by Gregg Hennigan, features writer, photos provided by EcoMulch and Hamilton Tree Service
The synergy between Hamilton Tree Service and EcoMulch makes so much sense one might wonder why this type of business model isn’t more common.
Grant Hamilton is co-owner of both Northern California companies — the tree service with his father, Dex, and the mulch operation with his wife, Heather.
Hamilton Tree Service provides wood waste generated from its jobs to EcoMulch, saving on landfill tipping fees. And EcoMulch uses that material to manufacture mulch products and cogeneration boiler fuel. As Hamilton puts it, one company cuts the trees, and the other recycles the material.
While such a setup is logical, that doesn’t mean getting started was easy.
“You just don’t go and buy a grinder and think you’re in the mulch business,” Hamilton says. “The amount of preparedness, overtime and monetary investment is huge. You need a big yard, permits, loaders, trucks, grinder, trommel screen, color machine, a huge water supply, qualified employees, welder/mechanic truck, and most of all, enough capital to provide fuel and wear items such as grinder teeth.”
That’s a long list … and Hamilton isn’t quite done: “Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. You need buyers, and lots of them.”
Those may sound like overwhelming obstacles, but the Hamilton family, which believes strongly in the importance of hard work, integrity and honesty, has built two thriving businesses.
Hamilton Tree Service was formed in the early 1990s, although Dex Hamilton owned several other tree businesses and a nursery going back a few decades. It is located in the town of Martinez, about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco.
The father-son business started without much more than a pickup truck and a chainsaw. They began buying larger equipment in the late 1990s when Heather became involved in the business and helped get loans and commercial accounts.
As they added clients, their fleet grew to include chippers, stump cutters, aerial lifts, cranes and chip trucks. For their chipping and stump cutting, they currently own a Vermeer BC1500 brush chipper, an SC60TX stump cutter and an SC252 stump cutter.
In its infancy, the company used smaller residential jobs to finance efforts to get larger projects. Tree removals, with Grant Hamilton doing much of that work himself, were secondary to jobs that involved pruning and plant health care.
Then they reevaluated their business because of how competitive the market was. Hamilton Tree Service began specializing in tree removals, cutting out the low profit, high labor pruning projects. The company reduced its staff, relying on using its equipment to the fullest extent. It worked.
“We currently are able to perform jobs with a higher profit margin and less risk exposure, and we have expanded our clientele to include our competition,” Hamilton says.
By that last point he means Hamilton Tree Service often finds it financially advantageous to subcontract work from other tree and landscape companies.
Hamilton spends about 95 percent of his time with Hamilton Tree Service, which has nine employees. He is a certified arborist, certified crane operator, qualified equipment operator, licensed commercial driver, welder/mechanic and project manager, and he does estimates and sales.
Mulch company sprouts
As the company grew, Grant and Heather Hamilton came to view the large volume of woody debris it was producing as a liability that they had to pay to dispose of at a landfill. Grant also had begun dabbling in landscape installations.
“I couldn’t believe the cost per yard of colored mulch,” he says. “We figured, how hard can it be? Regrind that wood waste and add a little colorant.”
They found out it was much harder than that, but in 2006, the couple formed EcoMulch after leveraging their home and buying a grinder and a wheel loader. Heather oversees the daily operations of the four-employee company.
EcoMulch processes junk logs, wood chips, woody brush, wood rounds and stumps. About five percent of the material comes from Hamilton Tree Service and the rest from about 20 other companies, which pay EcoMulch a processing fee.
The end products are sold as mulch, soil conditioner or cogeneration boiler fuel. Customers include contractors and homeowners, and EcoMulch sells wholesale to other landscape supply companies. It has its own retail store in Martinez called EcoMulch Landscape Materials.
At one time EcoMulch even exported to China but stopped after a few years when the profit margin wasn’t worth the amount of work.
EcoMulch, which processes about 11,000 tons of material annually, owns a Vermeer HG4000 horizontal grinder and a TR626 trommel screen.
The grinder runs 20 hours a week and the trommel screen 12 hours. About twice a month, the grinder is rented to Hamilton Tree Service and used another 20 hours a week. The trommel screen also is used in conjunction with other equipment to color mulch, although the trommel screen itself does not have a coloring system, which adds another six hours of operation per week during the busy season from April through September.
EcoMulch saves Hamilton Tree Service more than $100,000 a year in tipping fees. But the efficiencies don’t end there. The mulch operation gets its material locally, significantly reducing transportation costs. It also gives Hamilton Tree Service leverage to go after jobs that require removing large amounts of material.
“Hamilton Tree gets the job, saves the client money and at the same time still turns a good profit by having the means to remove mass amounts of wood debris inexpensively,” Hamilton says. “EcoMulch also gives Hamilton Tree a horizontal grinder and support equipment to use for tree jobs that wouldn’t be affordable otherwise.”
Good people, good equipment
Hamilton has learned many lessons from his experience running two related but separate companies. One is to hire qualified employees and have zero tolerance for laziness. Another is to set goals and to mold the business to meet them. He also says not to be scared.
“Risk is part of growing a business,” he says. “No risk, no reward. If it feels right, then do it.”
Several other lessons involve equipment. He stresses the importance of researching before buying and not purchasing “junk” because it will cost more in the long run even if the purchase price is cheaper. And he says to only buy equipment that has readily available parts and support.
He credits Vermeer for its dependability with the support aspect. EcoMulch has had four grinders and four trommel screens, all from different manufacturers, and the company turned to Vermeer equipment because of the strong dealer and factory support.
“What makes them different is that the sales people have clout by being strongly supported by the factory,” he says. “Our dealer, RDO Equipment-Vermeer, makes things happen fast. If my grinder needs repairs, I know it will be up and running within 48 hours, or they’ll have a backup machine available.”
Hamilton also believes buying new equipment instead of used will result in savings on repairs and fuel consumption while being more productive and efficient.
Since EcoMulch purchased the Vermeer equipment, it has seen a 50 percent increase in production with its Vermeer grinder and trommel screen while using fewer operators.
“The increase in productivity is insane,” Hamilton says. “We are now grinding up to 400-cubic-yards per hour and screening 200-cubic-yards per hour.”
Environmental considerations also are a factor for Hamilton Tree Service and EcoMulch. California has strict emissions requirements, and the two companies have received certification under a state air quality standard for diesel equipment, according to Hamilton. He says that will serve them well as enforcement becomes more stringent, and he proudly shares that the equipment his companies own run on Tier 4 interim engines.
“Others might not think it’s going to happen, but they are fooling themselves,” he says. “The green movement is here to stay.”
Safety also is of the utmost importance, particularly with the tree service.
“I always refer to it as ‘militaristic’ — lives are at stake every day, and we all need to be on mark and clear,” Hamilton says.
The Hamiltons’ high expectations for their equipment can be seen as an outgrowth of what has made them so successful: A belief that integrity, honesty, humility, hard work and being respectful to others will serve them well.
“My dad taught me that if you are going to do something, then be the best,” Hamilton says.