An outsider can look at a company like Timbco and assume that its founder woke up one day with a good idea for a new machine, started building it, and was an instant success. But success is rarely that easy or painless. In Pat Crawford’s case it was the result of perseverance, a lot of hard work, a supportive family, and love of the industry, a dose of humility, a pinch of pride, and enough self-confidence to bounce back from failure. Crawford was raised in Winter, a northern Wisconsin town of about 400 people. His father and grandfather ran a logging camp in the Clam Lake area, and his mother was the camp cook.
World War II was raging when Crawford graduated from high school in 1943, but because he was only 17 years old he spent a year in college at Eau Claire before joining the Air Corps. He was hoping to learn to fly but by the time his turn for training arrived, the war was winding down and more pilots were not needed. He described the abrupt end of his flight training as one of the discouraging points of his life. A year and a half after joining the service, he was returned to civilian life and back in the woods of northern Wisconsin. He worked with his dad when the crosscut saw and horse logging era was ending. He also decided to go back to college, first to Eau Claire, then to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Because he loved athletics, he majored in physical education and played baseball and basketball. He wanted to make athletics his life. During the summer of 1949 he played professional baseball for a minor league team in Indiana. After one summer, however, he felt that he didn’t have the talent to make the major leagues, so it was time to look elsewhere for a career. Another summer job solved that problem. He and several other students headed west to cut timber in the Bridger Mountains of Montana. They sawed with the heavy chainsaws of the times and skidded with crawlers, with little or no protection for the operator, and they loved it.
“We didn’t make any money, but we had a lot fun,” Crawford said. “I decided that that was my life.”
He thought about switching his college major to forestry, but since forestry was not offered in Wisconsin, he decided not to go back to school. He returned to Winter, Wis., met his wife, Ruth, and again headed for the West. “I threw my Titan power saw in the truck and headed for Oregon on our honeymoon,” he said. Crawford got a job falling the huge timber of the Northwest. The largest trees ranged up to eight or nine feet in diameter. The little ones were four to five feet. Falling them was a task that required know-how, because if a big cedar landed on a stump or knoll, it would crack.
Crawford liked the work and became good at it, but a twinge of homesickness brought Ruth and him back to Winter about a year later.
He had been back only a month or two when he was falling a yellow birch and a huge dead limb, a widow-maker, fell from above and very nearly killed him. He said he flopped around on the ground in much the same manner as a beheaded chicken.
“My mind was perfectly clear, but I couldn’t stop any of the movement. I thought, well this is death. I hope the good Lord is waiting for me because I’m going to be there,” he said. Crawford said it was an accident that never should have happened. He had seen the dead limb before cutting the tree, but his mind was not completely on his work. His brother, who had been skidding nearby, took him to the local doctor. The doctor gave him a shot in the neck, sent him home, and told his wife not to move him to a hospital because he would not make it. For three days he lay with pupils dilated and near death in the care of his wife, who was pregnant with their first child. When he recovered he went back to logging, though with a greater awareness of the dangers involved. He was 25 years old at the time.
Crawford and his brother logged near Cable, Wis. His innovative mind was already t work looking for better ways to log and haul.
Truck log loaders had been mounted behind the cab, but Crawford thought the loader could be mounted on the rear of the truck so it could load a pup trailer. A welding shop in Two Harbors, Minn., mounted a loader on the back of Crawford’s truck and he began pulling a pup. That was in the late 1950’s. He thought he might have been the first to pull a pup. Crawford and his brother also bought a small sawmill near Hayward, Wis. Perhaps because they were successful in the sawmill business, they were encouraged by Hayward’s city fathers to buy a local “core plant” that was about to close. The core plant made materials used in the manufacture of kitchen tables. The Crawford brothers decided to buy the plant. “It was the biggest mistake we ever made,” Pat said. Partly because they had been given faulty information about the amount of waste involved, they soon ran into financial difficulties. Within 18 months the business was bankrupt. Crawford had a wife and seven children and was also personally bankrupt. His credit rating was ruined. It was 1962 and another turning point in his life. “You want to eat humble pie? Go bankrupt,” Crawford said. But he didn’t give up. He just worked harder. An older friend who had faith in him co-signed a loan for $15,000 so Crawford could buy a truck, a team of horses, and a power saw to get back into logging. He cut logs all day and hauled at night. “I didn’t average four hours of sleep a night. I never worked so hard in my life. But there’s one thing I learned. When you’re flat on your back there’s only one way, and that’s up. I had a lot of faith in the future, even though it was really tough going.”
