“It’s All About Production”

Frank Harkness Logging LLC
Acme, Washington

by Mike Crouse

There’s a quiet, even laid back, intensity and drive just beneath the surface at Harkness Logging that runs throughout the company. It’s a uniform drive you see on each of their working sides, and not from yelling, shouting, or similar methods but perhaps best explained in a comment from one of the crew to a then new crew member, (now hook tender) James Mefford when he first came to work. “They guy on the landing said, ‘make yourself an asset to the company,’ and it just kinda stuck on me.” That attitude and mindset appears to permeates the company, and reflects the thinking of company owner Frank “Butch” Harkness.

The Harkness family migrated from Iowa to Washington State in the early 30s ultimately homesteading an 80-acre plot near Acme, Washington. “Granddad mainly logged for other companies,” Harkness explained, and when his son, Frank Harkness, Jr. returned from the service in World War II, he took what he’d learned watching his father log, “...and started logging the homestead with his mule.” The mule apparently had some logging in its background, much to Harkness’ surprise, “...so he was pretty well trained.” A nice break! Frank Harkness, Sr. started as a one-man show, which changed when younger brother John joined to form Harkness Brothers Logging, which continued operating into the late 70s.

The third generation was brought up in the logging business as well, with the boys learning as they grew by working side-by-side with their fathers and in the company shop located next to their home. “The company did a lot of different things including road building and logging,” Harkness explained. “We had a pretty well-rounded education of what the different aspects of logging were.”

From an early age it was crystal clear Butch Harkness would be a logger. Following high school graduation in ‘72, following a short stint in the Army, and a couple months working construction in Seattle, “...I went back to work for Harkness Brothers.”

The company expanded their operations into tower logging in the early 80s buying a “...Skookum Tyee Tower with an old BU120 Skagit,” Harkness recalled. “That’s when we started hiring people. We hired a rigging crew, and I ran a Prentice 400 loader mounted on an old Mack truck.” Later when they purchased a loader mounted on tracks they started shovel logging as well adding versatility.

By the spring of ‘91 the company had grown. “We were running two loaders, a tower, and had a total of five log trucks,” Harkness explained. His father had survived a heart attack a few years earlier, but that spring he had another and perished. They’d worked as partners, and with knowing he had issues with his heart, and in that time frame young Harkness was pretty well running the show. “He let me have a big hand in running it a long time prior,” he explained. “I was pretty much prepared for what was going on. I knew what he wanted and thought he knew what I’d do.” His father also added some perspective. “One time I got depressed, disheartened, and talked to him about it. He said, ‘...if you’re going to do something you have to be willing to have a mistake now and then.’”

The numbers side of Harkness Logging at that point was handled by his mother Penny, and she continued in that capacity the next several years, as Frank’s partner, until 1999 when Frank bought his mother’s interest.

Today’s company

Harkness Trucking and Logging LLC has grown, modernized, and maintain its versatility to handle a wide array of projects. Having been through the economy of the past several years Harkness was quick to point out, “...the only reason we’re still here: we have a lot of good hands,” a mix of seasoned veterans and a commitment to bringing the next generation of loggers into the industry.”

Harkness has 13 log trucks, running 10-12 at any one time. In addition they have five dump trucks and a lowboy trailer, “...just to move our own stuff,” Harkness explained. “The log trucks are primarily for our own use as well. We’ve been trucking as long as we’ve been logging, and have had as many as 17 at one point.”

They also have a road building side. “We have several different machines: four excavators, and several crawlers we use, so we have a lot of road building equipment but we aren’t doing that 100% of the time,” Harkness explained. “We try to build roads mostly in the summer, just on the jobs we’re doing.” They’ve done some road building for other companies, “...but not a lot.”

The road crew consists of two to three people including Harkness, “so we’re pretty low key,” then he smiled and added, “The only reason we do it is because I like it. It’s like playing in my own sand box.” Building road, he explained, “...you have to look at road as plusses and minuses, taking it from a plus and put it in a minus. When you look at the lay of the land, and see excess in one area, you need to use that for an area that’s a minus.” He also noted the satisfaction in creating something new. “I’m the first one to put that road in and to be on that road.” Plus he made it clear it was fun to do, and “...you don’t build road in the rain, you build it in the sunshine.”

Logging

Logging remains the heart of the operation. “Right now we have two towers and two shovel sides working,” Harkness explained. “We have five towers: two BU84s, a TTY70, and a BU80, but only run two, and a couple are parts machines. Our primary dogs are the BU84, and the TTY70, mainly because they’re both self- propelled and they have water brakes.”

