Anticipating change, Texas grinding firm explores options

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Courtesy of Morbark, LLC

To be a wood waste grinder in Texas - particularly in a large metropolitan area like Houston - is to have access to some truly impressive volumes of material. A growing economy, strong regional development and a favorable climate create a 'perfect storm' of sorts, for companies who rely on a steady stream of wood waste and green waste to succeed. For Ted Lewis, one of the Houston area's largest grinding companies, availability of material has never been the issue, nor has the capability to create mulch products - he operates four Morbark 1300 tub grinders which are always kept busy. His challenge has been in finding, developing and maintaining markets for his product. As a result, his firm, Lewis-Quinn Construction is actively working for change in Texas recycling policy and looking into ways to make better use of the material they currently process.

Etched in Concrete
Established in 1994, Conroe, Texas-based Lewis-Quinn Construction grew steadily, eventually becoming one of north Houston's larger concrete construction firms. According to Ted Lewis, one of the firm's co-owners, their future seemed assured.

'At one point, we had a concrete pump company with six pumps, a ready mix plant with 20 mixers, and a curbing company,' he says. 'We were doing about $1 million a month in concrete-related sales until September 11 th hit, and then things just came to a sudden halt. It seemed like the bottom just dropped out of the market.'

At that point fate stepped in. Lewis says for years he had been driving by a yard in which the owner had been stockpiling wood waste for eventual disposal.

'I had been by that yard a thousand times and thought about the feasibility of grinding wood waste that we acquired in our landclearing projects. Like most everyone else at the time, we were simply burning our wood and green waste; we even acquired burn curtains to minimize its risks. However, the State of Texas was starting to crack down on burning at that point so I had already been thinking about grinding as an alternative. I found out that the owner of the property was wanting to lease out that property and at that point, began to seriously consider entering the grinding business.'

Help Wanted
Despite years of experience as a construction firm and solid business credentials, Lewis says getting started as a grinding company presented a whole different set of challenges, starting with acquiring machinery to do the job.

'It still amazes me how poorly I was treated by some of the grinder manufacturers as we looked for our first machines. Most companies wouldn't even return a call, let alone come out to our site to demo a grinder. I'm sure they looked at me as a small player and not worth the effort. Around that time, however, John Dale, Morbark's regional salesman stopped by and his attitude was completely different. I sensed immediately that he didn't just want to sell me a grinder, he wanted me to make it in this business.'

Lewis adds that Dale demoed several pieces of equipment for him and when Lewis-Quinn chose the Model 1300 tub grinder, Dale actually came out to their first two jobs and helped run the grinder.

'Now that we've established ourselves in this area, I am getting calls all the time from other manufacturers with demo offers and 'great deals.' I quickly tell them I'm not interested. There's a saying here in Texas that goes: 'You dance with the one who brought you,' and I believe in that. John's willingness to help us in those early days helped earned Morbark my loyalty. I've owned six Morbark grinders since then and that's due, in large part, to the way they've treated me.'

Out of the Ordinary
Since the startup of the grinding operation, Lewis-Quinn has enjoyed great success, increasing their capacity, grinding almost statewide, and adding processing and retail yards in the Houston area. Products range from a mulch used in landscaping applications, to chips shipped for use as hog fuel in area plants.

'We take each of our four grinders on the road quite a bit as part of our normal operation,' he says. 'Sometimes, that operation is anything but normal. Last year, for example, working almost round-the-clock, one of our Model 1300s did better than a half million cubic yards of wood waste for Jasper County, Texas, as part of their Hurricane Rita recovery effort. There was no pre-sorting and it was really nasty material but the grinder really rose to the occasion. That model of tub grinder is one of the most versatile, durable machines available; and it really helped us get to where we are today.'

Struggling With the Market
Lewis-Quinn's success has not come without its share of challenges; an ongoing stubborn market for the mulch product they are generating is proving particularly vexing.

'We put several hundred thousand cubic yards of mulch on the ground annually and we've seen the situation really get tight here in the last couple years. In fact, we've gone from having a hugely-popular saleable material, to having people come to take chips at no cost to them, to having to pay to haul off the material. It's been a real nightmare at times.'

A number of factors have combined to make the issue even more problematic, including a surplus of wood waste in the region from last year's hurricanes and an inability on the part of the state to promote recycling as a viable option for wood waste disposal.

'When all is said and done, Texas is not very recycling-friendly,' says Lewis. 'If the State wanted to get serious about recycling they could take several steps that I feel would help us and others like us. First, they could follow the lead of so many other southern states by banning all open air burning. In addition to regularly making lists of the worst air quality in the country, we in Houston often have to deal with dangerously dry conditions. Second, the State could ban green waste from the landfill. As difficult as it is today to obtain a landfill permit, why should we be filling landfills with material that has so many other positive uses? And finally, the State needs to get proactive in offering incentives for recycling. In business it is said that, 'if there is no margin, there is no mission,' and right now circumstances have just about erased our margin. That needs to change.'

Exploring New Options
To cope with what he sees as serious but temporary roadblocks to their development, Lewis has been looking into a number of options to take his business to the next level.

'For us, the answer would seem to be to find a process that will allow us to dispose of a large volume of material with a fairly inexpensive startup cost and that seems to be in composting. I've been in discussions with several parties in the area about acquiring land for that purpose and we're making progress. Bagging mulch for retail sale is another option into which we are looking.'

One of the most interesting uses Lewis has been exploring is a revolutionary process in which wood waste is being turned into a synthetic diesel fuel.

'Granted, something like this would be some time in the future for us,' he says. 'But there are firms from Japan and Scandinavia that are already experimenting with this process and enjoying success - there's no reason we can't be part of that mix. At this point in the game we have to look at every possible option available to us. We know we have the equipment to handle most any scenario; we just have to make it happen.'

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