When a surprise burning ban forced Tom Kirkland to haul away and pay to dispose of green waste material that he had cleared from a large building site after including burning in his site preparation bid, he said, “There’s got to be a better way to make a living.” With the help of a supportive grinding equipment manufacturer plus his own dedication to uninterrupted production, Kirkland shifted his site preparation business to landclearing and grinding. Six years later, his company, Bay Mulch Inc., has become an important part of development in the Tampa Bay area while efficiently performing the land-clearing work that Kirkland once thought was the most difficult cost to estimate when preparing building sites.
Five Key Competitive Advantages
Tampa, FL-based Bay Mulch is a successful land-clearing and green waste grinding company because it places service to its customers first, it prices bids as a lump sum instead of hourly, it buys the most productive equipment for each task and it has an aggressive equipment maintenance program to help keep its equipment up and running.
In addition, Kirkland works closely with his equipment dealers and manufacturers, especially Morbark Inc., his grinding equipment manufacturer, to keep his equipment in top condition. All of this allows Bay Mulch to complete jobs on time and within budget, keeping its customers satisfied and its business growing.
In fact, Morbark has been part of Bay Mulch since the beginning, when Kirkland presented a carefully prepared business plan based on cypress mulch production to Morbark, seeking financing for the Model 1400 tub grinder with a cab and knuckleboom loader that was to be the keystone of his reborn company.
Kirkland also sent a business plan to another tub grinder manufacturer, as well, one whose machine wasn’t available with an integral loader. “They both came back and said they’d finance me, but I went with the Morbark because of the loader and the Morbark service facility in Sarasota and I haven’t been sorry a day since,” said Kirkland. “And Morbark hasn’t been sorry either. I’ve made every payment on time.”
Plans Are Meant to Be Changed
Kirkland was looking forward to changing the focus of his company, which had previously cleared sites, performed earth moving and also laid in utilities. The business plan that he so carefully crafted was for a cypress mulch production operation that he proposed to build around the Morbark 1400 and a 400-acre (162 ha) site in Pasco County from which the owner wanted every tree removed. Clear cutting and grinding would keep Kirkland on the site for at least six to eight months, during which he would find other cypress stands to clear.
Kirkland still recalls the heart-stopping phone call that he received one day about the 400 acres (162 ha) of cypress, “The day the tub grinder was shipped, the property owner called to say that the county had sued him. For environmental reasons, he wasn’t allowed to remove a single tree from his property.” At the same time, Morbark was asking where to ship the machine, he added.
With a grinder on the way and no secondary site lined up because he had planned to be on the first site so long, Kirkland scrambled to find a place to park the machine. In desperation, he called the owner of an organic waste site that was covered with unsorted piles of mixed waste, clean and dirty alike, after years of mismanagement. Kirkland offered to grind for the cost of the fuel just to gain experience with his new grinder. When the owner balked at paying even that small cost, Kirkland ground yard waste on the site for a week at no charge, while at the same time quickly refocusing his company on landclearing and grinding opportunities where there was an obvious need for this service.
A Winning Reputation
As he set out to win new business for Bay Mulch, Kirkland drew upon his earlier management career with the dairy division of Kraft Inc. Not only had he learned to formulate and implement realistic business plans, he also learned the importance of competitive advantages. Kirkland decided that his strongest advantage was to unfailingly deliver the best service possible for the best value. Driving that service is productive people and equipment, and a pre-emptive maintenance program designed to keep his equipment running and profitable during working hours. Kirkland quickly won contracts based on his company’s reasonable prices and a growing reputation for completing jobs on time and correctly.
Bay Mulch’s clearing crew and two grinding crews are all empowered to independently provide the best service possible to customers. “If a customer asks, ’Can you do this?’ our answer is, ’Yes, we can.’ The answer is never, ’You’ll have to talk to Tom,’” he said. Kirkland instructs his crews to simply keep track of the extra time and even so, he ends up adding charges on only 5 percent of his jobs. “Not like some contractors, who will lowball the price then charge for everything extra,” he noted.
