M.M. Wright Forges Ahead in Virginia Despite Challenges: Company Has Strong Ties to Barko as Customer and Dealer

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GASBURG, Virginia — M.M. Wright Inc. is an award-winning logging company, but the owners say the wood industry and their related trucking operations are facing serious challenges.

One thing has remained constant, though, for Stephen Wright and Frank Myers: their reliance on and commitment to Barko equipment. Their logging business not only uses Barko equipment; an affiliated business they own is a Barko dealership.

M.M. Wright and its affiliated businesses are based in Gasburg, Virginia. The dealership and company offices are less than 10 miles from the North Carolina state line and just north of Lake Gaston, which straddles both states.

The region has abundant forest resources, but the industry faces significant challenges, according to Stephen and Frank.

Loggers have been struggling through dull markets in recent years. “Everyone’s been on quota for about two years,” said Frank.

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However, his biggest concerns are in the trucking industry, dealing with such challenges as new federal regulations for electronic log records and being able to recruit qualified drivers. “Right now there is no profit in the trucking business,” said Frank. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Frank and Stephen are involved in five affiliated businesses. M.M. Wright Inc., the parent company, takes its name from Stephen’s father, who first started the company in 1953, and is the logging business unit. Gasburg Land and Timber buys land and timber, and Gasburg Timber is the trucking company. The other affiliated businesses are Gasburg Equipment, the dealership that offers the Barko line of logging equipment, and Buckwoods Mulch, a mulch business the partners bought in 2014. Frank, 57, and Stephen, 47, own all the enterprises, and Joey Jones, a forester and employee, also owns an interest in Gasburg Land and Timber.

The various business entities employ 65 people in all, including 30 in the logging operations, 17 in the trucking business, 8 who work for the equipment business, which services and repairs equipment for both the trucking and logging units as well as other contractors, 5 in the mulch plant and 5 in administration.

Stephen began working for his father as a teenager and continued to work in the family business after graduating with a two-year degree from Louisburg College in North Carolina. He started out in the parts department.

Frank earned a forestry degree from Virginia Tech in 1981 and began his forestry career working for Continental Forest Industries. He continued to work through an ownership change, and later went to work for Stone Container, where he rose to the position of area manager. He married Stephen’s sister and began working for his father-in-law.

That division of labor has continued to serve the men well. Stephen essentially oversees the equipment business and the mulch business while Frank supervises the operations for logging, land and timber, and trucking.

“We found out early on, a man can’t have two bosses,” said Frank, and it wouldn’t work if both men were supervising the same groups of employees, so each man picked his specialty.

M.M. Wright operates four logging crews. The primary logging crew, 10 men, is equipped with two Tigercat wheel feller bunchers, a 724 and a 726, for cutting big timber, a Tigercat 720 wheel feller buncher for felling pulpwood, three Tigercat 620 skidders, and — of course — three Barko loaders, model 595ML loaders, including one on tracks, and CSI slasher saws and delimbers. The crew typically works on tracts of predominantly saw timber. It also is equipped with a Barko 6025 chipper for processing tops and slash into fuel chips.

The company’s other logging crews mainly perform thinning, harvesting pulpwood. Each is typically equipped with a couple of similar Tigercat feller bunchers, a pair of skidders (Tigercat or John Deere) and a Barko loader.

“The reason I like em is we never have to touch em,” said Frank, speaking of the company’s Barko loaders. “You can almost count on your hands how many days we’ve been down because a loader was down…We never lose a day.”

“Longevity, ease of operation, ease of maintenance,” said Stephen, ticking off his reasons for loyalty to the Barko brand name.

Barko’s 595B model is the is the largest and most powerful machine in the manufacturer’s lineup of knuckleboom loader. It is powered by a Cummins 173 hp Tier 4 diesel engine and is known both for its productiveness and efficiency.

