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Mobile Forest Products Is Multi-Faceted

Company helps convert wood waste to electricity; Bandit Beast 3680 serves as linchpin

By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 10/1/2004

MOBILE, Alabama — Twenty years after launching Mobile Forest Products, co-owners and partners John Zukley and Bob Sharp have a thriving business. John and Bob also provide a great example to others with an entrepreneurial drive, illustrating that innovative thinking and hard work bring results.

      John, who manages the transportation side of Mobile Forest Products, talked with TimberLine for this article.

      “We’re a multi-faceted business,” explained John. “We’re timber brokers,” buying standing timber and selling the wood, arranging for cutting, and running a fleet of 80 tractor-trailers.

      “We run exclusively International tractors,” said John, “9400 and 9370 models.” The chip vans and trailers are supplied by Peerless. Full-time mechanics on staff take care of the fleet, sending out service technicians in road trucks when necessary.

      Operating within a 250-mile radius of its headquarters in Mobile, Ala., the company brokers timber in its home state and in Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. “We can plan harvests, give advice,” said John, and offer the full services of foresters.

      Another big component of the business involves collecting wood waste from various sources — from scrap pallets to planer shavings — and grinding it to supply boiler fuel for the Kimberly-Clark Paper Co. mill in Mobile, which is part of Kimberly-Clark Corp. in Dallas, Texas. The arrangement is a win-win-win situation.

      The boiler fuel part of the business begins with the companies that generate the waste wood material. They can dispose of their residuals without paying landfill tipping fees; the businesses pay Mobile Forest Products only for the transportation costs. Kimberly-Clark, which aims to reduce its dependence on grid energy and reduce waste, also wins. And, of course, Mobile Forest Products profits.

      To make short work of wood waste, Mobile Forest Products relies on a Bandit 3680, a grinder in the Beast series of machines from Bandit Industries in Remus, Mich. Mobile Forest Products bought the Bandit 3680 almost two years ago.

      “We chose it for several reasons,” said John. The company wanted a horizontal grinding machine, and it wanted a machine that could reach a certain level of throughput. Mobile Forest Products representatives witnessed demonstrations of several different grinders. The Bandit 3680 proved itself, John said, by actually meeting the expectations set during the demonstration. Ease of maintenance and safety were other important factors influencing the buying decision.

      “We’ve been working on this project now for eight years,” said John. “There are quite a few plants in Mobile — pallet, planer, furniture…generating wood….” The company collects wood waste from businesses within a 40-mile radius of Mobile, generally serving businesses that are too small to make it economically feasible to own and operate their own grinders.

      Mobile Forest Products leaves a hopper at each site to collect the waste wood. “They call us when (the container) is filled,” said John. “We dispatch a roll-off truck to pick it up.”

      Kimberly-Clark operates what was traditionally a bark-fueled boiler at its Mobile plant, said John. “We bring wood residue to it,” and the boiler “generates steam and electricity for the tissue mill,” he explained.

      Kimberly-Clark would like to add more wood waste to the mix. “This wood has a higher BTU than just bark,” noted John, “so they would like us to find more.” Currently, he said, wood waste comprises 18% of the boiler fuel.

      Given the mix of wood waste collected, said John, one crucial feature of the Bandit 3680 is the magnetic head pulley. It removes about 95% of metal contaminants, according to John, including staples and plates from pallets. Mobile Forest Products also equipped the Bandit 3680 with a second self-cleaning magnet to remove metals.

      The Bandit 3680 may be operated by remote control. Mobile Forest Products uses a Caterpillar 950 front-end loader to feed material to the machine..

      In choosing the Bandit 3680 from the Beast series of horizontal grinders offered by Bandit Industries, Mobile Forest Products found a size that was just right for its operations. The Bandit 3680 has a 30-inch by 60-inch opening.

      Bandit makes larger and smaller machines in the Beast grinder line. The Bandit 2680 has a 24-inch by 60-inch opening, and there are larger models with 40-inch by 60-inch and 50-inch by 80-inch openings.

      John has been pleased with the performance of the Bandit 3680. “The machine has done exactly as they represented it,” he said. “The numbers we got from the demo have been exactly what we got the last 20 months.”

      Bandit’s manufacturing plant, with 355 employees, is supported by computerized machinery and robotic equipment. In the design of its Beast series of horizontal grinders, Bandit Industries drew on more than two decades of experience. Bandit delivered its first chipper to a customer in 1983.

      Today, Bandit supplies wood chippers and waste reduction equipment to companies worldwide. Applications of Bandit wood grinding equipment cross a wide spectrum. The company’s machines are being used by local governments, foresters, landscapers, tree care professionals, loggers and others.

      Mobile Forest Products depends as much on its own employees as its equipment, said John, and there is a good match between the two. “We’ve got 110 great employees that do all the work,” he said. “We’re very, very stable.”

      The employees are “the reason we enjoy coming to work every day,” said John. “We’ve got some employees that started with us. We’re just blessed.”

      The Bandit 3680 grinder is stationed on site at Kimberly-Clark, and Mobile Forest Products deploys a crew there full-time. Kevin Brown operates the Bandit 3680, and Gale Reid runs the loader. Bob Schillinger serves as the on-site manager for Mobile Forest Products at Kimberly-Clark, and Randy Hancock is the maintenance manager.

