Starting up a new wood waste grinding and recycling business is extremely challenging, given the cost, expertise and business savvy needed to succeed.
Companies who can draw upon personal strengths to gain a competitive edge, however, stand a far better chance of achieving that success. For Custom Mulch & Recycling, that meant capitalizing on its more than 20 year history as one of the Jacksonville-area’s mainstays in local and regional trucking. Even with that edge, the firm still needed to address some serious equipment issues before it could turn the corner toward profitability.
With the purchase of a pair of horizontal grinders, all the pieces were in place to help the firm grow from startup less than a year ago to one of the area’s fastest growing suppliers of mulch and mulch products.
Building on an Idea
The brainchild of co-owners Richard Meeks and Cecil Eunice, Custom Mulch & Recycling drew upon an already rich business history to make the move to grinding. For decades, Eunice and his family have owned and operated Cecil Eunice Trucking (CET), which serves the north Florida and southwest Georgia region, with offices in Jacksonville as well as Blackshear, Ga. According to Meeks, the genesis of Custom Mulch came about largely because of CET’s successful dealings.
“In addition to trucking, the Eunice family has also been a long-time player in manufacturing wood utility poles for regional power companies. As a result of those businesses, they became closely acquainted with many of the logging operations, as well as the many pulp mills that operate in the area That helped us identify potential customers early on,” Meeks said.
In addition to business savvy, success is often also predicated on a bit of luck, and that seemed to be working in Custom Mulch’s favor as well.
A local firm had tried recycling wood waste, failed at the effort and, in the process, had stockpiled a tremendous volume of material. Seeing it as too good an opportunity to pass up, Eunice and Meeks looked into acquiring the property, the material and the equipment.
“We looked at the big picture and knew that — with the trucking company — we could make it work. Even being new to the business we realized that, to be successful, you have to be able to make product when people need it and, more importantly, guarantee delivery of that product. When people start having doubts as to whether or not you’re going to deliver, no matter how attractive the price is, they will start looking somewhere else. We felt we had that part of it covered and made the purchase.”
Though it sounds like the classic American success story, Meeks is quick to point out that Custom Mulch’s transition into the wood waste market was anything but smooth. Purchasing someone else’s business often means also purchasing their headaches. In this case, that headache was a grinder that was at first not up to the task and later, was not up at all. The failure of that unit led to the purchase of a pair of Morbark horizontal grinders, which he calls one of the best business moves they’ve made so far.
“Early on in our business, at a time when we desperately needed product, we were facing a major issue with our existing grinder and were having no luck getting the manufacturer or their service people to get us back up and running. Frustrated by how things were going, I contacted Stan Gibson, the Morbark field rep for this area. Fortunately for us, they had a unit in the area that they were demo’ing for another customer. Stan brought the grinder — a Model 7600 horizontal — in and personally ran it for a couple of days to help us get caught up.”
According to Meeks, Morbark’s commitment to helping them didn’t stop there. Not satisfied with the fact that the hammers were configured differently from the previous demo session, Gibson insisted he redo them to make them better suited to the product Custom Mulch needed.
“That, of course, meant the 7600 would have to be out of service for a while, so he called Larry Burkhalter, Morbark’s regional manager, who located a Model 4600 horizontal grinder and brought it in for us to use while the 7600 was being reconfigured. Mind you, at this point we never even said we were going to buy a grinder from them — we just couldn’t believe how they went to bat for us.”
Grinders Find a Home
Meeks said Gibson got the 7600 reconfigured the way he wanted and worked it all day one Saturday, getting them to a point where they were back on track to meet production goals.
“The production we got through that machine was like nothing we had seen before; it just blew us away. Later that evening, Cecil came in, saw the volume of material that had been processed through the two machines and said what I’d also been thinking: there’s no reason for either of those machines to leave the yard; we need to buy them. We did, and our operation has never been at a loss for production since.”
Now, Custom Mulch & Recycling provides a variety of colored and uncolored mulch products to some of the largest retailers in the Jacksonville area, ships mulch to firms further down the Florida coast, and is currently in the process of providing feed stock for pellet fuel which will eventually be headed overseas.
“That will be a totally new area for us,” Meeks said, “but growing the business means recognizing new opportunities and we’re getting good at doing that. We also send a decent volume of material to area paper mills for use as boiler fuel so there is literally nothing that goes to waste here.”
Custom Mulch keeps its two grinders continually busy, with the larger Model 7600 permanently working 10 hours a day at the company’s Jacksonville yard, and the Model 4600 dedicated to a mostly-mobile role.
“Each machine has its advantages,” Meeks said. “The 7600, obviously, gives us the high volume production we need. In fact, at the outset of our business, it was responsible for getting rid of the mountain of debris we inherited from the previous owners. I can’t imagine any other machine being able to do what that one machine did. The Model 4600, on the other hand, is an extremely mobile unit that we can take anywhere without having to deal with permitting issues. That has allowed us to carve out yet another niche in the area.”
The niche to which Meeks refers is doing cleanups of reject logs at area mills. In their current arrangement, mills stockpile logs deemed unfit for their use and, when the pile is large enough, contact Custom Mulch, which brings in its Model 4600 and processes the logs into mulch.
“It’s an ideal situation for us,” he said. “The mills charge us $2 a ton just to get rid of the material and we are able to use that to create our mulch and sell it at a decent profit. The point is, we are only able to do that because the 4600 is both productive and mobile. In fact, we are generally about three to four jobs behind with that machine — it’s kept that busy. Should there ever be a lull in that part of the business, however, we can simply bring it back to the yard to work alongside the larger grinder. And while that pair of grinders has really helped get us to this point, we can’t say enough about Morbark as a company. They helped us when they didn’t have to, they’ve been excellent in supporting us and, as a result, they have a customer for life.”