Mining engineer makes a go of timber contracting

How does a qualified mining engineer who rose to the level of a general manager change tack and get into timber harvesting? In the case of Mandla Nxumalo, the answer is almost by accident. However making a success of it was no accident. This requires a focus on hard work, the ability to listen and learn from expert advice, and choosing the right equipment supplier.

Mandla is a qualified mining engineer and, having studied on a scholarship from the largest diamond mining company in the world, was on the up and up. But then something changed and he switched from mining operations to consulting, advising emerging miners and contractors about the discipline of mining and how to make a success of it.

“We often found that although young entrepreneurs had obtained mining licenses, they knew nothing of the discipline, pitfalls and ultimate goals of mining and so did not make it,” Mandla says. “I set out to change that perception through a mining consulting business I had created called Makarapa.”

An entrepreneur at heart, Mandla decided to spread his risk in case of possible tough times in the mining industry and bought three used trucks to haul timber in the Sudwala area in Mpumalanga. He loaded the timber trucks using a Bell 225A Logger that he had bought new. This was followed by a brief foray into timber short hauling which helped him to get his foot in the door of the forestry industry - and more importantly - to meet the right people.

“Soon after I was approached by a large pulp and paper company to ask whether I’d be interested in supplying short-haul services to a timber harvesting initiative they had created for emerging contractors, delivering small volumes,” Mandla says. “This was called Timber Logging Solutions and our close contact with them led us to being offered a stump-to-depot contract even though I knew very little about actual timber harvesting.”

Mandla explains that this happened with the knowledge and the blessing of the forestry company. In July 2018 he bought Timber Logging Solutions to run as his own business.

“We had no timber harvesting equipment to start up with, however we were fortunate enough to be able to rent equipment which enabled us to get started and get the timber moving,” said Mandla.

“We soon learnt the hard way that renting equipment negatively impacts one’s bottom line and when I approached the client about a longer term contract to justify financing timber harvesting equipment, the company responded very quickly with a five-year contract for which I will be eternally grateful,” he says.

“I had adopted Elvis Shabangu of Kanyi Ilanga Trading as my mentor and when I asked him who to approach for timber harvesting equipment, his answer was unequivocal in pointing me to Bell Equipment and the company’s knowledgeable Forestry and Agriculture Manager, Charles Inggs, in Nelspruit. With my limited experience … I decided to stick with the tried and tested and support Bell Equipment, and I have not been disappointed.”

As it happened, Bell Equipment was able to offer Mandla and his company Timber Logging Solutions a deal on a Bell 225A Logger with very favourable terms. A further initiative from the South African Government through its Small Enterprise Finance Agency (SEFA) saw him add an excavator converted into a shovel-yarder along with a light delivery truck and a Bell 225F Logger into the mix.

“Armed with this generous five-year contract, I was able to acquire some serious kit and with favourable terms as well,” he says. “Two other banks came to the party and I added another shovel-yarder, one more Bell 225F Logger and a John Deere 640L Cable Skidder. Added to this I bought two used Bell 225A Loggers bringing my total Bell Logger fleet to six.”

Mandla is adamant that when he researched a big-ticket item such as a John Deere 640L Skidder, his mind was swayed by the fact that Bell Equipment backed this machine and he could rely on trained personnel to handle the maintenance and repairs. His experience in mining had taught him that mechanical equipment requires proper support to ensure maximum up-time.

“It’s been a steep learning curve for me and my staff numbering 71 loyal people, but we’re happily hitting our production targets,” he says. “We started off producing 2 200 tonnes of timber a month, which has now grown to 5 800 tonnes with a reserve stockholding of 1 700 tonnes, and this we could not have done without reliable mechanical equipment.”

Mandla’s management experience comes to the fore as he explains that everyone in his company, himself included, is undergoing skills development all the time. Human resources issues are dealt with promptly and they have managed to meet production targets with limited overtime which points to efficient use of man hours and good mechanical availability.

“Our Bell Loggers are running between 18 and 20 hours a day and having the one-year, unlimited hours warranty on the new Bell F-series Logger is a real blessing,” he adds. “Our F-series Loggers are covered by a maintenance plan up to 2 000 hours and we’re capitalising on this by working them hard in the first year.”

“Having both the A- and F-series Loggers we can tell you that the new Yanmar engines definitely show an improvement in fuel consumption, which has impacted favourably on our operational costs.”

Timber Logging Solutions’ John Deere 640L Cable Skidder is operating for seven hours a day as nighttime skidding is not allowed.

“As a young company our clients mentor us. Safety in the compartment and on loading zones is taken very seriously, something that I’m used to and happy with given my background in mining,” said Mandla.

“On the servicing side I’m happy to report that everyone at Bell Equipment in Nelspruit is accessible and my maintenance manager and I have built a special relationship with the workshop foreman, Louwtjie Erasmus. Bell Equipment’s response times and parts availability are excellent, and should a certain part not be available, it generally arrives the following day. We get the impression that Bell Equipment understands our business and appreciates that downtime favours no one.”

Related article: Bell launches pre-owned equipment website