Retirement is not the end of the road but the beginning of the open highway
Starting the magazine has afforded me the privilege of meeting and getting to know many people who are instrumental in keeping the wheels of forestry turning. My dealings with some of these individuals have progressed from a working relationship into a good friendship and James V Stronach, product manager of Palfinger UK, falls into this category.
When James told me he would be retiring in the summer I was saddened by the news as I thoroughly look forward to the times when we meet up professionally and socially. James has spent his entire career – almost 50 years – with what has technically been the same company. He started out working for James Jones and Sons’ engineering division (JJ), which was renamed Outreach in 1989 after the engineering division was subject to a management buyout. Today it is known as Palfinger UK after Outreach was acquired by the TH White Group in 2018.
Early Years At James Jones
James revealed a flair for engineering from a young age and after finishing school he went on to study engineering and design. After completing his course he was offered the position as an apprentice draftsman in the design office at JJ. However, he had already gained some experience of the company as his school holidays were spent earning pocket money at their sawmill in Larbert.
James worked under the talented chief engineer Bill Baillie and was soon drawing designs for their Highlander skidders and forwarders. Bill was a hands on person and it wasn’t long before James was in the workshop putting together some of his own designs. James recalls one scary incident in particular that he can look back on and laugh about now:
“One morning, after a long day of welding in the workshop, I woke up in a blind panic so to speak as I couldn’t see a thing. During the day my sight slowly returned and I realised I had suffered from welding flash as a result of not using my mask properly; luckily there was no long-term damage but it was terrifying at the time.”
Airlie Bruce Jones (the males in the James Jones family proudly use the name Bruce as they are descendants of Robert the Bruce) was the managing director of the engineering division and they had an 80% share of the engineering market in UK forestry. Many machines that James worked on were exported all over the world. Under a new business known as Igland-Jones, Airlie had concluded a deal with Igland products, Norway, to sell their products throughout the English speaking world.
“This was an exciting time in forestry for a young engineer as forestry was going through an amazing transition with technology. County’s and Unimogs were being converted into effective forestry skidders,
County forwarders and Alp skylines were being developed, and hydraulically operated loading cranes were making a big impact in timber haulage.”
James was involved with many of these projects; JJ built County skidders and forwarder conversions (better known as Highlanders) from the ground up and even the Duncan safety cabins were manufactured in-house under license. Bill was clearly a fantastic tutor, providing James with the opportunity to not only design and build the equipment but also to go out and field test it.
“To see our equipment working successfully and being well received by forestry companies and contractors gave me an enormous feeling of pride. The engineering division was at full manufacturing capacity with new orders for equipment arriving every day.”
JJ held an impressive portfolio of dealerships which included Cranab, Fiskars, Jonsered, Loglift cranes, Gremo forwarders and harvesters, Farmi trailers and cranes, Igland and Plumett industrial winches (used by the electricity board), the Makeri skid steer mini harvester, and Unimog and Pinzgauer all-terrain vehicles. James remembers spending almost nine months travelling throughout the UK demonstrating and marketing the Makeri mini skid steer harvester; The time spent out in the field and interacting with potential customers was a fantastic experience for a young design engineer.
JJ built their own trailers for County and Roadless tractors fitted with trailer or tractor mounted cranes. The Cranab cranes were ideal for both due to the short kingpost height and the self-contained Alp skylines. During this time many one-off special builds were produced, including:
- A Cranab crane adapted for use with a hydraulic power chisel for a firm of Edinburgh steeplejacks to dismantle chimneys in built-up areas
- A 20-ton telegraph pole trailer with a hydraulic crane log-lift and hydraulic stabiliser legs towed by a specially adapted Ford tractor with a domed cab to provide a better view while loading the trailer
- A small hydraulic static crane designed for handling red-hot castings on the automatic moulding lines at Jones & Campbell Foundry at Larbert
New overseas markets were opening up and equipment was being shipped to Australia, Bhutan, Canada, Cyprus, France, Guatemala, Israel, Portugal, Malawi, South Africa and Thailand.
This involved training operatives either overseas at their place of work or back at Larbert. Bill Nicol, an engineer with JJ, spent two weeks in downtown Athens fitting Norwegian-built halftracks to ordinary tractors for the Greek government, communicating via an interpreter. He went on to spend time in Antalya on the south
coast of Turkey training mechanics employed by the Turkish forestry service on how to extract timber using Unimog and MB Trac vehicles fitted with winches.
New markets also began to open up for timber cranes, one of which involved the development of specialised cranes for Glenlight Shipping from the Isle of Man. This design was unique as the centrally mounted crane had a hydraulic drive system which permitted it to traverse a gantry the full length of the ship in order to load/unload the boat itself. They were installed at Greenock and it was such a
large load that Police escorts were required throughout the journey. James laughs as he remembers that no one ever saw the crew sober during the entire installation process!
James’s role within the company changed as he moved into sales, an astute move by JJ as who better to sell equipment than someone who understands its limitations and capabilities and can advise customers on the correct choice for their needs. He was the first person within the company to have a PC and attended night school to learn the Lotus 123 programmes.
