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Maryland Contractor Adds Grinding Capacity

Comer Construction Invests in Two Peterson Pacific Portable Heavy-Duty Recyclers, Both Horizontal Grinders

By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 7/20/2001

ABERDEEN, Md. ó "Iím supposed to be retired," said (James) Marvin Comer. But he laughed when he said it because his post-retirement engagement with Comer Construction Inc. makes it seem like he is not retired at all.

Marvin established J.M. Comer Construction in 1982. Four years ago, he sold the business to three of his daughters, and it became Comer Construction. Susie Comer is president and treasurer of the company. Her sisters also are officers: Leona Hill is vice president and Ruby Blevins is secretary. (Marvinís fourth daughter, Peggy Belcher, is a nurse.)

Two things come through when Marvin talks about the business he established and his daughters. He loves his work enormously. He loves his daughters more. "Iím real proud of my family," he said. "They work hard." And the hard work shows up in the little things. At the construction company, it means one of the principals is always there to talk to a customer and help them solve a problem.

When Marvin started his construction firm, he did so with decades of experience behind him. "I worked for other contractors for years before I decided to go out on my own," he said. He started the company with "one little backhoe."

Today, Comer Construction with headquarters in Forest Hill, Md., about 25 miles north of Baltimore, often has 11-15 jobs going at one time. The company takes on large projects, which have recently included highway development and an airport cargo facility. Site preparation, land clearing, grading, water and sewer installation, and storm water management are staples at Comer Construction, which has 175 employees and runs 150 pieces of equipment.

Comer is equipped with 16 Mack dump trucks. His trucks have "always been Mack," Marvin said, because he considers them so reliable. The earth moving equipment is almost all Caterpillar, another manufacturer that gets high praise from Marvin. CAT or Caterpillar labels are on all 12 excavators, 21 front-end loaders, 22 dozers, 12 scrapers, 15 rollers, five end-drops and two graders.

Many of the companyís contracts are with local, state or federal government, acquired by a bidding process. Competition is keen, and efficiency is a must.

Marvin expects a lot from his equipment, and he gets it. Itís no surprise that when he took over the informal supervision of the mulch operations the company started four years ago, his expectations for grinding and chipping equipment were very high.

He got the mulching operations going with used equipment, including a Stumpmaster grinder, which is no longer made. Then he purchased two Morbark grinders, which he said have served him well, just as the company has "treated us well."

Although Comer Constructionís mulching operations account for less than 10% of sales, it is a growing enterprise. This the company Marvin decided to add more grinding capacity. In doing so, it undertook a thorough evaluation of the equipment that was available on the market. The company enlisted the help of Bob Richardson, a Comer employee who works on equipment maintenance and more, particularly in the mulch operations.

"Bob and I looked over all the grinders on the market," said Marvin. The pair went to trade shows and made use of on-site try-outs. In the end, Marvin settled on two Peterson Pacific horizontal grinding machines.

The Peterson Pacific Corp. HC 5400 portable heavy-duty recycler is operated at the Comer Construction yard. The HC 7400 portable heavy-duty recycler travels to job sites. Marvin said he uses the machines "in lieu of a whole tree chipper" and "runs the long stuff through."

The HC 5400 is configured with a 860 hp engine, and the HC 7400 has a 1060 hp engine. Joe Rutkowski, an industrial sales representative for Lyons Equipment Co., headquartered in Little Valley, N.Y., sold the machines to Marvin.

As soon as he saw Comer Constructionís yard and operations, Joe knew the equipment would be a good fit for Marvinís business. "The fact that he does a high volume," said Joe, "and that he has retail customers in and out of the yard, and that he is close to two highways" made the Peterson Pacific equipment a good choice. "Peterson is a safe machine," he added.

The horizontal grinding machines contain the wood as it is processed. Joe expects to see more construction companies adopting Peterson Pacific equipment in the future just because they often work in areas near urban traffic.

Experience in land clearing was at the root of the development of the Peterson Pacific recyclers. "Our company, previous to being a manufacturer, (was) a land-clearing" enterprise, explained Cody Peterson, a sales coordinator and manager at the Sacramento-headquartered Peterson Pacific. The company could not find exactly what it wanted in a grinding machine, so it took on the task of modifying existing equipment to meets its requirements. The companyís adaptations grew into innovations.

