August 25, 2011
In a series of articles I will review the three major manufacturers of Grapple Skidders, the strengths and weaknesses of the designs and what to look for based on terrain, operation and culture. Terrain is essentially the type of ground you work on be it hilly, flat, rocky, sandy, wet, etc. Operation refers to the type of cuts you predominantly work in, plantation thinning, clear cuts, select cuts, etc. Culture refers to the type of fleet you want to maintain and your general philosophy as to which is best for you. In other words you may be a high maintenance organization and only sell when it becomes difficult to get replacement parts. You may buy new and sell or trade around 5000 hrs to keep a newer and more reliable fleet. You may be a mix of the two, buying new or late model used equipment when times are good.
Before I go any further it is important to state that I believe the best Skidder for you is the manufacturer with the best local dealer support. This will always be the case and I believe it always has been. There is nothing worse than owning a great machine and relying on a sub-par dealer to support you or having to drive 150 miles to pickup a part. Recently I helped a customer sell all of his equipment because he felt that the local dealer had let him down in a significant way. He now runs Tigercat and is well satisfied with both the equipment and the service he receives. Good local dealer support can make you or break you. This is the first question anyone should ask themselves before making a machine purchase. What is the level of service I will get on that machine where I live and work?
Here I have briefly summarized the current status of the big three. Obviously this is my opinion in my limited perspective. I routinely work with hundreds of loggers across the Southeast and we are constantly receiving positive and negative feedback about all the manufacturers and their local dealers. It is impossible to be 100% accurate in making a general summary like this. It is meant to give readers a basic overview of where we stand currently and the basic strengths and weaknesses of the major manufacturers. This may certainly not apply in your neck of the woods.
CAT is still the gold standard in global heavy equipment design and manufacturing. They are considered the best heavy equipment in the world and by and large they do not disappoint. The one weakness they continue to suffer from is a general lack of understanding of the forestry customer and culture. Obviously, CAT has excellent sales reps and local dealers in many markets, especially the South. In my opinion their work is consistently undermined by CAT Corporation and Dealer owners who refuse to recognize that the forestry customer is unique. CAT and its Dealers desperately want to force a square peg into a round hole and tend to create ‘one size fits all’ products and services. This is most evident in the cost of parts and service and the way CAT delivers them. Loggers simply cannot afford to pay premium prices for parts and service. CAT needs to seriously reevaluate its service and support philosophy. A potentially looming disaster is CAT’s announcement they will no longer offer Cummins power in their Fellerbuncher and Loader lines. If CAT stumbles with another poorly designed Perkins substitute it could further harm CAT’s forestry reputation.
Deere is an excellent manufacturer and is every bit as good if not better than its rivals in several respects. Deere Financing is probably the number one advantage they possess in the market right now. Deere rates are among the most competitive available and their willingness to finance loggers is impressive. Deere also boasts a dealer network in the US that is every bit as good as CAT and much more affordable, particularly their road service. Deere has recognized that they cannot compete by charging premium parts and service rates. I think this speaks to their understanding of the forestry market and its culture. Deere needs to improve its fellerbuncher and loader lines (loaders have improved greatly in the past year), so that they can offer a complete line to the southern tree-length market. If Deere can do this, they can regain a lot of market share.
Tigercat is now the number one forestry brand in the Southern US (world’s largest forestry market). Tigercat has developed such a strong reputation in recent years that they are now able to charge a premium for their equipment versus competitors. Still, they have a major weakness and that is not having access to the financing that CAT and Deere provide. Nonetheless, Tigercat continues to grow its market share month to month. This is due primarily to the fact that they design and manufacture excellent equipment in all three major product categories: Skidders, Fellerbunchers and Loaders. This has created a tremendous amount of brand loyalty. Tigercat also seems to clearly understand the forestry customer and Tigercat dealers are clearly more personable and make a supreme effort to take care of the customer, regardless of whether it always results in a meaningful profit. That philosophy may remind you of another dealer that once dominated the South.
Over the next few weeks I will discuss each Skidder line, their strengths and weaknesses. I am not an engineer and do not pretend to be. I can only relate to you what I am told by owners and operators in the field and add a bit of personal experience as well. I hope you enjoy it.