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Innovative Approach to Wood Residuals Transforms Landscaper
New Wood Fiber-Based Products, Rexius Application Technology Boost Bay State Company

By Jack Petree
Date Posted: 5/3/2002

GEORGETOWN, Mass. – As little as 10 years ago, residues from most pallet and crate manufacturing plants were nothing more than a drag on profitability. Sawdust, chips, broken pieces of lumber, and other material was considered waste, and companies spent significant amounts of money disposing of it.

Today, due to the efforts of firms like Pro Bark Inc., a Massachusetts company, the fiber remaining after timber harvesting, land clearing, or wood waste material from primary and secondary manufacturing in the forest products industry, including pallet and crate manufacturing, no longer is considered merely waste. Pro Bark is doing advanced product manufacturing from wood residue. With proper processing, this form of raw material can be converted into high-value products that also benefit the environment.

Pro Bark is located in Georgetown on the North Shore region of Massachusetts near Boston. The company, as configured today, was launched in late 1997. The firm's owner, Jeff Brown, already had a landscape business at the time, but he was facing some profitability challenges.

One day he noticed an advertisement in a trade magazine for a truck equipped with a blower to spread bark mulch. "It seemed like a cool concept, and I wondered if it really worked," Jeff recalled. "I thought if it did work as advertised, it would be a breakthrough technology that could address the labor problems landscapers have with applying bark, compost, mulch and other products. I called them up, and the company doing the advertising brought a truck out and demonstrated it for me. We purchased a truck in early 1998."

The investment completely changed the course of Jeff's business. The new equipment worked as well as he hoped, opening the door to what Jeff saw as a vast potential in the marketplace.

As the result of Jeff's acting on his vision, just four years later Pro Bark is a vertically integrated company that processes wood fiber that would otherwise go to waste – sometimes at great expense to the company that produced the residuals. Pro Mark processes residuals into mulches, erosion control products, and other specialty wood fiber products that are specifically formulated for individual customers. Pro Bark also provides application services using blower trucks to spread the material.

The goal of the company is "to be the wood recycling and bulk mulch supplier of choice in our marketing area, utilizing skilled personnel, high quality service, and cutting edge technologies to deliver superior results to our customers," said Jeff. To accomplish that, Pro Bark "integrates people, innovative technology, and natural products to provide cost effective, environmentally friendly landscape and erosion control solutions."

As is the case with any new approach to the market, innovation and risk were required to achieve success. To accomplish the shift from a traditional yard, garden, and landscape business to one that manufactures ground cover products, supplies them to other landscape contractors and nursery businesses, and provides services to apply them to commercial properties, Jeff needed equipment. He adopted a strategy of investing directly in equipment as well as purchasing a firm already established in the business Jeff was looking at.

In 1999 Pro Bark bought the assets of Mulch Express, a company that was also in the business of applying mulch, and Jeff integrated it into his operations. In 1999-2000 Jeff invested in additional equipment and integrated it into Pro Bark's operations. By the end of 2000, Pro Bark's major equipment investments were complete. Jeff had positioned Pro Bark as a leading New England company producing, supplying and applying wood fiber-based value-added products, and -- equally important – providing services to process wood waste material.

Today, Pro Bark is a truly integrated business. Raw material acquisition is the foundation of its product line. At the firm's processing yard, raw material comes in from a variety of sources. The company takes in green waste (stumps, logs, brush, leaves) from land clearing contractors, arborists, landscapers and others. Bark, waste wood, sawdust, and other wood fiber comes from sawmills in the region. Wood products manufacturers supply residues from their operations. Pro Bark charges a tipping fee to these companies in exchange for providing a place to dispose of the wood material. The fees generate revenue for Pro Bark although they are priced attractively for the businesses in order to ensure that Pro Bark has an adequate supply of raw material.

An adequate supply of raw material is vital to his efforts, Jeff pointed out. One of the factors that spurred him to look for new ways to operate his landscaping firm in the first place was the challenge he faced in obtaining reliable quantities of quality mulches, ground covers, and soil amendments. At the time he reasoned that if reliable quantities of quality products were difficult to obtain for his company, the solution might be found in reshaping his business into one that manufactured its own products -- both for its own use and for sale to other landscaping contractors.

Quality is the second vital factor in the market today, according to Jeff. He has addressed that need by investing in a Continental Biomass Industries (CBI) 4000 Magnum Force grinder and a CBI stump shear mounted on an excavator. The CBI stump shear is designed to dig up and then split stumps and butt logs of virtually any size. The shear utilizes two ripper teeth to pull stumps out of the ground and has a steel plate attached to backfill the stump hole. Dual action hydraulic cylinders provide the power needed to drive the massive shear blade through the hardest stumps.

Wood fiber processing is done with the company's CBI 4000 Magnum Force grinder.

According to CBI, the 4000 series machine has been specially designed for operations like those required by Pro Bark. It can process a wide variety of wood material into uniform, high grade mulches.

The CBI 4000 Magnum Force, which weighs 74,000 pounds and is road legal, is powered by a 860-1030 hp Cat electronic engine. It is equipped with a patented upswing rotor with replaceable hammers and tips. Other features include a built in pre-screener, a radio controlled hydraulic swing-away anvil for tramp metal, and easily changed screens that can be replaced in 15 minutes or less.

