Mike Hamilton, the new President of the Truck Loggers’ Association, knows that making change can bring prosperity. But he’s also sensitive to the need for stability – in his workforce, his timber supply, and his community. New technology, new approaches to tenure and harvesting, and commitment to a skilled workforce – these are the keys to Mike’s vision of the industry’s competitive edge in a rapidly changing world market. After 30 years in the industry, and 10 years on the TLA Board of Directors, his vision has won him the respect of the industry and the people who work for him.
The attraction of change was evident in Mike’s early years in the industry. He learned how to operate machinery working for his father’s sand and gravel business in the Comox Valley. After finishing high school Mike worked in a number of the Island’s logging operations. Every stop offered a new set of opportunities. Working for Tahsis Company in Gold River, he was, at 22, one of the younger grapple yarder operators on the coast. Later he was falling on the West Coast.
“I’ve done pretty much everything there is to do out there,” Mike says. This gives him an understanding of what his crew of 50 or so faces, something often missing in the management/labour relationships in other operations. This is a concern for Mike, and brings up one of the challenges facing the industry: the supply and management of quality labour.
“One manager of a large operation told me that they have no problem getting good people,” Mike says. “But I KNOW they are having problems. I just look at the shape of the machinery. It’s beat up, hasn’t been looked after. It’s not enough to fill the seats. It costs too much in the long term.” Acknowledged as a “good guy to work for,” even by union reps who’d like to see his non-union crews inside the Steelworkers/IWA, Mike Hamilton gets – and keeps – skilled workers. “Maybe we’re a little unique,” he suggests modestly. “We’ve got a pretty stable crew. Some of these guys have been with me for over 27 years.”
Mike sees workforce quality as an issue facing the whole industry. It stems in part from the public’s perception of logging as a “sunset industry” and as environmentally irresponsible. More recently, it stems from the high profile changes taking place amongst the major licensees. “It’s hard to get excited about a career in logging when you see the industry being driven by shareholder-return based thinking. Shareholders may benefit in the short term, but the workers – and they’re the backbone of your businesses efficiency and profitability – they suffer.”
Perceptions about careers in the industry were very different in the early 1970s when Mike returned to the Comox Valley. In May of 1974, at the ripe age of 24, he stuck his neck out, rented a skidder, and logged for Vic Crisp Logging, and later Weldwood. Thirty years later, Hamilton Logging still works some of these same private lands, now owned by Hancock Insurance/Comox Timber. Mike is proud of the job he and his crew have done. Healthy stands of third growth now cover areas he’s logged. “It might look like a bomb’s gone off at first, but these lands are planted right after we’ve logged. Within a couple of years it’s all greened up.”
These days, Mike “operates” the desk for Hamilton Logging’s Vancouver Island operations in the Comox Valley and Campbell River area. He also manages May Trucking Ltd, based in Hope and working from Harrison Lake, through the Fraser Canyon to Lillooet, and up the Coquihalla. Combined, both operations harvested upwards of 550,000 m³ in 2004. Looking after the logging end of things, combined with his responsibilities with the TLA, leaves little time to get out in the field.
“I miss being out in the woods,” Mike says. “I try to get out once a week to the local shows, and I use the helicopter to get from here to our operations on the Mainland.” He also finds other ways to keep in touch. “Some weekends I go out and get on a machine when no one’s around. It’s therapeutic after a week at the desk. And I like running machinery.”
His personal interest in machinery and innovation has helped Hamilton Logging set the tone for industry. In the early 1990s they were the first on the coast to use single grip harvesters. “We had lots of guys down here, looking at what we were doing with the processor,” says operator Dennis Hargreaves. “They wanted to see what it could do.” Mike surprised them all when he began falling with the machines. For many in the industry, this is now standard practice.
Between May Trucking and Hamilton Logging, Mike now has eight single grip harvesters. The machines are an impressive part of the package, but the key is operators willing to use their smarts. “Guys like Dennis,” Mike says, “ are making preliminary decisions about grades, lengths, and where the wood is marketed.” Currently working with up to eight licensees, serving four mills, and dealing with a variety of species, Hamilton Logging crews face a number of decisions during the course of every working day. Truckers, loaders, and harvesters need to coordinate their efforts to see that the right product arrives at the right place at the right time. “These guys work hard for me, and they make Hamilton Logging more productive.”
Mechanization, continual development of niche markets, and looking after our forest land base is what’s going to keep the industry competitive. Mike’s very happy with the recent establishment of a dedicated industrial forest land base on public lands. That, along with trained and committed people, will help secure the long term growth of the industry, and of the province’s economy.
The TLA is also is addressing the public perception issue that lies at the heart of many issues facing the industry. Besides bringing home the news of the forest industry’s continued relevance to local and provincial economies, Mike insists that, “We need to show them that the industry is not just the licensees, and it’s not the practices of the past. More and more, it’s people like us, members of the TLA. And we are local – we are jobs and investment in community.”
Restructuring of the coastal industry will help. Mike has worked for over four years on this policy initiative and is enthusiastic about it generating more work for TLA members and loggers in coastal communities. He also thinks it will help the TLA grow, giving it a higher profile in the public’s eyes as the voice and presence of the industry, garnering greater respect and understanding amongst the public.
A recent TLA survey of 69 Mayors in the province shows how much this is needed. “Only 24 responded,” Mike notes. “And even of those 24, it was surprising to see how many didn’t know the importance of logging to their community. This shows a wider public lack of understanding in the bread & butter industry of our province.” No other industry puts so much money back into the province in terms of taxes, and back into communities in terms of wages and dollars spent on services and goods needed by the industry. “One in four jobs in the province are in the forest industry. For non-urban areas, it’s much higher,” says Mike. Communities with a logging operator benefit hugely from that presence. “People are concerned about jobs at the local mill,” Mike says. “What they don’t know is that logging provides more jobs per cubic metre than milling, that we’re spending twice as much in our communities on equipment and services than the milling sector.”
Mike Hamilton is active in his community. He and his wife Joanne have raised two children here. Mike’s an avid golfer, and has participated in a range of community organizations, including the local Economic Development Commission and the Comox Valley Community Foundation. Knowledgeable about civic issues facing this rapidly growing community, Mike knows that it’s important for it have a healthy understanding of the importance that logging still plays here. That may explain why he hired former faller Brian Randall to fabricate the work of art that graces the Hamilton Logging building.
“It cost a lot,” is all Mike will say. The large steel sign, a sculptural representation of a grapple yarder bringing in a big log, is one of the few visible testaments to the industry in the area. It says something about Mike Hamilton and his vision for the industry: Logging is alive and well in the Comox Valley, and there are people who are proud of their part of the industry and the part it plays in the prosperity of their community.
Embracing change while standing by the needs of his workforce and community. It’s not an easy compromise. Ever-greater mechanization raises the capital cost of being in the industry and reduces jobs. Off-shore investment moves decision-making over harvesting of the local forest base to office towers and share-holder meeting rooms in far away urban centres. Perceptions of industry instability weaken its attraction as a career option for young, skilled workers. Yet Mike’s commitments – to innovation and change, and to his workforce – may be the formula for lasting success in the industry.
“Our industry is in flux all the time,” Mike says, undaunted. “We’ve always made a good living, and we will continue to do so. But we’ve got to be ready for change, because it’s constant.”
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