March Issue: Keeping your eye on the ball - Focus

The single factor that brought so many loggers into the business for decades into the 80’s, was opportunity to make very good money, and as a contractor earn a profit commensurate with the risk involved in the business. Certainly there are other factors, and success is not guaranteed, but by working not just harder but smarter, you could do very well, and build a future harvesting and transporting trees. Success comes from preparation, and motivation.

Of all the traits of successful loggers and logging contractors, the one that stands up first and foremost is the singular ability to focus on the task at hand, “keeping your eye on the ball,” not allowing the many ongoing interruptions that mark the business day to interrupt that focus. Production and quality are key, with the focus for success on assembling crew, skills, concentrating on team work all towards that common goal of quality production.

Time and time again we hear the comment from successful loggers that “the company is the crew, the iron is just the tools for that crew.” The right tools, the right mix of talent, create a winning combination.

The best of the crews have “attitude” focusing on what to do next, how to do it, what will be needed, all while operating efficiently. It is in sharp contrast to the “attitude” that we see on the “AxMen” and other television “reality” programs about our business, which seems to get further and further away from real world logging, and closer to the Hollywood director’s image of what is “exciting.”

Real logging IS a dynamic exciting business. Every day is different with new scenery, new tasks and the continued demand to adjust to the present scenario. All that considered, on the very best days, the ultimate goal is a steady production goal reached or exceeded each day, and everyone making it home safe, with few or no distractions, constantly keeping your eye on the ball.

In our industry, after decades of intense political change, altering public expectations and demands, we have an industry with one foot in the past, and one foot seeking the future, with a focus on quarterly production, profit and loss projections, with the long shadow of the future of the work force, supply of that work force, and a growing awareness at the corporate level that the weakest link in this supply chain is a direct result of industries losing sight of that work force’s essential part in the business model.

The WSRI’s (Wood Supply Research Institute’s) study of relationships between logging contractors, landowners, and consuming mills, we’d reported on from the AOL’s annual meeting in January points to the need to rebuild and restore the symbiotic relationship between the mills, landowners, and loggers as being the key to long term success for everyone.

Studies have been launched, the past decade or so, seeking a solution to shrinking, aging labor pool of loggers, with different remedies typically concluding it’s better training and recruiting that’s needed, and while they hold some promise, they inevitably dance around the real challenge of drawing the work ethic and enthusiasm required for this business.

At the end of the day, the key to attracting tomorrow’s work force is recognizing what brought so many loggers into the business of logging for decades into the 80’s was opportunity to make much better than average wages, money commensurate with the demands and risks involved in the business.

Certainly we live and compete in a world-wide market place. The timberlands can be bought, sold, exchanged, and traded to produce capital, but the trees we grow are a crop that requires harvest to generate capital and for that you ultimately need a logging work force. All the electronic spread sheets, harvest, production, manufacturing and marketing plans require the financial gurus keep their eye on the ball, and recognize they’re also competing for a skilled work force possessing a unique work ethic, and skill set, required to turn their forests into cash. The key to attracting and maintaining that key element in the value chain is in paying that work force in line with their risk, or losing them.

California night driving

We set out for the Sierra-Cascade Logging Conference several days ahead of time to break up the 10-hour drive into smaller sections with a story in between. Having finished up pictures and interviews on the logging job site by late afternoon Tuesday we elected to make Redding, some three hours further south, that night.

We went traveled from overcast into sunshine at the Oregon-California border (not sure just how they manage that) and all was fine as night descended and Mt. Shasta approached, along with some rainfall.

There are two California’s: what’s marketed as the “North State” and the infamous southern divide starting around the state capital in Sacramento from which sanity takes a permanent leave of absence. The state that gave us Gov. (Moon Beam) Brown, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. George Miller and sports the largest state government deficit in the nation, continues cheerfully along with furlough days, reduction in services, and streets in various states of repair.

As we approached Mt. Shasta we noted another casualty of budget deficits: they’ve apparently done nothing to mark the roadway over Mt. Shasta in recent memory. Typically we’d be on that section during daylight hours, where one can actually see the roadway; a better plan. On this particular night, with rain falling, and moderate traffic, the road lanes essentially vanish... yippee! One can only wonder how much infrastructure maintenance has become optional in today’s California.

Due to the current economy and its own budget constraints, the Sierra-Cascade Logging Conference has reshaped itself into an all-volunteer, board managed conference, that’s changed homes from the past few years at the Convention Center in Redding back to the Shasta Fairgrounds eight miles south in Anderson where it had been a number of years before. The transition was seamless to vendors and attendees, a real testament to the resolve and determination of the board.

Influencing policy

The keynote speaker at this year’s SCLC was Northern California fourth generation rancher, farmer, and past president of the Ag Chat Foundation, Jeff Fowle. We’d met and heard Fowle twice before, delivering a simple message about establishing “your own brand” in defining who you, your business, and your industry are is one person at a time using social networking, in other words, using the various tools available today via the internet: Facebook, Twitter, and several other social networking sites.

The essence of Fowle’s message is simple: the best asset we have in natural resource industries are our people. Social networking is a tool you can use to define who you, and who your industry are. He was quick to add that the prior and proper preparation is essential, part of his seven “P’s” as he outlined the path to having social networking work for you. Where natural resource industries represents a small portion of the overall population, “...we’re being asked to pay for things we don’t agree with, policies put in place by the people,” who know little or nothing about how those policies affect us. “You need to properly prepare to have conversations with these people who drive your policies,” Fowle added.

The traditional media: TV, magazines, newspaper, radio, is still somewhat effective on influencing opinion, but “society changes,” and the degree of trust has plummeted in traditional media. “People still value and trust family and friends,” said Fowle. “People are putting more trust in the Internet: Social media and niche sources... that’s where they’re going.”

“Individuals, not just journalists, now make the ‘news.’ We are the story. We are the news.”

The bottom line, Fowle said, is influence. “American’s are hungry for information about what happens,” rather it be on farms, ranches, or forests. “Most of the people are just curious. Just put it up and show it. It doesn’t have to be some fancy thing.”

“Who knows your story better than anyone else? Who can tell your story better than anyone else,” Fowle said, then asked the audience, “Who do you want to tell your story?”

“The opportunity is there for you to learn how to communicate,” said Fowle, and the means is through social media.

The reality of Fowle’s crusade is in the ability his group has had to change and influence public opinion on the agriculture issues they are passionate about, in advancing and explaining their position and muting the effect of those who would do them under. In the short run it’s been very effective, yet where the real benefit may come is in the long run with our next generation who essentially use the internet for the vast majority of their information.

His point on planning and thinking through your message, being a good listener, understanding other’s point of view, and not letting your emotions overwhelm your brain. He and his colleagues who started this nearly four years ago were careful to consider their objectives before leaping in. Fowle is not a public relations guru, nor are his colleagues. He’s a full time farmer and rancher, who saw this as an opportunity if they studied and planned intelligently to use this as a means of positive public relations in changing public perceptions and gaining influence.

Certainly it may not be for everyone... but for those willing to take the opportunity, the public is more curious who we are and waiting to hear from us.