Grinders Keep Up With Busy VA Contractor

Fri September 16, 2005 - Southeast Edition

Think, for a moment, about the fastest growing areas of the country and Loudoun County, VA, probably does not come to mind. Yet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the northern Virginia county has led the nation in growth over the last four years, and other Virginia studies show the county responsible for 27 percent of all newly-permitted residential units in that state. Such growth obviously bodes well for area developers and the companies that support them.

One such firm, R.E. Martin Tree Services, has combined equal parts reliable equipment and committed personnel and grown a small business into one of the region’s busier contractors, eager to keep the boom booming.

Changing With the Times

Formed in 1982, R.E. Martin is somewhat of a rarity in that, unlike many others who have changed the look or direction of their business over the years, they are still doing the commercial and residential land clearing work they’ve done since starting out. According to company owner and president Russell “Rusty” Martin, that doesn’t mean though, that they are the same company they were 23 years ago.

“There are a number of things about our business that have evolved over the years,” he said. “We have relied less and less on municipal business, for example. Many of the towns and cities that we once counted as customers, have grown large enough, or collaborated between themselves, to buy their own grinders. We have also seen a real growth in the need for the chips we generate. The continually rising cost of fuel is prompting companies to look into ways to reduce their reliance on petroleum products, and they are finding that a biofuel product like our wood chips is a nice way to do that. We’ve really seen the market for these chips grow in recent years.”

Two Divisions

R.E. Martin generates its chips from mid-sized residential and commercial projects — jobs which range in size from ten to 60 acres. The firm has approximately 20 employees spread between two divisions: one for tree trimming and removal, the other for land clearing.

“We work both aspects of the business at the same time, but the bulk of our work is done on the clearing side,” he said. “Typically, we will go in and, using a trackhoe, drop the trees and haul out the timber which is taken to a local mill. The remainder — the tops, stumps and rakings — are all processed onsite, for either the biofuel, or as a mulch product.”

Even on the land clearing side of the business, Martin’s operation is capable of having several projects ongoing at the same time and in such cases, equipment performance is key to keeping production up.

“It’s fairly common for us to have several jobs going simultaneously —¬†usually with a chipper working one site and a grinder doing another. That allows us to keep a smooth work flow and helps bring in the developer’s other crews faster. In that regard, we also benefit from the changes that have taken place in equipment manufacturing over the years. Grinders have continually gotten better, faster, more powerful and more efficient at what they do. The newest grinder we purchased last year, a Morbark 1300, is so productive that our operator says he used to always have a stockpile of material to draw from. Instead, he now often has to wait for crews to bring him material. The throughputs are that impressive.”

Staying the Course

Martin said the grinding and chipping equipment they’ve relied upon has also been a mainstay with them over the years.

“I’m a firm believer that, if something works for you, you stay with it. That’s been the case for us with our grinding equipment which has almost always been exclusively Morbark. There was a period in which we used a different brand of chipper but, as time went on, the quality of service and parts availability for that unit went steadily downhill. That ended that; it’s been all Morbark for us since then.”

Martin’s operation currently uses both the Model 1300 tub grinder mentioned above and a Model 23 whole tree chipper. The grinder is the fifth one they’ve purchased from Morbark, the chipper, the second and according to Martin, it’s a loyalty that stems from a number of factors.

“I’d be lying if I said performance doesn’t matter because it really does. Competition is tough in this area and we have to get things done as quickly and cleanly as possible and the Morbark equipment does that for us. However, having gone though our experience with the other brand of chipper, we also recognize the value of good service and support. Downtime in this business is inevitable but when it does happen, we know Morbark will help ensure that it is minimal.

“The company has parts depots in Ashland, VA, and Frederick, MD, — both sites fairly close — so availability of replacement parts is never an issue. On really tough issues, the company has been known to fly a mechanic down to resolve the matter, but for the most part, their factory personnel are so good they can usually run us though a series of questions and situations and help us nail down the problem ourselves. That’s been key in keeping us moving.”

Inevitable Comparisons

Martin’s workload has been steady, because of the seemingly unending development going on in his area and its ability to maintain an aggressive pace.

“We have to be able to go in, get things cleared, get our chips and allow other crews to come in to do their work, and we really feel we are better equipped than most to make that happen. The chipper will take almost anything we can feed it, generally yielding 2.5 loads of chips per acre, and the tub just continues to impress us. The other day we had a trackhoe and two rakes feeding him material and they couldn’t overload him. And it’s not just us that sees this. We were recently called in by an area contractor who needed to wrap up the clearing portion so dirt crews could come right in. He was running several grinders from another manufacturer and when we set to work, they were very impressed with what we were able to do. That’s just the nature of the machine; it’s a grinding animal and it’s helped us hold our own in this competitive market.” CEG