Carolina Logger Knows a Few Twists for a Successful Business

A view of the company’s Cat 559C knuckleboom loader, delimbing and bucking hardwood logs at the landing. In the background are the company’s other Cat machines.

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APEX, North Carolina — Jimmy Williams has a few twists on logging that have helped him remain successful. One of those twists is to have two sets of logging equipment — enough machines to run two jobs — even though his crew is only big enough to work on one site at a time.

Caterpillar is an important supplier to James M. Williams Timber Co. Jimmy’s business relies on all Cat forestry equipment.

Jimmy, 42, grew up in Apex, a community just south of Raleigh. Had he stayed in farming, he would have been a fourth generation tobacco grower.

His father had been a tobacco farmer all his life and owned and leased farm land to grow tobacco. However, in the mid- 1990s, land near Raleigh was ripe for development, and landowners who had leased farming rights to his father began selling their property to be developed into subdivisions. Less and less land became available for growing tobacco.

His father, James Williams, who was known by his middle name, Macon, knew virtually every sawmill in the region and their timber buyers, and for years helped other farmland owners sell their timber.

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Most farmers did not want all the timber harvested from their land, however, because they thought the land would lose value. Instead, they wanted to harvest the mature timber, to do a select cut and leave trees that make the property attractive for home building sites.

His father made the decision to invest in logging equipment when a friend who was a timber buyer asked about starting a thinning crew. He purchased equipment three months before Jimmy graduated from high school, and by the end of the summer, Jimmy was operating logging equipment on his family’s farm along with his brotherin- law and Macon.

Today, the area is dotted with numerous neighborhoods. “I bet you, without exaggeration, there are 15 different subdivisions within two or three miles,” said Jimmy. “There’s hardly a piece of property that hasn’t been touched.” With land prices ranging from $50-100,000 per acre, “People are selling it like hot cakes,” he added.

Although some landowners do not want to clearcut their forest land because they perceive it will lose value, Jimmy noted that in many cases developers will simply “bulldoze everything down and pack houses in like sardines.”

The company did these kind of select cuts — what Jimmy terms “residential harvesting” — for about its first 15 years.

For the first couple of years, it was mainly Jimmy and his brother-in-law doing the work, and Macon helped them as time from farming allowed. His father exited tobacco farming and sold his farming equipment in 1997 and began working full-time in the logging business. “We put in the hours…and finally got to the point where we were financially sound,” said Jimmy.

“We’ve always been small,” said Jimmy. “It’s always been a two or threeman crew. The reason being the tracts just kept getting smaller and smaller.”

Jimmy took over the business when his father died in 2013 at the age of 66 from Crohn’s disease and other health problems. He lives near the family farm where the shop is located.

He contracts to harvest timber for Canfor Southern Pine, formerly New South Lumber, which operates a pine sawmill in Graham, about 50-odd miles northwest of Apex and the Raleigh region. “We’re one of their core crews,” said Jimmy. It is one of several New South Lumber mills that were acquired by Canadian Canfor after it purchased New South Companies in 2006.

About 10 percent of his work is harvesting timber that he buys himself. “People that just want to deal with me,” Jimmy explained. The company works on a lot of small tracts that “most loggers would turn their noses up at.” However, the small tracts hold excellent timber. He does jobs as small as 10 acres, although most range from 10-50. Occasionally he gets jobs for up to 100 acres. “We clear cut, second thin, first thin — we’ll do it all.” Further south, where there are more active farms, the company does some work on pine plantations.

Pine pulpwood prices are fairly moderate to strong in the region, according to Jimmy, thanks at least in part to the presence of International Paper mills in New Bern and Riegelwood, a Domtar mill in Plymouth, a Louisiana-Pacific oriented strand board mill in Roxboro, and a new Enviva pellet mill in Faison. During the Great Recession, several mills in the region closed — notably pine sawmills. The pine sawmills that were able to remain open now have less competition, which impacts log prices.

Markets for hardwood saw timber also are good, but two mills stopped making paper from hardwood pulpwood.

Of course, Canfor is mainly interested in supplying pine for its mill in Graham although some natural stands of forest land contain some hardwood timber.

