Colin Brolly Forestry of Lochgilphead celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2019. Here, the second generation of Brollys – siblings Jude, Rachel and Daniel – sit down with Fraser Rummens to discuss how the business has changed in that time.

WHILE much has changed for Argyll and Bute-based timber harvesting contractor Colin Brolly Forestry in the last quarter-century, family has remained very much at the heart of the business. Founded in 1994 by husband and wife Colin and Jenny Brolly, the firm has seen its fleet grow from a solitary harvester to 24 machines and has a developed a number of long-lasting working relationships with the likes of industry stalwarts Tilhill Forestry, the Forestry Commission and machinery manufacturer Ponsse.

Today, the second generation of the Brolly clan have taken on prominent roles in the business, with siblings Jude, Rachel and Daniel Brolly all playing a key part in its continued success.

Forestry Journal: The new Ponsse Ergo harvester, complete with H8 harvesting head, at the An Carr site.The new Ponsse Ergo harvester, complete with H8 harvesting head, at the An Carr site.

It was a bright but chilly afternoon when I arrived at the Colin Brolly Forestry yard a few miles outside the town of Lochgilphead. Met by company director Jude, we headed into the office and I was soon introduced to Rachel, the company’s health and safety advisor, and Daniel, machine operator and site supervisor.

The business specialises in cut-to-length timber harvesting, and also does smaller work locally, such as welding and repairs, out of its workshop. The firm marked its 25th anniversary in September, Jude tells me, but the Brolly family has been involved in forestry for generations.

“My mother and father started the business up, but dad has been involved in forestry since he was a small boy. His father was in forestry all his life as well, so he started up as a boy on chainsaws and skyline winches.

“He was actually one of the first operators in Argyll on the cut-to-length machines, so he progressed on to the first harvester in 1984 and he was working alongside his brother at the time. Come 1994 he left his brother’s business and started up his own. He’s machine operating, out on site, looking after the sites, pricing work and whatnot. My mum, Jenny, she’s in the office so she takes care of all the administrative duties.”

Forestry Journal: A look back through the early years.A look back through the early years.

The siblings have been around the business since they were kids. Jude served his time with Ponsse as a field service engineer before starting with Colin Brolly full-time, taking care of the mechanical side of things; Daniel started out in the workshop before moving onto machine operating and site supervision; and Rachel came on board around five years ago, taking on the role of health and safety advisor.

“The business grew over the years to a level where there was a need for someone to take care of the risk assessments, and all of the on-site health and safety stuff. It certainly wasn’t lacking before, but having someone dedicated to that was a good thing and has taken care of all that side of stuff,” Jude said. In 2018, Colin Brolly Forestry won the Forest Industry Safety Award from FISA, having been nominated by Kirsty Adams of Tilhill.

Way back when, Colin Brolly Forestry ran a single Osa 250 twin-grip harvester while subcontracting the forwarding work. Soon enough, Colin bought his own Osa forwarder, which sits in the yard to this day.

“It’s a bit of a relic,” Jude said. “But with great sentimental value.”

Forestry Journal: Colin Brolly’s first forwarder still sits in the yard today.Colin Brolly’s first forwarder still sits in the yard today.

The business remained on a steady path for the next seven or eight years with the single set of machines. It was following a move to mid Argyll in the early 2000s that it really took off, said Jude.

“We got a direct production contract from the Forestry Commission in 2003, so that was when we bought the first new machines. Things went really well after that. We also picked up a second contract from the Forestry Commission, which allowed them to double up, so we had two sets of machines.

“I think there was an acknowledgement at that point that working for the public sector was good in some respects. There is continuity of work there, but when your contract comes to an end you are very vulnerable because if it’s not renewed, you’re snookered. So, we made a conscious decision to look for work in the private sector as well. Then, when the work came in the private sector, that entailed having to buy more machinery to undertake it.

“The real expansion came around 2008–9 when we started working with Tilhill. They were quite happy with the work that we did and we have developed a good working relationship, so as the industry has expanded, and the demands on Tilhill feeding the log mills increased, they asked us to do more and more and the machine numbers and the headcount increased to meet that demand.”

Forestry Journal: Jude said that using the larger H8 head with the Ergo harvester had been very successful, offering both agility and a greater capacity to handle large trees.Jude said that using the larger H8 head with the Ergo harvester had been very successful, offering both agility and a greater capacity to handle large trees.

Reflecting on how the industry at large has changed over the past 25 years, Jude said: “It’s changed massively in size. The volume of timber that is being cut now, compared to 25 years ago, is phenomenal. To put it into some sort of scale, we, as a business, are harvesting probably about 400,000 cubic metres of wood per annum now, whereas back 25 years ago, the entire volume of wood harvested in Argyll didn’t even meet that. The volume has increased dramatically.

“Technology is the big thing as well. The machines are so much more productive now. A new harvester today would probably be producing comfortably three times what one was 25 years ago.”

The firm now has around 30 staff and operates 24 Ponsse machines, the latest being an Ergo harvester which played its part in harvesting some 6,000 m³ of timber at the inaugural Forestry Expo Scotland in August.

