Before Chris Cowart became president of Cowart Mulch Products and Cowart Tree Service, Sugar Hill, GA, he owned a simple tree removing business.
Back then, before he would remove trees from a customer’s lawn, he would ask the customer if they would like the wood chips shot into their flower beds and other landscaped areas. In many cases, the customers said “yes.” When compared to market prices for retailed bulk, bagged wood chips and mulch, the customers were saving a considerable amount of money. Cowart’s Morbark chipper, with end-bagger, remained very busy for two to three years. As his tree service grew, Cowart had far more chips than customers with flowerbeds and landscaping to fill.
“We eventually needed the ability to haul the chips away because we had talked so many customers into letting us shoot the mulch into their flowerbeds that it wasn’t working anymore. So, I had to get a truck that I could chip into,” said Cowart. He wasn’t sure where or how he was going to dispose of the excess wood waste after he shot it into his truck, but he knew he had to find a quick answer.
Cowart took to the streets again looking for residents who wanted free wood chips. He found a good number of people near his company’s main office who allowed him to dump a load of free chips in their driveway and then spread the mulch at their discretion.
He never imagined the potential downside of his efforts and was dumbfounded by what transpired. “I had individuals that would call me up and ask me to bring some of this free mulch that I had. I’d take a load out to a customer, drop it off and many times get a phone call shortly afterward,” said Cowart.
Often Cowart would hear the voice on the other end of the phone say, “I didn’t understand what a load was” or “I didn’t understand how much a yard was.”
He would explain to them that he had told them he was going to dump 28 to 32 yds. of tree chips in their driveway or yard. Along with the wood, the load typically had leaves and needles in it. Once dumped, he would explain it was the homeowner’s responsibility to move the chips, not Cowart’s.
Unfortunately, Cowart’s neighborly gesture landed him in court. Approximately one out of every 10 customers who Cowart gave free mulch wanted to sue him. In fact, he found himself in magistrate court at least one Thursday every month fighting the people who he gave free chips to.
Before dropping off the mulch, Cowart would jot down the homeowner’s name, social security number, work address and phone number and home phone number, believing he was authorized to make the delivery.
“Well, with that documentation, I’d say to myself, okay, that’s my permission to dump it in their yard. But that wasn’t good enough,” explained Cowart. Resident’s arguments ranged from “Your truck broke my driveway” to ’You scared my dog.”
Realizing that the costs were outweighing the benefits, Cowart discontinued his ’free mulch’ enterprise and decided to burn the wood waste instead. After five months of burning at the new Sugar Hill location, city officials immediately put a halt to the company’s bonfires.
Rather than conceding to his misfortunes, Cowart worked on a new idea. “I went to this international woodworking show in Atlanta and it hit me to regrind it [wood waste], color it and send it on,” said Cowart.
He started aggressively researching the business, flying across the U.S. to see different yards and meet with people like Tim Thomas, Morbark Inc. sales representative, Winn, MI, who sells the equipment needed to turn Cowart’s wood waste into a marketable product. Unsure his business could take on an investment the size of a Morbark Wood Hog or similar grinding machine, he initially purchased a John Deere wheel loader and a Becker Underwood coloring machine and rented a tub grinder.
After using his grinder on average two days a month, Cowart realized that what he paid to rent the machine was equal to the payments for a new tub grinder. “I demoed about every [grinding] machine out there in the market. After reviewing my options, I chose a Morbark 4600 Wood Hog horizontal grinder. It was a newer model, just recently introduced, and I think my grinder was number three or four off the assembly line,” said Cowart.
Assisting in leveraging his tree and mulch business, the Morbark 4600 Wood Hog helped to make Cowart’s tree crews more profitable. His crews took loads of logs that wouldn’t fit through a chipper and dumped them at a local saw mill where Cowart was paid for good material.
“In some cases it was a wash on the wood, but it’s nice now that we grind all of the bad wood and resell all of the good wood. It’s a win-win in all aspects,” Cowart said. His company is now more diversified.
Shortly after Cowart began running his Morbark horizontal grinder, he realized that the volume of wood waste materials his tree crews created and dumped for grinding weren’t sufficient enough to keep his 4600 Wood Hog running continuously, so he opened up his mulch operation as a wood waste dump site.
“At first I called a lot of my tree service competitors in the Atlanta area and told them that I could use their logs and wood waste. I’d charge them a reasonable fee for dumping here, because I knew they were paying at least twice my rate at local landfills,” said Cowart. He found the same formula worked well with grading, lot and landclearing contractors in the area that typically dumped their wood waste in local landfills.
As his sales team found an untapped need for high-quality mulch with strong color, Cowart’s wood recycling and mulch business began to grow. Leveraging his reputation for quality, delivery and proximity to the Atlanta metropolitan area, Cowart purchased an Amadas bagging machine three years ago. Deciding to brand his own bagged mulch as Cowart Mulch Products Color Enriched Mulch, he looked for sales channels in need of his product.
With retail sales growing, along with an increase in the types of logs and number of wood waste deliveries, Cowart had to re-evaluate his equipment needs and think about purchasing additional machinery.
In 2002, Cowart made a significant investment in his business. Concluding that the log sizes being dropped at his recycling yard were a little much for the 4600 Wood Hog’s capabilities, he traded in his Morbark 4600 Wood Hog for a higher capacity Morbark 7600 Wood Hog. He also invested in two additional John Deere front-end loaders — models TC54H and TC62H — a Komatsu PC 220 LC track hoe, a fleet of haul trucks and trailers and a used Amadas trommel screen he found in Houston, TX.
With Cowart’s additional equipment online, his recycling yard throughput has grown to approximately 1,000 yds. a day. His team of employees has grown to approximately 35 and the markets for his high quality mulch continue to expand.
Looking back, Cowart admits that it’s hard to believe how business emerged from a simple tree service company.
“I guess you could say that after everything I’ve gone through, I was forced into the mulch business, but I’m glad I’m here,” said Cowart.
(Kent Ennis is the Barlow Marketing Group marketing services manager.) CEG