Boston-area firm plays a key role in stump grinding equipment development.
Despite his current success in stump grinding, Clark L’Abbe’s roots are not in any tree-related industry. Rather, the owner of Danvers, Mass.-based Hillside Company has extensive knowledge in aircraft engine repair and maintenance, and a proven skill piloting World War II-era bombers as part of the Collings Foundation’s Wings of Freedom traveling aviation tour. As a result, his time is currently divided between owning and operating one of northeastern Massachusetts’ larger stump grinding businesses, helping educate the general public to the role played by our nation’s aircraft in securing our freedoms, and serving as an informal technical advisor to manufacturers of the stump grinders he uses on a daily basis.
Stumped by a Move
In 1984, after a successful career servicing jet engines for a major manufacturer, L’Abbe made a career shift which took him into a business doing rototilling and light construction work throughout the Danvers area. It was in that part of the business that things would dramatically change.
“Stumps are obviously a big a part of any rototilling operation, and, when I would come upon any, I simply pulled them and hauled them off for disposal,” he says. “Well, one day we sent two loads of stumps to the landfill, only to find out it was no longer accepting them for free. Suddenly disposal costs for my debris had almost doubled because of the stumps.”
He says he initially tried to solve the problem by contracting with an outside source to come in and grind stumps onsite for him. That contractor, however, proceeded to speak directly to a customer and undercut L’Abbe’s bid for the work. A stop at a local rest area one evening resulted in L’Abbe being parked next to a trailer carrying a stump grinder. “It seemed like a sign,” he says, “and from that point forward I knew we had to get a grinder of our own. We made one purchase, then another, and we haven’t looked back since. Today, we own about eight machines and, together with my son Ben, my wife Heather, my daughter Lindsay, and four additional long-term personnel, have built a nice business around them.”
Making Things Better
Because of his extensive mechanical knowledge, L’Abbe worked with his regional equipment supplier to make improvements to the stump grinder line that dealer was handling at the time. When the dealership then started handling Morbark equipment, the same request was made of him by Morbark, which was itself making a push into the stump grinder market.
“I was happy to offer what input I could,” he says. “I knew from their tub and horizontal grinders that Morbark built a rugged machine, so I felt confident they would take my design suggestions and do the same with a new stump grinder. My comments were based on what I was experiencing in everyday use with the grinder, and they obviously listened to what I had to say. As a result, modifications were made and have appeared on Morbark models released since then.”
Those changes included things like a much stouter grinding wheel; the addition of debris curtains, which help contain material during the grinding process; and changes to the position of the drive unit on the tracks, which has resulted in added power during movement.
“The track machine I have now is one of the first Morbark ever made,” adds L’Abbe. “And even though it only has an 86 HP Cat engine—as opposed to the 100 HP units commonly found in stump grinders—I would put it up against anything else out there today.”
According to L’Abbe, there have also been a number of major changes made to the remotes used in conjunction with Morbark stump grinders—changes that were driven largely by son Ben’s feedback to the company.
“As a result, the new remotes are far more responsive; small machine movements or onsite adjustments are easy and accurate. We can actually ‘feel’ the unit better than anything we’ve ever used in the past.”
He adds that, because stump grinding is such a dusty environment, it can start to affect one’s breathing after a while, so being able to get away from the machine and operate it remotely is critical to him. Having confidence in that remote is just as important.
“This is the first remote I’ve ever had that I truly feel I can trust. The fact that Morbark took so much of our input and incorporated it into the new design speaks volumes to how well we work together.”
The track machine to which L’Abbe’s refers above, is the D 86 Track Stump Grinder, which Hillside first tested for an extended period of time, then purchased outright. Though long trial periods such as that might seem a bit unorthodox, they have proven successful for Morbark in the past, according to Jason Showers, the company’s Product Manager.
“When we develop a new product, in some cases we prefer to have a controlled testing environment for long-term issue discovery,” he says. “Clark is a trusted ally and willingly shares feedback—both good and bad—so we can see how the machine will react over an extended period of time. The objective is to capture any issues that do not appear in general beta testing and quickly address them before they reach our end-users.”
Hillside’s success, like that of most smaller grinding businesses, is predicated upon performance. However, L’Abbe says the competitive nature of the stump grinding business in the northeast makes it even more so.
“I still get the same money for stumps that I did in the 1980s,” he says. “The only difference now is how fast we can do a job. In the old days, a project that would have taken us three hours can now be done in 20 minutes. That’s allowed us to tackle more work in a day and make a decent living doing what we do. But it isn’t always easy.”
He says that he’s enhanced his company’s value to a range of companies in the area by providing “instant” service. He cites the example of a contractor putting in a fence or doing a driveway who suddenly comes upon a stump.
“That operation is essentially dead in the water until that issue can be resolved,” says L’Abbe. “When that happens, you are looking at a crew of three or four men standing around while the clock is running. That’s when they call me; if I know it’s a critical issue, they know I’ll be there.”
Right the First Time
L’Abbe says he has also found that a decent amount of business can be booked correcting the mistakes of others; mistakes that, unfortunately, end up costing homeowners more money.
“Last year I did 237 regrinds, projects that were the result of my competitors not grinding out the flair, not chasing the roots and not going deep enough in their stump grinding projects,” he says. “We had one job this year in which a lady had 15 stumps in her backyard that were ground by a local one-person operation. Afterward, she had the landscaper come in to start work only to find out that, on each stump, only the top had been removed. They called me in to finish the job, and she had to pay for it all over again. I hate to see that happen, but it’s an unfortunate part of this business.”
By comparison, the Hillside approach to grinding is a good deal more thorough. Because their Morbark stump grinders have the capability to grind much deeper than other manufacturer’s units, L’Abbe and the Hillside team leave little room for error, grinding each stump to a depth of 8-12 inches.
“We like to get it right the first time, so we grind down to an average depth of 10-inches, which might seem like overkill to others who do what we do. But since about 90% of the people end up raking about four inches of the grindings back in before throwing another four inches of loam over it, that 10-inch depth gives them plenty of room to re-plant in the same spot. If we did stumps to just five inches below grade, that would only allow for an inch of loam and we would be blamed when grass wouldn’t grow. This approach has really worked out well for us.”
Changes in Attitude
To cope with today’s challenging business environment, Hillside has had to make adjustments to its business model, shifting from a company that originally specialized in supporting land clearing/development companies to one that focuses on reclaiming projects.
“We still work with area tree companies, taking care of stumps they produce as part of their projects,” says L’Abbe. “However, we are also doing a lot of reclaiming jobs. Few people today are buying more land; instead they are trying to make better use out of what they have. So, about 75% of our work is with area contractors who are improving existing properties.”
He adds that, because they also do a fairly broad range of work, having a number of different types of machines available is a real advantage for them. Backyard reclamations or work on hilly sites really benefit from the stability their track machine offers. He cites one recent project in nearby Manchester in which an embankment was so steep it was difficult to walk up, yet the track unit handled it with ease.
“Golf courses, on the other hand, need a wheeled unit since we obviously can’t bring a track machine out there and dig up their greens—so we feel we have the right tool for the right job. We can’t compete with someone who is just doing it as a hobby. When you factor in the amount of fuel these machines burn, add in taxes, insurance, travel costs and so on, sometimes there’s not a lot of money left over at the end of the day. But we love what we do, we do it better than most others, and we are happy that, working together with Morbark, we are helping improve the equipment that is so critical to our operation.”