By the following spring he had paid his bills and had $5,000 in the bank. Things were looking better. Then came a break that Crawford does not know to this day exactly why it happened. A representative of Menominee Enterprises contacted him and asked if he was interested in logging for the Menominee Indians near Shawano, Wis. "If we didn't get paid for one machine, we didn't have enough money to buy parts for the next" Crawford spent a few days on the reservation, looking at the timber. He liked what he saw, but the man who was showing him around, Alec Wapoose, cautioned him that the Native Americans had been having trouble with white loggers. Wapoose at first advised Crawford not to take the job. After Wapoose got to know Crawford, however, he changed his mind and encouraged Crawford to try it. “To this day, I have Alec Wapoose to thank for practically everything I’ve ever done because if he hadn’t told me that, I’d probably be up in Northern Wisconsin yet, cutting pulp. Don’t get me wrong. I love that part of the state, but it would have been hard to do up there what I’m doing today,” Crawford said.
Crawford started working for Menominee Enterprises in the summer of 1963. He got paid by the board foot and the cord. His family moved to the Shawano area the following fall. Again Crawford worked hard - so hard that the Native Americans sometimes referred to him as “the hungry white man.” “I was the first one with a load in the morning and the last one at night,” he said. Crawford was always looking for better ways to do the job, such as his drop-through dray. At the time, crawlers and drays were used to haul logs out of the woods. Crawford’s dray had a set of chains that acted as bunks. Simply tripping the chains allowed the logs to “drop through,” thereby taking much less time to unload.
Hauling was also a challenge. The roads on the Menominee lands were built for little bobtail trucks, and the markets for the pulpwood that Crawford was cutting were 60 to 80 miles away. That was too long a haul to make money with the little trucks, so Crawford was hauling with his truck and pup system. But during wet weather the truck and pup had a hard time getting around on the poor roads. Crawford again thought there had to be a better way. He developed a pre-hauler system. His first pre-hauler was a John Deere tractor pulling a pup trailer. Now he could load trucks on the main road regardless of the weather. He kept looking for improvements. His next pre-hauler was a converted earth mover that would haul during still more challenging conditions. Encouraged by the success of his innovations, he became a partner in a welding shop at Polar, Wis. Now he had the means to develop other ideas in logging machines. He and his partner bought a big six-wheel drive machine, called a tank retriever, from the Army. They gave it a new engine, mounted a loader and converted it into a pre-hauler. It worked so well that other loggers started asking for it. Eventually Crawford and his partner built about 35 of the “Polar Prehaulers.” When feller-bunchers first appeared, Crawford decided to build his own. He mounted a shear on the back of a skidder that worked well in softwoods, but was not as good in hardwoods. He sold the patent to an Oregon company that built a few, but it did not become a big success.
Crawford then purchased a Drott feller-buncher, but its long tail swing made it difficult to use in the selection cuts he was doing in the national forest. He went back to the drawing board and designed a set of booms that collapsed over the top of the machine and reduced the tail swing to about the width of the tracks. He asked Larry Klement, an employee of the Polar Welding Shop, to help him build it. Crawford considers the redesign of the boom his greatest innovation. “That was the real start of Timbco. A lot happened after that, but that’s what really made the company,” he said. The first machine with the new boom had wheels and tires, but it had problems with the hydraulics. Crawford and Klement replaced the wheels with tracks, and it worked well.
