Carolina contractor meets Charleston area growth head on: Gary Otter construction finds horizontal grinder ups production, broadens scope of work

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Charleston, South Carolina is unique in a number of ways, not the least of which is the obvious European-influenced charm of its downtown area. It is also the target location for retirees seeking a place to establish a permanent residence in a moderate climate for the autumns of their lives. While the same can be said for myriad locations in Florida and Arizona, the Charleston area differs in one huge way: a recent study shows that 56% of people buying or building homes in the Charleston area pay cash for them. That influx of cash-rich northern transplants has resulted in an extended period of development in and around Charleston and with it, some very productive times for companies like Gary Otter Construction. The locally-based firm specializes in landclearing and logging projects and, with a customer-driven philosophy and wise equipment purchases, is poised to meet the demands of area growth.

From an Island to an Inlet
Gary Otter’s commitment to serving his customers seems to embody all that is the South, yet Otter himself, like many of the people for whom he is clearing land, is from points north.

“I am a native of Long Island, New York,” he says. “I came down here to build a house for my parents, saw a real potential for success and stayed — that was 16 years ago. My two brothers have joined me in the business, so I guess we’re here for the long haul. We started out as a general contracting firm — and we still do a fair amount of site work — but eventually we evolved into a company focused more on land clearing, grinding, logging and so on. There is, and always seems to be, a lot of development going on in this area. For example, we have a 60-acre development job that has been ongoing for a while and we just started an 80-acre project — and it is all residential. There really doesn’t seem to be a slow time for us.”

Grinding Out a Living
Otter says his company focuses its efforts on a three-county region — Dorchester, Charleston and Berkeley counties — with occasional projects in Columbia and Buford, SC. The key to being able to consistently meet the demands of his customers, he adds, lies in good planning, hard work and equipment that will perform on a consistent basis.

“Our business is somewhat diverse, in that we do logging, landclearing and some contract grinding,” he says. “However, the bulk of our work will, in some way, involve grinding the material we clear and for that we rely exclusively on a Model 7600 “Wood Hog” horizontal grinder from Morbark (Winn,MI). It offers 1000 Hp of power so it handles virtually everything we put in it, including palms, which are a challenge to most any grinder, and live oak which is an extremely hard wood. Its ability to process these materials — and more — has really allowed us to maintain the pace we do — working a solid six-days a week, year round.”

According to Otter, his choice of grinders has always been with Morbark but, like his business, the style of grinder they use has changed over the years.

“We started with a single Morbark Model 1200 tub grinder, then expanded to a pair of Model 1300s. And we were doing very well with them. However, as our business grew, we really wanted the operation to evolve into one in which we could send one man with a loader and a grinder out to a site. We purchased the Wood Hog, saw the production it was giving us and, quite frankly, never used the tubs again. Today we get regular throughputs of about 300 yards an hour which, because of the 3-inch octagonal screens we need for the end product — chips for boiler fuel — we consider very good.”

Loggers by Choice
While many companies concentrate their efforts on a single area of expertise, Gary Otter Construction has chosen to handle both the logging and landclearing facets of its jobs. They do so for several reasons, not the least of which is a lack of confidence in subcontracting out to area loggers.

“It’s unfortunate to say it, but I’ve had some bad experiences with companies that have logged for us. We’ve had loggers that would drive over 30 trees to get to a single one they wanted. Once they’re done it’s up to us to clean that mess up. We’ve had others that have come in and, after taking the wood, simply buried garbage, tops, stumps and so on into mud holes, then left. The people for whom we work obviously aren’t going to be happy about bringing up garbage as they develop the land. So we’ve opted to do it ourselves; we cut 100% of our jobs. If the material we get is too small to use, we pile it and skid it to the grinder. Then we come back, stump and grub the area, and it’s ready for the developer.”

Otter says they sell the logs to local mills for several grades of plywood and hardwood. Material that is run through the grinder is either turned into chips for use as boiler fuel or in some cases, double-ground and used for landscape mulch. “Virtually nothing from any of our sites gets wasted,” he adds.

Big Part of the Mix
While it represents only 20% of its project load, contract grinding is an important part of Gary Otter’s overall mix. The company has steady contracts with area developers who stockpile material from their development projects and periodically call upon Otter and his crew for grinding.

“There is very little legally-permitted burning in this area so some of the larger developers have sites at which they stockpile material. One contractor we work with, Three Oaks Development, brings us in three times a year to grind their material and each time we haul out better than 4,000 yards of wood chips. Once a year we also do another developer’s site, a much larger one not far from the Three Oaks location, and it yields about 6,000 yards. That’s the material that we regrind and which the developer uses for landscape mulch.”

Otter has solid contracts for the material he grinds, and subcontracts to a trucking firm to get that material to various locations in and around the Charleston area.

“Generally speaking, we haul most of the chips to two large plants: either Westvaco or International Paper, but we do also sell to other small mills in the area. However, because so many of those smaller mills are old, breakdowns are very common leaving us with an excess of chip material. So, on more than one occasion we’ve had to have material hauled as far away as Augusta to find a home for it. That’s another plus about subbing out that part of the business. We may pay a bit more in transportation costs but it doesn’t disrupt our business.”

Loyalty Has Its Merits
Gary Otter makes no apologies for the equipment he’s chosen for his operation. His philosophy for those purchases has been very simple: look first, go with the best and, if it’s meeting or beating expectations stay with it. That practice has resulted in a fleet of all CAT loaders, excavators, and attachments. It even extends to their choice of a CAT engine in the Model 7600 grinder.

“Our success is based on how well our equipment performs and how well it is supported by the manufacturer,” he says. “We know what CAT has done for us and we know that Morbark has also always been there when we needed them. We’ve been using the Wood Hog for about three years now and it has been our workhorse, handling palms better than any other machine I’ve seen. We just lay them flat on the infeed conveyor, pass them in and they are history.”

Otter says their level of satisfaction always translates into loyalty to that manufacturer, adding they would never even look at a loader or excavator that wasn’t a CAT and, similarly, will never own a grinder other than a Morbark.

“The growth in this area is so steady and keeps us so busy that we often find ourselves scrambling just to keep up. To handle that, the answer was obvious: we have a second Model 7600 on order now. We’re going to stay with the equipment that’s gotten us where we are.”

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