Our Story

Tree Service Is ''Forced'' into Mulch Business

By TimberLine Staff
Date Posted: 10/1/2003

SUGAR HILL, Georgia — Trying to be a good neighbor was a tough go for Chris Cowart and his tree service, Cowart Tree Experts.

For some time, his company gave away wood chips generated by his tree service crews on residential and commercial jobs. This worked fine for a time, but eventually being a good Samaritan took him to places he never imagined, including magistrate court.

After lots of hassle, complaints and trips to court, he gave up on the free wood chips program and looked for alternatives to dispose of the waste wood material generated by his tree service business. His search led him to finding a market for his waste wood and creating Cowart Mulch Products, now a company with significant sales volume.

Free Mulch Cost Company Big Time

Whenever Chris removed trees from someone’s property, he would ask if the customer wanted him to ‘shoot’ the chips into their flower beds and landscaped areas. In most cases, the customers said yes. After all, they saved a considerable amount of money compared to the market prices for retailed bulk or bagged wood chips and mulch. The Cowart Tree Experts chipper, with end-bagger, was kept very busy for several years.

As the tree service business grew, however, the time came when Chris had far more chips than his customers wanted. "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," he said. "So, I had to get a truck that I could chip into." Chris wasn’t sure where or how he was going to dispose of the excess wood waste after it was loaded into the truck, but he knew he had to find an answer, and fast.

Chris took to the streets again, looking for residents that wanted free wood chips for mulch. He found a broader spectrum of residents near his company’s main office that would allow him to dump a load of free chips in their driveway; they would spread them out when and where they wanted. Not even imagining the potential downside of his efforts, Chris was dumbfounded by what transpired next.

"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 Chris. Sometimes the voice on the other end of the phone would say, ‘I didn’t understand what a load was,’ or ‘I didn’t understand how much a yard was.’

Chris explained to them again that he had told them he was going to dump 28 to 32 yards of tree chips in their driveway or yard. The load typically had leaves and needles in it, as well as wood. He would explain that it was the homeowner’s responsibility to move the chips, not the tree service company. He usually got the homeowner’s name, the last four digits of their Social Security number, work address and phone number, as well as their home phone number, thinking that this was sufficient authorization to deliver free mulch.

See You in Court

Unfortunately, that’s where the problems really began. "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," Chris explained. About one out of 10 people who received free mulch wanted to sue Chris after he dumped it on their property. He found himself in magistrate court at least once a month, legally fighting the people whom he gave free chips. Their arguments ranged from plausible to absurd: ‘Your truck broke my driveway,’ ‘You didn’t tell me how much mulch you were going to give me,’ ‘You’re supposed to spread this stuff,’ ‘You ran over my septic system,’ ‘You ran over my sprinkler system,’ and ‘You scared my dog.’

Burning Waste Out

When he finally had enough of the legal battles, Chris discontinued the practice of giving away mulch. If all else failed, he decided, he would burn the chips if necessary. But five months later, at his new site in Sugar Hill, he learned the town had a ban on such burning, and city officials put a halt to his company’s bonfires.

From Wood Waste To Sales Opportunity

At this point in many entrepreneurs’ careers, they view trying events — like the seemingly endless litigation process for trying to be a good neighbor — as either an opportunity or else an insurmountable roadblock. Chris worked on a new idea.

He attended a trade show in Atlanta and got the idea of regrinding the chips and coloring them to produce colored mulch. Chris began aggressively researching the business, flying across the U.S. to see different businesses and meet with people like Tim Thomas, a sales representative for Michigan-based Morbark, which sells equipment to convert wood waste into a marketable product. Chris was not sure his business could digest an investment the size of a Morbark Wood Hog or similar grinding machine, so he initially rented a tub grinder and bought a John Deere wheel loader and a Becker Underwood mulch coloring system.

Even renting the tub grinder only about two days a month, Chris quickly realized that what he paid to rent the machine was equal to the payments for buying a new tub grinder. He viewed demonstrations of "about every (grinding) machine out there in the market," he recalled. "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.

"I had a really good feel for Morbark," Chris continued, "felt the 4600 was a lot of machine for the money, and knew that even though this was a new machine off the line, Morbark would stand behind it. I felt that I couldn’t go wrong."

His previous experience with Morbark stemmed from his company’s fleet of five Morbark 2400 chippers, the first of which he purchased in 1993 and still sees active duty today after 4,000 hours in the field. "They’ve (Morbark) really helped me build my business," Chris said.

Grinder Provides Win-Win Solution

The Morbark 4600 Wood Hog made his tree service business more profitable and helped to level-load the tree and mulch businesses. Historically, his crews removed logs that were too big to be chipped and took them to a local sawmill. The mill paid Chris for saw logs but charged him for disposing of logs that were unsuitable. "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." His collective company is now more diversified, which helps him smooth out the slow times that occur — mainly in the tree service business.

Shortly after Chris began running his Morbark 4600 Wood Hog, he realized that the volume of waste wood his tree service crews generated was not enough to keep the grinder running continuously. So he opened up his mulch operation as a site to collect other waste wood.

"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 would charge them a reasonable fee for dumping because I knew they were paying at least twice my rate at local landfills."

The same approach worked well with grading, lot and land clearing contractors in the region who also typically dumped their waste wood in local landfills. They seemed to appreciate the fact that not only was Chris helping them reduce their landfill costs, but he was recycling the wood waste into a value-added product and conserving landfill space.

Mulch Business Grows

As Chris had hoped, his wood recycling and mulch business began to grow as his sales team found an untapped need for high quality mulch with strong color. In fact, in his subsequent travels to wood recycling yards in the U.S., Chris says he has not found any other company that grinds to as fine a specification as most Atlanta wood recyclers.

"I’ve seen mulch the size of someone’s arm," he said. "It’s amazing what some people consider mulch, but that won’t fly in Atlanta. We grind everything twice, so our mulch texture and size are pretty uniform."

His bulk mulch customers, including landscapers, nurseries and resellers, require a pretty tight spec. This is especially true of some landscape businesses that use blowing equipment for spreading mulch in flowerbeds and other landscaped areas; their equipment requires a very fine mulch.

Leveraging his reputation for quality, prompt delivery and his proximity to the Atlanta metropolitan area, three years ago Chris purchased an Amadas bagging machine. He had decided to bag mulch products and market them under his own brand, Cowart Mulch Products Color Enriched Mulch. His sales team began to pursue markets for bagged mulch, and they did not have to look far. They made sales to three major do-it-yourself merchandisers in the area, and the company now supplies their local stores plus statewide for one major retailer.

Equipment Expansion

With mulch sales growing and the volume of waste wood delivered to his yard increasing to as many as 40 trucks daily, Chris had to re-evaluate his equipment needs and consider additional machinery. Last year he made a significant investment. He traded in his Morbark 4600 Wood Hog for a higher capacity Morbark 7600 Wood Hog after concluding that the logs collected at his recycling yard were a little oversized for the 4600’s capabilities. He also invested in two additional John Deere front-end loaders (models TC54 H and TC62H), a Komatsu PC 220 LC track hoe, a fleet of haul trucks and trailers and a used Amadas trommel screen.

With the new equipment put into service, the recycling yard throughput has grown to nearly 1,000 cubic yards a day. The number of employees in the business has grown to about 35, and the markets for the high quality mulch it produces continue to expand.

The Atlanta area is one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the U.S. The steady development keeps contractors clearing more land and also has fueled the demand for high quality mulch produced by Cowart Mulch Products.

Looking back, Chris admits that it is hard to believe how his wood waste recycling and mulch 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," he concluded, "but I’m glad I’m here."