by Mary Weaver with photos by Bill Weaver
S&S Tree, a 40 year old tree care company in the Minneapolis/St Paul area with an excellent reputation, began a fledgling side business in 2003, calling it S&S Wood Products. At S&S Wood Products, they specialized in grinding, coloring and selling mulch. Since then, through well thought out management and the hard work of excellent employees, the mulch business has grown considerably.
Rick Hogan, S&S Wood Products Manager, who has worked in the mulch business for six years, managed it for the past three years and handles all sales, told us that their growth has not been easy. “The mulch business is constantly facing new challenges and obstacles,” he said.
Hogan noted that all of the mulch is ground twice. “For the first grind, we like our Vermeer 7000 tub grinder, which easily handles large diameter tree trunks and assorted branches and trimmings. One employee, Brent Knutson works full time with this machine. He does a great job,” Hogan commented.
As we watched, Knutson made major inroads into a pile of tree trunks and trimmings, using the attached loader cab with grapple. Quickly, the grinder transformed the raw material into a quickly growing pile of mulch at the end of the discharge conveyor.
“We like the all in one machine, with loader attached.” Because it is mobile, it can easily be hooked to one of the operation’s semis and hauled from location to location. That happens frequently.
“The Vermeer only spends about 20 percent of its time working here in the yard,” explained Hogan. Operator and machine travel to grind material for other cities, counties, tree companies, land clearing companies, and even to other states. The ground material is usually trucked back to the main yard to be turned into more mulch.
Two highly specialized B66 Rotochopper horizontal grinders save time and handling by grinding the mulch for a second time and simultaneously coloring it, all in one operation. The dye is injected into the mill as the mulch is reground.
“We just purchased our second Rotochopper B66 last March,” Hogan continued. “We strive to put through the dyed material at 300-cubic-yards per hour.
“It’s not difficult to get the right color,” explained yard supervisor Jay Schroeder, who schedules and coordinates grinding, coloring and deliveries. The Rotochopper B66 has a handheld push-button control unit. A push of a button can shut down the machine immediately. It also controls conveyor speed, and regulates the amount of water and colorant.
“Between colors, we flush the system with plain water. The water must be clean, so we use only city water,” added Schroeder.
“Our colorant comes from two sources. We use totes of BASF’s Colorbiotics. In addition, we buy an excellent colorant locally from Prism Corp. in St. Paul, MN. The color of our mulch holds for two years, unless the mulch is under constant irrigation. In addition to a variety of colors of mulch, we also sell un-dyed mulch and mulch for playgrounds.”
Hogan said he did not beat the bushes to find and win a contract with a company to bag their mulch. The company came to him.
“They had tried colored mulch from a number of different companies. Our mulch was not the cheapest they tried, but they chose ours because they were impressed with our quality and service. All of our colored mulch is processed on, and sitting on, asphalt. No colored mulch is piled on Class 5, so it is never dirty.”
The operation uses CAT front end loaders to pile, move and load the mulch. “All our trailers either Peerless or Timpte are walking floor trailers. Both of those brands work well for us.”
We noticed that the workers at the yard seemed especially competent. “It’s difficult to find skilled workers who can do a good job both with running and maintaining this machinery,” Hogan explained. “Most of our workers come from the tree business, and were tree climbers or tree cutters. That’s where I came from. The trees are a young man’s thing.
“With S&S tree, it’s almost like a reward to our veteran arborists when we move them into the mulch operation where the machinery does the work. After having worked for S&S Tree, the employees have company loyalty. The workers take care of daily maintenance, and we do most of our own repairs. The Vermeer tub grinder, for example, gets a daily greasing and a check of fluid levels, bearings, belts, of the overall machine, and of the teeth. The teeth don’t break too often, but they do wear out quickly.”
“We get very few metal contaminants here, but one time a 10-pound hammer went into our Rotochopper. Because of quick action by the operator, the only damage it did was to wear out a shear pin.”
The yard is open for commercial drop-offs from tree trimmings and removals. After recent windstorms downed large numbers of trees and broke branches in the Minneapolis area, tree companies dropped off a lot of wood debris. Hogan himself works a six day week. On Saturdays, the yard is open to homeowners to drop off their yard trimmings free of charge.
“Our yard is popular, because other nearby locations charge a tipping fee. But I do need to spend my Saturdays here, chatting with homeowners who stop in.” Hogan has found that his presence is a deterrence to those who would use the location to sneak in other trash along with their trimmings. “I also make sure no one drops off stumps,” Hogan added.
Both S&S Wood Products, and S&S Tree and Horticultural Specialists, were formerly family owned. The companies now are in their fourth year under the ownership Davey Tree Expert Company out of Kent, Ohio, which has over 8,000 employees across the U.S. and in Canada. “Davey is a great organization to work for,” commented Hogan. “They have the ability to fund our growth. They also have great support staff so we can keep our minds on our mulch business. We have benefitted from our association with the marketing, collaboration and brand name of the Davey Tree Expert Co.
“Last year our older Rotochopper B66 was in Chicago all winter grinding for a Davey operation there. The mild winter helped us get a lot of work done here too. We were able to keep coloring mulch for parts of all 12 consecutive months last year, which is very unusual in MN.”
Last spring, Hogan had been planning an ad campaign to encourage people to bring in more wood for mulch making. As the season has progressed, the campaign proved successful. The company has a serious lack of space, especially for storage of once-ground mulch.
“We have storage on land owned by a local quarry. We’ve been looking for more land, but the permitted uses for available land have been a stumbling block. Nobody wants manufacturing in their back yard.”
Hogan has received a testimonial from the mulch bagging company that he and his employees supply. I’m including that testimonial here in its entirety, because it shows so well the attitudes and hard work that have led to the current success of S&S Wood Products. The testimonial states:
“We have been serviced by several mulch suppliers over the last year. S&S has been above and beyond the best partner. They have the highest quality of product, fastest response time and excellent ability to ramp up or down in production to match our often-changing schedule. Beyond that, they are also a pleasure to work with, accommodating our many different production demands, swinging forecasts, and production changes with a smile. They have really understood that our success is their success, and even helped us to find other things to help us to expand our business, such as additional storage yards and solutions for some of our other products. It has grown into a strong partnership that we look forward to continuing for years to come.” For more information about S&S Wood Products visit www.sstree.com/wood-waste-recycling-mulch.php .