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It wasn’t long before other companies started competing with JJ. Combined with manufacturers starting to market and sell their equipment themselves, this had a big impact on the profitability of the engineering division. It had become clear during the mid-1980s that its best days were over. Sales had been declining for several years and in December 1984, after four years of losses, the board gave the division two years to return to profit. This did not happen, a substantial loss in 1986 and a disagreement over future plans for the business led to the resignation of Airlie Bruce-Jones as joint managing director, leaving Tom Bruce-Jones as sole managing director. Airlie did, however, continue as a non-executive director of the company.
The restructured business had little connection with the rest of the company’s sawmilling operations and a management buy-out was arranged. This led to the sale of the business to Wilson Paton and his colleagues in 1990 under the new name Outreach. They continued to run the business at Larbert until relocating to new premises in Falkirk ten years later. Outreach was completely restructured with the forestry and off-road side of the business being discarded in favour of truck, van and specialist mounted platforms and booms, timber and recycling cranes, and marine and offshore cranes.
An opportunity arose to become the UK sales and service engineers for Austrian crane manufacturer Palfinger Epsilon and the then little known Finnish company, Alucar, who were making inroads developing and manufacturing light but very strong Aluminium solutions for transporting timber. James has been Alucar’s longest serving and best salesman for over 35 years. “I have always been treated like a member of the Alucar family.
Our cooperation worked well right from the start, but over the years we have learned to understand each other even better” said James.
Anssi Alasaari, Managing Director of Alucar said “It has been our pleasure and honour to work with James over the years. He will be missed in our sales team, product development and production.“
“We share 100% the same values as James, his personal way with customers is excellent and his positive attitude and clear communication skills make him a pleasure to work along with.”
“James has been Alucar´s representative longer than anyone else” continues Anssi, he was nominated as a re-seller of the year in Alucar’s 30th anniversary,”
Alucar’s 30th anniversary celebrations attracted over 600 people to what is believed to have been an unforgettable party.
This was to be an arduous two years for James as, having sold Loglift-Jonsered cranes for 23 years, he had to persuade existing customers to consider the new Palfinger Epsilon loaders being offered. A family owned company with roots going back to 1932, Palfinger offers an innovative, reliable, and cost effective lifting solution for commercial vehicles, ships and stationary equipment. James’s diligent attitude and understanding of the products finally paid off and Palfinger timber loader cranes started making an impact.
“James would take on the issues and challenges of the clients and develop “win win” solutions, whilst not losing site of core goals” said Ian Valentine, Sales Diretcor at TH White. “He has a wealth of knowledge enabling him to deliver customer satisfaction to stakeholders at all levels, he never shirked or dodged the challenges, but was always willing to meet them head on, to resolve and deliver mutual benefits for all involved.”
“I tried to go back and work out how many cranes he has sold or designed in his time, but sadly computer records do not go that far back! Using old fashioned, parchment, paper and cave drawings our best guess is over over 2,500 cranes and with Epsilon confirming he is the best performing Salesman in the world recently, he will for sure be missed personally and professionally by many across the industry!”
Lorenz Santner, Area Sales Manager at Palfinger Epsilon added “Today we are pleased to honour one of our dearest friends in the EPSILON family and to say thank you to one of the greatest colleagues in our business before he leaves for his well-deserved retirement.
“James, It is hard to believe that you are now retiring. From the bottom of our hearts, the company EPSILON wants to say thank you! Thank you for putting so much passion into our business and for becoming such a close friend.
“With your comprehensive market knowledge, your professional product development inputs and your outstanding drive you have created the basis for our common success in the UK timber industry. To be frank, your passion is a role model for our whole company and motivates us constantly to stay in motion.
“In addition to your professional way of working, we are honoured being allowed to call you one of our closest friends. Your honesty as well as your endless loyalty is appreciated from everybody who is working with you. Please be sure, you have become well known and highly appreciated in the EPSILON company.
“The whole EPSILON team wish you for the upcoming time only the best. We hope that you stay healthy and that you can enjoy the time with your family and all your friends. THANK YOU!
Lorenz & the whole EPSILON Team.
“Finally, please enjoy the moment when you see an EPSILON crane on the street also in your retirement. It should always remind you of your lifetime achievement.”
CEO Of PALFINGER EPSILON, Stefan Oberleitner, remembers very well the first time he met James, “From the moment I first met James I have been so impressed by his dedication to his job in selling Epsilon cranes. Truly I can say that James was and is a role model to me in how to be passionate about a job. Beside that, James has a great character, fantastic sense of humour and will forever be a member of the Epsilon family! Enjoy your well deserved retirement, my dear friend!”
Customers included JST, Fergusons Transport and AJ Scott of Wooperton, while static cranes were on their way to BSW at Carlisle, Dalmally, and Newbridge on Wye and Ransford Timber in Wales.
James admits that he favours working within the timber haulage industry. He has established close relationships with the companies that he represents and many of his customers are now friends.
