FRA names Comstock nation’s best logging company

Comstock Woodlands is based in Comstock Township, only 30 miles from Maine’s northwest border with Quebec Province.

As every logger knows, forestry is as much about transportation as it is about trees. You’ve got wood growing in some hard-to-reach spot, but it’s relatively worthless unless you can get it to the marketplace. Comstock Woodlands of Hampden specializes in meeting that challenge in the north Maine woods, one of the most remote, challenging logging locations in the lower 48 states.

Thanks to its never-say-can’t culture, Comstock was named the 2013 National Outstanding Logger by the Forest Resources Association at its April 19 Annual Awards Banquet in Jacksonville, Fla.  The Forest Resources Association Inc., based in Washington D.C. is a nonprofit trade association concerned with the safe, efficient, and sustainable harvest of forest products and their transport from woods to mill.

FRA Chairman Tom Norris, at left, congratulates members of 2013 National Outstanding Logger Comstock Woodlands’ management team (left to right):  Brian Bouchard, Ralph Ouellette, Audrey Allen, Colie Spencer, and Jeff Bouchard.
FRA Chairman Tom Norris, at left, congratulates members of 2013 National Outstanding Logger Comstock Woodlands’ management team (left to right): Brian Bouchard, Ralph Ouellette, Audrey Allen, Colie Spencer, and Jeff Bouchard.

“I am very proud that our employees’ efforts has allowed them to receive national recognition,” Comstock President Brian Bouchard said Monday. “They truly deserve this recognition!”

The winner is selected from the nation’s top logging companies, which are nominated from six regions across the country. Comstock was nominated by the Maine Forest Products Council, which represents all segments of the state’s forest industry. Two other Maine logging companies have won the FRA’s national award: Don Paradis in 1995 and David and Kurt Babineau, of West Enfield  in 2008.

“Thank you and congratulations to all of you again for all the good work you’ve done,” FRA Chairman Tom Norris told Bouchard, who was presented with a plaque and a $1,000 check.

Three generations of the Bouchard family –Brian, his son Jeff, and his father Harold, who died Feb. 22 at the age of 77 – have helped revolutionize Maine’s harvesting and transport services. They’ve spotted some opportunities and created others through their commitment to their clients and their determination to stay competitive.

“They are star performers out of the 40 plus contractors we engage … They are old school in a way, which is to say that they always do the right thing and their word is their bond,” said Don White, former president of Prentiss & Carlisle and MFPC. “One can have a 50-pound legal contract with someone and still not get what you agreed to or you can get a handshake from the Bouchard family or its crew and you will get what you agreed to, and more.”

Started in 1991, Comstock Woodlands is based in Comstock Township, only 30 miles from Maine’s northwest border with Quebec Province. From Comstock’s complex off the fabled Golden Road, 37 employees spread across 25 townships and more than 500,000 acres to harvest wood and maintain roads. The facility has an on-site camp with housing units for up to 50, a connected kitchen and dining area, hot showers, wi-fi and satellite TV.

“A big piece of our success is our people,” Brian Bouchard said. “You’ve got to have good, sound, quality people and be willing to pay them to work hard for four days and spend only three days at home with their families. They come to Comstock from Bangor, Millinocket, Fort Kent and from Saint-Zacharie, Quebec. It’s very difficult, but these are people who are diehards for the woods. “It’s their heritage.”

All of Comstock’s loggers are certified by Maine’s Certified Logging Professional program and the company has an exemplary safety record.

“From the top down, management takes a personal interest to promote a positive safety awareness and culture,” said Mike St. Peter, CLP program director. “Supervisors with ‘boots on the ground’ reinforce the safety message daily. This leadership by example makes the difference.”

Winter is a challenge and advantage

Harold and Brian give the Comstock Equipment Operator of the Year award to  Joachim Lebel at the logging camp Christmas Party.
Harold and Brian give the Comstock Equipment Operator of the Year award to Joachim Lebel at the logging camp Christmas party.

The challenge for Comstock begins with the distance from “civilization.” Many loggers drive an hour, maybe two, to their work site. But they don’t have to be totally self-sufficient two hours up in the woods. Comstock loggers can’t zip over to the store for a loaf of bread, a hydraulic fitting or even a simple bolt.

Then there’s the weather. The average snowfall is around 115 inches, but a “real” Maine winter can be far above average. In 2008, for example, the national weather service in Caribou (about 200 miles northeast by the Golden Road) recorded 189 inches of snow. That’s 15 feet, 9 inches. If Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers stood on the shoulders of Patriots QB Tom Brady they’d still be buried in that amount of snow.

Then there’s the temperature. The lowest last year was 20 degrees below zero, but the record (at least 40 miles away in Jackman) is minus 40.

