The company behind Farma timber trailers and cranes, Fors MW started out manufacturing candlesticks, but has come a long way since then. CEO Ulrica Fors and international sales manager Tom Belton spoke to Forestry Journal about recent developments – and what lies in the firm’s future.

WHEN telling the story of a company, a popular if cliched way to start is to say that it all began with ‘one man and his dream’. In the case of Fors Mekaniska Werkstad (Fors MW), the firm behind Farma forestry trailers, the line is certainly true. It did all begin with one man, Leif Fors. But his dream had nothing to do with forestry.

A classic example of a true entrepreneur, Leif left school at 13 to spend seven years on the sea, travelling the world, gathering experience in numerous fields of work. During this time, he completed his education through distance learning courses and returned to Sweden determined to build a business – but not especially concerned about which sector this was in. He attempted to establish himself in several different markets, forming one company after another, experiencing numerous setbacks and failures, but never being dissuaded.

In the late 1980s, apparently on a whim, he took a ferry to Estonia, finding a country full of deprivation but also opportunity. Certain he could build something successful there and help create a future for others, he returned in 1992 to form Fors FW.

The company began by manufacturing everything from circular saws to candlesticks, but struggled to fill the order books until Lief was approached about constructing forestry trailers.

Forestry Journal: Fors MW CEO Ulrica Fors.Fors MW CEO Ulrica Fors.

His daughter and current CEO, Ulrica Fors, explained: “Back then, there were lumber trailers, but they were all 10 tonnes and above, costing a huge amount of money, so normal forest owners couldn’t afford them. You needed at least 4–500 hectares of forest to buy a forestry trailer.

“Then one day, while my father was attending the Elmia Wood show in Sweden, he met a guy who asked if he could manufacture a small lumber trailer for a decent price. And my father thought, ‘how hard can that be?’”

The first Farma trailer was constructed on the factory floor. As a six-tonne model, it offered something completely new for the market at a pioneering price point. For the first time ever, small forest owners could afford to buy a timber trailer, and sales soon took off.

Forestry Journal: The Fors MW factory is designed for short series production. It is located in Saue, 15 km from Tallinn in Estonia.The Fors MW factory is designed for short series production. It is located in Saue, 15 km from Tallinn in Estonia.

At that time, Farma was only made in a single model, but today it is one of Europe’s best-selling timber trailers, available in a wide range of sizes that can be varied in an incredible number of ways. While prices have changed, the trailers have always remained affordable, while maintaining consistently high quality.

As for Fors MW itself, today it is a successful company with hundreds of employees, subsidiaries in Sweden and China, and three market-leading brands in Farma timber trailers, Bigab hooklift trailers and Farma-N (formerly NIAB) tractor processors.

It has weathered numerous crises, not least the collapse of Estonia’s financial sector in 1997 – which  nearly drove it bankrupt – and a factory fire in 2006 that went down as the biggest-ever industrial blaze in Estonia’s history. Fors MW has also endured the loss of its founder, Lief Fors, who sadly died in 2015.

In 2020, amid the chaos caused by COVID-19, as industries all around the world are being rocked by insecurity and facing uncertain futures, Fors MW has, by comparison, experienced one of its best years yet, recording exceptional growth in international markets.

“It’s been a crazy year, but the sales have been incredible,” said Ulrica. “Part of that is due to the fact that several governments have put out subsidies and programmes to help people buy forestry equipment. But I also think it has a lot to do with the work that has gone on to develop our brands. We have worked hard on social media for the last 18 months. Mainly we post pictures from our customers. Every time I share one of those posts, within half an hour I will receive another two or three messages from customers wanting to share their photos and experiences.

Forestry Journal: Farma’s T9F has been one of the market’s bestselling lumber trailers for more than a decade. The placement of the frame steering far back on the chassis gives an easily handled trailer that tracks the tractor when driving in the forest. The latest variant of the Farma T9F has been equipped with a fixed crane platform with a low placement, which gives a good view of the forestry work from inside the tractor.Farma’s T9F has been one of the market’s bestselling lumber trailers for more than a decade. The placement of the frame steering far back on the chassis gives an easily handled trailer that tracks the tractor when driving in the forest. The latest variant of the Farma T9F has been equipped with a fixed crane platform with a low placement, which gives a good view of the forestry work from inside the tractor.

“It has helped us realise how important these brands are to people. It’s easy for us to think of them merely as products leaving a factory, but they are much more than that. Farma has been around for nearly 30 years now, Bigab for more than 43. They are important to people. That has been a fun thing for us to realise, through social media, seeing all of these pictures and comments. They come to us from all over the world, because today you can find Farma trailers on every continent. Much of that is thanks to Tom, our international sales manager.”

