Australian owned and operated, Sunchip Group was established in 1997 and has grown to become one of the largest independent forestry contractors in Australia. It’s a firm that Scottish forwarder driver Glen Barclay first encountered on his own travels Down Under and here he reports on the Sunchip Group’s story.

AUSTRALIA has a total of 134 million hectares of forest – equivalent to around 17 per cent of its land area – and boasts the world’s seventh-largest area of forest. The country is synonymous with the eucalyptus tree. However, there is a much more diverse population of timber Down Under than many realise. With such dry and arduous conditions directed towards the centre of the country, the main bulk of its woodland operations take place in the northern tropical regions and extend down along the wetter east coast. After arriving in Sydney as a 21-year-old, I had to travel a substantial distance north or south to stumble upon any forest operations.

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Due to the protected nature of Australia’s natural woodland, commercial forestry, where plantations of exotic softwood such as Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) are grown and harvested, makes up the bulk of timber operations in the country. Of the seven mainland Australian states, it is Queensland that boasts the largest area of forest, it making up over 40 per cent of the total coverage. As such it is the ideal base for Australian timber contractors such as the Sunchip Group.

READ MORE: Australian forest management - a recipe for disaster

The Sunchip Group began operations 24 years ago, in April 1997, under the stewardship of former AFL (Australian Football League) star Mark Blackberry. Originating from the rich woodland area of Scottsdale in the north of Tasmania, Blackberry was inducted into the timber industry from a young age and quickly caught the forestry bug. Following his successful stint in the AFL, Mark began working for Valmet as a machinery demo operator and salesman, roles in which he excelled, travelling from country to country for five years while learning the skills he would one day need to establish his own enterprise one day. Eventually Mark decided he had learned enough from working under others and opted to start up his own forestry operation for both the harvesting and transportation of timber – and so the Sunchip Group was born.

Sunchip began to grow at a frightening rate, purchasing several different machines in a short space of time to help get itself off the ground, which ultimately led to a surprise downturn after economic hardship struck Australia. However, after weathering this period of hardship the group rallied, and after years of hard graft and perseverance it is now growing at a positive rate while maintaining control over all aspects of its operations.

Sunchip has over 130 employees within its vast ranks, including harvester and forwarder operators, sawmen, lorry drivers and skyline specialists, allowing it to cover all bases of the timber trade and harvesting approximately one million tonnes of pinewood per year.
Despite being one of Australia’s highest-producing contractors, Blackberry remains modest and maintains his success would be nothing without the love and support of his family. In 2015, Sunchip achieved something no other forestry outfit in Australia had before when it came runner-up at the Trucksafe Transport Industry Awards, an honour Mark is very proud of. 

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Operating mainly in the commercially sustainable regions of Tuan and Wongi, Sunchip boasts a wide roster of machinery such as Komatsus and Madills, but it was Tigercat that appeared to be the main machine of choice as the firm began to grow.

In 2011, Mark purchased two Tigercat 635D skidders which allowed for a significant increase in production while working on difficult soft and sandy ground in Queensland. From then, Sunchip was hooked on Tigercats and, in the following years, he added four tracked machines to its ranks which allowed for a complete change in direction in the southern areas of New South Wales where winching and skylining practices were still firmly in place. The impressive Tigercat LH855C was found to make light work of the once-treacherous slopes of Australia’s Great Dividing Range.

Despite his immediate love for Tigercat, in recent years several John Deere machines have been added to Blackberry’s impressive roster, with the addition of a 3156G Harvester and 1910E forwarder, unique with its IBC technology. With the varied and seriously powerful offering of machines it is little wonder that Sunchip Group can have its fleet of 30 lorries running 24 hours, transporting timber to mills all over Queensland and the east coast. 

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Sunchip is far from being a cold, corporate-minded workplace for employees to aimlessly punch their cards into. The family dynamics at the root of Mark’s success were fundamentally displayed when the daughter of an employee was born with hypoplastic right heart syndrome, an extremely rare and complex condition. Along with friends of the family, Sunchip helped set up a GoFundMe page and donated generously, with Mark addressing the family directly, saying: “We at the Sunchip Group (and Blackberry family) are with you on this journey and will help in any way, shape or form. We are with you guys and you have our full support and love.” In the rugged and dangerous world of forestry, Mark and his team managed to show an incredible amount of compassion amidst a terrible situation, which is to be applauded.

Coming from a forestry background nurtured on Scottish shores to see the vast operation that Sunchip operates is eye-opening to say the least. Given the sheer size of the Australasian continent, in which Blackberry’s flagship firm covers such extensive areas of land, with his reputation stretching even further, it is clear to see he is at the top of the Australian game. The hot working conditions and dry climate present a stark contrast to the environment that Scottish operators toil in. There are no peaty bogs or excessive rainfall to prevent extraction. Instead, Australian operators have the sweltering sun to deal with, forcing them to be constantly on guard to keep their machines from overheating. The sandy, rocky conditions make for a tyre fitter’s paradise as punctures are a regular occurrence and, while the wildlife in Scottish woodlands may force foresters to confront roe deer or the inconvenience of a badger sett, our counterparts on the other side of the globe have far more potentially deadly adversaries. 

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Satellite phones are an essential part of the Australian timber industry, with the likelihood of a venomous spider or snake working its way into the cab, hiding under a felled tree or even sneaking inside the many guards positioned along a machine a high possibility. Being able to seek medical attention as soon as possible is vital.

2022 will see the Sunchip Group enter its 25th year of operation, something that Blackberry is very keen to celebrate as it is a significant milestone, prompting all to reflect on how far the boy from Scottsdale has come. In 2016, Mark was inducted into the Australian Forestry Contractors Hall of Fame for services to the industry, a fitting reward for a man who built his business from the ground up, overcame significant struggles and who continues to take his company to new heights with the same energy and passion he showed in 1997. 

I look forward to seeing what the next 25 years of the Sunchip Group have to offer.