"We built our own and started selling it," said Cody. "Originally, we concentrated on chipping and debarking." Peterson-Pacific sought to convert "non-marketable, marginal" wood into useable products.

Although the wood material was considered waste, the Peterson Pacific recyclers still had to be built tough. And they were. For one thing, the machines were built to handle the remnants from large diameter trees encountered by loggers and land-clearing enterprises on the West Coast.

Peterson Pacific Corp. now sells internationally, and Cody said most of the customers are looking for a good way to dispose of waste wood.

That certainly describes Marvinís objective. He did not exactly plan to enter the mulch business. But conditions "forced us into it," said Marvin. Clearing "400 acres per year" results in a lot of woody material that must be dealt with somehow, he noted. Landscapers with operations to make mulch could only take so much. And the state of Maryland, for one, did not want it deposited in landfills.

Comer Construction does business from Washington, D.C. to Delaware. But its mulch operations are based in Aberdeen, Md., on a site about 10 miles east of the companyís Forest Hill headquarters. Both towns are part of Harford County, Marvinís life-long residence.

When he takes time away from the business, Marvin likes to make good use of his motor coach or boat. Marvin is an avid fan of Bluegrass music and enjoys traveling around the country for concerts featuring his favorite performers, and he has met many of them. He arranged for Lost & Found ó with Allen Mills and Dempsey Young ó to sing at his motherís funeral. His converted Prevo bus was once mistaken for a bus belonging to Waylon Jennings, whose motor coach was parked nearby.

Marvin bought a new boat in the spring and moored it at Annapolis, but he hasnít had time to use it yet. "My friend went out on it before me," he said. He plans to rectify that soon by taking it out for fishing in the Chesapeake Bay.

The state of Maryland takes a keen interest in what is going on in recycling, and it has a special category for mulching operations like that of Comer Construction. The business is categorized as a Natural Wood Waste Recycling Facility (NWWRF). It has a permit to process natural wood waste, such as stumps and tree limbs. The companyís state permit does not allow it to process scrap pallets, crates or lumber, or any other type of manufactured wood. Companies with a NWWRF permit must keep a daily record of the temperature and oxygen level of their mulch stocks, and state inspectors visit them monthly.

The Peterson Pacific recyclers "make a good, clean marketable mulch," said Marvin, and the company mainly sells it on a wholesale basis.

Comer Construction collects and screens top soil which it sells, and for certain customers it supplies various mixtures of top soil, mulch and sand.

At this stage the company is turning down potential customers for mulch. Marvinís first commitment is to continue to supply existing customers. He has been looking for ways to increase mulch production, and he believes the efficiency of the Peterson Pacific recyclers will help.

"One big advantage of (the Peterson Pacific recyclers) is the hardware," he said. The replacement tips, hammers and other components last 50% longer, he estimated. Longer life saves the company in replacement parts and down time for service.

The Peterson Pacific machines perform very well, according to Marvin. After grinding material once, the output is equivalent to a mulch that has been processed three times, he said.

Comer Construction began running the Peterson Pacific machines in April. "Weíre in a learning curve right now, experimenting with screens and so on," said Marvin.

"I can see a big difference in production and in the quality of product," he added. Moreover, the companyís landscape customers have given him "all positive feedback" on the quality of the mulch being produced by the two new machines, he said.

Comer Construction produces 60,000 to 70,000 cubic yards of mulch per year. The companyís mulch is thoroughly screened, which "slows production," Marvin noted. The company does not produce colored mulch although it supplies mulch to a customer that colors it.

Comer Constructionís land-clearing operations rely on three feller-bunchers ó a Morbark Wolverine, a Tigercat 627 and a Hydro-Ax 621 ó and six skidders, three Caterpillar 518 skidders and three Caterpillar 525 skidders.

Most of the land the company clears contains hardwoods. Most of the timber is small, but the few large trees the company harvests are sold for saw logs.

Things change, Marvin noted, and it is important for businesses to keep up with change and adapt. "Keeping up is important," said Marvin, whether it means adding new machinery or new computers. Customer satisfaction hinges on keeping up with demand and providing quality work and products.

Charlie Kenny, the sales manager for Comer Constructionís mulch operations, added, "Our customer service speaks for itself." If customers experience any problems, "we go the extra mile to solve it."


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