Loggers, loaders and skidders do the hard work for Rance Timbers

November 15, 2014

A unique company mantra of “hard on standards, soft on people” has seen a privately owned Eastern Cape-based forestry and sawmilling company survive and prosper after more than 74 years, in the face of stiff competition, economic troughs and boom times.

Keeping it in the family … John (left) and Craig Rance.

The late Jack Rance founded a timber company from the ashes of his late father’s business in 1940 and by 1944, had created the company C.J. Rance (Pty) Ltd in the Alice, Hogsback, Katberg and Transkei area. He operated a number of small sawmills in the Border and Transkei region, from Katberg in the south to Mt Frere in the east, which pioneered sawmilling in the region. After the previous government expropriated the Transkei sawmilling interests, he purchased the defunct State sawmill at Kubusi near Stutterheim and relocated the company from Alice to this pristine forestry area in 1960.

In 2005, the Rance group formed Amathole Timber Holdings (ATH) with BEE credentials, which purchased Amathole Forestry Company (AFC) from the state owned parastatal, Safcol.

The company now runs two sawmills, the Kubusi mill at Stutterheim and the smaller Sandile sawmill obtained in 2001. These mills are fed from forests that cover 15 000 hectares in the Stutterheim, Keiskammahoek and Hogsback areas.

30-year rotation
Amathole Forestry Company is one of the few forestry companies still working on a 30-year sawlog rotation. This results in the timber being older and bigger than many of the other industry saw-log plantations.

“Around 800 people employed in sawmilling and 400 people in forestry makes this a very labour-intensive operation, but people are the part of the business we’re most passionate about, as our mantra states,” says Craig Rance, Harvesting Manager at Rance Timber, and son of Director, John Rance. The majority of the 1 200 people working in Rance Timber and AFC are Xhosa speaking, which has resulted in the company adopting the Xhosa culture as the dominant culture in the business. “An excellent senior management team has been with the company for many years who have been really good mentors to younger managers joining the business. From the labourers to senior management, we’re proud to have such good people working in the business. Running a timber production side that feeds a downstream timber processing business means that we need to have a certain amount of material-handling equipment.”

Versatile machines
And the amount of equipment is by no means meager either. The companies operate a fleet of 27 Bell 220A and 225A loggers and Tele-loggers. These versatile machines are used for stacking in the timber compartments when felling and extraction takes place, for loading logging trucks on roadside loading zones, and in the timber stockyards of the two sawmills.

The company’s clearfell harvesting and thinnings teams comprise 150 people felling a steady 520 cubic metres of timber per day. The operations are still relatively manual, with only extraction and loading being mechanised.

Rance Timber operates five John Deere 540GII & GIII cable skidders, which extract timber to areas where the Bell loggers can safely handle and load the short and longer-haul trucks. Some compartments are too steep for the skidders, in which case the timber is extracted using a URUS II cable yarder.

Bell front end loader
At the Kubusi sawmill, the company deploys a Bell L1706D front-end loader fitted with a timber grab to feed the plant. Typically, the front-end loader unloads timber from timber trucks and stockpiles it. It then feeds the plant’s debarker and log-sorter with timber from this stockpile and once the timber is debarked, feeds the main plant from designated stockpiles.

“The Bell L1706D front-end loader is able to handle big bundles of timber, ensuring a constant supply to both the debarker and the main sawmill,” Craig Rance says. “And to prove our faith in its productivity, we’ve just ordered a new Bell L1706E-series machine that arrived in March 2014.”

“We rely on trained mechanics from Bell Equipment’s Customer Service Centre in East London to do our warranty servicing and major repairs. But the real value in working with Bell is having a direct line to people such as Derek Howe, GM of Forestry and Sugar Sales for Bell Equipment South Africa. His expert advice in forestry matters is invaluable,” he adds.

One of the 27 Bell Loggers and Tele-loggers, owned and operated by Rance Timber in the Eastern Cape.
The Bell L1706D front end loader, fitted with a timber grab, loading timber at the Kubusi Sawmill.

*Published in June 2014

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