Optimistically Cautious

A-1 Logging
Yamhill, Oregon

by Mike Crouse

After several years of economic turbulence, a pretty good year in 2012, and the combined lifetime experiences in the logging business, Larry Heesacker’s “optimistically cautious” for the coming years business. He’s seen business cycles before in his 31 years of logging: learning about timing, vision, proper mix of equipment, and assembling a good team preparing for the cycles rebound. Heesacker strongly feels were on the rebound.

Heesacker, who’s grandparents had logged, was born and raised in nearby Banks, Oregon, raised on a 80-acre farm his father worked on the side, with his primary job working for the state highway department. He was the oldest offspring with two brothers and a sister.
Following high school graduation in 1975, he continued working on the family farm, making use of the rounded knowledge base required to keep things operational.
A year out of high school he married Donna Herbert who he’d met through a friend, both of them were young but all these years later they remain a strong couple.

He left farming for the mobile home business that was thriving at the time explaining, “...it paid better than farming,” and became an electrician, working for Rex Homes (although ownership and the company name changed a few times). “I did all parts of electrician’s work through four years, the last three years I was the final check to make sure everything was right before it left the factory.” That began to change in 1982, Heesacker explained. “We were in the 1982 recession, and I’d been making $18/hour and by November I’d only made $11/hour: a third of my wages were gone, so I had to do something different to feed the family.” The previous five years, “I was doing firewood on the side,” and he decided to move that direction full time.

Firewood

He found wood from a local logger, “...who was land clearing,” Heesacker explained. “I met him by answering an ad for a wood splitter.” A short time later, “...I’d bought a Lafont wood splitter, with a 4-way head, one of the better wood splitters back then, and he supplied me with the wood the first year.”

The second year that same logger noted, “I’ve never seen anyone work so hard and make so little for a year’s work. I’d grossed around $80,000 but netted just $11,000,” he said shaking his head at the memory, then noted, “But he saw the potential.”

In 1984, “...he sold me a Cat, I logged for him by the thousand,” Heesacker explained. “I cut it and decked wood for him all summer, made the Cat payments and made money that year. All my bills were paid and I had $3,000 in the bank, better than I’d done before.” And he was on his way.

Heesacker paid $10,000 for an S8 International line skidder, “and it was very used.” He’d thought things were going well, but explained, “I didn’t have a bookkeeper, I had a shoe box, and didn’t have a clue,” he laughed, “and by the end of 1985, I found out I was broke.” Lesson one: understand your business and obligations. “After logging all summer I owed $10,000 to SAIF (State Accident Insurance Fund). I had two employees at that time,” hadn’t kept up with federal withholding, “...and it all caught me. When those people write you letters,”... he noted they wanted the funds immediately. “When I found out I was broke I called an attorney. I wanted to pay the bill, and intended to, but they needed to drop the fines and charge reasonable interest,” Heesacker explained. “I agreed to pay them if they’d give me a chance to, and I paid it off in nine months.” Quite a lesson.

Timber falling

In the fall of ‘85 Heesacker went back to working two jobs. “I took a job timber falling with Luoto Logging,” in addition to logging on the side when he wasn’t cutting. That continued on for a number of years, and by ‘91 or so he was contract cutting. “I’d been timber falling between Luoto and Lofland Logging.”

Then came the spotted owl. “The spotted owl was a big deal,” he recalled, ‘and a lot of loggers went to tree-lengthing (rather than cutting and bucking performed by the fallers) so timber fallers would be laid off three weeks at a time because we were well ahead of them. Plus the trees got smaller as well.”

In the Spring of ‘92, Heesacker made the leap. “I went and rented a small John Deere 450 crawler, and started logging small patches,” he explained. “Three months later I was fully booked up, and he noted with his typical smile that, “... people remembered me,” and the jobs he’d done, his strong reputation and treating people well: he’d proven himself trustworthy and did a good job. “That (being remembered) was a surprise I didn’t see coming, but it worked out well and I’ve been here ever since.”

A new company

A-1 Logging, Inc. Heesacker established in 1993, initially as a tree service, “..but the logging came to me, so we went to where the work was.” The end of ‘92, “I started out with a rented John Deere 450 crawler,” but he didn’t stop there. “We instantly tried to get as mechanized as we could for a small logger. We bought a Cat 518 with Esco swing grapple skidder (short frame: one of the first ones, quick turn and quick tip over). In addition they purchased a Danzco delimber box, and a Cat 225 track loader, which Heesacker explained was all used equipment. “I tried to get ahead of the (other) entry level loggers at that point, because I was really at that point myself again. To compete had to be automated.”

They started out lean, just a couple of guys, subcontracted the cutting, and “... once we had the loader I was on it all the time,” and continued to grow from that point with their cornerstone being with private landowners. “Export helped as well,” Heesacker noted. “The ‘93 export was one of the peak years and that helped fuel our ability to buy the equipment we needed.”

Tower logging

Their first big contracts came from Miama Corp and Simpsons around ‘99. “That grew the company,” Heesacker explained, “and we got our first yarder: an Eco Logger mounted on a 668 Clark skidder, which we needed to log those jobs,” combining that with a Eaglet motorized carriage, along with the Cat shovel they’d purchased in ‘98, which was used on that side too. The addition of the tower gave A-1 Logging its second side. “The mills and their demand for us, they allowed us to grow our company at that point.”
Heesacker had no tower experience at that time, but there were experienced men who could fill the knowledge gap, and Caleb Lincoln did that for A-1. “He’s from McMinville and helped us put our tower show together, and made the operation work. He was a big part of drawing the people too. We had up to 30 people at the time. A logger’s only as good as the people he hires, and he helped get us going.”

