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Electric Avenue with a Bandit Beast: Antoine Hardwoods Uses E-Mulch to Find a New Road of Revenue

Charles Ledbetter went from a military stint in Vietnam to working on a dairy farm, followed by a job selling cars and eventually made the transition to running a sawmill. His latest addition of equipment was purchased to help combat rising fuel costs.

By Staff
Date Posted: 10/1/2011

            Most people enter the professions of logging and saw milling in one of two ways. Either they follow in the long standing footsteps of the family business, or they find themselves knee deep in the industry almost completely by surprise. Antoine Hardwoods founder Charles Ledbetter went from a military stint in Vietnam to working on a dairy farm, followed by a job selling cars. At the time he was also going to college on the GI Bill while supporting a wife and two sons, and if you’re wondering how a Vietnam veteran-turned dairy farmer/car salesman made the transition to running a sawmill, well, that’s the surprise.

            Selling cars turned out to be a successful line of work, leading Charles to purchase the Chevrolet dealership in Gurdon, Arkansas, on the southwest side of the state. Among the run-of-the-mill passenger vehicles on his lot he also sold larger commercial trucks, with some of those sales going to—you guessed it—professionals in the logging industry.

            “He’d been the Chevrolet dealer for awhile,” said John Ledbetter, Charles’ son, office manager and the number two guy at Antoine Hardwoods. “He was selling trucks; logging had turned bad and there were some trucks he had to take back. Rather than letting them sit on the yard he put old trailers behind them and put them to work, hauling logs. Well, the guy he was hauling from was going to lose the loader so he wound up taking that over, and then he took over the skidder too. It just kind of snowballed from there.”

            That snowball led to the purchase of a sawmill in 1997, located a few towns east of the dealership just outside the small village of Antoine. The old mill had been previously owned by Couch Hardwoods and was still fully equipped, but having been idle for some time it was in need of significant freshening before new operations could begin.

            “We bought this in December 1997,” explained Ledbetter. “It had been here for a long time; most of the work we did was just trying to make it cleaner than it was. We worked on the throughput of the mill a bit to make the flow easier, but other than that, most of our prep work was just cosmetic.”

            With everything restored to working condition, Antoine Hardwoods officially began production with the sawmill in April 1998 and then broke ground on a new chip mill soon thereafter, just a couple hundred yards away. Utilizing a stationary chipper in the chip mill, Antoine Hardwoods expanded their operation to cover everything from chips for paper mills to hardwood lumber for a range of customers, including flooring companies, railroad contractors, pallet manufacturers and much more. They also acquired a band mill several miles offsite that processes primarily red and white oak, further adding to their capability. The company’s own logging crews provide roughly 50 percent of the material for the mills, while the rest is purchased from outside suppliers. All total, Antoine Hardwoods relies on a quality workforce of roughly 110 people and a bevy of equipment to pay the bills. The result is an average production of around 30,000 board-feet a day.

            “We have Prentice and John Deere knucklebooms, a Volvo excavator with a knuckleboom conversion, and Volvo wheel loaders,” remarked Ledbetter. They also run circle saws and an older debarker in the sawmill, while the chip mill is host to a stationary chipper.

            And then there’s the Bandit Model 1680 ‘Son of a Beast’ horizontal grinder, which is very popular with companies all around the world thanks to its compact size and impressive production. The 1680 at Antoine Hardwoods, however, is a bit different than most.

            “We went with the Electric Beast because of fuel prices,” explained Greg Rubach, mill manager for Antoine Hardwoods. “We knew we needed to go with something that wasn’t diesel, and in talking with Bandit this was the best option. It’s just much more efficient, and it works great.”

            Following the old adage of work smarter not harder, Antoine Hardwoods looked to the Electric Beast as a means to turn the company’s abundance of hardwood bark into high quality mulch, creating a new source of revenue in the process.

            “We grind all our hardwood with it, all bark and anything else that might come out of the drum debarker,” said Rubach. “Occasionally there may be a bit of wood fiber in it but it’s primarily bark. If we’re running it all day we probably run 100 to 150 tons, all natural color mulch and it sells well just the way it is.”

            Ordinarily, the 1680 Beast would be chewing material up to 16 inches in diameter with a variety of diesel engines from 173 to 325 horsepower, but the Electric Beast at Antoine Hardwoods uses a 200-horsepower, 3-phase WEG electric motor to turn their leftover material into mulch. WEG electric motors are considered by many to be the best in the business, having earned their reputation for ruggedness in the rock-crushing industry. These motors aren’t just workhorses—they operate with an energy efficiency rating approaching 95 percent, and they employ a soft-start feature to increase the longevity of the motor and associated components while also reducing line-voltage drop on startup. Other features unique to the Electric Beast include a special communicator panel that monitors amperage while also providing control for the continuous feed system, helping to ensure a uniform product. Like its diesel-powered siblings, the 1680 Electric Beast can wield options like customizable discharge lengths, numerous screens and various teeth to create a wide range of end-products. In the hands of Antoine Hardwoods the 1680 churns out material for landscapers, nurseries and anyone else with a need for high quality, hardwood mulch. And since the 1680 Electric isn’t tied down with expensive foundations or dependent on diesel fuel at more than $4.00 per gallon, it pays for itself in a surprisingly short amount of time.

            “Fuel prices back two years ago became ridiculous like they are now, and we had to force ourselves to become a bit more efficient” commented Ledbetter. “To deal with that we had to throttle back our production some, look into new things, new ways to make the most of what we had. The Electric Beast works great for that.”

            Thinking outside the box on bigger markets and ways to curb expenses helped Antoine Hardwoods weather the economic storm without taking any significant hits. Ledbetter also points to Arkansas’s relative financial wellbeing compared to other states as a factor in their continued success, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a diversified client base and a knack for quickly adapting to changing conditions.

            “We really had to work around the big crunch, open up some different markets,” added Rubach. “Things haven’t really been good, but we’re still selling enough to where we can keep going up, keep going on, so it’s not bad either.”

            Going up and on is the motivation behind a proposed pellet mill that Ledbetter and company would like to build, but the economic downturn has slowed their development ideas on larger projects. Instead, the near future for Antoine Hardwoods is one of smaller investments like the Electric Beast while taking a wait-and-see approach to the bigger picture.

            “The pellet market last winter was pretty bad, so that encouraged us to pause,” said Ledbetter. “We’ve had plans for the pellet mill drawn up for a year or so, but we’ve put things on hold until the economy improves some, see how the market is going to shake out before we get into that.”

            Whatever the future holds for Antoine Hardwoods, it’s safe to say that prudent planning, innovation, and efficient operation will play a significant role in their continued success. Between the traditional lumber production, wood chip sales, mulch from their Electric Beast, and non-traditional products like hickory chips for cooking and even firewood, there doesn’t seem to be much the company can’t handle. Looking back on the early days, Ledbetter fondly recalls the way his father transitioned bit by bit from auto sales to the world of logging, very much entering the business by surprise. His father still helms the company today, working with John and a dedicated team of professionals to keep Antoine Hardwoods the successful company that it is. Whether or not there are any other surprises in store remains to be seen, but if John Ledbetter’s recollection of the past is any indication, surprises aren’t such a terrible thing.

            “We basically got into this whole thing by accident,” he said, laughing. “And so far, we haven’t done too bad.”


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