Kirkland’s practice of pricing jobs as a lump sum rather that just an hourly rate wins him a lot of clearing and grinding contracts. His customers appreciate having a firm idea of the total cost up-front, although some will ask that he work at an hourly rate after receiving his bid, since Kirkland’s jobs frequently come in under even his own time estimates.
Basing his material disposal on grinding rather than burning keeps Kirkland and his crews on schedule and not at the mercy of burn permit restrictions concerning wind direction or rainfall. Weather conditions in Florida and elsewhere trigger temporary burning bans that can quickly cause contractors to miss deadlines, or worse, pay for alternate disposal methods, as Kirkland painfully discovered with his earlier attempts.
Equipment as a
Bay Mulch’s landclearing crew clears with a Kobelco 220 track hoe and a Kobelco 210 track hoe equipped with a Morbark Talon shear. A Kobelco 210 track hoe equipped with a fully rotating grapple feeds a newer Morbark “Boss Hog” 7600 horizontal grinder. A model 65Z and three model 70Z Kawasaki loaders round out the equipment fleet.
Among Bay Mulch’s major time-savers is the use of excavator-mounted Morbark Talon shears in place of chainsaw crews that previously cut trees to length for the tub grinder. When Bay Mulch recently bought its Morbark horizontal grinder, Kirkland saw the added advantage of using shears to split and clean stumps, in addition to preparing pine trees for selling to a local lumber mill. Kirkland also appreciates the added productivity of shears on grinding jobs cleared by other contractors.
“Probably half of what we grind is cleared by other contractors,” Kirkland explained. “They don’t clear the way. I clear for grinding and I traditionally had to send a saw man in when we were grinding for somebody else.” Kirkland pointed out that when he realized the importance of shears to his work flow and profits, he ordered a second Morbark shear to be able to cover clearing jobs and grinding jobs at the same time.
Maintenance Minimizes Downtime
Kirkland keeps his original 1995 Morbark tub grinder and the Morbark horizontal grinder running eight to nine hours per 10-hour work day. He achieves this tough goal by performing an hour of early-morning maintenance on his equipment by replacing parts before they break or wear out in the field. “When Tom has a grinder tooth that needs to be changed, he changes it,” said Larry Burkholder, Morbark’s regional sales manager in Florida. “What Tom doesn’t want is to shut down production during the day to fix something that should have been fixed before.”
Kirkland remembered that one of his loader operators who had previously worked for Bay Mulch’s biggest local competitor showed up on his first day expecting to work at his previous employer’s pace. After the second day, the operator said, “Tom, I can’t believe how much work you guys get done. You start those grinders up in the morning and you grind for eight hours.” The operator related how his previous employer stopped grinding after two hours to check rotor tips, then again to replace tips during lunch, and frequently in the afternoon to repair other failed parts.
“If a tip won’t make it through the day, you change the thing before starting the day,” stated Kirkland. “It doesn’t make sense to get an extra two dollars of wear out of a tip if you’re going to shut this machine down and lose $350 worth of production.”
Equipment Manufacturer Is Valuable Partner
Bay Mulch is based just a few miles from the Morbark regional service facility in Sarasota, the largest of Morbark’s nationwide service and parts facilities. Kirkland’s service trucks are stocked with a full range of hoses, fittings and other parts that wear out most frequently, but with the service facility so close, Kirkland doesn’t need to stock less frequently replaced parts.
Now in its sixth year of operation, Bay Mulch’s original grinder, the Morbark 1400, has clocked 11,000 hours, still with its original mill and original tub floor. Kirkland said he plans to replace the mill and floor at the end of this year to head off any future shutdowns on the job. Four-thousand hours ago, Kirkland replaced bearings in the tub grinder’s Cat diesel engine, “just as a precautionary measure,” he noted.
In spite of the deviation from its original business plan, Bay Mulch is growing and respected by its customers. “It’s all about service,” repeated Kirkland. “A lot of contractors are getting away from the idea that all we offer is a service.”
Time is money to Bay Mulch because time is money to its customers. Whether clearing half of a job site at a time so site contractors can move in and start working early or giving his customers a little more than they paid for, Kirkland and his employees always keep service at the forefront.