In 2000, A-1 Logging was recognized as the Northwest Oregon Region Operator of the Year, “...which was nice.”

Around 2003 they sold the Eco-Logger and purchased a Madill 071 for its strength, speed and versatility. “We try to keep under 1,500 ft. yarder jobs,” Heesacker said. “if we go longer the big yarders and big transmissions beat us.”

In addition they’ve run yoders a number of years and presently are on their third machine, a ‘95 Cat 330B, they use with an Eaglet carriage. “It’s used as a loader when not doing yoder work, and we use it often,” he smiled. “It’s a great corner machine. The crew likes to use it between yarder settings, and will pick it up (turns) within 600 ft. as they move the Madill between jobs.”

Cut-to-length systems

Heesacker purchased his first cut-to-length harvester in 2000, “...a Prentice self-leveler with a squirt boom and a LogMax 750,” dangle head processor, which was used. “We’ve never done the forwarder,” he said about their CTL system, instead, “...we’ve always done long logs, because they pay better.” Their approach reflects that. “We first moved with a Cat 518 swing grapple, then Cat HD4 track skidder with swing grapple. We’ll pre-bunch, if it was a clear cut. We’d CTL the first 300-ft.back from the road, and then we would tree length the remainder, and use the CTL as just a feller/buncher further back. We’d use it as one machine that could do everything. It allowed me to clear cut, and during the harder times go into thinnings. We’d always thinned during the tougher times, when the demand’s there.”

His approach was to find a niche that would pay. “We found a middle of the road niche between the big and the little guys,” in how they operated their CTL system. “We tried to lay in there,” then explained, with his characteristic smile, “We always tried to be the biggest of the little guys.”

Challenging times

The crunch that began in 2007 fell on most logging companies with ferocity. “When that ‘07 winter hit and it snowed,” Heesacker explained, “we had no job for six months. Two of us (Heesacker and Mike Lutrell) went to work every day and we tried to figure out how to solve our circumstance, how to deal with the circumstances, and find a solution. He was my manager at the time, and we worked on solutions. Some days we worked on efficiencies, and plugging holes.”

Ultimately the solution was finding financing to stay the course. That allowed us to totally reorganize the company, selling some equipment, consolidating our long term debt, selling the debts we couldn’t afford, and controlling operating capital.”

Lutrell joined A-1 in 2000 as loader operator, who came in organizing the stock room on his own over the course of three days, “...proving he had organizational ability,” which ultimately grew to his being the company manager. “He created his own spot with us by going that extra mile and we noticed him, which points out that you’re not in a box. Do something beyond your job description. We noticed and worked him into management.”

Prepared for the future

Today’s company completed a very good 2012, with very high expectations for 2013 being even better, and Heesacker’s confidence is bolstered not by the 30 pieces of primarily Cat equipment, attachments, and trucks, but by the team they’ve assembled from their strong mix of veterans and younger guys, to the management both on site and in the office.

Office manager Sharon Bjorn joined the firm the end of 2011. “She has a corporate bookkeeping background that brought a lot of value to our company,” Heesacker explained. “She’s a quality money manager, which helps in our decision making. The decisions now are made not just by myself alone but by Mike (Porter),Sharon’s input, and sometimes my sons as well.” He then smiled and added, “I have a chair and a desk, but I don’t’ spend much time here. My office is in the woods. I sneak off and get in equipment. The office is work, the equipment is a vacation so I try to get there as often as possible.”

Mike Porter manages the logging sides and does a bit of everything. “He runs equipment, and oversees the crews more than I do, and has a corporate background so understands the rules, regulations, pre-screens potential applicants, also involved in negotiations, safety program, quality control details, and finding work as well.”

Two of Heesacker’s sons work and are getting more involved in operations each year. Ben Heesacker operates their new Cat 325 shovel logger with Caterpillar boom, and 63-inch Jewell grapples. Jeremy Heesacker has been running feller bunchers the past dozen years; the current machine is a TimberKing 722bs with a Cat HS201 hot saw. “Each year they’ve been taking a greater interest in the business beyond machine operations,” their father added.

“We’re in an upswing,” Heesacker said with conviction. “This looks to me like it will be the best year in 10 years. A lot of the economic indicators are looking better.

Heesacker’s have 66 acres of reforested lands in addition to their home, shop, and other assets. They have four grown offspring and eleven grandkids total, from a year old to eleven. “Christmas was fun,” he smiled.

He emphasized, to aspiring loggers that, “...business is tougher than you think. There are no free lunches, and there are a lot of sacrifices. One guy told me early on, if you want to be a logger, you have to marry it,” which he finished with his typical smile.

“I’m three to six months out ahead with my attitude,” Heesacker said, adding, “I never live the right now. You have to be out front. The whole focus currently is on summer and next winter’s work as well, out 8-9 months all the time.”

“It’s coming, and every time I talk to people I talk to them in an upbeat manner. We have to stick together that way,” he said then added, “...even as solid as it feels now, I’ve had the rug pulled out from me a couple of times. So we’re still optimistically cautious.”