The load sensing hydraulic system delivers power only when needed. Valves and pumps deliver excellent metering by matching pressure and flow. Dual motors and planetary gearboxes produce 55,000 foot-pounds of swing torque and improve machine balance. Wider, all-welded boom construction features fabricated box-type design; engineered sweeping curves add strength and increase fatigue resistance.

The “floating cab” is isolated from vibration for improved comfort. Efficient, precise grapple functions reduce operator fatigue, and the ergonomic design of multi-functional dual joystick controls provide enhanced comfort and productivity.

From the standpoint of his customers, noted Stephen, logging contractors are satisfied that Barko loaders are durable, easy to operate, and easy to work on.

There’s another important reason why Stephen has continued to represent Barko. “I’ve always had a one-on-one relationship with Barko,” he explained. “If I have a problem…I call the president…You can’t do that with other manufacturers. It’s always been a more personable relationship as far as dealer to manufacturer.”

The dealership was launched in 1996. “We stay busy all the time,” said Stephen. Gasburg Equipment sells and services Barko equipment, and it also represents CSI, Rotobec grapples, and Big John trailers. Gasburg Equipment takes care of all the M.M. Wright logging equipment, and it also repairs and services machines the company sells as well as other brands of logging equipment.

Stephen has deliberately kept the equipment business at a small level at least in part because of the scarcity of good, qualified mechanics that can work on logging equipment. “We’re doing it right, taking care of people,” he added. “We do the best we can, and they come back because they appreciate it.”

M.M. Wright Inc. received the Timber Harvesting Logging Business of the Year award at the American Loggers Council annual meeting in 2016.

Stephen’s father, Muriel, began hauling short pulpwood in 1949. He added a second truck and later began doing logging work. After a stint in the Army he returned to logging, cutting grade timber in the 1960s. He was a talented mechanic, and by the early 1970s, M.M. Wright was repairing logging equipment for other contractors and also was a dealer for a brand of grapples and shears.

After his older son, Jeff, joined the business, they expanded to two crews, and in 1980 set up the separate, affiliated trucking business. With the 1981 recession and the slowdown on business, he began venturing into thinning pine stands, a shift that eventually led to more work and allowed the company to expand further.

Tragically, Jeff was killed in an automobile accident in 1984, and Frank and Stephen began working in the business in 1986. A heart attack claimed Muriel at age 64 in 1993.

In addition to being recognized by the ALC last year, M.M. Wright was honored by the American Pulpwood Association as National Outstanding Logger in 1991. “To stay in business that long, at that level, means a lot (to us),” said Frank.

The company used to perform contract cutting back when mills bought their own timber, but it has been buying timber since 2000.

Pulpwood usually is supplied to one of four mills: West Rock mills in Hopewell and West Point, International Paper in Franklin, and the KapStone Paper and Packaging mill in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. Hardwood pulpwood is supplied to the Enviva pellet mill in Franklin and the WestRock mill in West Point and also is used for raw material in the company’s mulch operations.

Pine saw logs are hauled to Arbor Tech Forest Products in Blackstone and Georgia-Pacific in Emporia. Hardwood saw logs are supplied to Meherrin River Forest Products in Alberta and Brodnax Lumber in Brodnax.

Fuel chips produced by the company’s principal logging crew are supplied to Dominion Virginia Power plants in Hopewell and Southampton.

M.M. Wright averages about 275-300 loads of wood per week. Markets are holding up, but it’s not the best of times, noted Frank. “Mills are running, but there’s not enough quota to go around for all of us.” The region’s loggers desperately need a strong local market for pine saw timber, he said. “We need another big mill right here.”

Mills are not cutting enough pine saw logs. “All summer long, you can buy pine saw timber,” said Frank. Because mill quotas are low, “You can’t get enough loads to log the tract…We’ve been fighting it three or four years now.”

Mill prices for saw logs have been flat since the economy nosedived around 2009, observed Frank, and some sawmills in the region closed. “The paper markets have still been good and are holding up, especially on the pine side,” he said. Prices for diesel have been down the past two years after spiking previously up to about $4 per gallon.