      Of course, Kimberly-Clark personnel were closely involved with arranging with Mobile Forest Products for the on-site grinding service, especially John Wilkins and Gene McCarty.

      For one thing, Mobile Forest Products had to work out plans to bring in loads of waste wood and store them on the Kimberly-Clark property until it was ready to grind them. The two companies also had to determine the appropriate size particles of the boiler fuel.

      “They worked with us on size requirements,” said John, as well as on the issue of where to store the material. “The wood, when it comes in, just inherently takes up a lot of room,” he noted. Kimberly-Clark arranged for storage space for Mobile Forest Products.

      “We had to work on a happy medium” for the size, said John. It had to be “small enough for them, fast enough for us.” By working together, Mobile Forest Products and Kimberly-Clark reached an agreement. The collaboration of the two companies was very important, John emphasized.

      The Bandit Beast 3680 on location for Mobile Forest Products at Kimberly-Clark runs approximately 30 hours per week. John described it as a reliable, versatile machine capable of handling mixed wood species as well as mixed waste.

      “The raw material is all over the board,” said John, in terms of size, type of material and wood species. The company collects everything from scrap furniture to tree limbs. “We’re hauling into Kimberly-Clark for processing (about) 8,000 yards per week,” he said, and continue to look for opportunities to increase that amount.

      Buying standing timber and arranging for cutting and sales works well for Mobile Forest Products, said John. “Mobile Forest Products made one brief stand at logging…15 years ago,” he explained, but it did not make economic sense at the time, and he and Bob decided to focus on brokering.

      John is a native of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. He graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in forestry. Bob, who is a native of Panama City, Fla., also earned a degree in forestry, studying at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala.

      In 1973, when John was considering a college major, he was influenced by the global energy crisis. He saw the potential of producing energy from biomass. John is gratified that Mobile Forest Products contributes to the conversion of energy bound in plant material to electric energy, a process that relieves some of the demand for electricity delivered by grid.

      According to information at the Kimberly-Clark Web site, the company’s paper products are used in more than 150 countries and find their way into the lives of 1.3 billion people each day.

      Kimberly-Clark’s Vision 2005 program includes several environmental objectives, including reducing energy use and eliminating use of landfills. The service that Mobile Forest Products provides to Kimberly-Clark helps meet those objectives.

      Between 2000 and 2002, Kimberly-Clark cut energy use across all its companies by 2%. It expects to show another dramatic reduction by 2005.

      To slash consumption of energy, Kimberly-Clark has worked to implement routine use of alternative fuels. By 2002, the company’s Pictou Mill in Canada was generating 100% of the electricity it needs using an in-house steam turbine fueled with pulping liquor and wood waste. Another Canadian mill, Terrace Bay, also had a turbine in place and was generating 40% of its electricity.

      Heat recovery systems are already installed at many Kimberly-Clark mills. Over the next few years they will become a mainstay at the company’s mills worldwide. Not only does the company’s initiative to use alternative fuels reduce energy costs, it also reduces air emissions.

      Mobile has more than 200,000 residents. It is the birthplace of baseball player Hank Aaron and Army officer and physician William Crawford Gorgas. During the construction of the Panama Canal, Dr. Gorgas put his expertise in sanitation to work to suppress the incidence of malaria and yellow fever among the workers there.

      John said he fell in love with Mobile when he moved to the city after college to work in the paper industry. When he and Bob decided to start a business, they knew they wanted to anchor their company in the seaport city.

      Mobile traces its roots to the beginning of the 18th century. French settlers organized the Parish of Mobile in 1704. National landmarks punctuate the city.

      John and Bob are members of the Alabama Forestry Association (Bob is currently serving as president) and the Louisiana Forestry Association.

      The AFA headquarters in the state capital is a showcase for Alabama wood products. Dedicated in 1980, the building was designed by John R. Grandy, a partner in Pearson, Humphries, Jones & Associates in Montgomery. Except for the Western cedar shake roof, all the wood materials used to construct the building were grown and manufactured in Alabama.

      AFA was started in 1949 as the Alabama Forest Products Association; the association changed its name in 1972. The group engages in many fund-raising activities, such as the Log-a-Load for Kids campaign, which is sponsored by the Forest Resources Association and benefits Children’s Hospitals. Bob and John and Mobile Forest Products team members are actively involved in the Log-a-Load for Kids campaign.

      John enjoys being in business. “The biggest benefit,” he said, “is that I am directly responsible for how we perform. I’m responsible for the world I created.”

      John and Bob welcome opportunities to talk with other entrepreneurs who are interested in biomass conversion to electricity and similar wood waste reclamation efforts, and he encouraged readers of TimberLine to contact him. He enjoys helping others put their ideas into practice.

      When he gets time away from work, John stays busy. “I have four children, 18 to 13 years in age,” he explained. “They are all active in sports activities. I coach baseball and volley ball.”

            And John and his wife and children enjoy many recreational activities, taking advantage of Mobile’s location along the Gulf Coast. “We like to fish in the Gulf of Mexico, scuba dive,” he said. Those are just some of the reasons, he said, that he decided to make Mobile his home. They are the same reasons he is happy he did.


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