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Bay State Contractor Clears Way for Progress

Letourneau Products Manufacturing relies on Morbark for cutting, chipping and grinding equipment

By TimberLine Staff
Date Posted: 10/2/2002

FREETOWN, Massachusetts ó Some of the most desirable land for development in the Northeast lies within the rolling, wooded New England countryside. Among the clearing and grubbing contractors performing the important first step for commercial and residential developers, one of the better known is Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corp. The Massachusetts-based company earns income from both clearing land and producing wood chips. It is successfully building on a foundation established more than a generation ago thanks to the current ownersí business savvy, reputation and resources.

Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corp. clears and grubs for natural gas pipeline companies and real estate developers primarily in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. It also does occasional projects in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and has traveled as far away as Ohio.

Besides pipeline companies, Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corp. serves commercial, industrial and residential construction, golf course development and highway construction projects, among others. The company removes trees and stumps and grinds both with separate crews of seasoned workers and a highly mobile fleet of equipment kept in constant production under the direction of Mark Letourneau, president and director of operations.

"We are a 100 percent clearing and grubbing contractor," said Mark. "Our main goal is to provide professional services and products to our customers."

The companyís longtime reputation for value and quality work has enabled it to build a sizeable customer base and strong repeat business. "Iíd say 90 percent of our work is from the same people all the time," said Mark. "Our repeat customers and their loyalty to us are a vital part of our success."

The products referred to in the companyís name are wood chips. "We deliver about 2,500 loads of wood chips a year to wood-burning plants in the New England area," said Mark.

Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corp. was founded as Letourneau and Methe in 1959 by brothers Pamphile (Phil) and Real Letourneau, their cousin, Ferdinand Letourneau and a partner, Philip Methe. Today, Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corp. and Letourneau Trucking Corp. together are known as Letourneau Corporations.

Wood chipping and hauling has not always been part of Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corp.ís services. Like most land clearing contractors in the 1950s and 1960s, Letourneau and Methe burned cut trees on site and contracted stump removal to other contractors. In 1973, environmental laws were enacted to reduce open burning at about the same time that power generating facilities started to burn wood chips for fuel. Coinciding with this, Morbark Inc. introduced the first heavy-duty, portable, whole-tree chipper to the forest products industry, machines capable of chipping trees 22 inches in diameter. All of these events came together perfectly for Letourneau and Methe, which bought the first Morbark whole-tree chipper in Massachusetts the same year.

Letourneau and Metheís first wood chip supply contract was for the delivery of 50,000 tons of chips a year to the S.D. Warren paper mill in Westbrook, Maine. "The company did selective thinning and strip cuts of white pine and red pine at the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts," Mark recalled. With the 22-inch Morbark chipper dedicated to working in the forests around the reservoir, Letourneau and Methe produced and delivered more than the contracted amount for 11 years. Finally, increasing demand by other wood products suppliers for custom-length wood drove prices for timber out of profitable reach.

Meanwhile, Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corp. obtained another chipper, a Morbark Model 27 Total Chiparvestor with knuckleboom loader and operator cab. "While we had one crew at the Quabbin Reservoir, we did clearing jobs the whole time with another crew and produced 10,000 to 15,000 tons a year to ship to other plants in Maine and New Hampshire," said Mark. "Since we left the reservoir, weíve been running one-and-a-half to two crews steadily ó two chippers all the time."

Those two chippers now include a 30-inch model purchased four years ago and the 16-year-old Model 27, which is being traded in for a second 30-inch Morbark Total Chiparvestor. "We just ordered a brand-new Model 30 with an 860 horsepower CAT on it," said Mark. "That will be chipper number eight since 1973. The serial number of the new chipper is 2002, if you can believe that."

The productivity and longevity of the equipment are the reasons he stays with Morbark, said Mark. "The Morbark 27 was an incredible machine in its time. It has 12,000 to 13,000 hours on it, and itís still running. Not without a little work on it after that amount of time, but I donít think you can ask for much better than that. For these reasons, we continue to go back to Morbark."

The Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corp. fleet also includes two Morbark Wolverine Model 6300 feller-bunchers with 20-inch shear heads to make quick work of felling. A pair of Timberjack skidders is used to keep trees within reach of the chipper, and a fully equipped service truck rounds out the support equipment on site at each chipping location.

Mark explained the steady production that his company receives from its Morbark chippers. "Itís not uncommon for us to chip 10 or 15 trailer-loads every day, five to six days a week. On a yearly average, we chip eight trailers a day, every day, six days a week, for a yearly total of about 2,500 loads (about 75,000 tons) of wood chips."

Low equipment downtime is a big factor in the companyís consistently high production. "The component parts that Morbark uses are built for very long hours of service," said Mark. "The Model 30 chipper has about 6,000 hours on it, and Iíve done zero to the engine, zero to the clutch. Iíve had very, very few problems in the time that weíve had it."

The next generation of leaders took over the company seven years ago when Mark, his brother, Gary, and their cousin, Robert Letourneau, became the owners. "Some family businesses donít end up working out, but ours is as tight as can be," Mark said. "We have a nice relationship. Itís great."

With Mark serving as operations director, Robert runs the maintenance shop and oversees all equipment repairs, including welding and painting. Gary directs the stump crews that grub land after the trees have been cut and chipped; his crews also move and set up the tub grinders, then perform the grinding. "All in all, we have a very smooth-running operation," said Mark. "It takes a lot of work to keep it that way, but once itís there, itís great. We take a lot of pride in what we do."

Stump grinding is a fairly recent operation for Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corp. "We never did stumps before," said Mark. "Then Morbark came out with this track tub grinder. It was awesome. It would run right down the right-of-way and grind all the stumps."

Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corp. bought its first tub grinder in 1996, then traded it in for another Morbark tub in 1999, a Model 1300 equipped with a knuckleboom loader. And the companyís next tub, a Morbark Track 1200XL, will be delivered by the local equipment dealer, Morbark of New England.

Letourneau looks forward to even greater operating efficiencies when the new tub arrives. "It moves via remote control from the excavator," said Mark. "No operator, no loader. Itís fed by the excavator."

With jobs in progress at several locations in various stages of cutting, chipping, stumping and grinding, Mark spends his workdays as both master scheduler and marketer for his company. Most working hours, his office is his pick-up truck, and his cell phone is in constant use as he directs crews to work locations, checks on progress and plans equipment placement several jobs ahead. An office staff of two communicates with customers and completes computerized billing and payroll tasks while the maintenance department orders and stocks parts needed to repair and maintain all of the companyís equipment.

Service trucks at every job site are a key part of Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corp.ís high productivity. "Every utility truck that we have has the ability to make hydraulic hoses," said Mark. "Right up to one inch in diameter for wire braid. We carry every fitting. We have air wrenches. The trucks are four-wheel-drive, and they carry 200-gallon fuel tanks. We fuel up the machines at night before the trucks return to the shop, where the fuel tanks are refilled."

Markís scheduling decisions have evolved into something of a science, making the companyís operations resemble modern assembly plant methods more than a traditional land clearing business. Equipment and crews arrive on job sites exactly when needed, and once in action, they waste little time or motion. At a municipal park expansion in Billerica, Mass., a seven-acre stand of trees has been felled and chipped in a day and a half. Stumping and grubbing will be finished three days later when the tub grinder arrives on the site. The last of the felled trees are piled in neat stacks left behind by the Wolverine feller-buncher to await chipping. Mark checks in with the crew and relays word of its progress to his other crews.

"You see the way the chipper and the skidder work together," Mark said. "The skidder operator doesnít bring a load until thereís no wood left behind the chipper, then he comes and drops the trees within two feet of the leveling posts on the side of the chipper. All the chipper operator has to do is grab it, move sideways and load it in. Very limited motion on the loaderís part. No waiting."

A third worker keeps a watchful eye on the operation from ground level and has a chain saw within easy reach. "The saw guy is right there," said Mark. "If thereís a stump or a piece of firewood, he cuts it."

A covered semi-trailer fills steadily with clean wood from the chipperís discharge chute while an empty trailer is parked across the drive. "As soon as the trailer is loaded, the guy whoís on the ground is moving it even before the operator has left the chipper. Thatís how a system should work," Mark said. For many years, most of Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corp.ís loads of chips have been hauled by Ingerson Transportation in Jefferson, N.H., using trailers owned by both companies.

The stumping crew that will finish the Billerica park expansion job in three days is finishing this dayís work two hours to the southeast in Pine Hills, a new golf community south of Plymouth, Mass. At the Pine Hills site, the Morbark 1300 Tub Grinder is paired with a Caterpillar 330BL excavator to grind several large piles of brush and stumps cleared from roads, residential lots and the golf course itself. With a total of 300 acres being cleared, this is one of Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corp.ís bigger jobs. "We clear anywhere between five and 300 acres," said Mark. "The average size job we do is probably 15 to 20 acres." The stumping crew will leave Pine Hills for two days of grubbing and grinding at the Oak Point development in Middleboro, Mass., and then will move the operation to Billerica.

Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corp. keeps stump removal simple and efficient by doing all of the work with an excavator. "I donít even own a stump shear," explained Mark. "You see those stumps over there? Rip Ďem out, flip Ďem over, clean the rocks and dirt out with the teeth of the bucket, then put them in the tub grinder whole." Even over-size stumps are no problem for a good excavator operator, according to Mark. "When you get a real big pine stump with big roots, you split it right in the ground with the bucket. Rip just half of it out at a time."

The mixture of dirt and wood in stump grindings makes the material perfect to mix with more soil and then spread on cleared pipeline rights of way for replanting, Mark noted. Clean wood chips produced by the chipping operations, however, are too acidic to be planted over on site and must be hauled away.

"The gas pipeline companies were getting fed up with contractors leaving chips on the job," said Mark, and required contractors to remover them. "That was great for us because we already had the big Morbark tree chippers. So now we skid all the wood and haul all the chips away from all of our jobs."

Mark is quick to give credit to his employees as the driving force behind his companyís thriving health. "Your company is only as good as the people who work for you," he said. "Weíve got a great group of operators, laborers and office staff. We have people who have been working for us for 25 years. The least anyone has been working with us is about three years."

"Today has been a relatively calm day," Letourneau reflected after a review of current and future projects. "I just put everything where it needs to be and let the crews do their jobs. Then I get the next job lined up for them, get the right equipment, make the right decisions to make it all run. Thatís pretty much my job."

Selecting equipment for the companyís consideration is also Markís job, and he makes his recommendation clear. "If anybody is going to be serious about grinding stumps, grinding wood, chipping wood or cutting wood, Morbarkís the only way to go," he said. "Itís a great company to be a part of."

Mark and his partners and employees are acutely aware of the highly regarded legacy that they inherited from the companyís founders a generation ago. "Because we have a good name in the industry, we got a real good foundation from our parents and the others who started this company. We just took it over and ran with it. We hope we can do half of what they did."

As it enters its fifth decade, Letourneau Products Manufacturing Corp. is exceeding those hopes, thanks to its innovative owners, dedicated employees and dependable equipment from Morbark.


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