By Jim Stirling
Some days you don’t soon forget. Thursday, November 19, 2015 in Prince George, British Columbia, was just such a bittersweet date and place for the Stamer Family. That day, about 70 pieces of Stamer Logging’s harvesting machinery, trucks and ancillary equipment went under the auctioneer’s hammer.
If it had wheels or tracks on it, it went.
“Within that one day it was all gone,” recalls Derek Stamer, company principal.
The equipment was snapped up by other loggers eager to get their hands on logging equipment that had been meticulously maintained and much of it late model.
As the successful bidders went home to start anew, Stamer formally ended a 50-year career as a log harvesting contractor in B.C.
The complete dispersal was exactly the way Derek Stamer wanted it.
“Over the years we’ve had excess equipment to sell and it can be a tremendous hassle,” says Stamer. “I wanted something clean and over with.”
Ritchie Bros Auctioneers obliged. “The auction was very well run and organized,” he says.
Some loggers get up one morning and decide ‘I’m finished with this’. They walk away and it can work for them. Stamer took a much more planned approach. Indeed, the Ritchie Bros auction was in some ways just the final full stop on the process.
“I looked at retirement about three or four years ago,” he says. But the log harvesting sector wasn’t exactly booming then. And in 50 years, you learn some things about the forest industry, and its peaks and valleys. “I wanted to make the decision nearer to the top of the cycle.”
Stamer Logging had accumulated accurate and detailed operating costs associated with most pieces of its equipment fleet. The machine profiles provided useful information in many ways including when best to make a retirement decision. The 50 year factor entered the equation. Half-a-century working in any profession is a milestone achievement.
Stamer Logging had two evergreen harvesting contracts sold more than a year ago. Stamer retains part of another licence. But the hardest part of the entire process was telling his employees they were laid off. “We had some 30-year-plus employees in trucking and harvesting. It really hurt,” says Stamer.
Some of those long term friends took the cue from Stamer to retire. Those that decided to carry on logging had no trouble finding new jobs with other regional logging contractors, he reports.
Stamer grew up in and around Lavington, in B.C.’s southern interior. His initial foray into the forest industry was in 1965, sub-contracting with a Cat in Lumby, B.C. Around the same time, Weyerhaeuser came into town and bought up the mill Stamer was working for, but the company offered him a contract to log for them. He moved to Barriere, north of Kamloops, in 1971 and that was pretty much home base for the rest of his log harvesting career.
When that stretches for 50 years in an industry as dynamic as forestry has been in that time frame, the changes he’s experienced have been encyclopedic.
The highly mechanized equipment to harvest trees has become increasingly sophisticated. And expensive.
The rules and regulations binding logging activity and a land base with increasing no-go zones have become more complicated, time consuming and inconstant. Licencee requirements for the wood volumes they receive have become more stringent in terms of length and quality to meet a smorgasbord of marketing requirements.
Beetles have decimated the B.C. Interior’s pine forests, forcing forest companies and contractors into more expensive higher and tougher terrains in search of fibre. Large Canadian forest companies are increasingly investing in U.S. sawmills as timber costs rise.
Even the traditional weather patterns and seasons have changed.
The forest industry itself has restructured in other ways. The overall trend is toward fewer and larger licencees.
By illustration, the mill Stamer Logging delivered logs to in 1971 was acquired by Balco Forest Products in 1978. Ten years later, Tolko Industries was at the mill’s helm.
“We’ve always had a good relationship with our licencees,” reports Stamer. The one with Tolko, for example, lasted right up to Stamer’s retirement.
“We had a tremendous relationship with them. Their management team in the Thompson region was very innovative. They listened and demonstrated respect,” he expands. “Rates are one thing, working conditions are another. Their people were responsive to discussion.”
Stamer Logging similarly built lasting relationships with log harvesting equipment manufacturers, and their local dealership networks.
The principal equipment in the Ritchie Bros., auction was Tigercat feller bunchers from The Inland Group (formerly Parker Pacific), and John Deere equipment through Brandt Tractor supplying the other main functions, including road building machines. Western Star logging trucks from R James Western Star did the company’s hauling. Stamer Logging helped out with field testing several pieces of logging equipment through the years, with operators and mechanics contributing their input into new machine designs.
“When I started out in the log contracting business, I had no working capital to speak of,” he explains. “It took lots of hard work and a little bit of luck to get by.” The latter parts of the formula still hold true today, he believes.
But if Stamer were handing out advice to a young person contemplating a career as a logging contractor, adequate sources of working capital and cash flow are the oxygen to success. “I would explain the big thing is to understand the vagaries of the business, capital wise.” And then you need the hard work and the luck. “But I think there are opportunities for logging contractors.”
Stamer Logging discovered it needed to access wood outside traditional operating ground. That means going up: blocks with some conventional logging ground and areas for high lead or other specialist logging systems. A small, steep slope specialist contractor might flourish, for instance. “Don’t look at a production of 50 loads a day. More like eight or 10,” he says. Block sizes are scattered and shrinking and he believes there’s room for small, efficient operators.
The skilled labour shortage is a reality for all industries, not just the natural resource sector in B.C.
“I was very fortunate and didn’t have to face that issue,” says Stamer. “Our young people usually had a connection to the industry. It came through a family member working in forestry or on the land in farms. Kids who knew where eggs come from.”
Now, however, there’s a major disconnect. “On the plus side for future forest industry recruitment: trees will be here forever.”
Stamer worked hard, too, on behalf of fellow loggers through years of involvement with the Interior Logging Association (ILA). Stamer occupied several executive positions with the organization including as its president.
“I’ve always believed logging associations should help the logger, but not in negotiating rates,” he says.
Lobbying government is an association’s most fertile operating ground. The cost of doing business is constantly increasing. “Lobbying for things like changes in stumpage appraisal methods could be beneficial, maybe in concert with the licencees as a united voice.”
Changes have always been the logging contractor’s constant.
Since the Ritchie Bros auction everything has changed for Stamer and his family. Now there’s a new and different page upon which to inscribe the future. And Stamer’s clearly making a successful transition. Some mornings he can actually sleep in until 5:30.
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of Logging and Sawmilling Journal, Canada’s leading forest industry magazine(www.forestnet.com).