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Hogzilla Keeps Phillips & Jordan Profitable in Tough Times

Phillips and Jordan, Inc., started out as a land clearing company in the 1950s. Over time, it expanded to become a major player in heavy construction nationwide. With the onset of the recession, P&J pulled back to its roots. Now its land clearing division is keeping the company afloat, with the help of six Hogzilla tracked tub grinders.

By Carolee Anita Boyles
Date Posted: 10/1/2010


            When brothers-in-law Ted Phillips and Ted Jordan started their land clearing business in 1952, they had no idea they were starting what would become a family dynasty.  And when the current generation of Phillipses and Jordans purchased their first Hogzilla tub grinder, they also didn’t know they had just found one of the tools that would help keep the company afloat during today’s tough economic times.

            The story of Phillips & Jordan actually began in 1949, when seventeen-year-old Ted Phillips partnered with his cousin, Clyde Phillips, to do a $495 Tennessee Valley Authority land clearing job in Mississippi. Ted borrowed his dad’s car, loaded cross-cut saws and axes, picked up Clyde and two other men and drove more than 450 miles from Robbinsville, North Carolina to Philadelphia, Mississippi. 

            “That job was the start of a land-clearing future,” said Dudley Orr, company vice president and grandson of Ted Jordan. 

            That start was the seed of what would become Phillips and Jordan, Inc.  The many Tennessee Valley Authority clearing jobs in the 1950’s, coupled with the Federal Aid-Highway Act signed by President Eisenhower in 1956 authorizing over 41,000 miles of highways—which meant a lot of land clearing and earthwork—provided fertile ground for the seed to grow.

            One of Ted’s high school friends, Ted Jordan, partnered with him in 1952, and Phillips and Jordan was born.  In 1953, the fledgling company got its first big break when the Teds were awarded the right-of-way clearing for sections of the West Virginia turnpike.  Then in 1959, in a joint venture with Herman H. West & Co., they were awarded the land clearing for the Flaming Gorge reservoir in Utah by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.  The completion of the Flaming Gorge project led to the award of several other reservoir clearing projects throughout the United States.  Not only was the company on its way to success, the Teds also had established the precedent of traveling to wherever the jobs were, no matter where in the US they had to go.

            In 1970, Ted and Ted sold the company to Kaneb Services, Inc; Ted Phillips stayed on to manage P&J.  In the 1980’s Kaneb suffered some poor years and wanted to divest itself of P&J, which led to Ted Phillips buying P&J back in 1985.

            In the meantime, the company had grown, and had diversified both operationally and regionally.  Site development and disaster recovery services were added, along with other related operations that complemented the land clearing that P&J already was doing. 

            “Over the years, we’ve evolved into a heavy civil contractor, and we’ve built everything from highways and landfills to airports,” Dudley said.  “We do anything that involves knocking down trees and moving dirt.”

            Today P&J has more than a dozen offices throughout the southeastern United States and in California. Their main offices are located in their original home of Robbinsville, North Carolina, as well as in Knoxville, Tennessee and Zephyrhills, Florida.

            “Even with the addition of all the other parts of our business, land clearing is still our bread and butter,” Dudley said. 

            P&J started using tub grinders much earlier than many forest industry companies.

            “We bought our first Morbark grinders in the 1990s, right after Hurricane Hugo,” Dudley said.  “Before that time, we either cut everything by hand, pushed it up with bulldozers, or just burned it.”

            Ritchie Trammell, assistant vice president of the clearing division for P&J, agreed.

            “At that time, the trend toward grinding waste was just starting,” he said.  “Until about that time, if you had a big clearing job, you just cut everything down and burned it.  Then we started logging as much as we could.  Then it went a step further to where we did less burning and started making more use of the wood products that we’d been burning.  That’s when we started grinding the stumps that we grubbed up and hauling them as mulch.”

            About that same time, P&J started doing a lot of work for private industry.

            “We started working around some of the larger cities, working on housing developments and commercial buildings,” Ritchie said.  “That’s also the first place where we started to be told we couldn’t do so much burning—close to the larger cities where a lot of the work was.  That’s when we really had to start grinding and recycling.  Now it’s everywhere; even DOT work has a spec that you have to grind the waste.”

            Even then, Ritchie said, there was a small market for the waste they were grinding.

            “Back then, it was mostly used for boiler fuel,” he said.  “People burned wood waste for boiler fuel back as early as the late 1800s and early 1900s, and some of those plants still exist today.”

            However, Ritchie said, as decorative mulches have become popular, P&J’s market has expanded.

            “There’s definitely more of a market today than there’s ever been,” he said.  “However, it doesn’t seem like the market is bigger because there are a lot more people grinding now than there were before.  That keeps the market almost flooded with material.”

            Even with the broader market, Ritchie said, P&J isn’t always able to sell—or even give away—all the material they remove from a site they’re clearing.

            “When we were in Charlotte all the time, we sold a lot of our ground debris for boiler fuel,” he said.  “But when we’re out on a gas line, sometimes we’ll cut a deal with someone who’s going to sell the residue as boiler fuel.  If they can get rid of it fast enough, we may just give it to them to haul it.  And there have been times that the distance is too far for what someone is going to get out of it that we’ve actually paid a little bit for someone to haul it.”

            In some cases, the mulch is used on site.

            “On many of our gas line and power line jobs, and even some of the disaster services jobs we do—where we pick up and grind debris after hurricanes, for instance—the mulch generated is used as either a soil additive or just on the surface for erosion control,” Dudley said.  “Many of our jobs want a beneficial re-use on site to help with containment of runoff.”