At that time Crawford was primarily interested in building machines for his own use. He didn’t want to be in the manufacturing business. He had been testing equipment for the Caterpillar Company, so he asked its engineers if they might be interested in producing the machines. “They liked the idea really well, but they told me that the hierarchy didn’t think we’d developed it far enough for them to be interested. So they turned it down. They could have had it for nothing,” Crawford said. Other loggers kept asking Crawford to build them machines. He felt he had to satisfy their requests. When his partner in the Polar Welding Shop decided not to get involved in manufacturing, Crawford sold his share of the Polar Shop and used the money to start another shop in Shawano, with former Polar employee Larry Klement as his partner. At the age of 55 and after having been a logger for most of his life, Crawford began a whole new career. “I was kind of forced into going into the manufacturing business. As it turned out, it was the best thing I was ever forced into,” he said. The machines were sound, but financing the company was a challenge. “If we didn’t get paid for one machine, we didn’t have enough money to buy parts for the next,” Crawford said. “We really struggled in those early years.
Crawford’s first machines had two-way leveling. When two men from the state of Washington came to look at the machines, the men told Crawford that if he could build a machine with four-way leveling they’d buy it. “Larry and I and those two fellows sat in a joint until about 2:00 in the morning and tried to figure out how to do that, on napkins or something. The next morning we had it,” Crawford said. Three months later, in April of 1982, Crawford’s first machine with four-way leveling (using four hydraulic cylinders) was built and displayed at a forestry show in Spokane, Wash. The machine worked wonderfully at the show, though it had never been tested, never cut a tree before the show. After the show, Crawford demonstrated the machine on fairly steep slopes and impressed potential customers. Orders started coming in, and more machines were produced.
A while later the machine was demonstrated at another show in Elkins, W. VA Other companies kept their equipment on the ridgetop, but Crawford put the Timbco on a steep hillside. “My son took the machine down there, and we walked up that hill cutting trees like they couldn’t believe. We stole that show, Crawford said. Crawford’s phone kept ringing. People wanted the machines, but Crawford was leery about financing the expansion of the company that was needed to meet the growing demands. As it turned out, he had other options. Several large equipment companies contacted him. They wanted a piece of the action. Crawford made a deal with Timberjack. He kept the rights to manufacture six major components, and Timberjack assembled and marketed the machines. Crawford received a royalty on every machine sold. “It went well for us,” he said. “I wasn’t a wealthy man, but I wasn’t financially strapped as I was in the early years.”
After about four or five years, however, sales tapered off. Competitors were converting Japanese-made machines to feller-bunchers, and selling them for less than Crawford’s machines. “They were whipping our fanny,” he said. Crawford met with Timberjack to discuss new design innovations that might improve sales. Major innovations were the use of only two hydraulic cylinders for the four-way leveling system and changes in the location of the engine. Crawford’s previous machines had the engine down low, where it sometimes did not work well under wet logging conditions. A new “engine-up” design was developed.
Crawford anticipated that Timberjack would continue to produce the machines. When agreements could not be reached regarding design ownership, however, Timbco and Timberjack severed their relationship. Timberjack kept the engine-down design, and Timbco began production of the engine-up machine as an independent entity in Shawano.
The engine-up design sold well, especially in the Northwest, including British Columbia. The machine was at home on steep terrain. Other good markets were the Northeast and the Lake States. Timbco had as many as 150 orders for machines on the books at one time and was building up to 250 machines a year. Other companies again started calling Crawford to get involved with or buy Timbco. Timbco negotiated with several companies but had become particularly well acquainted with Partek (Valmet) through Timbco’s sales in Australia. About that time, Crawford had also rekindled his interest in wheeled equipment. He thought it had a good future with the trend to cut-to-length logging systems. Timbco was just starting to produce wheeled equipment when a deal was made in 2000 whereby Partek bought Timbco, and Crawford maintained the option to buy back the wheeled division within two years. Now well into his 70s, Pat Crawford was not done yet. When Timbco was sold to Partek in 2000, Pat Crawford maintained the option to buy back the wheeled division within two years. Because Partek had wheeled equipment of its own, it was primarily interested in Timbco’s tracked division and ownership of the brand name.
In July of 2002, Crawford bought the wheeled division and started a new company, TimberPro, whose focus is on wheeled forwarders and harvesters. He was 77 years old. “Retirement to me is a dirty word,” Crawford said. “I may be old, but I don’t want to go to Florida and sit there for the rest of my life. I insist on keeping relatively busy.” TimberPro spent the first few months redeveloping the wheeled equipment. The initial focus was on forwarders, but a feller-buncher/harvester soon followed. The first feller-buncher was designed, built, and sold by the end of 2002.
