In 1976, Chris’ father, Luther Crowe, who owned a trucking company, got into logging when his biggest customer, a local paper mill, closed its doors, leaving his trucks with nothing to haul. He bought out the mill’s forestry equipment and began a family legacy in the woods that now spans three generations.
At 17, Chris, who was raised in the woods, was given a choice by Luther. Chris could continue to work in his father’s logging business as an employee or set out in business on his own. They could work together, but never be partners in the same business. Chris — who had been cutting, splitting and selling firewood since age 12, and running a skidder for Luther before finishing high school — never considered going to college or doing anything else.
In 1987, with nothing but a Timberwolf Logging nameplate from an old truck given to him by his father, he leased a skidder and set out on his own. At first Chris was a subcontractor for Luther, cutting trees by hand and using the skidder to haul the logs out of the woods. “Things were simple when we first started,” Chris reflects. “If you worked harder you could make more money, so work harder we did.” As time went on, he added his own customers and continued to grow.
Chris worked and saved until he had enough to buy his own skidder. Next he added a truck and hired a driver. At that time, he was contracting his chipping out to his father. Luther was running a Morbark 22 RXL Chiparvestor® he acquired from the mill. As time went on, Luther decided he’d rather concentrate on his trucking business and eased his way out of the logging end of it. Chris bought the Morbark from his father and, soon after, bought a second Morbark 22 RXL. He went about chipping his own tops and picked up more chipping work from others. “Those Morbarks did everything we asked them to; we put a lot of wood through them,” recounts Chris.
“They ran for 20 years, and in 2004, when I bought a brand new Morbark 23 NCL, they were still running strong when I sold them.” According to Chris, he bought Morbark because that’s what his father bought. “Morbark is all we ever used. We knew them inside out, they’re durable, run well, and that’s what made the most sense.”
Nearly 30 years later, Chris is upfront about what it has taken to be successful over the years and credits much of his success to his father, Luther; wife, Becky; and son, Ryan. “In the beginning, dad let me work in his shop, but we had our own crews and our own payrolls. Nothing was handed down. However, I did get a lot of guidance from my father. If I had a problem, I asked him about it. The greatest asset my father gave me was his knowledge.”
Today, Luther Crowe still runs his trucking business and hauls for Chris. “I am very proud of what Chris has been able to accomplish on his own, and am still happy with decisions we made early on about our working relationship. It’s nice to see my grandson working in the woods. He has a three-year-old son who may someday join us,” adds Luther.
Chris’s wife Becky has been working with Chris in the business for more than 15 years. “She really understands me and what it takes to keep this thing going,” says Chris. Before joining Timberwolf, Becky worked in the banking industry and has the perfect skills to complement Chris’ forestry know-how and determination. At Timberwolf, she runs the office, manages orders and invoicing, pays the bills, handles payroll, orders supplies, and runs the firewood business. Chris admits, “I couldn’t do it without her.”
Today, Timberwolf Logging operates over a couple hundred miles around Littleton, in the White Mountains. They cut trees for lumber, pulp wood for paper or firewood, and chip the tops for several biomass power plants. Over the years they’ve built three additional businesses related to logging and their equipment: firewood, wood mat manufacturing and excavating.
Timberwolf, the logging parent company, produces an average of 100 loads of wood per week, all year. That’s even more impressive considering they’re not running at all during the mud season in spring. They make it up during winter and summer months, running well over 100 per week. They have three Morbark chippers today. A pair of 22 RXL Chiparvestors and a 30/36 whole tree drum chipper they bought in 2004. Chris explains, “With V-12 engines, those 22s are great for whole tree chipping for pulp.
They have plenty of power and can handle whole trees with no problem. Since the pulp market has changed, we’re utilizing the trees in different ways and the wood we’re chipping is lighter than what we used to run. Our veteran guys prefer running the 30/36 because it’s easier to load. Plus it’s faster because they can slash and chip as they go, as opposed to having to pile up tops, stop and load the chipper as a separate operation. It also uses less fuel, which helps our bottom line.”
Timberwolf’s trucking division has eight of their own trucks, plus the logging enterprise turns enough volume during peak season to bring in trucking reinforcements from other companies, including Luther’s. A testament to the quality of the organization is that at one point last year, there were five different father/son combinations working in one or another of Timberwolf’s businesses at one time. (Not including Chris, Luther and Ryan Crowe). Fathers have to feel good about the company to bring their sons in to work with them.