            Today, P&J will work anywhere in the country. 

            “We have a project in Alaska right now, and we had one on St. Croix not long ago,” Ritchie said.  “We go coast to coast.”

            All of this presents some interesting logistical challenges for P&J.

            “We have a fleet of heavy trucks,” Ritchie said.  “We truck equipment from job to job.”

            Sometimes logistics dictates that equipment move in other than obvious paths.

            “For instance, we sent equipment from Florida to the job in Alaska,” Dudley said.  “We trucked more than 30 pieces of equipment to Seattle and put them on a boat and shipped them to Alaska.”

            The obvious corollary to this is that these are big jobs that take months or even years to complete; shipping equipment like that for a small job isn’t cost effective.  And in this economy, most of what P&J is doing is infrastructure-types jobs, which tend to be larger that the private sector work they were doing in the past.

            “Until a couple of years ago, we were doing a lot of private work in metropolitan areas,” Dudley said.  “So we might have two grinders working in Charlotte, two working in Raleigh, and two in Atlanta.  But now, all that private work has dried up so we’re working all over the place on gas lines, government jobs such as Army bases, and power lines.”  Only when the private jobs ran out, he said, did P&J start moving equipment such long distances to find profitable jobs.

            P&J has more than 700 pieces of heavy equipment nationwide.  The number varies somewhat, because occasionally it’s more cost efficient to purchase a piece of used equipment locally for a specific job than it is to move one; Dudley credited Iron Planet and Ritchie Brothers online sales as making that the case.

            Still, the company keeps equipment in many different locations.           

            “We have multiple fleets,” Dudley said.  “Right now we have twelve grinders, including six Hogzillas.”

            Part of what has made the Hogzillas so vital to the infrastructure jobs that P&J is doing today is their ability to move through difficult terrain.

            “The Hogzillas walk better and faster than other tub grinders,” Ritchie said.  “Plus, their production is really good.  They’re all on Caterpillar undercarriages.”

            When you’re tracking across a gas line in the middle of nowhere, Ritchie said, the tendency of a tub grinder to occasionally throw a stick is of no consequence by comparison to the maneuverability of the Hogzillas.

            “Plus, the Hogzillas will grind more wood than the horizontal grinders we use on other types of jobs,” he said.  “So we’d rather use the Hogzillas on gas lines and other similar projects because we can get more production and because the Hogzilla’s walking mechanism is better.”

            Moving the Hogzillas, however, does introduce one more twist into the logistics of the job.

            “We have to have special permits to move the track machines, because they’re heavy,” Ritchie said.  “For our biggest machine, we have to get a super load permit, and sometimes we have to put an extra axle behind the lowboy to have enough axles.  So it’s a challenge.  If we’re going to move one across the country, we have to have a good sized job to work on.  We don’t move a piece of equipment like that and then move it back next week.”

            The place where the Hogzillas show their strength, Ritchie said, is on really big jobs.

            “It’s the jobs where we have to cover a lot of miles,” he said.  “Their walking mechanism is just faster than most other grinders.  We grind a lot of stumps on these jobs, so we need tub grinders; Hogzillas give us the best of both features.”

            Getting service for the Hogzillas is easy no matter where in the country they are, Dudley said.

            “The owners of Hogzilla have worked hand in hand with us on every question that’s ever arisen,” he said.  “They’ve been very attentive, and if there’s been a problem they’ve been right there with us.”

            Parts are never a problem, Ritchie said.

            “Most of what we need is wear items, such as tips that you have to change each evening, or screens,” he said.  “The company is very responsive with that kind of thing.  Any time we need something we just call them and they’ll overnight it to us, or we have other vendors in the area where we’re working that sell them.”

            The Caterpillar undercarriages also make maintenance and repairs easy.

            “There are Caterpillar dealers in almost every town,” Dudley said.  “The engine also is a Caterpillar engine.  So we just go to the Caterpillar dealership to get help.”

            At this juncture, there are three generations of Phillipses and Jordans still involved with P&J.

            First is Ted Phillips, one of the original two owners, and still owner of the business.  His son, Ted Phillips, Jr. is the CEO.  Randy Jordan is the son of Ted Jordan, and his mother is sister to Ted Phillips, Sr.  Ronnie Jordan, Randy’s brother, is a division manager in California.

            Dudley Orr is Randy and Ronnie’s nephew; his mother is their sister.  He said he has an idea he’s the last family member who will come into the business.

            “It’s too soon to call for sure, but odds are that I’m it,” he said.

            Both Dudley and Ritchie hope that the economy is going to improve before long, and that they can move back into more local jobs than some of what the company is doing now.

            “Land clearing has kept us afloat the last couple of years,” Dudley said.  “Our civil grading business has all but died.  For instance, our Florida office was 100 percent devoted to private sector community infrastructure development, and that’s gone.  That office had approximately 400 employees, and they’re down to 50.  So that division took a large hit when things turned bad.”

            Thanks in a large part to the Hogzilla grinders, however, the company has been able to stay alive on what is an undeniably difficult playing field.

            “Until just a couple of years ago, our clearing division was structured in major metropolitan areas and everyone had a jurisdictional region because there was so much work in the private sector,” Dudley said.  “But when the private sector dried up, we moved to a market sector focus.  We have one manager looking after the oil and gas industry, and another manager looking after the power line development.  Ritchie is in charge of all other clearing aspects of the company, whether that’s DOT work, federal work, reservoirs, or oddball jobs.”

            One reason P&J has been so successful in making that transition, Dudley said, is the Hogzilla grinders.

            “They’ve helped make our projects profitable,” he said.




 






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