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The Orbis Blog

How the Pandemic Impacted Technology & Operations in the Timberland Industry

All businesses have been impacted by the pandemic, and the forest and land management industry is no different. In this blog, we share the unique challenges that arose in the land asset management industry, solutions that were created to deal with those challenges and potential effects on the industry moving forward.   

At the onset of the pandemic, the timberland industry pivoted from in-person meetings, timber tours and audits to Zoom calls and drone videos.

To see how various land management companies responded, let’s explore the answers to pressing technological and operational questions.  

For more, follow along with our Campfire Session on this topic.

What Were the Biggest Technological Challenges?

#1. Internal Communications

For many companies in the timberland industry, the biggest challenge during the pandemic was maintaining internal communication. As employees transitioned to working from home, companies had to ensure the right technology was in place so all communication could continue without issue.

“This became a disaster recovery scenario for IT departments,” said Rodney Howell, senior vice president of Resource Planning at Resource Management Service, LLC (RMS). “Fortunately, our IT model supports remote work pretty well, so the transition wasn’t too difficult.”

#2. External Communications

The other component was maintaining external communication, particularly for annual client meetings and timber tours. Companies were forced to make a decision: Cancel the meeting or tour, or try going virtual.

Many ended up going the route of virtual client meetings. Instead of doing two long days of meetings, for example, they broke that out into two-hour meetings every day during the week. This format was a positive development as it made things a lot more doable for clients.

But what about a timber tour, which typically does better in person?

The pandemic required timberland investment companies like RMS to get creative. One solution was creating a video that went through the value creation and forest lifecycle. The video included interviews with different team members, including the harvesting manager, the forester on site in the field and a mill partner. The potential buyer was able to receive a comprehensive, well-rounded virtual timber tour.

“We got positive feedback, but we’d much prefer it to be in person,” said Howell. “Communication was the largest hurdle, and the technology today really helped make it so successful and inspiring.”

How Were Investors Impacted?

#1. Communication

Communication with investor clients is essential for any timberland company. Investors expect transparency and responsiveness, which became more difficult as the pandemic threatened the ability to communicate efficiently.

Blake Stansell, president and CEO of The Forestland Group, turned to technology to give investors insight into properties.

“The video delivery piece allowed us to share case studies from multiple locations,” he said. “Typically, you would have an annual meeting in one site, and you get to review multiple stops in the forest, but it’s one region and you only focus on one area with investors. In this case, we could create video content with case studies from three different regions and included a walk in the woods with the forester who manages the property as well as some drone footage.”

#2. ESG Best Practices

During the pandemic, investor clients expressed an increased interest in environmental, social and governance (ESG) best practices. To deliver, the Forestland Group published 80 different ESG and impact-related metrics through a couple of different reports. One was a 25-year retrospective report, and the other was an annual impact report.

Without technology and long-term data management, the metrics they reported on would not have been possible.

#3. Audits

The Forestland Group also continued FSC and SFI certification audits in 2020, which included eight or nine properties, and 90% of that work was done virtually. One property audit in Belize was done completely virtually because visitors weren’t allowed to enter the country.

“We had on-site employees in Belize providing a live video feed to the auditor in Mexico, and we also had people on our side in the United States, so that was a challenge,” said Stansell, “But the overall feedback was that it was effective and proved it could be done virtually.”

All in all, there is potential in the future for a hybrid approach, taking the best of in-person and virtual solutions for investor communication.

 

How Did Companies Help TIMOs and Themselves?

Companies learned the value of flexibility when dealing with timber investment management organizations (TIMOs) and operations during the pandemic.

American Forest Management, Inc. (AFM) implemented comprehensive COVID operating protocols to keep employees, contractors and customers safe. They also utilized Microsoft Teams and Zoom to facilitate communication and collaboration while providing client property updates through drone videos. Most importantly, AFM migrated its system applications to the cloud because of its flexibility and reliability in remote environments.

“Overall, the pandemic was an opportunity for us to get better at being adaptable and innovative,” said Brent Keefer, CEO of AFM.

AFM also found that staying in close contact with clients allowed the company to relay what was happening in the marketplace and then respond to client needs.

“One of the things we noticed through last year was very little change in our clients’ underlying objectives,” said Keefer. “To me, that just reinforced that forest land investments are very resilient, and the pandemic proved that in many ways.”

 

What Did Organizations Have to Do Differently?

Organizations that already invested in or were in the process of upgrading their technology platforms had an easier time adapting to the pandemic’s communication hurdles. Instead of scrambling to get communication technology in place right when the lockdowns began, these companies were able to pivot and keep going.

Steve Jack, managing director of Forest Management at Timberland Investment Resources, found that his company didn’t have to make a lot of operational changes because they already made significant investments in their technology before the pandemic hit.

By 2018, they transitioned from an on-site, server-based local area network to the cloud, migrated their content management system to SharePoint and Teams and moved their video conferencing from Skype to Teams for a more streamlined approach. However, they did make some changes as a result of the pandemic.

“We moved to Adobe Sign software which significantly improved the workflow process around reviewing and approving documents and gathering signatures, so that was super helpful,” said Jack.

Thanks to these pre-pandemic efforts, Timberland Investment Resources didn’t need to make many operational changes. However, they did remain flexible to the marketplace and sold timber when most of the mills shut down. They also remained responsive with their clients by giving quarterly updates and creating videos out in the woods for due diligence meetings.

How Should Companies Move Forward Post-Pandemic?

As this era of change comes to an end, clients are still looking at their digital readiness on whether their information, equipment and security are in place.

“Clients are talking to us on a daily basis about security and how to be ready for what’s going to happen next,” said Clarence Neese, co-founder and vice president of Orbis, Inc. “I say ‘next’ not like a pandemic, but something as simple as a power outage or a tropical storm. We want to make sure we’re ready for the next thing to happen.”

Orbis President Russell Combs stressed the importance of having a solid IT department in place. “It’s something a lot of people are going to address strategically going forward because, without that backbone, none of this communication and interaction will happen.”

Conclusion

The coronavirus pandemic required land management companies to overcome various challenges by utilizing advanced technology and implementing flexible operations. That resiliency will help these companies survive and thrive in a post-pandemic world.

This blog includes video clips from Orbis’s very first Campfire Session. Register for the upcoming Campfire Sessions to stay up to date on the forestry and timberland industry.

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