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Florida Firm a Leader in Wood Grinding Services

New Vermeer Tub Grinder, Based in Part on Company's Recommendations, Increases Production, Efficiency

By Carolee Boyles - Contributing Author
Date Posted: 6/1/2001

BRADENTON, Fla. — In the mid-1980s, Steve Lubbers worked for a company that provided excavation services for subdivisions, golf courses, and other urban projects in the central Florida peninsula. But the times were changing. New state and federal regulations concerning burning and burying of trees, brush and waste wood were becoming more restrictive, making land-clearing more difficult. The company faced increasing limitations on what it was doing and potential opportunity to take a new path.

"So the company was sold in 1989 to Resource Recovery," says Steve, now vice president of what has become Consolidated Resource Recovery. The fledgling company purchased a grinder and set out to show landowners and developers in the area that there was a better and more environmentally friendly way to dispose of waste wood than burying or burning it.

"We started with three employees," Steve recalled. "We started out by having the grinder parked here at the office and going out and finding jobs. It was really tough because people were clearing and burning land for $500 to $750 an acre. But doing it in this day and age, with this new technology, you’re looking at $2,000 to sometimes $6,000 an acre."

Prospective clients would look at Steve like he was out of his mind. "We could run a machine for $350 a hour back then," he said. "The person would say, ‘Can you grind an acre in an hour?’ And I’d say, ‘No.’ "

That first year, CRR processed only about 15,000 tons of waste wood. "It was tough," Steve said. "We were one of the first ones in this business. People would just look at me and say, ‘No way!’ "

As laws and regulations changed, so did the marketplace. In 1992, Florida banned burying of yard waste, even in landfills. Developers and land clearing companies started buying their own grinders, but as they discovered the amount of maintenance involved, some turned to contractors like CRR.

Today, CRR runs anywhere from 17 to 22 grinders at a time, depending on what’s going on in the marketplace. "The number fluctuates," said Steve. "In the municipal part of this business, contracts go out to bid every three to five years. Sometimes we lose a contract. Maybe there are some new guys on the block and they think they can do it cheaper. Some can and some can’t, so sometimes we end up with a client back. We add or take away grinders, whatever it takes to keep the operation in line."

The company offers grinding services across the Southeast, including Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. "We also do some hurricane work in Puerto Rico and North Carolina," said Steve. To reach Puerto Rico and other island jobs, the company puts equipment on barges. "Everything is very mobile," said Steve. "Going to islands is not a problem. We can move everything, from dozers to backhoes and loaders."

CRR grinds any wood or other plant material that can be processed, including trees, stumps and waste wood. "We grind typical yard waste," said Steve, that has been collected and taken to landfills.

Grindings are screened into different size particles. Fines go to companies that mix it with soil for potting soil for nurseries and gardening centers. Larger grindings are sold as fuel to power plants. At a land-clearing job, for example, grindings would be screened and, depending on the size, may be sold for mulch, fuel, or used on-site.

"It’s a good thing environmentally," said Steve. "No one likes to see the trees taken down, but at least they’re being used. And it cuts down on using other resources. This reduces mining in peat bogs and saves natural gas and coal or whatever the power plants would use otherwise." Not all power plants can burn waste wood, however; a facility must be permitted specifically to use waste wood.

CRR’s recycling operations also help to save huge amounts of air space in municipal landfills. For example, one county collects about 50,000 tons of yard waste yearly; another collects more than 120,000 tons. "We take every bit of that," Steve says. "It all gets recycled. If we didn’t do that and they would landfill it, just think about the sheer amount of air space that would take."

Duane De Boef, a representative of Vermeer, called Steve a little less than two years ago and asked his recommendations for the design of a new grinder. "We talked for two or three hours, and they asked me, ‘If you were going to build a grinder, what would you do?’ " He listed a number of problems he dealt with daily but that he knew could be remedied in the design and manufacturing process. The problems included engine overheating, clogging of the hammermill box, and hydraulic system motors that needed to be larger to pump more oil. "We needed a grinder that was just a little over-spec’d," Steve said.

Two years later, the telephone rang. At the other end was Duane, telling Steve that his new grinder was ready. "Two years is quite a while, and all I could think was, ‘What are you talking about, my grinder?’ " Steve said. "He started talking, and then I remembered."

Vermeer had developed the TG800 tub grinder, which was designed according to the recommendations of Steve and a few others in the recycling industry. Ironically, while driving up from south Florida the previous week, Steve had looked across a land-clearing operation and seen a grinder that he did not recognize. He did not have time to stop and look at it, but when he got the telephone call, he guessed that it must have been the new Vermeer machine, and the Vermeer representative confirmed that it was. Steve looked at the performance of the Vermeer TG800 in the field and then went to the factory and looked at it there. He was persuaded that Vermeer had engineered a better grinder, and he bought one.

"It has been an excellent machine," he said. "We’ve now put about 1,000 hours on it, and it’s been the best grinder that we’ve ever had. Literally, only two small things have gone wrong with it. You can’t have that big a piece of equipment with no problems, but this thing is amazing."

