Many loggers are born into the business — logging is in their blood, so to speak. Morris Etheridge’s story is different. When he graduated from the University of Alabama in 1993 with a degree in public relations, Etheridge had ambitions of moving to the big city and joining a large public relations firm. But Etheridge is a small-town guy at heart. Deep down he knew it was more important to return to his roots.
Getting his feet wet
Etheridge, owner of Hamilton Timber Company, grew up in the small town of Sweet Water, Ala., with a population of 250.?“My graduating class was 51 people,” he recalls. “Living in a small town has its ups and downs, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Etheridge met his wife, Daphne, while attending community college in Meridian, Miss. The two married in 1994 and settled in Meridian before moving back to Sweet Water in 2000. “After college, I started working for my father-in-law, Bobby Martin. He was in the timber business and he really got me interested in forestry,” says Etheridge.
We catch up with Etheridge at a restaurant near Hamilton Timber’s office in Nanafalia, Ala., — the kind of place where you can sip lemonade on the front porch and “sit a spell,” as they say in the South. The long picnic tables covered in checkerboard tablecloths let you know you can expect home cooking. Our crew orders up the waitress’s recommendation: fried catfish po’ boys and sweet tea. “Put it on my tab,” says Etheridge. Where else but in a small town can you put anything on a tab anymore?
As the waitress passes around the sweet tea, Etheridge gives us a bit of history. He began working for Charlie Hamilton and Hamilton Timber in 1995. “I had the good fortune of working with Charlie for over two decades,” explains Etheridge. “He was really one of a kind. For example, he was never very aware of time. The day of the week or time of day meant nothing to him. When we moved back to Sweet Water in 2000, we built a house with a back porch. The first week we moved in, my wife woke me about 4 a.m. and Charlie was sitting out there. ‘I like this back porch,’ he said. ‘So, are you ready to go to the logging woods?’ I didn’t know if I had made a mistake by moving so close to him (laughs). But he taught me a lot. He was like a second father and taught me everything.”
Etheridge learned the business from the ground up. “I learned from my father-in-law how to cruise timber. I was also Charlie’s timber buyer, but I did anything. After I would finish cruising wood for the day, I’d run a bulldozer, a knuckleboom loader, or a cutter. He had good people in the right positions for me to learn from,” he says.
Taking the plunge
When Hamilton retired in 2011, Etheridge took over the reins. “I was ready,” he explains. “In the few years before I bought him out, Charlie taught me the business side. I was able to get my feet wet gradually instead of jumping into the deep end.”
A lot of people taking over a company would have renamed it after themselves, but Hamilton Timber was well established. “I didn’t dare want to touch the name because Charlie had such a good reputation,” he says. Hamilton stayed on as a consultant for two years to ease the transition. Many of his employees still work for Etheridge, a testament to the quality of his leadership.
Etheridge says he misses the woods — managing a large company with six logging crews and more than 50 employees keeps him in the office most of the day. “I miss being outside with Charlie because I’m an outside person,” he says. “I’m still a hands-on guy — my employees call me on the radio if they have a problem. But every day I need to keep an eye on the market and on costs. We have our peaks and valleys, but our highs are a lot higher and our lows are a lot lower than they used to be. I always say that if you watch the nickels and quarters, the dollars will take care of themselves.”
Hamilton Timber works within a 60-mile radius of 16 pulp mills and sawmills. The company does approximately 65-percent pulp and 35-percent hardwood. Ten years ago it was just the opposite, according to Etheridge. “We have a good working relationship with the guys we do business with. One thing Charlie drilled into my head is that if you promise somebody a tract, you get it for them. You don’t simply chase the highest dollar,” he says. “If you don’t do what you tell folks you are going to do, it will hurt you in the long run. If Charlie told you something, you knew you could bank on it. You didn’t need a signed agreement. His handshake was as good as gold.”
Modern mechanized logging
Hamilton Timber’s six crews run mostly John Deere machines. “Years ago, our one-skidder crews moved 40–45 loads a week,” Etheridge says. “Now we’re doing 70 loads a week because the equipment is so much better, faster, and easier to run.”
Within the past year Hamilton Timber has purchased multiple John Deere skidders and feller bunchers, including an 843L. Etheridge says service and support from their John Deere dealer, Warrior Tractor, has been excellent. “They do everything they can to keep us up and running,” he says. “Recently they’ve been setting us up with JDLink? so we can monitor our machines and fuel usage to help us improve efficiency and reduce costs. We have remote access to fleet location, machine-health alerts, and preventative-maintenance tracking. JDLink will notify us of an issue before it becomes a major problem.”
His dealer shared an example of how this benefits customers like Etheridge. “If downtime does occur, remote diagnosis and programming allow us to minimize the time and cost of sending a technician out to the logging site,” says Thurman Taylor, Warrior Tractor. “We can tell them what a diagnostic code means and help them solve it on their own. Sometimes it’s as simple as replacing a stopped filter or reconnecting a loose wire. If we need to dispatch a field tech, we can send them out with the right part the first time, saving the cost of a return trip.”