How this 19-year-old woman built an impressive logging business
Shelley Stewart knew early on she wanted to be an entrepreneur. Growing up on the Douglas Lake Reserve in British Columbia, Stewart learned from the best—her parents.
“I was 19 when I purchased my first logging truck,” says Stewart. “My parents, both entrepreneurs, recalled that I had been planning to do that since I was eight-years-old. My dad was a logger and he spent a lot of time away from home. I thought if I bought a logging truck, I could spend more time with him.”
Unfortunately, Stewart, now 35, has learned that business dealings aren’t always as honest as childhood dreams.
A week into operations in 2004, Stewart realized she’d been sold a faulty truck.
“The truck was literally ready to break in half because the frame rails had cracks. The dealer that sold it to me had painted over it rather than fix it,” she says.
“First Nations people are known for their resiliency,” says Stewart. “I thought, I’ve already made commitments to do contracts, and I still have to pay my lender for this truck, so I went and got financing for a second truck.”
Using the revenue from one truck to pay for both until the lawsuit was settled, Stewart and her husband, (then boyfriend), managed to get the business up and running, but they didn’t draw a paycheque for nearly 18 months.
Fifteen years later, Stewart has established herself as an award-winning business owner, and one of the largest employers in her community. Her company, Bar S Ventures, is now a full-phase logging operation with 27 full-time employees.
“If you don’t ask, you have a 100% chance of failing”
Stewart credits careful financial management for the stability and growth of her business. “I always run budgets and cash flows and multiple projections, so I know exactly what I’m getting into if I sign for a machine or a new truck,” says Stewart. “I line everything up and figure out those numbers beforehand so I understand how much revenue I can generate if I put a machine to work. I tend to over project the expenses and under project the revenues, and I always account for miscellaneous expenses that may creep up.”
This diligent approach can reassure lenders who might be worried about lending you money. Stewart obtained working capital from BDC’s Indigenous Banking Unit to help secure 14 new pieces of equipment, including skidders, bunchers and processors in 2015. “Accessing financing can be really difficult, especially when you’re a young entrepreneur,” says Stewart. “But you have to be prepared to ask. If you don’t ask, you have a 100% chance of failing.”
Know your industry
Stewart admits even the best accounting can’t always prepare you for industry or economic shake-ups. But there are things you can do to maintain control over the fate of your business, she says.
“Logging is a very cyclical business. With highs and lows, it’s quite volatile,” says Stewart.
Stumpage fees, sawmill closures and uncertainty triggered by negotiations of a new North American trade agreement have created pressures for Bar S Ventures.
Stewart has bucked the trend, she says, by carefully negotiating the contracts her company takes on.
“I got involved in logging on the condition that our company has the entire harvesting contract,” says Stewart. “I have the machinery to cut, skid, load and haul trees, and have the low-bedding equipment to move the machines. I even have my own road-building gear to build road access.”
Stewards of the land
“I am a proud Okanagan woman,” says Stewart. “We see ourselves as stewards of the land and of the forest and it’s at the heart of what we do.”
“One of the things my company does better than any other is fibre utilization,” says Stewart. “Every time we look at a tree, we consider all the components for market.”
Traditionally, sawmills purchase logs, but much of the tree ends up in a slash pile and eventually burned.
“For us, beyond the saw log, there’s oversized wood, peelers for plywood, and the top portion of the tree can be turned to pulp, post and rail and grape stakes,” says Stewart. “By using every part of the tree we have diverse markets, and we have less waste, which reduces the carbon footprint of our logging operation.”
Bar S Venture also protects 300-year-old “grandfather trees”, and maintains machine-free, no-cutting zones near waterways that exceed industry standards.
Shelley Stewart’s 3 lessons learned
1. Be prepared to do the work
“You have to be available to your business 24-7,” says Stewart. “It’s your credit on the line, your name, your values, so you can’t call in sick.”
Shelley says it is difficult to follow any particular schedule and often changes things on the fly. “If I don’t get a call by 6 a.m. to say something is wrong, it’s not a normal day.”
2. Get creative when it comes to financing
Stewart says many entrepreneurs fail because they’re reluctant to ask for money. She spends a lot of time seeking out grants, some industry-specific, others geared toward women or Aboriginal entrepreneurs.
“A lot of the time people are scared to go and seek out those funds,” says Stewart. “But these types of programs need to be utilized, because the program administrators need to show there is a demand for this type of lending or funding.”
3. Build resiliency into your operations
Stewart is no stranger to getting “kicked down” by circumstance or shady dealings, from her first faulty truck to losing equipment to fire. But she’s always focused on solutions and her business vision.
“When I had a buncher catch fire and burn, I was on the phone with an equipment dealer the next day saying, ‘I need a buncher, whether I buy or rent it, and I’ll figure out the insurance later,’” says Stewart. “If I can’t cut trees, my entire operation comes to a stop and that affects my employees and my bottom line.”