The Vermeer TG800 has an inside tub diameter of 11 feet with a top that flares to 13.6 feet. Its unusual design attracts attention because it does not look like anything else in the field. "It has a hood that keeps the dirt off the chains and the engine," Steve noted. "There’s less fire hazard. It has an 800 horsepower Caterpillar engine. We always do some modifications to grinders when we buy them, some specialty things of our own that save some wear and tear on the metal. That‘s all we’ve done to it."

The Vermeer TG800 tub grinder has had a considerable impact on CRR’s operations. It performs very well with large wood, making it an excellent addition to CRR’s land-clearing equipment. "And it still does yard waste very well," Steve said. Maintenance costs are low. The machine also has increased the company’s production capability and efficiency. "I bid a job that I expected to take seven weeks," Steve said. "I’ve been in this business a long time, and I know how long a job should take. This machine did it in four weeks. So the margins on that job were a whole lot better than I expected."

Steve plans to add another Vermeer as he replaces grinding machines. "In fact, I’ll buy more than one," he said. "Technology changes, and this machine represents that kind of a change. I have to have the best technology that money can buy, and this is it."

In 1992 Kenetech, a California-based company that built power plants and windmills, purchased CRR. "Kenetech had a few power plants up North that burned wood," said Steve. "They bought us for our expertise in the wood business. That also brought resources to what we were doing." In 1996 a Canadian company, Consolidated Envirowaste Industries, bought Kenetech Resource Recovery Industry. Steve continues to run the company with the help of Ed Lee, who was hired as operations director during the Kenetech years, from its original location in Bradenton, which is on the Gulf Coast about half-way down the Florida peninsula.

From the original three employees, CRR now is up to more than 100; the number also fluctuates along with contracts and grinders. "Every time you add a grinder you have to add a loader," noted Steve. "Every time you add a couple of grinders, you add a mechanic and a service truck." That also means drivers and office personnel.

Although Steve declined to divulge annual sales, the company’s best months have been in the neighborhood of $1.6 million. From 15,000 tons the first year, in 2000 CRR processed 1.2 million tons of material. "That includes all of our contracts, as well as the private work that we do," said Steve.

In Bradenton the company has a business office, operations office, and a shop. CRR also has added a second office in Atlanta although the facility is not as large. The Atlanta facility runs one grinder and four loaders. If the company contracts for jobs out of Atlanta that require more equipment, the machines are sent up from Florida.

CRR also participates in environmental mitigation projects. South of Bradenton, on an island off the coast, the company is involved in clearing and grinding exotic species of trees that are the scourge of the south Florida environment. "On Little Pine Island we’re clearing about 1,300 acres of exotics," said Steve. "This island is state-owned, but a private consulting company is funding the whole thing." CRR employees go in and cut melaleuca, Australian pine, Brazilian Pepper, and other exotics by hand, herbicide the stumps so they cannot come back, and grind the waste. All of the ground material is taken to power plants and burned, so that seeds remaining in the waste are destroyed. "We’ve been working there for four years. We work there weather permitting because it’s low, and in the rainy season we can’t get in."

The work on Little Pine Island is part of a mitigation project run by the consulting company to return the island to its native condition. When a state agency or a business plans a project that would eliminate native habitat, it can compensate for the loss by purchasing mitigation credits from the consulting company. "Say the Department of Transportation has to widen a road, and they need to go through a saltwater marsh," Steve explained. "They’re no different from anyone else. They have to put back, also. So they widen that road, and they buy credits from Pine Island." Developers and cities are other entities that purchase mitigation credits for Pine Island.

Steve came to the business more or less naturally. Originally from Jasper, Indiana, he grew up around heavy equipment. "My father was in a similar business in a coal-mining area. He dug lakes and roads and housing projects up there." After he finished high school in the early 1970s, Steve moved to Florida. He went to work for Balvanz Land Improvement in 1976. The owner, Loren Balvanz, sold the company, and he and Jerry Netzley started CRR.

"I started at the bottom, working outside with the guys. As we got things going and everyone got to know the equipment, I started going out and looking for new customers. Everything just started to grow and grow, and now, here I am."

Married with two children, Steve spends his spare time camping, fishing, hunting and riding motorcycles. "I have a Harley-Davidson that I bought brand new in 1979 and that I’ve hung onto. He has a cabin on a lake in Indiana where he takes his family whenever possible.

In the next five years, Steve expects the company to continue to grow and to head off into different offshoots of the recycling industry. The biggest challenge will be to control costs while maintaining a high level of efficiency.

"There’s nothing we can’t do in this industry," he said. "We have all the tools it takes, but we have to work hard enough and smart enough to keep our costs down low enough that people continue to use our services."

The Vermeer TG800 is a vital part of that strategy. "It’s a very good, very productive machine," said Steve. "It will help us stay up there where we want to be."


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