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Florida Contractor Expands Original Niche: SUPERTRAK Machines Give Rick Richards a Competitive Edge in Efficiency, Operating Costs

Rick Richards Inc. – SUPERTRAK Machines Give Competitive Edge to Florida Contractor

By Thomas G. Dolan
Date Posted: 10/1/2008

MYAKKA CITY, Florida — When Rick Richards started a business in 1987 to clear land for fence lines, he never thought he would be much more than a one-man operation.

      He started working out of a 1,200 square-foot barn that seemed too big at the time. Most of the work was done by hand, cutting brush or trees with chain saws and hand tools.

      Now, he is president of Rick Richards Inc., which employs about 30 people. The company has a host of machines and equipment that do the work along with a shop of about 20,000 square feet and storage space in several places.

      “We’ve become pretty diversified,” Rick said. “We do land management,” including prescribed burns and controlling vegetation with herbicides.

      His company enjoyed a growth spurt in recent years when Florida was hit by several hurricanes. Rick contracted to provide services to clean up storm-damaged trees. His equipment, SUPERTRAK forestry mulchers, enabled him to do the work quickly and efficiently.

      Myakka City is located on the Florida peninsula, about 25 miles east of Sarasota, which is on the Gulf Coast. Rick worked as a sheriff’s deputy for 11 years. He also worked part-time as a contractor, doing such services as cleaning canals and roadside mowing.

      Rick characterizes himself as ‘Mr. Fix It’ guy. “I’ve worked in all kinds of construction projects,” he said. “People have always been asking me how to get something done. I’d say, ‘I can do that,’ then look at the problem and figure out a way to solve it.”

      In 1987 he saw an opportunity to get into clearing land full-time for fences. “Not many people were doing it,” he recalled. That was before the advent of specialty equipment that is available now to remove vegetation. It was hard, manual labor with chain saws and hand tools like bush axes.

      Rick gradually began investing in equipment and diversifying his services, growing the business. Eventually he purchased his first SUPERTRAK machines. By the time the hurricanes hit during 2004-06, he was well equipped and well established to provide services to remove downed and damaged trees after the storms.

      Rick was contacted by local governments as well as the state highway department. He worked in five counties following the hurricanes, cleaning up debris. During that period he increased the number of SUPERTRAK machines he had in service from four to eight. “Without the SUPERTRAKs I wouldn’t have been able to do this work,” Rick said.

      SUPERTRAK, a Florida company, uses Caterpillar® components to manufacture land-clearing equipment and vegetation management machines. The machines are custom built to match the conditions they will confront. SUPERTRAK offers machines on tracks or wheels. The company’s primary machines have mulching attachments and are used to process vegetation, including trees, into mulch. Applications for these versatile machines include clearing land and maintaining land for a wide range of purposes, including trails and roads, agricultural land, rights-of-way, wildlife habitat, fire breaks, removing orchards, and much more.

      Local Caterpillar dealers as well as SUPERTRAK can provide service and support for the machines. SUPERTRAK represents a number of attachment companies as well.

      SUPERTRAK typically takes a standard track or wheeled carrier and upgrades various components and equipment, including engine and hydraulics, so the machine is properly equipped to run various attachments.

      For instance, Rick has one SUPERTRAK machine that is based on a Takeuchi carrier; Takeuchi manufactures compact wheel loaders, track loaders and excavators.

      “We use these to do smaller jobs,” Rick said. “They are small and very maneuverable and can be easily trailered on a one-ton pickup. In Florida, exotic vegetation grows big and thick, so we use ours on material that is six inches or less in diameter. These units are very durable. We have little or no trouble out of them.”

      His big work horse is a SUPERTRAK SK400, which is based on a Cat 533 feller-buncher. This wheeled machine is powered by a 400 hp engine and can carry and operate a number of different attachments. “It is very versatile,” said Rick.

      The company frequently uses the SUPERTRAK SK400 with an attachment to cut down tree limbs near power or utility lines. The attachment is a Magnum Eliminator.

      A typical tree service contractor may be able to prune limbs at the rate of about 100 linear feet of power or utility line per day, according to Rick. “Our measure is two to three miles per hour,” he said.

      The Magnum Eliminator has a patented cutting system; it features multiple 36-inch circular saw blades on an articulated boom. It will clear and cut a swath up to 17 feet high or up to a maximum 35 feet high with a 20-foot offset, according to Rick. He uses it for trimming trees close to power and utility lines and near roads and highway signs.

      For a prescribed burn, the company may use drum choppers to crush and compress low-growing vegetation before burning. “So it burns at a lower rate, much closer to the ground, with much less opportunity to spread,” Rick explained.

      His company also does work to improve wildlife habitat. For instance, he has done projects to improve habitat for the scrub jay. This involves reducing the number of hardwood trees in a certain area, usually either mulching or removing the canopy to enable more sunlight to reach the forest floor.

      “Usually, if the range of vegetation gets four to six feet higher than they are used to, they will move out of the area,” Rick said. “Because of development and other factors, there are not new places for these birds to inhabit. Nature would take care of this in the past through periodic fires, but since these are being kept under control, these birds are being pushed out of their living environment with nowhere to go. We are correcting that.”

      When Rick was looking for ways to mechanize operations in order to control and reduce labor for clearing fence lines, one of the companies he researched was SUPERTRAK, which is based in nearby Punta Gorda. “I heard about them through their reputation,” he said.