Jude explained: “The lead time on the new machines is quite large, so you’re looking at probably six to eight months, at best, so at the early part of last year we were discussing what we thought our requirements were going to be coming into this year.

“You either want to add production if the market dictates that, or just refresh what you’ve got and trade in the old one, just to keep the fleet fresh.

“We shook hands on the deal around January–February time and because the lead time on that was around eight months, that was going to be an August delivery. They asked us at the time if we would be prepared to hold back and put it to the Forestry Expo.”

Forestry Journal: Colin Brolly Forestry runs a fleet of 24 Ponsse machines.Colin Brolly Forestry runs a fleet of 24 Ponsse machines.

But before arriving at the Brolly yard after Forestry Expo, the 21.5-tonner had another stop to make.

“It came to my wedding,” Jude continued. “I was getting married a fortnight after the Expo, and because of the backlog that Ponsse had with machines, there was going to be a week to ten-day delay  before they could deliver the machine anyway. I was then getting married only a few days later, so we brought it to the venue and had the wedding ribbon on it.”

So, why the Ergo model in particular?

“The terrain that we work on in Argyll, it’s quite heavy going on machinery,” Jude explained. “Most of our work is all clear-fell, so it’s the right size. It’s big enough to handle big jobs, but it’s medium-sized enough that it’s easy to transport around on a low loader, and performance-wise it suits our needs just perfectly.

“We have in the past had the bigger model – the Ponsse Bear – but we found that the Ergo is actually slightly quicker than it. The Bear is excellent if you are in big, big timber all the time, but nowadays you don’t get enough jobs like that to justify the extra cost and the running of it. It’s all Ergo harvesters that we use now.”

The Ergo is fitted with the H8 harvesting head, which was initially used with the Bear.

“We bought our first Ergo with an H8 on it in March of last year to see how it performed with the bigger head on the same size of machine and it’s been very successful, so when this one came around there was no real doubt about it. It certainly justified the cost to put the bigger head on it. You get the performance, it handles the smaller stuff, it’s still agile but you’ve also got that capacity to handle the bigger trees when they come along.”

Forestry Journal: The An Carr harvesting site in Argyll and Bute.The An Carr harvesting site in Argyll and Bute.

The new Ergo is currently proving its worth on a harvesting site on An Carr, operated by Colin’s brother, Sam Brolly.

I asked Jude why they’ve stuck with Ponsse for so long.

“In our experience they are really good, robust and reliable machines,” he said. “That’s 20 years now we have been dealing with Ponsse, so we do have an excellent relationship with them. We’ve always found the backup to be exceptionally good so that’s why we’ve never really looked past them. They’ve never really given us any reason to.”

Forestry Journal: Ergo operator Sam Brolly.Ergo operator Sam Brolly.

Anniversaries are a good time to take a step back and look at what has been accomplished. What is the team most proud to have achieved with the business?

“Personally, I’m most proud of the fact that we have been here for 25 years, in the heart of Argyll, and are still expanding. It is passing over to the second generation, it is still going strong; and also, we’ve got an excellent reputation in the industry of doing a good job and providing a reliable, conscientious service,” Jude said.

Another point of pride for the business is that it has made a conscious effort to employ people from the local area. The firm also recently trained its first female forwarder operator.

“Probably about ten of the operators are people we’ve started and trained up from scratch; they weren’t involved in the industry at all,” Jude went on. “That’s not something that many other contractors in the industry do – take on guys from scratch and train them up – so that’s something we’re proud of, and they remain with us.

“We do have a lot of people still approaching us and asking if we would be interested in training them up and giving them a chance. You just have to accept that the nature of that can be a bit of a lottery, but it’s something we’ll continue to do. I think it’s the right thing to do. Also, as I said, nobody else in the industry seems prepared to give them a chance. I think what helps as well is if you’ve got guys and you’ve started them off then they tend to be a bit more loyal to you as well; they stay around longer.”

Daniel said: “You’re not going to strike it lucky with every one of them, but we have trained a lot of them up from scratch and they are still here and have turned into excellent operators.

“I think because it’s a family business, my favourite part is we’ve had a lot of operators that have been here for a long time so you feel you’ve got a really good relationship with them, you enjoy getting day-to-day conversations with them and it feels tight-knit. It feels more like a community.”

Rachel added: “There are some that have been here so long that that they’ve seen us as wee ones and now we’re grown up. They’ve been that long with us, so we do have a good relationship.”

Forestry Journal: The new Ergo at work, with Sam at the controls.The new Ergo at work, with Sam at the controls.

And what does the future hold for Colin Brolly Forestry, now that the next generation is taking the helm? Expanding the base is priority number one, Jude said.

“We’ve got the workshop and we’ve got the portacabin to deal with the office stuff, but as the business has grown from a couple of sets of machines in the early to mid 2000s, we’re now running 24 machines, so the workshop is too small and we struggle. There are four of us in the workshop, quite often on a daily basis, so we need to get a workshop that is at least double the size. We would ideally like something that incorporated all the offices and stores and welfare facility, all under one roof.”

Beyond that, the hope is the business will continue to grow. “Ideally, in years to come, if I could hand the business over in a better shape than it is now, I would be delighted,” Jude added.