TimberPro’s feller-bunchers are a new and unique combination of wheeled machines and heavy-duty cutting heads that can control the fall of the tree. Controlled-fall heads had previously been found only on tracked machines. “The trouble with all the wheeled equipment that’s on the market today is that it can only handle the smaller Scandinavian-type heads. For a lot of the conditions that we’ve got in this part of the world, you need a heavier duty more robust type of head. We tried to perfect this piece of equipment to handle the bigger heads,” Crawford said.
The TimberPro feller-buncher should prove to be particularly useful in areas with heavier, higher value timber, such as the oak forests of Southwestern Wisconsin where harvesters have not yet replaced hand-held chainsaws to the extent they have in the aspen and softwood forests further north. The TimberPro is available with a variety of different feller-buncher and harvesting heads, including the Canadian-built Risley Rolly II which provides total tree control off the stump, and easily removes the limbs of oaks.
As of this writing, TimberPro was developing yet another innovation. Crawford calls it a combo machine because it can be used for both cutting and forwarding. “It’s a way you can do both jobs with one machine. You can cut your costs almost in half to get in business,” Crawford said. He added that a primary goal of TimberPro is to make the best machines at the best price. At least two foreign companies have been experimenting with combination machines, but to our knowledge, no such machines had been imported as of this writing. In at least one case, the foreign machine uses a single head for both cutting and loading.
TimberPro's approach to the combo machine is to build a forwarder with interchangeable heads, one for cutting and one for loading. Crawford believes the increased production from inter-changeable heads will more than make up the 15 to 30 minutes of downtime required to switch them. The combo machine is the latest addition to Crawford’s long list of new ideas in logging equipment. In spite of his innovative ideas, Crawford claims that he is not mechanically inclined. Unlike many equipment inventors, as a youth he wasn’t interested in the mechanics of cars and engines, and he never became a welder. He does have a talent that may have helped him, however.
An engineer once told Crawford that he had the rare gift of three dimensional thinking. Crawford described it as the ability to conceptualize a machine, watch it work, tear it apart, modify it, and make it do all sorts of different functions without ever having actually seen it. The machine doesn’t have to exist for him to understand it and watch it work in his mind. I may do that for hours,” he said. “So if I have been given a gift, it’s that.” Crawford said that people who learn of his inventions and accomplishment sometimes assume he is extraordinarily bright. His usual response is that success has as much to do with persistence as brilliance. He says that anyone who spends as much time thinking about logging equipment as he does is bound to come up with new ideas. “You just don’t have to be a genius to be successful,” Crawford said. “What you have to be is completely devoted to what you're doing.”
He emphasized devotion again when we asked him what his response would be to someone who asked his advice about becoming an entrepreneur. “The first thing I would tell him is that he’d better put most of his recreational activities to the side. Forget about eight-hour days. You have to make it part of your life, so make gull darn sure that you love whatever it is that you want to do,” he said. Crawford left no doubt about his own love of his work and of the timber industry. “This industry means everything in the world to me. That's why I won't retire,” he said. “There is not a better group of people in any industry than the people in forestry. The people I associate with, I couldn’t give up under any conditions.”
Crawford’s other rules for success, besides being devoted to it, are to surround himself with good people and respect them as equals; to provide the best products and services; and to constantly be looking for new ideas to stay ahead of the competition. “You’ve got to be watching for competition all the time. You have to realize there’s always somebody out there that could be better than you. You can’t just sit on your laurels. You‘ll get left in the dust if you do. That’s the nature of any business these days,” he said. In order to keep abreast of the competition, Crawford attends forestry shows and mingles with loggers and other customers. Regardless of his success as an entrepreneur, he still sees himself as a logger. Unlike the CEO’s of many larger companies, Crawford prides himself on personal knowledge of his machines and personal relationships with his customers. While he finds that the personal relationships keep him grounded in the real world, they are also the source of his greatest frustrations. When a machine is not working properly, the phone call often comes directly to Crawford‘s desk. Learning about a problem with a machine bothers him more than any of the other management, marketing, technical, or financial problems he faces. “I’m so directly involved with the end users. I know a lot of them personally. It bothers me so much to think they bought my machine, they’ve got a big family to feed, and my machine is broken down. That is the toughest thing I’ve had to cope with through the years; that I built something that had not done the job properly. That really wears on me. I’ve shed tears in this seat more than once.” Having been a logger for most of his life, Crawford has a natural compassion for people who work hard, whether they are fellow loggers or the people who work for him. With regard to his employees, he places little value in rank and status. He prefers to treat employees equally, and he believes that he should not ask anyone to do a job that he is not willing to do himself. He believes that an employer should feel more indebted to his employees for working for him than they should feel to him for providing jobs.