A member of the Fors MW team for nearly 18 years, Tom Belton is the man who effectively established Farma in the UK – as well as in numerous other countries around the world. And, as with Farma having its origins in a casual conversation at a forestry show, Tom’s story also began with a chance encounter.

In 2003 he travelled to Estonia to visit a friend and, while there, was introduced to Lief Fors and Bigab hooklift trailers. While his background was in farming, Tom had never heard of the Bigab brand. Yet, two weeks later, he returned home as its UK representative.

“It was a bit of a whirlwind,” he said. “I guess it was fate, because I was there at the right place at the right time. Lief was keen to get into the UK market, but that’s not an easy thing to do, as we found out.

“The first 12 months was absolute hell. We couldn’t get an order. We didn’t realise certifications were different in the UK, which meant the first trailer we brought over had to be cut up and welded back together to fit containers. But we got those issues ironed out and managed to secure a few orders. Then one or two dealers came on board and there was a natural progression from there.”

Forestry Journal: Sales of individual Farma cranes are going up, often attached to low-impact small-scale forwarders such as this Logbullet.Sales of individual Farma cranes are going up, often attached to low-impact small-scale forwarders such as this Logbullet.

At that time, the UK’s agricultural sector was having a tough time and dealers were looking for alternative products to sell.

“It opened up an opportunity for us,” said Tom. “One or two of them wanted to move into selling forestry machines because it wasn’t as vulnerable a market as agriculture was.”

The next step was to begin pushing the Farma brand. Many forestry professionals in the UK were already familiar with the name after travelling to Sweden in the wake of 2005’s devastating storm Gudrun, when 250 million trees were snapped like matchsticks.

“That big storm, as sad as it was, helped us a little bit, because so many lads went over to Sweden to help with the clean-up and became familiar with our products,” said Tom. “In fact, I think one or two of them bought trailers there and brought them back home. One or two of them are still going today. That helped with our brand recognition here and meant there was a ready market when we introduced Farma.”

Forestry Journal: Fors MW offers a range of Farma trailers, from 6 tonnes to a range-topping 17-tonne model. A huge variety of options are available, including 4wd and hydro drive. Sat nicely in the middle is the G2 trailer with its octagonal main beam and a useful bolted bank set-up.Fors MW offers a range of Farma trailers, from 6 tonnes to a range-topping 17-tonne model. A huge variety of options are available, including 4wd and hydro drive. Sat nicely in the middle is the G2 trailer with its octagonal main beam and a useful bolted bank set-up.

Tom was able to establish a reliable network of independent dealers in the UK – which today is the company’s fourth-largest market, and one that is constantly evolving as the demands of the industry change.

“One of the recent trends we’ve seen is that the trailers and cranes we’re selling are getting bigger,” said Tom. “Three years ago, 9-tonne trailers and 6-metre cranes were our bestsellers. This last 12 months, the volume has been on 12-tonne trailers and 7-metre cranes. That’s quite a jump in a short space of time.

“Part of that is natural progression. We entered the market 17 years ago selling 6-metre cranes. When those machines came back to us on part exchange people wanted to upgrade to something a bit better and a bit bigger. At the moment, probably around 50 per cent of our sales are from existing customers upgrading.

“But low impact has become increasingly important in the woods. With a longer crane you can go down fewer rides. You don’t make the same mess. There are also fewer people doing these jobs, so they want greater lifting capacity to reduce their workload. All of that pushes demand for bigger cranes. Hence we’ve got new 10-metre cranes coming.”

READ MORE: Biting the bullet

In the UK, Fors FW is also seeing growth in the sale of loose cranes.

“We see them mounted on low-impact mini-forwarders like the Logbullet and Alstor,” said Tom. “That’s a growth area for us. Another development within cranes has been the choice of valves, with a move away from mechanical levers to radio-controlled. In a lot of cases we’re now selling valves that are more expensive than the cranes themselves.”

Safety and visibility are two factors which have influenced this demand, as a radio-controlled valve means you don’t have to be on the machine to operate it. But comfort plays a part too.

Tom said: “If you’ve just bought a new Valtra, why would you want hydraulic hoses intruding on that lovely upholstery and climate-controlled environment? You want the doors and windows closed, air-con on, radio on, and a micro cable coming in to operate the crane valve rather than the valve block stuck through the back window. For a little investment they can have all that.”