      He had purchased a machine from another company. “But they could never get the hydraulics right,” Rick recalled. “This manufacturer didn’t help me. Instead, he just said, ‘It’s not our problem; it’s something you did.’ So, I went to SUPERTRAK, and they very generously helped me solve those issues with another manufacturer’s machine.”

      In the years since then, he has come to rely heavily on SUPERTRAK for his equipment needs. “The people at SUPERTRAK embody the words ‘customer service,’ ” he said. “From the start, they were always very positive, very knowledgeable. Their delivery was flawless. Their units are competitively priced. And their product, based on my knowledge, appeared to be superior. They seemed to have worked out the flaws that other companies still haven’t figured out yet, such as cooling systems. When the hurricanes arrived, I was under a lot of pressure, but SUPERTRAK delivered their new units ahead of schedule. They went out of their way to get the attachments they knew I would need — even before I asked them. They went above and beyond the call of duty. They offered all the training we wanted. Their service is impeccable. There were few problems, and they took care of them right away. They really offer a full turnkey package.”

      Although there wasn’t much competition in the region when Rick first started his business, now there is plenty, and it’s intense. “The way we compete is to run the best equipment and win by efficiency,” said Rick. “We have less down time and less operating costs.”

      Rick prefers to hire employees with no experience. “That way we can train them, teach them right, so we don’t have to get rid of preconceived notions.”

      Rick’s company also provides ongoing training for managers and workers. Training may take the form of attending seminars, online courses or classes at a community college. “There is no set pattern,” said Rick. “We take advantage of opportunities as they come along.”

      “Heine Zietsman is my fearless assistant,” said Rick. “He came to me about five years ago from the local John Deere dealer. He is originally from South Africa. Heine is in charge of our line clearance and power shearing division. He is the operator of choice on our large, tedious jobs. His attention for detail and ingenuity are a great asset. Heine is MOT and EHAP certified, and he is also one hell of a mechanic and fabricator.”

      Because a lot of the company’s services involve land management and the environment, there is a lot to stay abreast of in terms of using new chemicals and equipment to manipulate the landscape without damaging it.

      Rick is a firm believer in using computers in his business and the Internet. “There is no way that we could track all our costs so we can bid at a good price and still make a profit without the computer,” Rick said. “We use the Internet for all our bidding — submit bids on line and get them back on line. We also order all our parts on line. We have a pretty nice Web site, which is a good reference tool to help people locate us.” Outside of his Web site and some Yellow Pages advertising, Rick depends on word-of-mouth advertising for most of his business.

      One of the problems with competitors is low-ball bidding by smaller businesses. They do a disservice to the people they intend to serve, according to Rick.

      Mechanization makes it all look very easy,” he said. “Some guy says, ‘Oh, I can do that,’ and he shows up with a rented machine with a bid for $800 when it should be for $8,000. The machine he rents” is not the right equipment for the job, “and he can’t do what he says. You can’t compete against stupidity and ignorance.”

      In that kind of scenario, the new arrival soon finds out the machine eats up his profits in extra fuel, parts, and down time, and he goes out of business pretty quickly. But others will try to take his place. “This hurts both me and the good manufacturers,” Rick said.

      All of Rick’s contracts are obtained by a bidding process. As part of the process, he informs potential customers of all the factors involved in their particular job. “We try to anticipate problems before they happen,” Rick said.

      That kind of approach and his good reputation help Rick compete with the influx of low bidders. In fact, he often gets called in to do remedial work on jobs that were botched by low-ball companies.

      About 20 percent of Rick’s work is out of state. “We just got back from a job in South Carolina,” he said. Most jobs, however, are within about a 60-mile radius, and a lot of work comes from local and state government.

      There is no shortage of challenges to being in business right now, Rick acknowledged. “The Florida economy is okay,” he said, “though it depends on the segment. There are a lot of foreclosures, but that’s from people playing with money they didn’t have. It’s impacted us to a degree. For instance, our pre-development clearing at this time is nonexistent. My fuel costs have gone up 100 percent over the past six months, and insurance costs have doubled. I’m able to pass those increases on to my customers. They don’t like it, but they generally understand it and have to accept it.” Other than that, he faces periodic challenges from new or inexperienced contractors who get into the business and drive prices down.

      “You definitely have to be hands-on in this industry,” said Rick “Some days I am stuck in the office, sometimes weeks on end, but other times I’m in the field. You have to be a jack of all trades.”

      When asked about his weak points as a manager, Rick replied, “Lack of better judgment. No sense of some things I shouldn’t try, though it’s also true that some of those things worked out, and I also learned things I wouldn’t have learned before.” When asked about his strengths, Rick replied, “perseverance.” He usually works six days per week, often 12 hours a day.

      Rick, 47, and his wife, Robyn, have four children: Collin, 12, Jordan, 9, Kyle, 8 and Emily, 7. When he has leisure time, he likes to fish.

      Rick is active in a number of conservation organizations, including the Coastal Conservation Association, which is dedicated to recreational fishing. He is a member of the Gopher Tortoise Council and the Nature Conservancy.

      “Thirty years ago, I was violently opposed to some of the more radical environmental groups,” Rick said. Now, he believes business interests and environmental groups help to “keep each other in check, the greed on one side and zealots who would hurt the economy on the other.”

            “I don’t agree with everything the environmentalists do, but I think the two sides help keep each other in balance. I know some timber guys who are extremely conscientious about protecting the environment and others who are absolute butchers. The way I see my job is making money off the environment but protecting it, too.”


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