March 11, 2016

Woman of the Woods

After her husband, Donald Smith, passed away from lung cancer in 2000, Shirley Chason faced a tough decision. Should she take over the reins of Donald Smith Logging and continue on, or should she sell the company?

The decision wasn't an easy one. Despite the fact that growing numbers of women hold management roles or own businesses in the United States, logging is still a male-dominated field. In 2014, only 2.8 percent of loggers in the country were women. By comparison, women represent over half of all managerial and professional positions in all industries in the U.S.

And although her husband had run the successful logging operation in Carrabelle, Florida, since 1988, Chason was concerned about the slowdown. "In 2000, mills were not taking a lot of wood," Chason recalls. "Our company had been recently forced to downsize from three crews to one."

Chason decided to soldier on. "It's all I've really known. I’m proud of the progress we've made, and I’m really proud of the men. I’m sure wherever Donald is looking down from, he is, too."

Keeping the Dream Alive
Chason was working as a secretary for Donald Smith Logging at the time. She knew that to be successful, she would have to get out from behind a desk and into the woods. "I had to learn the business. I told everyone that this is my bread and butter - that I wanted this business to survive and for the adventure to continue. But to do that, I told them I needed their help learning everything I needed to know."

Chason is particularly grateful to her forester at the time. "He was surprised that I had all these questions, but he was glad I did. I wanted to know everything about the forest, the crews, the operation, and the payroll. He was really impressed and willing to work with me. St. Joe Timberland, our main contract at the time, worked with me, too. They really understood that I was running the show. I spent many a sleepless night, tossing and turning, worrying and wondering, and hoping and praying. But it all worked out, it really did."

Like Aretha Franklin, Chason just wanted a little recognition from her male counterparts. "I was a little intimidated the first time I attended a class to keep my logging license up, and I was the only woman there. But everyone was real friendly and warmed up to me. They started calling me, Ms. Shirley, a nickname that has stuck to this day."

The company was running used equipment when Chason took over. "Most of it was John Deere, and thank heavens it was because we didn't have a lot of breakdowns. As things got better, we started buying new equipment from our local John Deere dealer.

"Deere has always been good equipment. And the local dealer is just a hop, skip, and a jump away. Our salesman is phenomenal. If I need anything, I'll call him and he helps me any way he can. The service department is phenomenal. If I have an issue with a machine, they'll be right out with a part or whatever is needed. I can't say enough about John Deere. They stand behind their equipment."

Free Spirit
Chason loves the independence of being a logger. "It's not a nine-to-five job. It's very demanding, but I love the freedom of working in the woods and for myself."

Today the company primarily clear-cuts pine. "We're set up to cut wetlands. We're not a track logger, but we do run the big tires." Chason married her current husband, Edward Chason, in 2002. Edward was a truck driver for the company and today runs the trucking operations. "We had some bumpy times, but we decided we really wanted to make something of this and haven't looked back."

One of those bumps included finding enough qualified truckers. "There was a local shortage because the insurance company requires that they have previous experience hauling wood. But we were able to train a few, and they've done well for us."

Like many loggers, Chason is concerned about the death of young operators. "You need to get them interested in logging while they're young. If they haven't been introduced to the woods by the time they are 15 or 16 years old, it might help if they could take a course, say from a local community college. That might get them interested and would be good for the industry."

She shares the story of her nephew's son, 24-year-old Zachary. "When he was eight years old, he'd be out in the woods with his daddy. He didn't want to go to school. He wanted to learn to run a skidder. He just loves it and today runs our skidder and buncher."

The future is looking bright. "We started off struggling and wondering if we made the right decision. But week to week, month to month, and year to year, we've improved. It's proven to be the best decision I've ever made. We've succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. I know my boys have been the brunt of a lot of jokes working for a woman. But they've hung in there and made me very proud of them."