Forestry Journal: The Farma G2 range starts at 10-tonne up to the new improved G2 T14, fitted with 600/50/22.5 tyres as standard. A new addition is the T17DB trailer, which handles two bays of 3 m with ease.The Farma G2 range starts at 10-tonne up to the new improved G2 T14, fitted with 600/50/22.5 tyres as standard. A new addition is the T17DB trailer, which handles two bays of 3 m with ease.

And what of the advancements in the Farma range itself?

“The big difference has been in weight. We can now produce a lighter crane and a lighter trailer that’s 20 to 30 per cent stronger than the previous model, because of advancements in steel. You can get 10 kN out of a turnhouse the size of a bag of sugar these days, whereas before it was four foot square. The manufacturing advances have been huge.

“The next change coming through is the reduction in welding. Trying to find good welders these days is not easy, so there’s currently a big shift towards precision engineering with laser cutters to create bolted solutions. The beauty of that is it can be modular. We can build chassis, stack them up in the factory and, as the orders come in, modularly fit them together to the spec the customer wants, rather than having to build each one individually.

“One of the big drivers behind all this is transport costs. When we send sea containers to Canada we can currently put six trailers and crane sets in them. The plan is to get that up to 10. They’re delivered flatpack and bolted together when they get to the dealer. There’s a significant saving in transport costs, but also a big improvement in the experience for the customer.

“Today, someone visiting one of our dealers in the UK might want to buy a trailer but not with the valve that’s on it. At the moment, he’ll have to order a new one, which means an eight-week wait. On the modular system you can supply the trailer and the crane with no valve. The dealer will stock two different valve options and, when the customer comes in the yard, he can choose which one he wants. Then he can sit and have a coffee and a sandwich while he waits for his trailer to be built in front of him.”

It was for this reason that, in 2019, Fors MW bought and installed the Uniport for multi-sided manufacturing of large components. The choice of machining heads enables milling, drilling, tapping, turning and even grinding and rolling – all in a single, small-footprint machine.

It is now a critical element of a production chain owned entirely by the company, following Lief Fors’ belief that a good manufacturer should never leave its production in the hands of subcontractors. This philosophy ensured that when COVID-19 caused considerable disruption and slowdown in the world of machinery manufacturing this year, production of Farma and Bigab equipment was unaffected.

The Fors MW factory is is located in Saue, 15 km from Tallinn, with a production area covering 40,000 m². As well as its factory premises, the company has its own forestry and farming operation in Estonia. Comprising around 2,000 ha, the land is utilised for extensive product testing.

“We are very lucky to have that,” said Tom. “It’s a commercial farm, so we can send products there and tell the guys to try and bust it. Then we bring it back to the factory, strip it down, see where it’s been weak, where it’s been strong, where it’s worn. It’s such a big advantage to be able to test equipment in that way, ensuring it’s of the highest quality before entering the market.

“The sales guys can go and test out equipment, which is a really good thing for us, finding out for ourselves how it works and what it’s capable of. We can then report that back to customers. It gives you great confidence in what you’re selling. If I say a crane will lift 700 kg at 7 metres I know damn well it does, because I’ve done it myself.”

Having that kind of confidence and experience is important when you’re selling a range that is so broad. Looking at the Farma brand alone, customers can choose from 14 different cranes and 13 different trailers, 36 different valve packages, seven types of grapple. The list goes on.

But this exhaustive range of products is what Tom believes sets Fors MW apart, especially when selling into international markets.

“It’s the sheer choice of products available,” he said. “In our range of trailers and cranes there are so many combinations available and, because we control the entire production process, we can make whatever the customer wants.

“That’s a big advantage when you’re selling into so many different countries with different demands. It also helps to be a company where the customer can buy whatever he wants from you – whether it’s a grapple, a skidder, a tree shear and so on. A lot of customers like to buy all their equipment from the same brand, provided its one they know and trust.”

Forestry Journal: MW is owned by the Fors family, secured through a trust for future generations. Pictured is CEO Ulrica Fors with her brother Mikael Fors and his children, Sebastian and Alexander Fors.MW is owned by the Fors family, secured through a trust for future generations. Pictured is CEO Ulrica Fors with her brother Mikael Fors and his children, Sebastian and Alexander Fors.

And while that range is set to grow further, with the addition of more cranes and trailers, there is something even bigger and more exciting on the horizon.

Ulrica said: “Two months ago we took the biggest product development decision in our history. At Elmia Wood 2022, I plan to present the result. I can’t go into details yet, but it’s definitely going to be one hell of a show and will establish us once and for all as a company here to stay for future generations.

“We are excited, but of course nervous. At the same time, it’s fun for me to discover that perhaps I am more of an entrepreneur than I first thought. I may have inherited more of my father’s genes than I realised.”

www.forsmw.com

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