Nor is summer a stroll in the park. The biting bugs alone can drive moose, much less men, mad.

“In Maine, we have such a variety of weather, conditions, grounds, terrains, mills and different species of wood that you have to be extremely flexible to be able to service the needs of your customer,” Brian said. “We don’t just harvest 205,000 tons of wood a year. In order for us to do so, we have to have the capability to cut right of ways, build the roads and maintain the roads – grading, plowing, sanding in the wintertime – culvert replacements and close-out work. We build bridges. We replace bridges.”

In fact, the Bouchards consider the ice, snow and cold weather an advantage. They can build a road anywhere after December 15 on nothing but black muck and water and snow. While building a road in summer costs from $18,000-$22,000 a mile, in winter it’s about $5,000.

“In the wintertime, where you’re going to go into these swamps,” Harold said in an interview last December. “You cut the wood first with a feller-buncher, then you send an excavator out there with a small dozer right behind to pull out the stumps, bury them. They’ll build at least a half a mile a day. And about 10 above to 10 below, a half a mile you build today, you can truck on it tomorrow morning.”

‘Poverty is a great asset’

Harold Bouchard with one of early trucks.
Harold Bouchard with one of early trucks.

Harold Bouchard was one of 16 children of Franco-American heritage who grew up on a potato farm in Fort Kent “where English was not an important thing.” When he was 16, one brother was a POW in the Korean War and another had been severely injured by a woods accident. So Harold left school to help his father plant their crop. That was the end of his formal education.

His business career started in 1958 with the purchase (his dad co-signed) of a 1957 Dodge truck. At age 23, he drove off to a two-week job in Bangor, but that job led to another and another.

“When I took off in my truck and left the farm it was quite a relief to get away from the cows,” Harold said with a big laugh. “But I am pleased that I was brought up to earn a living. Poverty is a great asset.”

His Franco-American heritage can be heard not only in his gentle accent, but in his  attitude. For many years now, a small plaque has been sitting on Harold’s desk with four simple words on it, “It CAN be done.”

“There were work ethics that were built into our background,” Brian said. “Going at projects where the word ‘can’t’ doesn’t apply. Going at it like you can do it.”

With pride, Brian tells the story – now legend— of how his father drove the first tractor-trailer to Bucksport on Route 9, aka “the Airline,” in 1963. Pointing to a photo on the wall, Brian said, “My dad said, ‘I’m going to take four-foot wood to Bucksport down the Airline with that trailer. They told him, ‘You’re crazy, it can’t be done.’  The road was too narrow, too winding, it wasn’t in their minds safe to use a tractor trailer. He said, ‘Watch.’”

The company’s success also can be traced back to an historic moment in Maine’s legendary logging industry. Starting in 19th century, Maine’s rivers moved enormous amounts of timber from the north woods to towns where they could be milled and loaded on ships. In 1971, log drives were banned by a law that unfolded over several years. The last major log drive in the lower 48 took place on the Kennebec River on Nov. 16, 1975.

“There was such a big waste of wood,” Harold said. “They took it for granted that X amount of wood would sink, never to be reclaimed. Then we had to build roads to bring the same amount of wood to the mills without log drive. And that’s when we really started doing some serious trucking.”

A new era in Maine logging

In 1972, Harold was one of the contractors Great Northern hired to build the Golden Road, stretching about 100 miles, from Millinocket to the Quebec border. By the mid 1990s, 25,000 miles of roads had been built.

H.O. Bouchard became one of the principal trucking firms for Great Northern Paper Co., which built its first mill in 1898 and became a giant of the Maine forest economy. In 1964, Great Northern produced 16.4 percent of newsprint made in the United States, plus specialty papers for magazines, newspaper supplements, paperback books, and catalogs. Although H.O. Bouchard also did some logging, its primary focus from 1972 to 1990 was trucking wood to Great Northern’s mills.

“We had some long hours on the Golden Road in the first few years. It was tough,” Harold remembers. “A lot of times, I’d say, ‘Did I dig myself a hole here?’ But there was so much energy that I was blessed with that I’d overcome that and retool myself and go at it again. When my friends and competitors said, ‘Harold you’re not going to make it,’ that gave me motivation.”

comstock sign croppedIn 1990, a dramatic change took place in the company and the industry after a hostile takeover of Great Northern by Georgia Pacific. GP didn’t want to operate logging camps, manage roads or have employees in the woods. So H.O. Bouchard was asked to take over Great Northern’s Comstock operation (named for Comstock Mountain), which meant buying the camps, building, plowing and sanding the roads, cutting wood and delivering it to the mills.

“If we hadn’t done it one of our competitors would have, so we did it,” Brian said.

