John Deere Forestry’s retiring service manager Billy Telfer reflects on a long and eventful career in and out of the workshop.

IT was the end of an era for John Deere Forestry back in December as long-standing service manager Billy Telfer called time after nearly 24 years at the helm. When the news broke, customers up and down the land – some who have known him all his life – were eager to pay tribute to a man with a reputation for sorting problems in double-quick time without ever speaking a cross word.

Billy will be easing his way into retirement, remaining with John Deere for the time being in a support role with the Dealer Technical Assistance Centre. And since he was back in the office for a day in January, Forestry Journal seized the chance to meet up with him for a chat about his career.

Billy’s links to the forestry world were established early on. Born and raised in Stonehaugh, Northumberland, a village purpose-built for forestry workers in the 1950s, he grew up surrounded by family and friends involved in the industry. From a young age he was taught by his father, a professional mechanic, about repairing timber wagons such as those in his uncle Les’s haulage firm. 

Forestry Journal: Billy back in the days when he was a field service engineer for Timberjack.Billy back in the days when he was a field service engineer for Timberjack.

After pursuing some other opportunities, he eventually came to work for that firm, JL & W Telfer, as a driver and mechanic.

“We were roundwood timber hauliers,” he said. “I ran the workshop with my uncle and I would haul timber out of the woods. In the late ’80s we were involved with hauling the timber up from the big windblow in Kent, bringing it back up to Egger at Hexham. And we went across to Germany in 1990 for the big windblow, when 56 million tonnes of timber came down. We led all the timber from the forests to sites where they sprinkled water on it for going into storage, because they had so much they couldn’t use it. 

“I think 20 wagons went out from the UK, all allocated different areas across Germany. I was driving, but also responsible for servicing and repairing our wagons whenever they broke down, since we didn’t know anybody out there and couldn’t speak the language. We didn’t know how long we’d be out there, but it ended up being seven months.”

After returning to the UK he spent much of his time in the workshop, servicing and repairing lorries and trailers, but also some forest machines, as the company branched out.

“We were mostly putting AFM harvester heads onto Akerman H7 bases using Motomit computers,” said Billy. “And we looked after Lokomo and Valmet forwarders. That was when I started to get really familiar with forest machines.”

Forestry Journal:  For the last two decades Billy has been responsible for John Deere’s aftersales service. For the last two decades Billy has been responsible for John Deere’s aftersales service.

However, his time in the JL & W Telfer workshop came to an end in 1998, when Les decided to sell up. Now in his early 40s, having been with the firm for the best part of two decades, Billy was unsure of what to do. But, as luck would have it, Woodlands Engineering was on the hunt for a field service engineer, who would be expected to travel the length and breadth of the UK keeping the growing fleet of Timberjack machines going. He was quickly recruited into to the team.

“I was in a service van covering the whole of the UK, sometimes helping out in Ireland,” he recalled. “In 2000 we even went out to France for a week to service and repair some UK customers who’d gone to tackle the big windblow there.”

It would be fair to say that servicing forest machines was a different job back then, with phone coverage, parts availability and general support all somewhat lacking compared to conditions today.

“I did everything from changing cranes and booms to repairing harvester heads, engines and axles in the wind, rain and snow,” said Billy. “Back then, everything was repaired in the forest. Health and safety wasn’t so prevalent, so you could do a lot more jobs in the forest than you can do these days. Most of it would be considered too dangerous now.

“But my philosophy has always been: the customer paid a lot for this machine. If it breaks down, he needs it repaired now. So it didn’t matter where I was or how long it took to repair. I would stay till the job was done.

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“It was hard work, but it was great for variety. You could be in Windsor servicing the Queen’s forwarder one day and then having to be in Inverness the next day. I think the last year in the service van I did 53,000 miles.”

In 2002 he was asked if he would like to take the position of service manager, based in Consett, County Durham, and jumped at the chance. It was a period of great change for the business, which in 1999 had been bought out by Timberjack, which in turn had come under the ownership of John Deere (though Timberjack would continue as a subsidiary of John Deere until 2005).

Billy said: “It was hard work in the early days. Really hard work, putting in shifts from 6am to 9pm most days. When I took the service department over, there was no one to show me how it should be run, because the previous service manager had left.

“So I took a sales guy from the parts department in Consett across to the workshop to help me – Alan Frappell – and he became my right-hand man and helped me turn it into what it is today.”

In 2005, the company shifted its operation from Consett to its current base in Carlisle and Billy was tasked with designing the workshop.

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“The first time I came, the building was just a big empty shed and we were using portable cabins for offices,” he said. “And then we started putting in roller shutter doors, overhead and standalone cranes, and tried to get everything running so we could use it as a workshop. 

“When the time came, it was a really straightforward transition. We stopped working in Consett on a Friday night and started working on the Monday morning in Carlisle. We didn’t lose a day’s work.”

Since then, Billy’s role has focussed on preparing new machines for customers, ushering in generations of forwarders from the B-Series all the way to the current G-Series, and continuing to develop John Deere’s renowned aftersales service.

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But don’t assume he’s been stuck in the workshop in Carlisle all this time. His job has taken him across the world, all around Europe and even into Russia.

“We had four or five UK customers who went to Russia to work,” he explained. “It never really progressed and within a couple of years they came home, but I went out at the time to see what the parts and service situation was.

“It was really, really strange, like winding the clock back 80 years. Old ladies sweeping planings off the road. People living in little wooden shacks and filling milk churns with water, because there were no taps in the house. And it was freezing.”

Of course he’s travelled to Finland many times and has made some great friendships there, and has fond memories of trips to Sweden for Elmia Wood.

Working for John Deere has been full of highlights, but asked if there’s anything he won’t miss about the job, the answer is easy – the pressure.

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“One thing that’s really changed about the job over the years is the amount of pressure our customers are under,” he said. “There’s a huge pressure on them to cut as much timber as they can, so when the machine breaks down all they want to do is shout.

“I was always really good at calming an irate customer down. If someone wanted to shout and bawl and scream I would just let them. And finally he would ask, ‘Well what are you going to do?’ And I would say, ‘I’m going to fix your machine’. I think if you speak to any of our customers, that’s what they’ll say about Billy Telfer. He was good to get on with and he was fair.

“But it still affects me – the constant support that I feel I need to provide. It doesn’t matter when I get a call – day or night, weekends or holidays – I’ll answer it. That’s always been my way of dealing with things, but as I get older, it gets harder and I started to carry it around on my shoulders.

“That’s why I decided enough was enough. I’ve done this job for 20 years; I think I’ve achieved everything that I set out to do and now it’s time to let someone else take over.

"And I think it’s the right decision, because it’s already taken the pressure off. And I have some nice new challenges to look forward to.”

The task of replacing Billy was never going to be easy, but John Deere has announced the appointment of Ben Clark as its new service manager. Customers can get in touch with him on +44 (0)1228 574 044.