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Colored Mulch Pioneer Shares Technology

Mulch Manufacturing Inc. markets a line of mulch colorants and plans to introduce a mulch coloring system.

By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 4/1/2002


REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio — Getting out first and fast is a great boon to a business. The history of Mulch Manufacturing Inc. illustrates the point.

"We developed colored mulch back in the pioneer days," said Ralph Spencer, vice president of Mulch Mfg. To be sure, everything is relative, and in this case, the frontier for mulch colorants was still wide open just a decade ago. Today, Mulch Mfg. is a leading company in the mulch industry.

Its owners were interested in colorants almost from the inception of the business. In early attempts to color mulch, Ralph said he even "tried food coloring," aiming for environmental safety. The research effort quickly switched to something more permanent, an iron oxide that "holds color" and is "fade resistant."

Now, Mulch Mfg. plans to introduce a coloring system to the market within the next 12 months. "We’re coming out with some new technique," said Ralph, adding he didn’t "want to say what it is, but it’s very cost effective."

Ralph agreed to talk with TimberLine in general terms about the new system, how he and his collaborators worked toward its development. They have "tried three different systems to apply" color, he said

"The first process involved a pool of liquid in the bottom of the mixing auger," Ralph said. The mulch was pulled from the pool, but ultimately it was deemed too wet to be acceptable for commercial production. The second attempt used pumps to power nozzles that sprayed colorant on mulch as it passed over the auger, which produced a drier finished product. In the third bit of experimentation, a tumbling process was tested. It "uses less electricity," said Ralph.

There was not much more non-proprietary information Ralph could reveal about the coloring system, but Mulch Mfg. plans to bring it to the marketplace soon. "It’s going to be a system that’s different," he said, hinting that the technology would exploit things the company learned from both the nozzle system and tumbling trials.

Mulch Mfg. already sells colorants
that are trademarked as Nature’s Reflections™. The brand name derives from the essence of color, which is reflected light, explained Ralph.

The company has plants in Madison and Callahan, Florida, Reynoldsburg, Oh. and a fourth in Georgia. The Ohio location, which also serves as the company’s headquarters, dates to 1985, the year when the company was launched by Ralph and his father, John Spencer, the president of the firm.

Cypress mulch has always been at the core of the business. For years the company had cypress logs shipped from Florida to Ohio in order to be processed into mulch. About 13 years ago, Mulch Mfg. opened its first plant in Florida.

The company’s operations employ about 270 people. Its mulch products are distributed from 27 locations in the Eastern U. S. Much of the equipment used by Mulch Mfg. is designed and built in-house. The company also relies on grinding equipment supplied by Montgomery Industries International.

As for Ralph’s interest in developing a coloring system, he explained it’s almost as deeply rooted as his interest in mulch. "I’ve been in the mulch business all my life," he said.

Indeed, Ralph started a landscaping business when he was 13 years old, mowing lawns at first. When he was able to drive at age 16, he bought a truck and began expanding his company, in part by making it a specialist in mulching services. By the time he graduated from high school, he was ready to launch a wholesale and retail mulch outlet.

Ralph said, "My father was familiar with my mulch business." Because Ralph’s father, John, liked what he observed, he decided to get involved. When John sold a computer company he owned, he and Ralph opened a plant in Reynoldsburg. The Cypress Rose mulch produced by Mulch Mfg. soon "dominated" the industry, said Ralph.

Cypress Rose is just one in a long list of trade named and other products made by Mulch Mfg. The offerings include Forest Pine, Royal Gardens and pine and hardwood mulches, as well as topsoil and growing media. Altogether there are 14 different types of mulch.

There are three types of colored mulch. Colored pallet grindings — Mulch Mfg. gets scrap pallets from pallet suppliers — yield Rainbow’s Edge, a red mulch. Rustic Red is colored pine bark mulch. Color-enhanced virgin wood mulch is the third variety.

Ralph believes people like colored mulch because it’s "an eye catcher," something that can increase visibility of a business, such as a restaurant. "Red makes up 90 percent of the market," said Ralph. "Red holds its color longer than a lot of other mulches. We can produce red, black and brown, and any color requested."

The wants of customers and the benefits of colorants were on Ralph’s mind early in his career. "I knew I could begin to color," he said, and the colored mulch would be "an alternative to the waste stream."

As for how he learned so much about marketing, business and mulch, Ralph said it has all been "learning by experience, all hands-on." The combination of Ralph’s experience in the mulch business from the ground up and John’s expertise in the technology sector has given a real boost to Mulch Mfg.

For example, four years ago the company added a sawmill in Callahan. The plant mills Cypress lumber, primarily for fencing. The sawmill is "fairly state-of-the-art" and has scanning technology, said Ralph. "Our sawing operation has a very high capacity, Brewer eight-head bandsaw," he said. Residuals from the sawmill are converted into cypress mulch.

John takes a keen interest in the mill operation, and "contributes a lot of computer skills" throughout the business, said Ralph. "We have a logistics computer program, used to make shipments," that was written by John.

A former test pilot, John worked for Bell Aerospace on the development of the Rocket Belt, also known as the Jet Pack, and by many other names. The Rocket Belt allows a person to travel airborne, over short distances, by harnessing on a jet propulsion system. (It’s the real-life version of the Buck Rogers’ fantasy device of the 1920s.) John actually "flew" the Rocket Belt in tests for Bell Aerospace. The U.S. military once had hopes of using them to deploy troops.

When John was in test pilot school, he was a friend of former test pilot Chuck Yeager, who began his supersonic career by being the first pilot to break the sound barrier on Oct. 27, 1947.

All sales from Mulch Mfg. are wholesale. The company owns Rose Transport Co., and does much of its own trucking, while contracting for some.

Although Ralph has been a key player in developing the concept for the new colorizing system that Mulch Mfg. will soon market, testing has been conducted in-house by a team of experts. Ralph is confident that when the system is introduced, it will be competitive with other coloring equipment that is available in the marketplace.

Ralph sees the development of the system as a logical extension of his interest in maximizing the use of wood and keeping wood waste out of landfills. His attention to the environment extends to other areas as well. Even before chemical companies voluntarily agreed to phase out production of chromated copper arsenate for treated wood, Mulch Mfg. did not use pressure treated pine because of the arsenic. The colorants that are used in the company’s mulches are all classified as non-hazardous.

Going in new directions is one of the things Ralph enjoys about business. "I like being innovative, developing new products," he said. And he is eager to get the new coloring system on the market.

For more information, contact Mulch Manufacturing at (800) 832-4004 or visit the company’s Web site at www.mulchmfg.com.




 






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