Contractor finds reliable stump grinder plus good word of mouth equals a nice alternative income.
They are perhaps, the most underrated pieces of equipment working today. Most small tree removal contractors don’t own one, and most homeowners hardly know they exist. However, when a tree stump proves problematic and threatens to hold up a project—or is just a flat-out nuisance to the aforementioned homeowner—they quickly learn that a good stump grinder can be the most valuable tool available. And that’s when they call on people like Mike Walker. The Baltimore-area stump grinding specialist has turned what was once little more than a pastime into a decent alternative income by taking the skills he’s acquired over the years and combining them with a reliable, productive machine, in this case a Morbark D 52 SPH Stump Grinder. Today he is the go-to source for this type of work throughout a four-county region and sees a real opportunity for additional growth in and around the area.
Located about 15 miles west of Baltimore, the town of Dayton, Md., is as idyllic a setting as one can imagine, with rolling hills, old and new home sites on large sprawling lots dotting the countryside, and trees that look to have been there long before the town itself was founded more than a century ago. When those trees are felled, either intentionally or as a result of a storm, the stump left behind can be a problem for a number of reasons, ranging from safety to the simple task of mowing a lawn.
“When a tree comes down, most tree removal experts will generally just come in and cut it off close to the ground, leaving the stump behind and exposed,” says Walker. “At first, many people will simply live with that stump but then find that it’s something of an eyesore and definitely a headache to have to mow around. When it gets to that point, the stump needs to be ground down below grade; that’s when people call me.”
Walker says he first became interested in stump grinding through a friend who had been providing the service but was looking to retire. Seeing it as a nice way to make a few bucks and provide a service for neighbors, he did a fair amount of research and decided to buy a grinder of his own. Working through a local dealer, he purchased a Morbark D 52 SPH, and Walker Stump Grinding Service was born.
Making it Right
In a perfect world, the story would follow that Walker took delivery of his machine, went out, never gave the unit another thought and lived happily every after. But this isn’t a perfect world, and sometimes things don’t always go according to plan.
“Truth be told, I had some issues early on with my original stump grinder that caused me a good deal of concern,” he says. “I worked through the local dealer to get them resolved, and to their credit, they did all they could. Then Morbark got directly involved, and together we decided that it would be best to send the unit back to them for some major upgrades. Doing so not only got me back up and running, it showed me the lengths to which the company will go to keep their customers working—and satisfied. I guess I never expected that.”
Walker says that the grinder was returned to him within a few weeks, and today, after more than 100 hours of work, that unit has been the picture of production and reliability.
“Morbark really stepped up to make it right, and my upgraded machine has been an outstanding performer ever since. You always hear about nice guys finishing last. Well, I consider myself a nice guy, and I definitely came in first on this one.”
Walker’s grinder boasts a number of features that he initially chose for convenience or that came as part of the upgrade process—features that he has since come to recognize as valuable to his overall operation. Those include a hydrostatic drive, remote control—even the size of the unit itself.
“This grinder is perfectly sized for my operation, not just from the standpoint of the projects I undertake, but also from a real practical perspective. I can load the unit onto a 16-foot transfer trailer, pull up to a residence, unload it and direct it to where the work has to be done. The guys with the larger tow-behind stump grinders are actually at a disadvantage because they also have to take a 7,000-pound pickup truck into the site. In many cases—in spring for example—that’s just not going to happen.”
He adds that the size of his grinder is also ideal for tough-to-reach areas, which, in his case, represents the majority of his jobsites.
“Much of the work I get is in fenced-in yards, which have a standard 36-inch gate opening, far too narrow for larger machines. But I can easily lift the unit up using its boom, remove the outside wheels, and drive it through a standard 36-inch gate. That gives me an advantage over some of the bigger guys, and, given the competitive nature of this business, that’s nice to have.”
Remote control for the D 52 SPH was also an option, one which Walker says he initially considered passing on. In retrospect, he finds it to be one of the most valuable features on the grinder.
“Before purchasing the Morbark machine, I demoed a stump grinder from a different manufacturer, and it did not have remote on it, so I have a real sense of comparison,” he says. “Now, having grown accustomed to using the remote control, I can’t imagine working without it. My vision of the whole site is so much better—I can walk around, make sure the trajectory of the material is right, and so on. It’s really much more than a convenience; for me, it’s a safety feature.”
Walker adds that, since taking delivery of his “new” stump grinder, the follow-up service he has received from Elliott & Frantz, his Morbark dealer, has been outstanding. “That was important, given that this machine had so many features that were different from the old unit,” he says. “Keith Brong at Elliott & Frantz went through everything with me, made sure I had a good comfort level with it, and has made it clear that they are always available if and when I need them. That’s been really great to know.”
Additional features on Walker’s D 52 SPH include Morbark’s Long Boom Technology, which allows Walker to maintain the full 52-inch boom arc swing regardless of the cutting depth; a bolt-on chip containment/deflection curtain; a hydrostatic primary drive; and a fully enclosed, 34-HP, liquid-cooled, three-cylinder Caterpillar diesel engine.
Walker says the D 52 SPH has everything he needs in a stump grinder, and it’s allowing him to consider taking his business to the next level. Currently, to get new business, he says he runs an ad in a local “shopper-type” publication and keeps some business cards on the counter of a car repair shop where he does some part-time work. Those efforts let him reach customers within a 30-mile radius, but he says he might be at a point where he takes that up a notch.
“In the past, I’ve considered aligning myself with a couple of the local tree care firms who don’t offer stump grinding as part of their service, but I’ve been reluctant to do so because I wasn’t that invested in the grinding business. Now, I feel like things are moving along nicely and I can make that commitment. I also feel I have the right equipment to make that a reality; we’ll see what happens.”