As further evidence of Crawford’s discomfort with status, an employee told us that it is not uncommon to find Crawford sweeping the floor at the end of day. We also learned that when Crawford once won a substantial patent infringement lawsuit, he divided the proceeds among his employees. He likewise shared the money from the sale of Timbco with employees. Crawford has been equally generous within the community, thought he did not mention it during our interview. We learned about it quite by accident while making follow-up phone calls. Crawford contributed money for a skating rink for the city of Shawano. For the Shawano Gresham school district he contributed funds for equipment for a weight room, lights for the football field, and seats for the auditorium. His largest donation was for two computer-aided engineering technology centers at the middle school and the high school. “Pat Crawford has done a lot of charitable things. He doesn’t want his name upfront. He’s just a generous person,” said Fred Ponschok, former technical education chairperson for the Shawano Gresham School District. Dr. Richard Hess, Shawano - Gresham Superintendent, had similar praise for the Crawfords. “They are totally great people, generous to a fault. I can’t say enough about what they do, and they try to do it silently. They don’t want a lot of fanfare. The whole family is generous. I certainly appreciate everything they’ve done for the school district,” Dr. Hess said. Crawford’s avoidance of fanfare is consistent with his high regard for humility. He believes that humility must be balanced with personal pride and self-confidence. Humility helps in recognizing the value of employees and in understanding the need to be competitive. Pride is necessary to keep going in the face of adversity. “You have to be a good listener, but you also have to have a lot of pride in yourself. In the end you have to make the decision, and once you make the decision, you can’t have a lot of doubts. Anyone who doubts his capability is never going to be successful,” Crawford said.
He found that to be true in both logging and manufacturing. As a young logger, he once placed a high bid on a tract of timber and was told by other loggers that he would lose his shirt. But he had cruised the timber carefully and was confident in his figures. He ended up making a good profit. He learned then to have confidence in himself. It came in handy many years later when a lot of people told him that Timbco wouldn’t work.
When Timbco proved to be successful, Crawford found that developing and implementing new ideas in logging equipment gave him even more satisfaction than logging. He still enjoys coming up with new ideas at his drawing board. “It’s an awfully nice feeling to know that you’ve done something for the forest industry that has enhanced and helped a lot of people throughout the world,” he said.
He gives a lot of credit for his success to the support he has received from his family, especially his wife, Ruth. She currently works at TimberPro. During the early years when Pat was logging, Ruth was home raising the family while he camped in a logging shack. “There she was all alone in the little town of Winter with four, five, and six snotty nosed kids. I never saw a woman work as hard as she did. She was the most devoted mother there ever was. If anyone deserves what she’s got nowadays, it’s my wife,” he said.
The Crawford’s raised eight children, four sons and four daughters. All of the sons, Kenny, Mike, Lee, and Sam, were involved with Timbco and are involved with TimberPro. Mike and Kenny are also following in their father’s footstep as loggers for Menominee Enterprises. Daughter Cindy works as a secretary for TimberPro. Mary, Kathy, and Liz are stay-at-home moms. Over the years, Crawford’s family has adjusted to his love of the industry and his devotion to his work. As an example, Ruth good-naturedly enjoys telling friends that a Crawford family vacation usually had a Timbco at the other end. They called it a Timbco vacation. Of course that was in days gone by. Things are different now.
“Now we call it a TimberPro vacation,” Crawford said.
Written By: Dave Wester, Used with permission from Timber Producers Association of WI and Mi