“It is hard for most of us to contemplate 49 years in any industry, never mind retain the enthusiasm he has,” said Ian Valentine. “When you speak to James however it is evident in every pore of his being! He has built up many great business relationships, most of whom have gone on to become personal friends. This I believe is not only testimony to his passion for his customer base but also shows his love of the job goes beyond the sale, demonstrating the care he has for his customers and they in turn for him. He is trustworthy, innovative and good company too, so in short, he has been great to work with and get to know personally of these past years. His work ethic, customer care and all-round passion for the Timber Industry is simply beyond compare!”
James does miss the off-road division of the company as one of his great passions is motorsport; they used to have their own test track at Knockhill race circuit, for putting vehicles through their paces and James loved spending time there.
I first met James when he was working for Outreach and was blown away by his knowledge; although he was now the product manager, he remained the point of contact for many customers. I soon realised after chatting to James that you do not simply bolt the crane on, fit a hydraulic pump, connect the hoses and head off to the forest. Calculations for stress have to be made with figures imputed into the drawings so that the engineers can reinforce existing and build new structures that are sufficiently strong and durable.
I asked James about some of his greatest achievements and there were a few that particularly stood out. One was persuading John Scott of JST Services (Scotland) Ltd in Ayr to use Epsilon loaders. John has become a close friend over the last 28 years, purchasing hundreds of cranes during this time.
“I’ve known James now for over 30 years” said John, “in all of that time he has been the salesman for Outreach and before that James Jones. James is a commodity that is very much in short supply these days, he’s a salesman that cares about his company, he cares about the customer, he cares about everybody getting a fair deal and most importantly care’s about getting the details of the equipment correct, nowadays people selling things mostly only care about getting the deal and worrying about problems later, that’s definitely not the James Stronach way.
Over the years we have been on many reconnaissance missions to various countries trying to bottom out the fine details of a specialist piece of kit we were buying, James was always a great advocate of going and seeing what we are getting so the end product is the right thing, on many occasions these trips involved a bit of socialising in the evening with the company we were visiting, I won’t go into too much detail about that, but it mostly involved beer and food and on occasions didn’t end that well.
“James has over the years been very dedicated to us at JST Services, I remember on one occasion we had a breakdown at 9.00 o’clock at night with our first independent loader, which was needed to go and load a ship the next day, once we identified what was wrong James went into Outreach stores and got the part and personally drove down to Ayr so we could get the loader up and running again, he even stayed till after midnight to see it working, that says it all.
“When running a business it is as important to have the support of suppliers as well as customers so that when you have a problem you get the support, that is something that James Stronach is all about, from all at JST we wish James all the best in his retirement.”
James remembers one amusing anecdote that revolved around Rallying as both John and James are keen motorsport followers. James once attended a presentation at Loglift and Alucar where he was introduced to one of his heroes, the Finnish rally driver Ari Vatenin. Naturally, James went on to spend a large part of the evening chatting to Ari. Jump forward to another Alucar event, this time John was there as a guest of James’s. As they were stood chatting a booming voice shouted, “Hey James, how are you?”. It was Ari, who was also a hero of John’s. Johns mouth almost hit the floor in astonishment and envy that James was on such close terms with Ari.
Other highlights include being honoured at surprise events by Alucar in Finland and Epsilon in Austria for his hard work and contributions during his career:
“It was very humbling as they made me feel like part of the family and it’s a wonderful feeling to know that they have appreciated everything I have done.”
Having known James personally for a number of years I can attest that he is one of the nicest and most genuine people you will ever meet. Reading the personal tributes has been incredibly moving. James is held in the highest esteem by both colleagues and customers and has had such an impact that many consider James as part of their family. I don’t know of anyone that has made such an impact on people.
James is currently employed by Palfinger UK, which is part of the TH White Group following their takeover of Outreach in 2018. He is delighted with the way that Palfinger UK is moving forward under their guidance.
I asked James what the future holds:
“We have Dave Wadby taking over my position so after August I will continue on a temporary basis as a consultant to help him to settle in and introduce him to customers. Afterwards I want to spend more time being involved in motorsport; I am Clerk of the Course at the Doune Hillclimb and all major Scottish Hillclimb and Sprint Championship events and I will have the time to pursue my other hobbies of building model rally cars (I have five on the go just now) and painting landscapes. I will also get more time to spend with the grandchildren and potter about in the garden, so although it will be a huge wrench to leave Palfinger UK I am looking forward to pursuing my other interests.”
Looking back, would he change anything?
“No, I have looked forward to coming into work almost every day. No two days are the same and it is a great atmosphere with a real camaraderie between everyone that works here. Of course there were a few times when I felt that I could have walked away, but I am so thankful that I never did. I would probably never have met my wife Jackie if I had as she was Outreach’s company secretary and finance manager.”
James will be sorely missed by both colleagues and customers once he finally steps back, but I am still looking forward to popping over for a cup of coffee and a chat about the good old days of forestry.
On a final note from Ian Valentine, “I would like to take this opportunity on behalf of all at Palfinger UK to wish you James a very happy and long retirement!”
Forest Machine Magazine is written and edited by a forest professional with over 40 years hands on experience. We are dedicated to keeping you informed with all the latest news, views and reviews from our industry.
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