Since no one could predict the outcome of such an enormous undertaking, a decision was made “to separate the highway from the woods.” Comstock was born and H.O. Bouchard’s name disappeared from forest harvesting and road building. Officially, the two companies share benefits and the annual Christmas party. But in practice, they share their history, work ethic and the strong belief that they are all one family.

“I would be comfortable saying that most Comstock employees feel they also work for H.O. Bouchard,” Jeff Bouchard said. “Everyone knows it’s two companies, but everyone feels they work for the Bouchard family.”

In addition to believing there’s no such word as can’t, Comstock/H.O. Bouchard’s guiding principles are:

Safety, Safety, Safety: Safety has always been, and will continue to be number one at H.O. Bouchard. Every employee has the responsibility to make sure himself and others are working in the safest way possible. Caring about the safety of our customers, the products we haul, and our employees will always be the number one concern for H.O. Bouchard.

Family atmosphere: Ever since Harold drove his first truck in 1958, he’s had the philosophy that everyone around him should be treated as family and that continues today. It has stuck with the company ever since and has allowed us to develop the incredible group of employees we have working today.

Teamwork: Everyone at H.O. Bouchard works together as a team to ensure that operations are done properly and in the fastest, most efficient way possible. It is a team effort around the home facility which helps to keep everyone involved in the success of the company on all levels within the organization.

In practice, there are two other unwritten laws. Harold sums up the first one this way: “If you commit yourself to a customer, the main thing is to make sure what you committed to happens at any cost.”

The second is: “You’ve got to be creative to be competitive.” The list of company innovations ranges from the mechanical, such as a “scarifier” that works better and cheaper than two road graders, to the psychological – having the courage to go forward when others believe you can’t succeed.

“They’ve seen how things could be improved at every step, from the political process to the configuration of the trailers and trucks, to the equipment to get the loads on the trucks and trailers, to maintaining the equipment, to the motivation of the people,” said safety director Steve Whitcomb, a 35-year employee.

Helped found ALC and PLC

The Bouchard family helped found both the American Loggers Council (ALC) and the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine (PLC) and has served on both boards. In 1994, Harold and General Manager Dick Schneider flew to Nashville and St. Louis to assist in the formation of ALC, with logging contractors from several states.  PLC was formed at the Comstock Woodlands/H.O.  Bouchard office in Hampden by Harold, Brian, and other Maine logging leaders.

“The formation of both associations came at about the same time because landowners and major mills were putting emphasis on SFI and loggers needed a voice in the process,” Brian said.

They are members of the Maine Motor Transport Association, where Brian served as chairman in 2006 and 2007 and then as chairman of the Executive Committee in 2008 and 2009. He remains an officer. He has been on the board of the Maine Better Transport Association since 2009. They also belong to FRA and NELA.

Played pivotal role on federal law

Jeff and Brian Bouchard with Sen. Susan Collins, who they helped increase the weight limit from 80,000 to 100,000 pounds on Maine’s federal highways.
Jeff and Brian Bouchard with Sen. Susan Collins, who they helped increase the weight limit from 80,000 to 100,000 pounds on Maine’s federal highways.

In the early 1980s, Harold also played a prominent role in the successful effort to convince Maine lawmakers to adopt a six-axle truck configuration at a more productive weight limit. More recently, Brian and Jeff played pivotal roles in the battle to increase the 80,000-pound limit to 100,000 pounds on trucks traveling on interstate highways in Maine for the next 20 years. Brian worked closely with Maine Sen. Susan Collins and, as part of an important study, Jeff traveled from Hamden to Houlton with a truck driver counting every car they met and every railroad crossing, school bus, crosswalk and streetlight. He noted every time the driver shifted or touched his brakes. On Friday, Nov. 18, 2011, President Obama signed the increase into law.

“The Bouchard family provided me with specific information and real-life examples, which helped me articulate the problem and convince my colleagues in both the House and Senate that this improvement was necessary for the safety of Maine’s citizens,” Sen. Collins said.

The Bouchards and their employees also strongly support many humanitarian causes in their community and beyond. Most recently they provided a truck to the Girls Scouts so  supplies could be sent to the victims of Hurricane Sandy. In September, 22 employees, family members and friends joined the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Bangor and the company recently gave a very generous donation to the local Cancer Care of Maine facility in Brewer. They also provide trucks for local parades, including a lowbed to Air National Guard to use for their “Family Support Program” float.

When he drove away in his 1957 Dodge, Harold said, he never imagined how far he and his family would travel from that potato farm.

“At the Christmas party this year,” Harold said, “when I looked at our employees and their wives filling the room, I thought, “I’m proud of everything we’ve accomplished.”