Q & A
Women in Forestry
A family affair: Q&A with Fink’s Sawmill Ltd. office manager Shari Smaha
By Ellen Cools
As a young girl growing up in Smithers, B.C., Shari Smaha did not plan on joining the family logging business, Fink’s Sawmill Ltd. (Editor’s note: the company previously operated a sawmill, but transitioned to focus solely on logging years ago.) But, after graduating from BCIT with a diploma in financial management, she found herself working for an interior logging company, and eventually transitioned back home to work for her family’s company. Today, she runs the administrative side of the business, working with her father, her brother-in-law, and her son – a true family affair.
CFI: What was it that first led you to becoming involved in forestry?
I was born into a forestry family. My grandfather, Bernhard Fink, originally a gold miner in Barkerville, moved to the Hazelton area and started cutting timbers for the underground tunnel supports for local area mines. My parents were both teachers in Smithers, and at night, my dad helped his father-in-law in the operations. Both my grandparents passed away at an early age and in the mid 1960’s my parents took over the company.
CFI: So, did you always see yourself getting into the family business?
No; after high school, I left Smithers for the bright city lights to play college volleyball. While I was at Langara Community College, I took a few business courses. Eventually, I found myself at BCIT, where I graduated with honours in the financial management diploma program. My first industry job was with the Inland Group at their head office in Burnaby, B.C. My husband, Brent, was offered a transfer through his work to the Okanagan and there, I found employment with Roga Contracting Ltd., a logging contractor in Monte Lake, B.C. Ironically, the owners, Pat and Rose Young, had ties to the north as my dad taught Pat Young in high school.
CFI: Wow, what a small world.
I think we’re all connected. In logging, everyone knows of everyone.
At the same time, when we realized Brent’s job wasn’t going to go any further as far as personal advancement, my mom and dad were thinking of retiring. Brent and I moved home to Smithers with the idea of taking over the family business, but, to our surprise, we found out we were pregnant with triplets. Brent went out to the bush to help my dad and follow in his footsteps, while I was with my mom in the office. Our son and two daughters were born in the fall of 1997, and 18 months later, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). I wasn’t able to deal with the busyness of three infants on my own, plus the added curveball of learning to live with MS, so we decided Brent needed to find a job where he could be home at night. He managed a company here in Smithers and my brother-in-law stepped into Brent’s position.
Today, my dad is still active in the company. He’s 82; he’s out building roads! His mind is always thinking about the business, and he’s always engaged. I do all of the office work. My brother-in-law, Ryan, is the bush foreman, and these last couple of winters, my son has been out running a skidder in the bush.
CFI: So, what is that you enjoy about the logging industry?
It’s a rollercoaster. It’s always changing. I don’t go out to the bush often, but when I do, I love the smell of the woods. It’s home. It’s family. For me, personally, I like that our family is together in business. I don’t think there are many people who can say they work with their son, their brother-in-law and their father. Of course, that’s challenging too. We have to be able to split family versus business, to know when it’s family time and know when it’s time for business. Sometimes that’s difficult, and other times it’s easy.
CFI: As the office manager, what are your responsibilities?
I do everything in the office that has to do with paper, from payroll to payables and receivables, year-end, forest safety certification process and insurance renewals. If there’s paper that needs to be dealt with, that’s me. I also participate in meetings with our licensee, as communication supports a solid working relationship. I enjoy taking trips with our log trucks to ensure cycle times are reasonable and that’s a great way to get in a visit to the bush. Anything I can help with to just take the pressure off of the guys in the field I take on, because our industry is crammed into maybe seven or eight months, so everybody’s “Go, go, go!” If I can help out in any aspect, I’m happy to do that.
We recently implemented electronic logging devices (ELDs) into our program. We have three company-owned logging trucks, and with that new regulation taking effect in June, we decided to get a head-start last year. Our population of workers is aging, and two of our three truck drivers are in their 60’s, so I didn’t want to throw a device into their truck and deter them. It’s already a challenging job to drive a logging truck, and then to throw in electronics on top of that, it’s a lot. So, I just slowly adapted the ELDs into our fleet with the attitude that we had time to just play around with them, and, so far, it’s been great.
CFI: Were there any particular mentors that helped you to this point in your career?
My dad, Myron, was a big part. He’s just this honest, fair businessman, and I always wanted to be like that. To me, he’s the kind of guy that everybody should be like in business. He treats people well, fairly and honestly. His word is his word. I work hard to be of the same demeanor, and I feel that if you treat people with respect, you gain respect. I am very thankful for my mom, as she is the backbone of our family and has always been home for me and my sister.
There was also a woman by the name of Mary Anne Arcand, and she was the executive director of the Central Interior Logging Association, based in Prince George. She has since passed away, but she was a determined advocate for our industry. Her rapport with the logging community was strong; she was our voice. I watched her work with people, how she reached out to help the membership, and her interaction with government on action items. She was as a true leader. Both my dad and I were directors on the CILA board at that point, and it was a great opportunity to see how a female can make a difference in a male-dominated industry. To me, I don’t think it matters if you’re female or male, it’s just how you conduct yourself and communicate within your group.
CFI: So, as a woman in the logging industry, do you find there are any particular challenges?
I don’t think so as I’m in an administrative capacity. Perhaps if I was out as an operator in the bush, there might be challenges. I hope that women are not treated differently out in the field, but I think if we all pull our weight, does it matter if you’re male or female? We’re all equal. We may lack physical strength, but we just have to adapt to it.
I believe the reason why more women are not machine operators out in the bush is having to be away from home for an extended period of time. I was very fortunate to have the flexibility in my position to allow me to balance my workload while being home for my family.
CFI: What advice do you have for young women who are looking at a career in logging?
Do it! Do it and ask questions. Ask questions if you don’t understand; respect your co-workers, your supervisor, your licensee. Treat people the way you want to be treated, and always be willing to learn, to adapt. With the implementation of electronic logging devices, we were all hesitant. I was scared, because although I know how to use technology such as a cell phone, this new device came with a new learning curve. And, as we get older, we’re not as easily accepting of change. But, once you work through it, it’s good. As long as you’re willing to change and move forward, everything’s going to be okay.
And, work hard! Companies appreciate employees with a strong work ethic and who are proud of their efforts. Any kind of contribution to our industry is beneficial – from operating equipment to administration and tracking costs, each job is equally as important.
I also recommend being involved with industry associations. I learned a great deal through the CILA, and continuing to do so as a director with the ILA (the Interior Logging Association). Involvement with like-minded people within the same industry keeps you up to date on current issues. You can benefit from industry conversations and realize, “Oh, I can adapt that to improve our own operations.” You can never stop learning!
This post is part of CFI, Pulp & Paper Canada and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry series celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. Find more content here and follow us on social media with the hashtags: #WomeninForestry, #IWD2021 and #ChooseToChallenge.