“Our big thing (having so many towers) is to make sure we have a steady flow of wood. We set a goal and we stay at it,” said Harkness. “That’s how we use the other machines, so they work when one of the others is in the hospital for a while.”

Each tower uses an Eagle motorized carriage. “on the BU84 we run an Eagle V drum carriage, although we’ll still use butt rigging on occasion. On the Thunderbird TTY70 we use an Eagle VI. Those carriages have made a good tower out of a mediocre tower more than once. It gives you much more flexibility. It’s when people started dragging out these old towers and putting them back to work.”

Harkness noted during his career, “...the carriage and processors have been some of the more impressive changes to occur in the logging world.”

Currently Harkness has two Waratah 624 Super dangle head processors, “...and last year we bought a LogMax 10000 just because I wanted to try a different breed of horse, and while it doesn’t have that many hours on it (1,800 hours or so presently), as far as production the LogMax is hauling ass. It’s production is good and it’s smooth.” They purchased it as a package from Feenaughty, pairing the LogMax 10000 with a Doosan DX300LL.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the newer Doosan version,” Harkness added, noting overall, “...our operators like them. They’re a far cry from what they were before.

The Waratahs are mounted on Kobelcos, “...have a lot of hours on them and have proven to be very reliable,” Harkness said. “We’ve put a lot of hours on them.”

A stellar crew

Today’s crew, including logging sides, truckers, mechanics, timber cutters numbers 55 total

With seven men per tower side and three to four guys on shovel sides, and a dozen truck drivers, and three to five timber fallers depending on the type of timber. “They do maybe 80% of our ground,” Harkness said. They own a 1127 TimberKing leveling feller buncher with a Risley 22b hot saw run by JR Harkness who does all their mechanical cutting..

The rigging guys work five eight hour days, the machinery operators work five 10-hour shifts, “

...and we try real hard not to work weekends,” said Harkness

They’ve got a very good crew, Harkness noted. “There are the steady guys you rely on every day, and there are comers and goers. The real loggers don’t back up, they just go do it. We don’t have a lot of turnover.” 

Hiring new hands, Harkness said, “I’d much rather build a logger than borrow one. It’s the way to go, and we need young guys.”‘

They provide health insurance for employees and are in the midst of switching to WAHET. “We’ve had them before, and it was a very good program. This year they came to us,” said Harkness, noting it was less costly for better coverage than they’d had.

He recognizes “...the biggest problem with the industry is we can’t compete with other industries on wages,” which means we’re losing out on “...guys who can make a difference. Those guys like that want to get in the industry but can’t see staying there because of what the industry can afford to pay.” He noted examples of young guys from the area who’ve left for that very reason, many of whom will not return.

“We’re in a swing right now that sooner or later will go our way and that’ll be the catalyst for the next generation,” Harkness said with a note of caution. “But there are no more guys (new up and comers) doing what we’re doing now than there were 10 years ago, especially when it comes to big towers. When you start cable yarding you separate men from mice right away.” The talent pool is both aging and getting thin.

A key factor is negotiating, knowing your bottom line, understanding your ability to produce and bidding the price you can profit on and pay your crews accordingly. “The problem is being able to get as many loads as you think you will” and being realistic. “You have to be a little bit on the dark side and seeing you will not do as well as you think you will.”

“It’s all about production,” Harkness emphasized. “If you know what it costs you today to log with a tower and a full crew, it’s going to come down to loads or board feet. It’s not rocket science. It’s about as basic as you can get.”

Thus when you enter negotiations, you have to be willing to walk away, and if it’s not paying a reward for your risk, leave. “You have to negotiate and have integrity.”

The future

Harkness and his wife, Chris, will celebrate their 40th anniversary this year, and have three sons, JR who is 39 and works for the company can run everything, but spends most of his time on loader or feller buncher. Brandon just turned 30, and also can run any piece of equipment but primarily runs the lowboy and handles the company trucking. “Our family’s really blessed in our being able to run equipment.” The youngest son Ty will be a high school senior this fall, and looks to enter college the fall of 2014. They moved to their current home outside Sedro Woolley nine years ago.

Harkness is optimistic on the future, and has no intention of stepping down. When asked about their being a succession plan he smiled and replied, “...there’s always been one, we just don’t know what it is.” Time will tell on that, and the next generation is actively involved in the business. He recognizes business is challenging but quickly noted, “...it was the right thing for me.” He gave a wry smile and added, “I can do stupid things every day and still get logs,” then added that, “Sometimes in logging you can actually be respected for being a crazy bastard. You don’t have to be so reserved.” Then looking up, he tossed in, “...you have to be able to have a little fun.”