New England’s Letourneau Clears the Way for Success

Tue November 05, 2002 - Northeast Edition

Some of the most desirable land in the Northeast lies within the rolling, wooded New England countryside. Among the clearing and grubbing contractors performing the first step of commercial and residential development in the area, one of the better known is Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corp. This Freetown. MA-based company earns income from both clearing and wood chip sales, and is successfully building on a foundation established more than a generation ago.

The company clears and grubs for natural gas pipeline companies and real estate developers primarily in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and also for occasional projects in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and as far away as Ohio. Besides pipeline companies, Letourneau serves commercial, industrial and residential construction, golf course development and highway construction projects, among others. The company cuts and chips whole trees, and removes and grinds stumps with separate crews of seasoned workers and a highly mobile fleet of equipment kept in constant production.

“We are a 100-percent clearing and grubbing contractor. Our main goal is to provide professional services and products to our customers,” said Mark Letourneau, president and director of operations. “I’d say 90 percent of our work is from the same people, all the time. Our repeat customers and their loyalty to us are a vital part of our success.”

The products referred to in the company’s name are wood chips. The company delivers about 2,500 loads of wood chips a year to wood-burning plants in the New England area.

A Distinguished History

Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corp. was founded as Letourneau and Methe in 1959 by brothers Pamphile “Phil” and Real Letourneau, their cousin, Ferdinand Letourneau and a partner, Philip Methe. Today, Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corp. and Letourneau Trucking Corp. together are known as Letourneau Corporations.

Wood chipping and hauling has not always been part of Letourneau’s services. Like most clearing contractors in the 1950s and ’60s, Letourneau and Methe burned cut trees on site and contracted stump removal to other contractors. In 1973, environmental laws were enacted to reduce open burning at about the same time that power generating facilities started to burn wood chips for electric generation. Coinciding with this, Morbark Inc. also introduced the first heavy-duty portable whole-tree chipper to the industry, capable of chipping material 22 in. (55.8 cm) in diameter. All of these events came together perfectly for Letourneau and Methe, which that year bought the first Morbark whole-tree chipper in Massachusetts.

Letourneau and Methe’s first wood chip supply contract was for the delivery of 50,000 tons (45,000 t) of chips a year to the S.D. Warren paper mill in Westbrook, ME. The company did selective thinning and strip cuts of white pine and red pine at the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts. With the 22-in. (55.8 cm) Morbark chipper dedicated to the reservoir, Letourneau and Methe produced and delivered more than the contracted amount for 11 years until increasing demand by other wood products suppliers for custom-length wood caused prices bid by contractors for access to wood lots and stumpage to rise out of profitable reach.

Equipment Drives Company Growth

In the meantime Letourneau had obtained another chipper, a Morbark 27 total chiparvestor with a knuckleboom loader and operator cab. “While we had one crew at the Quabbin Reservoir, we did clearing jobs the whole time with another crew and produced 10,000 to 15,000 tons a year to ship to other plants in Maine and New Hampshire. Since we left the reservoir, we’ve been running one-and-a-half to two crews steadily. Two chippers all the time,” said Letourneau.

Those two chippers now include a 30-in. (76.2 cm) model purchased four years ago and the 16-year-old model 27, which is being traded in for a second 30-in (76.2 cm) Morbark total chiparvestor. “We just ordered a brand-new model 30 with an 860 horsepower Cat on it,” said Letourneau. “That will be chipper number eight since 1973. The serial number of the new chipper is 2002, if you can believe that.”

Letourneau explained that both productivity and longevity of its equipment is the reason he stays with Morbark. “The Morbark 27 was an incredible machine in its time. It has 12,000 to l 3,000 hours on it and it’s still running. Not without a little work on it after that amount of time, but I don’t think you can ask for much better than that. For these reasons, we continue to go back to Morbark.”

The Letourneau fleet also includes two Morbark Wolverine 6300 bunchers with 20-in. (50.8 cm) shear heads to make quick work of felling. A pair of Timberjack skidders are used to keep trees within reach of the chipper, and a fully equipped service truck rounds out the support equipment on site at each chipping location.

“It’s not uncommon for us to chip 10 or 15 trailer loads every day, five to six days a week. On a yearly average, we chip eight trailers a day, every day, six days a week, for a yearly total of about 2,500 loads of wood chips,” Letourneau said.

Low equipment downtime is a big factor in the company’s consistently high production. “The component parts that Morbark uses are built for very long hours of service. The model 30 chipper has about 6,000 hours on it and I’ve done zero to the engine, zero to the clutch. I’ve had very, very few problems in the time that we’ve had it,” Letourneau added.

Second Generation

The next generation of leaders took over the company seven years ago when Mark Letourneau, his brother, Gary, and their cousin, Robert Letourneau, became the owners.

“Some family businesses don’t end up working out, but ours is as tight as can be,” said Mark. “We have a nice relationship. It’s great.”