“Getting rid of the hardwood pulpwood sometimes is quite the trick,” said Jimmy. “Hardwood pulpwood is what’s tough to sell.”

Depending on the request of the land owner, the company usually does one of two things with logging slash. The residual material will be pushed into windrows to make replanting easier, or it is spread around to rot and decompose, returning nutrients to the soil.

There are good markets in some areas of North Carolina for boiler fuel material that is chipped from logging slash, but Jimmy is too far away from those markets. “The freight would burn you up,” he said.

Off-road diesel prices have improved somewhat to about $2.30 per gallon, but diesel highway fuel continues to be a significant cost. “Trucking freight is high,” said Jimmy.

Jimmy has three employees. He operates the cutter. Ken Campbell operates a skidder. A cousin, Matthew Lambert, operates the loader, and Matt’s brother, Stephen, drives the company truck and also helps in the woods as needed. Jimmy also uses one trucking contractor for hauling wood.

“Our success has been keeping our overhead low,” said Jimmy. The company has had Caterpillar logging equipment since Jimmy’s father first began in 1995. The first machine was a Cat D4 bulldozer. In the ensuing years, he replaced it with a newer bulldozer and added Cat forestry machines.

Jimmy does business with Gregory Poole Cat, which has two locations nearby and other dealerships throughout the eastern half of North Carolina.

James M. Williams Timber Co. is equipped with all Cat machines. The lineup of equipment includes Cat 559B and 559C knuckleboom loaders, Cat 535C and 535D skidders, and a Cat 563C wheel feller buncher. It also has a Hydro-Ax wheel feller buncher, a brand that was acquired by Caterpillar.

The company also has a Cat 527 track skidder. “That’s quite a machine,” said Jimmy. He didn’t even know Caterpillar manufactured track skidders until his father bought it in 2000. Track skidders are more common in regions with steep terrain or that receive more snow, he acknowledged. Jimmy explained why his father made the purchase.

“Around here, we have this rolling land,” said Jimmy. One side might be flat and sandy, the other side, a steep clay hill.” In snow or wet conditions, some loggers resort to putting dual wheels on skidders in order to be able to skid logs up and down hilly terrain.

That winter, a blizzard dropped about 2 feet of snow on the region. His father knew another logger in the area who owned one. “My dad said, ‘We need one of those.’ ”

“It was mainly to be able to harvest timber on some of this hilly terrain in the winter,” Jimmy explained, and not have to use dual wheels on skidders on small tracts. “We wanted to be able to work on steep clay or in a wet bottom and not have to worry about ‘dualing’ up.”

“If we were in a wet spot, we had to cable them out. With this thing, you just back in there and grab it and go.”

His father bought his first Cat wheel skidder in 2001. He had bought a Prentice 384 knuckleboom loader — the first one sold to a contractor, according to Jimmy — but the Timberjack skidders he owned at the time were not capable of moving it. The Cat 525B skidder “would move it like a champ, so daddy bought it right then and there.”

The newest Cat machines the company has are the 559C loader and the 535D skidder, both purchased in 2015.

The Gregory Poole Cat headquarters dealership is only about 16 miles from the company’s shop, and the dealership has a second location about an equal distance in the opposite direction from the shop.

The quality of the dealership service and support has been an important part in his success, Jimmy indicated. “The parts support — any part you need, pretty much you can have by the next morning at seven o’clock. That’s a huge factor. Plus, I just like their machines.”

Jimmy is a member of the North Carolina Forestry Association and the Carolina Loggers Association, although he is not active in either organization, he indicated.

He puts in a long day. He wakes up around 3-4 a.m. and usually is on the job before the other employees, running the loader to load the first truck around 5 a.m. “With the traffic around here, you got to get up early to get to the sawmill first,’” he said. “Usually my two guys are somewhere in the first 10 trucks wherever we go.” The crew quits for the day around 4 or 4:30 p.m. “to beat the traffic to get back to the shop.” He is usually in bed by 8:30 or 9 p.m.