When asked, Chris is passionate about his logging business and experience. When speaking, he looks you right in the eye. “I’ve learned a lot over the years, much of it the hard way, but I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”
He shared some of his secrets to success with us:
Rule Number One: Know Your Numbers
The first thing Chris learned is know your numbers. “I’ve watched a lot of companies that haven’t made it because they do a poor job at understanding what their true costs are. It was simpler in the old days: work harder, make more money. In today’s logging business, working hard is not enough. Success takes a lot of planning and desk work to make the money to be able to afford the equipment we need to compete. Making smart decisions about what and when to buy, looking closely at total equipment costs (including up and down time), parts, fuel, transportation, labor, and financing all play a critical role in keeping the business stable through the up and down cycles that are a fact of life in this industry. Knowing the numbers is key in making smart decisions. They don’t lie. We have worked very hard to manage the amount of debt that we’re willing to take on at any at any particular time and, as a result, have reached a point that we are financially stable. I leased my first skidder before I bought my own and continue to stick to our guns making smart decisions based on the numbers.” It has taken Chris and Becky a while to get there, but has now put them in a stable position.
Keep Good Employees
Timberwolf Logging runs two whole tree crews in the summer. Three in the winter plus a stroke delimber. “My guys are experienced, hard workers. Since they know what we need out of the trees, and how to process them, it helps us be more profitable. Many of them have run their own businesses so they know what it takes.” Timberwolf is committed to their employees and has expanded into other businesses to keep their guys working during the off-season and through shifts in the economic cycle. With a humble smile Becky explains, “We cut firewood all winter, process it in the spring and deliver it in the summer. This keeps our tree crews busy, and our trucks have firewood to haul.”
Focus on Uptime
According to Becky, next to finances, managing uptime is their top priority at Timberwolf, “Chris is fanatical about this. It costs too much money to have people standing around, or equipment down. Plus, up here, we only have so many days every year to work. In the spring, it’s too muddy to get back into the woods. So during the season we run full speed through all hours of the day and night. The guys that have been with us for a while know that we’re going to work as hard as we can, while we can. During summer, that means 60-plus hours a week, and winter 70-80 hours, all through the night.”
To handle this kind of workload, Becky explains, “You’ve got to have reliable equipment, and good backing from the manufacturers and suppliers to succeed. It’s critical. Parts and service are huge factors in choosing which equipment to buy too. We do most of the maintenance and repairs ourselves, but by consolidating equipment manufacturers we cut time spent chasing for parts or finding someone who knows the equipment if we need to bring in reinforcements. Our Nortrax dealer carries most of the day-to-day parts for Deere and Morbark, and with multiple locations, if they don’t have something locally, they can get it from one of their other stores. Chris will do whatever it takes to keep the crews working, no matter what – and he demands and gets that same kind of commitment from his Nortrax dealer. They know that’s what it takes to keep him as a customer.”
As a result, Timberwolf has stuck with Morbark chippers, and has consolidated their forestry equipment to John Deere. According to Chris, “Morbark and Deere are some of the best equipment out there, and having both together at our dealership is really helpful. They have good mechanics, knowledgeable people and we receive good support from our reps.”
Diversify and Adapt
There have been several ups and downs since Chris got into business. Rather than closing upshop during the off-season or downturns, he has found other uses for employees’ skills and the equipment. To survive, they’ve branched out into the excavation business, clearing and prepping land for power lines, roads and construction. Chris is even certified to install septic systems. They also started a firewood business to keep the guys working in the off-season. It’s expanded to have its own processing yard, and produces 1,100 to 1,200 full cords per year. “That’s full cords, not face cords,” Chris proudly explains. (A full cord is three face cords). At 18 full cords per semi load, that’s a nice addition to the bottom line. They have their own regular local customers, as well as wholesalers in other parts of the region. Becky takes orders, schedules deliveries and manages inventory.
“We see another tough cycle approaching in the paper industry,” said Chris, “but with good financial management, our other businesses, and having been through tough times in the past, we are in a good position to adapt to the conditions.”
Partner with the Best
Chris says he owes much of his success to choosing who he works with carefully. “Becky joining the business was one of the best things that has ever happened to me,” says Chris. “But early on it also became clear to me that I needed partnerships with my equipment companies and suppliers as well. We’re in it for the long haul, so we’ve got to have equipment manufacturers and suppliers who will be there for us when we need them. I believe that Morbark and John Deere are some of the best out there,” says Chris. “We have had Morbark from the very beginning, and that’s all we have ever had. Having parts, service and sales together at our dealership saves time, makes parts and service easier to manage. Nortrax is very concerned about my uptime, and that’s important to me.”
Take Care of Your Reputation
Chris credits Luther with his last piece of advice, which is maintaining the value of his name and reputation. “If you do one bad thing, everyone hears about it and talks about it forever. You can do a thousand good things and never hear a word, but one bad mark will stay with you for a long time. So we always try to do the right thing, no matter what. We look out for the land owner, work hard to get the most for their trees, clean up after ourselves, and follow and act responsibly at all times.” With his philosophy and the support of his family, Chris lumbers on in the business and confidently confirms, “I can’t see myself doing anything else; I was born into it. I guess what they say is true, ‘sawdust in the veins.’ I can’t help it. I just like to cut trees!”
This article originally appeared in TimberLine magazine.