Bob Lussier has been a logger for over 36 years, but it was an inspired leap of faith in 2009 that brought this born and bred New England ‘Yankee’ and his Great Woods Companies LLC to Bennettsville, South Carolina. Bob grew up in Rhode Island and Connecticut with a love of the outdoors and a strong work ethic. He formed Bob’s Firewood and Logging, Inc in 1983 and began his logging career selling firewood to homeowners. His early days saw a steady increase in machinery, and by 1994 his company was one of the first mechanized businesses in the region. With a full crew of operators and a growing reputation for high quality work across Southern New England, he established Great Woods Companies LLC in 2000.
Over the years, Bob weathered ups and downs, but it was a combination of the slow and steady increase in urbanization across RI, CT and southern MA, as well as the realities of the economic downturn in 2009 that got him to consider moving his company, family, and two employees to South Carolina. It was during a turkey hunting trip with a Tidewater Equipment Company Tigercat salesman when the idea first started developing. He remembers he and his wife, Cindy, deciding they would look at the plan as only a ‘6 month experiment’, and if it didn’t work out, they would come back. “To look back, it was downright scary. But it couldn’t have worked out better. It has been my biggest success and I haven’t looked back”.
One big difference between the Northeast and the Southeast is the way in which logging companies do business. Often in the south, timber harvesting contractors work with a “timber dealer” to procure contracts. Bob has broken that mold by working to establish Great Woods’ own ‘dealerships’, directly purchasing timber for the company. Currently, this is about 50% private landowner negotiated, slightly under 50% from consulting foresters, and a small percentage of state controlled timber. Structuring his business in this way, and an absolute commitment to doing the best job possible, has paid off. Over the last three years, Great Woods has grown to having two full crews comprising 16 full time employees and a large and diversified fleet of equipment. Their office and shop are located in Bennettsville, and work generally happens within a 50 mile radius. “One of the things that makes me feel really good is when I hear though the grape vine that someone else is telling their crew they want the job to look like ‘like a Great Woods job’. I’ve brought a different style of work here and people have taken notice of it. I hear it from the guys coming in behind us – the site prep crews, or tree planters. They say they love our jobsites because of how carefully we clean up and leave the site. It is really humbling to hear things like that from your peers”.
Most days find Bob buying timber and managing—one crew primarily focuses on first thinnings, and one on clear cuts– while Cindy runs the office including payroll and accounting, safety program and the vast majority of part supplies. “Good organization and good maintenance keep production rolling.” Bob marvels that Cindy, a graphic artist by trade, has embraced the timber harvesting industry as her own and has modernized the office procedures. Great Woods Companies LLC provides its employees with strong wages and benefits, including health insurance, paid holidays and vacation time. “While finding quality employees is a challenge, we’re looking for somebody that wants a career. I treat employees the way I wanted to be treated”. This also goes for the land where they work. “I stress with everyone on my crew, whether they are new or have worked for me for 10 years, — treat every job as if it was your own land. Utilize the timber that way, clean it up that way, treat it with respect. It’s up to us to be good stewards of the land and to pass it to the next generation better than we got it”.
And speaking of the next generation, Bob and Cindy are excited that their youngest son, John, is working with Great Woods as an equipment operator and increasing his responsibilities within the company. “I did get to run log loader one day last week”, laughs Bob. “John and his wife are expecting a baby in April, and had to go to doctor’s appointment. I sometimes forget how much I love being in the equipment. I don’t get to do that very often!”.
Bob said if he could go back in time and offer some words of wisdom to his younger self, it would be to “work hard to be open minded and be willing to try new things. Even after all these years, I’m learning new things all the time”. Bob’s other advice is about the importance of finding a balance between growing your business and family time. “It’s very, very difficult. You need to work and you’re working to give your family a good life, but you gotta remember, you can’t replace time”.
