90% of the jobs Mark contracts are for private land owners, with the balance on federal and state lands. Kleiman Forest Products work within a 100 mile radius of their Wilson, Michigan, home base. They generally handle most of their own trucking, but will call in trucks when needed.
Regarding the current business climate, Mark feels that, “We’ve been at a real high for a long time. Wood markets have been great.” He also understands the cyclical nature of the wood commodity markets, noting that a down turn is also a possibility. “You can only climb the hill so far and you kind of expect it. We always expect a bit of a bump in the road.” Productivity, Mark says, has proven to be a key factor in maintaining a healthy forest products industry. “With the new mechanical equipment, it just keeps getting faster every year. So even though we’ve lost a lot of numbers in the logging, I don’t think we’ve lost a lot of power to produce wood.”
Mark attributes the success of Kleiman Forest Products to their reputation for a clean, professional finished product at the end of each job. “It’s the quality of job we do when it’s done with the whole package. I call it a cleanup. Over the years it’s been picked at and picked at and the best of the quality wood has been taken. We go in and basically it’s a fresh start. Clean up the stuff that’s never going to be anything and basically get it back on the right track. I have to give the credit to my harvester operator, Larry, for setting the standard of the high quality of harvesting on our jobs. We pick up a lot of private work because we take that extra few minutes to make sure we don’t scuff things up and try to clean up the best we can when we’re done. Not all things are directly profitable, but down the road someone sees it and they want me to do their job because of the work we do. Most of the jobs we do come from jobs we’ve done.”
Just as he does with his logging business, Mark puts his all into his family time as well. He helps his daughter Kyndra, 17, in her enterprise of raising hogs and beef cattle.
Mark’s time with sons Cody and Kyle involves considerably more adrenaline. The three of them race off road trucks in the TORC Series.
Mark started racing motocross at age 15 and moved on to racing Sportsman Super Stock trucks quite successfully. After taking nine years off from racing to concentrate on the logging business, Mark returned to racing in 2013, taking it up a considerable notch to the Pro Light division of the TORC series. In 2014, a second truck was added for Cody and Kyle to share. This year the boys have come home with a win, 2 fifth and 2 sixth place finishes so far. The Kleiman team’s primary sponsors include Ponsse and Rotochopper.
The trucks are 3,000 pound machines with 550 horse power engines, hitting speeds up to 100 mph, and covering jumps 200 feet long and up to 30 feet high. Racing event weekends are spent travelling across the country to North Carolina, Texas, Nevada, Illinois, South Dakota, and closer to home in Crandon, Wisconsin and Bark River, Michigan. Mark said, “It’s really a high contact sport. Crashes and rollovers are common; if the wheels are still connected, it is still game on.”
By teaming up with local loggers and log truck drivers, a third truck will make its debut in August of this year. The companies who donate to the cause will have their names displayed on the race truck. Inspired by a conversation that Mark had with his crew chief, Jim Charlier, he is dedicating his new race machine to raise funds for the American Cancer Society. The new truck will be painted pink and black with a purple bow. Mark feels good about this unique form of giving, stating, “It’s a win-win for people that are donating. It’s a win-win for the people we are donating to.”