The company averages about 35-40 loads per week. A few weeks out of the year, it may do 50 loads.

Although most logging contractors likely pay hourly wages or a day rate, Jimmy pays employees a straight salary, rain or shine, 52 weeks out of the year, which includes a week of paid vacation. It’s a good policy for employees, he said. “You know what you’re going to make. You don’t have to worry about it raining for a week and not getting paid.”

“If we miss a day, we try to work a half-day on Saturday,” said Jimmy. “Being a small crew, it’s not hard to do.”

The Great Recession took a toll on the company, but it managed to hang on. There was a stretch of about 18 months when business was very low. “I was able to sell about 10 loads a week,” said Jimmy.

The company survived, however, at least in part to Jimmy’s philosophy of keeping overhead low — like usually only financing one machine purchase at a time. “So we were able to make it. I call myself lean and mean…I can operate on real low production if I need to.”

Jimmy prefers to buy only one new machine at a time so he can avoid being settled with debt and finance payments. “I just paid off a machine,” he said. “I don’t owe a dime to anybody.” By contrast, he knows some loggers who push to do 40 loads a week “just to make payments.”

Getting back to those twists Jimmy has learned about the logging business. The first one, as noted at the start of this article, is that Jimmy has two machines for each task — two cutters, two skidders, and two loaders — but only one crew. The equipment is set up on two jobs at a time, and the crew moves back and forth.

Jimmy explained the rationale. Loggers are negatively impacted when conditions are wet and they cannot harvest timber and send it to a mill, he noted. His two job sites are a considerable distance apart. If rain or wet conditions prohibit working at one job, the crew can work the other job. In fact, if one crew is working deep in the woods, subject to wet conditions if it rains, he keeps the other set of equipment on a job that is close to a road, on good ground where it can continue to work in the event of rain. “I just try to keep it as consistent as possible,” he said. He got the idea from another logger in the region who has the same approach to his operations.

Canfor is notably strict about logging in wet conditions because it abides by the standards of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. The company allows no rutting whatsoever on tracts of timber it purchases. If there is a good soaking 2 inches of rain, Jimmy’s company will not work on a Canfor job for several days.

“I kept missing so many days because of weather,” recalled Jimmy. Keeping the two sets of equipment some distance apart on different jobs has been like an insurance policy against rainy weather. “It’s made a huge difference…It works out well for me.”

Another consideration is that a logging contractor can lose one or two days moving from job to job and building a landing and getting the new site set up for work. That’s a day or two of not selling wood.

By having equipment to run two jobs, Jimmy is in a better position to keep production going. “As soon as we’re done (with one job site), we start stacking logs at the next deck,” he said. “We’re already set up.”

The fact that he typically works on relatively small tracts is another reason why it helps to have enough equipment for two jobs. “When you’re cutting 20 to 30 acre tracts, you’re moving a lot. You’re losing a lot of days that you’re not delivering wood…If you move on Monday and Tuesday, you’ve lost a day and a half of production.” “Being able to jump back and forth and miss as few days as possible…That’s a big point.”

He started assembling a second set of logging equipment by keeping his used machines when it came time to buy a new one. He has owned two sets of equipment now for about two years.

He also probably works longer hours than other contractors, he suggested. He was interviewed for this article on a Saturday morning. After talking on the phone, he planned to go to the shop and do some preventative maintenance on equipment. When he does have free time in the summer, however, he enjoys going fishing at a property he owns at Emerald Isle on the North Carolina coast.

Another thing that has helped Jimmy in his business is the wood hauling operations. “We run very lightweight trucks…and we have lightweight trailers,” he said. “I’m averaging about 30 tons a load, which is a lot.” Other contractors, running heavier trucks and trailers, probably are limited to about 25-27 tons per load, he said. “That makes a big difference at the end of the week, at the end of the year.”

He has a Vulcan onboard scale system on his truck, and is preparing to add a Vulcan on board scale system to the truck of his contract hauler. “I personally think that makes a big difference,” he said.

“You’re on quota…90 percent of the year,” observed Jimmy. “You’ve got to make every load count. I try to stay consistently about 30 tons per load.”