He said it’s gratifying to see John, and other young people developing a love for the industry and growing in their skills and decision making. “I really look forward to helping people in our industry. I am trying to make it better for the next generation and trying to attract younger people to our industry”. Bob speaks highly of Apprenticeship Carolina, a program working to promote trades as a career path. “The work American Logger’s Council and South Carolina Timber Producers Association are doing to get more youth involved in our industry is so important. The aging workforce is one challenge we face. Trucking is another. We really need to band together, to work together to attract the next generation. There are excellent careers possible with good pay. We need to promote what is out there.”
Bob’s success has not gone unnoticed. He was surprised and excited to receive the 2016 Forestry Association of South Carolina Outstanding Logger of the Year, then in 2017, The Gene Collins Logger Activist of The Year from the South Carolina Timber Producers Association (SCTPA), and accepted a nomination to serve of the board of SCTPA. He made it clear he could never have accomplished these achievements without the help and support from Cindy, long time employee Terry, his Blanchard Caterpillar salesman Denny Campbell and Tidewater Equipment Tigercat salesman Lee Hope (“my other right hands”, he jokes). “To have your peers recognize you and tell you you’ve done something right, is, well, I’ve been blessed, really”. Bob also credits his Dad, Robert Lussier Sr., with instilling guiding principles of love of the outdoors, stewardship of the land and natural resources, and an unshakable work ethic. “I’m exactly the same person professionally as I am personally. First and foremost, I’m a conservationist. I learned that from my dad.” Bob’s dad passed away in 2011, and while said he knows his dad was proud of his achievements then, he would be thrilled to see how his family and business have grown over the last several years.
Bob is enjoying working more directly with the American Logger’s Council and its Master Logger Certification committee and is excited implement the program in his adopted home state. Bob is on track to have Great Woods Companies LLC be one of the first in South Carolina to go through the rigorous process. “I have a love of this industry. I believe it’s about time we start getting the proper recognition and remuneration for what we do every day. Right now, it’s the wood consuming mills and not the logger that gets credit. I have seen time and time again how a properly managed timber harvest is a benefit to the land and wildlife. We need more people to see what we do and how we do it. I want to bridge that gap – I’m really excited about it”.
One reason he believes the Master Logger Certification program is important and will be successful is because it promotes transparency in the timber harvesting industry. “This will give both landowners and wood consuming mills an option to source their timber from. They will know there is documentation, that their fiber and timber is harvested in a responsible way.” Bob envisions support for Master Logger Certification from insurance companies, equipment dealers and other industry sponsors. “I really see this movement as benefitting, hopefully, all loggers. We are focusing on safety, quality and integrity. We’re working towards increasing professionalism, safety, and environmental standards. We are setting ourselves apart and working to be at the top of our profession. I believe this will pay off with (financial) incentives in the future”.
Bob sees Master Logger Certification as one way loggers themselves can become proactive about the direction of the industry and their key role within it. “I see Master Logger Certification as beneficial for future generations by making the wood supply chain a more transparent and professional industry. As loggers, we’ve kind of been hidden. We need to get caught up. We need to stop just letting things happen and then reacting when policies and regulations don’t work. We need to stand up. Get more comfortable speaking out and talking to peers. We need to come to common ground and become proactive”.
“I really see this as a culture shift in our industry. I have put my heart and soul into my own business and Master Logger Certification is a way I can lead by example within the industry”. Bob sees the growth of ALC’s Master Logger Certification programs around the country as a way for the loggers themselves to become better recognized as professionals and clearly demonstrate their commitment to their key role in the wood products industry. “That’s why I’m so supportive of the Master Logger Certification program and proud of my position on the committee. Between this, and my board position with South Carolina Timber Producers Association, I hope to, and look forward to, helping my chosen profession become recognized as responsible stewards of our great land”.
A look back at Great Woods Companies, LLC over the years:
At work in New England and the early days of Great Woods Companies.
And more modern times ...
Clearing land in South Carolina.
Bob and Cindy Lussier accepting the the 2016 Outstanding Logger of the Year Award from the Forestry Association of South Carolina.
Part of the growing fleet of equipment at Great Woods Companies shop at Bennettsville, South Carolina.