Expenses keep rising while mill rates and consumption remain about the same, the men said. Logging equipment has gradually doubled, even tripled in cost, for example. Yet, “We’re getting paid the same thing now as we were in 1993,” said Frank.

“We’re to the point now, the margins are just so thin,” he added.

Loggers simply cannot wring any more efficiency out of their operations, suggested Stephen.

The trucking unit, which only hauls for M.M. Wright, has a fleet of 20 Western Star and two Kenworth semi-tractors. The company buys new trucking equipment from B&C Truck Sales in Ashland and Truck Enterprises in Richmond.

The company used to run five logging crews but downsized to four about 10-12 years ago. “Our growth has been in the equipment company,” said Stephen.

The land unit owns about 6,000 acres of timber land and manages it. Tracts that were harvested have been replanted with pine.

They usually buy land and timber within about 75 miles. That takes them into North Carolina, too, although they do not work in the Tar Heel state as much as in the past.

The mulch plant is equipped with three Rotochopper grinders, which grind wood fiber and also produce colored mulch. The business has two 400 hp electric machines and one 750 hp diesel-powered and produces about 1,000 truckloads annually.

The mulch plant uses good quality hardwood raw material, emphasized Stephen “all tree-length hardwood”. It goes through a double-grind process prior to coloring. “We’re able to control quality better when we have the process all at one location instead of grinding in the woods,” said Stephen. The plant has a building to keep finished mulch stored under cover. Mulch is sold wholesale, mainly to landscape business in the Virginia Beach region.

Frank’s wife, Susan, is a secretary for M.M. Wright, and his son, Travis, runs a logging crew. A daughter, Jenna, is employed in the business as a secretary, working primarily for the land and timber company and the mulch division.

Stephen’s mother, Zenith, holds the corporate title of president, and she is involved in the business although not on a day-to-day basis. His wife, Denise, is a secretary for Gasburg Equipment.

Their business provides employees with a 401(k) retirement savings plan and also with a group health insurance plan, paying about 90 percent of the cost of the health care program.

The company enjoys very little employee turnover. In fact, some employees have stayed with the company long enough to retire. Stephen and Frank are proud of that fact.

The company is active in a number of industry trade organizations, including the Forest Resources Association. Frank serves on the board of the Virginia Loggers Association, and Joey serves on the board of the Virginia Forestry Association. The company also is active in the American Loggers Council through its affiliation with the Virginia Forestry Association.

Frank held up his cell phone. “This thing has changed the wood industry,” he said. The use of cell phones has undercut personal relationships in the business, suggested Frank. “It’s less personal.” Instead of meeting with contractors, for example, a buyer at a mill can send a terse text message about next week’s quota. “It’s removed the personal touch, the personal contact.”

“The wood business has really changed a lot,” said Frank. “It used to be about relationships,” and those relationships were very important.

“It still is with some companies,” he added.

Barko Offers Full Line of Logging Equipment

Barko Hydraulics has become a well known equipment brand in the logging industry since it was founded in Duluth, Minnesota in 1963.

Barko experienced rapid growth over the next few years as it added new equipment and applications to its product portfolio. The company introduced new products, such as knuckleboom equipment and telescopic outriggers, to the market.

High-capacity Barko merchandising knuckleboom loaders have proven to deliver increased productivity and excellent fuel efficiency — to deliver more loads and profits for loggers.

Barko machines are known for their engineering and design, superior quality, durability and reliability, and low total cost of ownership.

The company continues to manufacture log loaders, including truck-mounted and trailer mounted loaders, track loaders, back-of-cab loaders, rough terrain carrier loaders, and stationary electric loaders. The company also has introduced new machines to offer a complete line of logging equipment, including harvesters, feller bunchers, forwarders, whole tree chippers, and forestry tractors that can be equipped with mulchers and other attachments.

For more information about Barko equipment, visit www.barko.com, call (715) 395-6700, or contact a Barko dealer.