Savannah firm`s formula for success: Changing with the times

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If there has been one constant in Evergreen Wood Recycling, Inc., it is that it is constantly changing. At various points in its 20-year history, the Savannah, GA-based grinding operation has been: a logging firm, a contract grinder, a provider of pulp wood for paper mills, a biomass supplier and a recycling yard operator. In fact, it is precisely that ability to adapt to changing markets and conditions that has helped it survive where others have failed. Today, using a Morbark Model 1300 tub grinder, Model 27 Flail Chiparvestor and Model 6600 horizontal grinder, they process better than 100,000 tons of wood and green waste annually and operate several yards in the Savannah area. And, with a number of additional opportunities presenting themselves, chances are pretty good that more changes for Evergreen await.

Not in Kansas Anymore
Evergreen's trek toward becoming one of the largest wood waste recyclers in Savannah started in one of the most unlikely of places, according to Larry Simpson, co-owner with John Brannen.

'I was born and raised in Kansas,' he says, 'not exactly the timber capital of the country. For some reason, however, I've always loved logging and forestry, so after high school, I enrolled at the University of Missouri where I got a degree in forestry. Right after graduation, I moved here to Savanna to get on a logging crew and I've been here ever since.'

Simpson found he not only had a knack for logging, he also had the foresight to realize how some issues confronting the industry could present new opportunities for him.

'I saw the amount of waste that is generated as a normal part of the logging process and felt that material could be put to better use. At the time, most of the by-product of the logging process was simply sheared up and burned - and some of that still goes on today around here. I thought that, if I could grind some of that debris and take on other grinding jobs. I might be able to make a go of it. Twenty years later, I guess that's happened.'

It's Who You Know
Simpson's operation started out focusing on contract grinding which is still a large part of his business. While there's no denying his business smarts, he readily admits that some of the contacts he made while logging helped him find a market for the material he planned to collect and grind.

'I got to know some key people from the various area paper mills - there are five large ones within a hundred miles - and started getting some contracts to provide material for their boilers. Back then it was just called boiler fuel; today it's called biomass, and most of what we currently generate goes for that use. When it came time for me to choose a grinder to get my business off the ground, I first went with a used Morbark Model 1200 tub grinder, then shortly afterward moved to a reconditioned Model 1300 and have used them since.'

While performance and durability were key in Simpson's decision to go with - and stay with - Morbark, he says there are other reasons that came into play as well.

'I was invited to visit Morbark's plant and was amazed to see the attitudes of the workers involved in the manufacturing process; they really seemed to be enjoying themselves and took time to answer all the questions I had. I thought to myself: 'If they can be that upbeat building these machines, they probably take a lot of pride in what they are doing.' That really did it for me. And I haven't been wrong about that either. These are some of the best built, best supported machines in the industry. I've had times when I needed help with one of my grinders, called in to Morbark and got connected with a technician on the shop floor; how can you do better than that?'

One Thing Leads to Another
Over the years, Evergreen has expanded and contracted with the times, occasionally trying new approaches that, while not successful in their own right, often led to something else.

'I purchased a Morbark Model 27 Chiparvestor in 2003 with the intention of taking a small-sized logging crew onto landclearing sites and producing good-quality chips which fetch a better price per ton than straight mulch-type material. That approach never quite met my expectations, though; some of the land clearing firms didn't like the idea of someone else making profit off that material. However, I still kept the chipper with an intention of teaming it up with a debarking drum and processing short wood - material generally less than 20 feet in length. We've done that and are getting a fairly steady 200 to 300 tons of that material per week. In this business every little bit helps.'

Evergreen's Georgia coast operation, while idyllic and less competitive than comparable ones in Atlanta, is hindered by a market that pales by comparison. Prices, according to Simpson, are dictated by a number of factors, all of which seem to be working against them.

'For one thing, there is a total burning ban in place in Atlanta, while a good percentage of material can still be burned down here. That gives developers and land clearing companies an alternative to having someone come in and grind for them. In addition, we can only dream about the dump fees charged in Atlanta. There, a semi-trailer dropping off a load will pay $700 to $800 - it dumps here for $125. That kind of difference has forced us to get very creative, but, at the same time, to focus on our core business, and that's where the equipment has helped tremendously. We have to take care of the mills, providing with them with the material they need, when they need it. The Morbark tub grinder can do enough material to fill a trailer - about 23.5 tons of it - in less than 20 minutes. It's nice to have that kind of performance available.'

The Big Picture
Evergreen's operation today includes the contract grinding that has been a mainstay since day one, as well as operation of what Simpson calls two and a half yards: two full-scale recycling operations and one site operated in conjunction with a local utility.

'The yards in Savannah and Hilton Head are drop off and collection sites that we use to generate the bulk of our biomass material for shipment to the mills. We have the Model 1300 tub grinder at one and the Model 6600 at the other; the chipper is used whenever we have enough of the short wood and can generate a better grade product. Our Hilton Head site is also an ideal location for gathering material from a number of area golf courses. Again, we're looking for every opportunity we can find.'

The half-yard to which Simpson refers is a site owned by Savannah Electric and Power at which material, gathered from its crews' tree-pruning, is stockpiled and processed. To get volumes up even further, he says he has been trying for a number of years to get a second yard opened on Savannah's west side. While that hasn't happened yet, a different opportunity has presented itself which, says Simpson, might be even better.

'There is another grinding company in the area that is looking to get out of the business,' he says. 'The owner approached me about buying his equipment, but I'm really not interested; the units I have now are doing a great job for me. I did agree, however, to come in and process material that he collects at his yard. It's the best of both worlds for me: I get the revenue from the grinding but don't have the overhead of maintaining another site. I didn't expect that to happen, but that seems to be the way things have gone for us - and I'm not complaining.'

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