With Mark serving as operations director, Robert runs the operation’s maintenance shop and oversees all equipment repairs, including welding and painting. Gary directs the stump crews that grub land after the trees have been cut and chipped. His crews also move and set up the tub grinders, then perform the grinding. Mark noted, “All in all, we have a very smooth-running operation. It takes a lot of work to keep it that way, but once it’s there, it’s great. We take a lot of pride in what we do.”

Stump Grinding Added

Stump grinding is a fairly recent operation for the company. “We never did stumps before,” explained Mark. “Then Morbark came out with this track tub grinder. It was awesome. It would run right down the right of way and grind all the stumps.” The company bought its first tub grinder in 1996, then traded it in for another Morbark tub in 1999, a 1300 equipped with a knuckleboom loader. And the company’s next tub, a Morbark track 1200XL, will be delivered by the local equipment dealer, Morbark of New England. Letourneau looks forward to even greater operating efficiencies when the new tub arrives. “It moves via remote control from the excavator. No operator, no loader. It’s fed by the excavator.”

Production the Letourneau Way

With jobs in progress at several locations in various stages of cutting, chipping, stumping and grinding, Mark spends his workdays as both master scheduler and marketer for his company. Most working hours, Mark’s office is his pickup truck, and his radio/cell phone is in constant use as he directs crews to work locations, checks on progress and plans equipment placement several jobs ahead. An office staff of two communicates with customers and completes computerized billing and payroll tasks, while the maintenance department orders and stocks parts needed to repair and maintain all of the company’s equipment.

Service trucks parked at every job site are a key part of the company’s high productivity. “Every utility truck that we have has the ability to make hydraulic hoses. Right up to one inch in diameter, for wire braid. We carry every fitting, we have air wrenches, the trucks are four-wheel-drive and they carry 200-gal. fuel tanks. We fuel up the machines at night before the trucks return to the shop, where the fuel tanks are refilled,” Mark said.

The scheduling decisions that Mark makes have evolved to become something of a science, making the company’s operations resemble a modern assembly plant more so than a traditional clearing enterprise. Equipment and crews arrive on job sites exactly when needed and once in action, waste little motion. At a municipal park expansion in Billerica, MA, a 7-acre (2.8 ha) stand of trees has been felled and chipped in a day and a half. Stumping and grubbing will be finished three days later when the tub grinder arrives. The last of the felled trees lie in neat stacks left behind by the Wolverine buncher to await chipping.

“You see the way the chipper and the skidder work together. The skidder operator doesn’t bring a load until there’s no wood left behind the chipper, then he comes and drops the trees within 2 ft. of the leveling posts on the side of the chipper. All the chipper operator has to do is grab it, move sideways and load it in — very limited motion on the loader’s part, [and] no waiting,” Letourneau explained.

A covered semi-trailer fills steadily with clean wood from the chipper’s discharge chute while an empty trailer is parked across the drive. “As soon as the trailer is loaded, the guy who’s on the ground is moving it even before the operator has left the chipper. That’s how a system should work,” Letourneau explained. For many years, most of the company’s loads of chips have been hauled by Ingerson Transportation, Jefferson, NH, using trailers owned by both companies.

The stumping crew that will finish the Billerica park expansion job in three days is finishing this day’s work two hours to the southeast in Pine Hills, a new golf community south of Plymouth, MA. There, the Morbark 1300 tub grinder is paired with a Caterpillar 330BL excavator to grind several large piles of brush and stumps cleared from roads, residential lots and the golf course itself. With a total of 300 acres (120 ha) being cleared, this is one of the company’s bigger jobs.

“We clear anywhere between 5 and 300 acres. The average-size job we do is probably 15 to 20 acres,” said Letourneau. The stumping crew will leave Pine Hills for two days of grubbing and grinding at the Oak Point development in Middleboro, MA, and then will move the operation to Billerica.

Efficiency Of Operations

The company keeps stump removal simple and efficient by doing all of the work with an excavator. “I don’t even own a stump shear,” Letourneau said. “You see those stumps over there? Rip ’em out, flip ’em over, clean the rocks and dirt out with the teeth of the bucket, then put them in the tub grinder whole. When you get a real big pine stump with big roots, you split it right in the ground with the bucket. Rip just half of it out at a time.”

The mixture of dirt and wood in stump grindings makes the material perfect to mix with more soil and then spread on cleared pipeline rights of way for replanting. Clean wood chips produced by the chipping operations, however, are too acidic to be planted over on site and must be hauled away.

“The gas pipeline companies were getting fed up with contractors leaving chips on the job,” Letourneau noted. “They said, ’You’ve got to take all of those chips off the job.’ That was great for us because we already had the big Morbark tree chippers. So now we skid all the wood and haul all the chips away from all of our jobs.”

Mark is quick to give credit to his employees as the driving force behind his company’s thriving health. “Your company is only as good as the people who work for you. We’ve got a great group of operators, laborers and office staff. We have people who have been working for us for 25 years. The least anyone has been working with us is about three years.”

Selecting equipment for the company’s consideration also is Mark’s job and he makes his recommendation clear. “If anybody is going to be serious about grinding stumps, grinding wood, chipping wood or cutting wood, Morbark’s the only way to go,” he said. “It’s a great company to be a part of.”