The CBI machine's capability to process tough wood waste material into high quality wood fiber-based products was the driving factor in selecting it, said Jeff. "We make a premium product," he explained, "and that's where CBI is phenomenal. About 75 percent of the grinding we do involves regrinding, brush grinding, and other, similar processing, but the remaining 25 percent of our work is heavy grinding, breaking down large fiber. It's important that the machine have the capacity to do the heavy duty work as well as the ability to economically handle finer work and still produce a quality product. CBI has given us all that. Combine that with the fact that we have received extraordinary service from the company, and it's easy to see why we have been very happy with our decision to go with CBI."

The quality product CBI's equipment is capable of producing is necessary not only to meet the demands of the marketplace but also to allow for trouble-free operation of another portion of Jeff’s business that has seen explosive growth: applying materials with blower trucks.

Pro Bark operates two Rexius Express Blower trucks. One has a 40 yard capacity and the other a 60 yard capacity. The trucks not only apply various materials but they also can provide a controlled mix of ingredients, such as fertilizers, seed, weed inhibitors, or other additives, all mixed to customer specifications.

Pro Bark's Terra Seeding service for new lawns and restoring lawns applies soil amendments mixed with seed, fertilizers, insect and-or weed control agents or other products in one process. The service is a significant, growing part of Pro Bark's business. The Rexius Express Blowers make the service efficient and cost effective because they eliminate a lot of the labor involved in manually applying, spreading and mixing seed, fertilizer and other materials one step at a time.

The availability of the blower technology greatly expands Pro Bark's ability to service its customers, Jeff commented. By way of example, he pointed to a recent project that would have been virtually impossible for his company a few years ago.

The project, Jeff explained, involved creating a garden on the seventh floor roof of a major motel in the region. There was no easy way to deliver the bulk landscaping materials to the top of the building -- no easy way except for the Rexius Express Blower truck. With the blowing equipment, Pro Bark put more than 900 cubic yards of soil in the garden and a few weeks later added a layer of other material. Without the Rexius Express Blower, a project like that would have been all but impossible or prohibitively expensive. While still a challenge, the Rexius blower truck made the job comparatively easy and, equally important, Jeff said, financially feasible.

The Rexius blower trucks are economical because they help businesses like Pro Bark to control labor costs. Landscapers typically deliver bulk mulch in a dump truck, then workers have the labor-intensive task of spreading and applying it. The Rexius Express Blower truck allows fewer workers to do the same job -- and faster. The mulch is dispensed through a hose, which allows the blower truck to be parked at a distance from the actual work area; this capability prevents ground compaction, rutting, or other damage that may be caused by a dump truck that has to maneuver closer to the work area.

Jeff settled on Rexius Express Blower as a primary supplier of the equipment because of that firm's long history of innovation. Rexius has been a family owned and operated business since 1945 and has become one of the largest producers in the Western U.S. of compost and mulch. It began developing pneumatic conveying systems for its own business more than half a century ago and has been improving them since. "We've not only been very pleased with the performance of the Express Blowers, but we've received the same kind of first class service and attention that CBI has given us," said Jeff. "When people are counting on you for timely delivery of a quality product and a problem has come up, that kind of service means everything."

On a third front, Pro Bark recently became a certified manufacturer and installer of Filtrexx erosion products, which use compost and wood fiber-based products for superior erosion control practices. The Filtrexx product line includes filter socks, pond edge savers, ditch checks, inlet protection, compost blankets and lock down netting. When Filtrexx filter socks, for example, are filled with a composted product, they can be used as a replacement for bales of straw or silt fencing and have shown to be 10 times more effective than those erosion control methods. Compost blankets can be installed in conjunction with lockdown netting to stabilize even the steepest slopes, such as 1-to-1. Jeff said the Filtrexx products, applied with the blower trucks, are rapidly gaining a foothold in New England and elsewhere as transportation officials, government regulators and others learn how well they perform in controlling erosion, preventing pollution and protecting water quality.

In taking his company to new levels over the past four years Jeff Brown has joined other industry leaders in taking a professional approach to the manufacturing and sale of mulch, bark, compost, and similar products. In doing that, these leaders have taken what was once an insignificant industry sector and re-formed it into one of the real growth areas in the wood products industry.

Just a few year ago, Jeff noted, bark was bark and mulch was mulch; only a few progressive firms offered more than two or three choices of each. In recent years, however, firms like Pro Bark and many others have taken a more serious look at expanding product lines and producing custom products. Pro Bark and other leading businesses can formulate products designed to meet specific customer requirements, and they routinely produce dozens of products on a daily basis. It's no longer acceptable to simply grind up some wood and apply it to the ground, Jeff added. Wood fiber-based products must be formulated for customer requirements.

That new professionalism means that production equipment and delivery systems are important as never before in the industry. Using blower trucks, for example, Pro Bark has delivered and applied products inside stadiums, eliminating the need for other trucks and equipment to enter such facilities and maneuver onto athletic fields and other sensitive areas. Those advances equally depend on the ability of Pro Bark's grinding equipment to reliably create product to standards that could not have been met in the industry of a decade ago. "These kinds of services are a little amazing to people today," Jeff said, "but tomorrow they will be the standard for the industry."

As to Pro Bark? Jeff sees continued growth as the company strives to live up to its goals statement. "We really do believe in our goals statement," said Jeff, "which is to integrate people, innovative technology, and natural products to provide cost effective, environmentally friendly, landscape and erosion control solutions for our clients and community. We think we are doing that in partnership with our clients and the manufacturers who supply us with the equipment we need to get the job done right."

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