May 19 2010 12:00 AM
Talk about a wrench in the works. Or, in this case, a tree stump.

After completing a renovation for a client, the backyard turned out beautifully. All that was left was the ugly remnant of a once-healthy tree. For years, when you came across a stump that needed to be removed, you subcontracted it out. But times are different now, and there’s not as much work around as there once was. So perhaps we need to rethink and review additional revenue streams.

Maybe grinding stumps could be one of these streams.

One of the first things you should do is begin to explore the possibilities. Now that you’re aware of unsightly stumps, you’ll notice as you visit your clients—possibly for the first time—the number of these tree stumps on the properties you already service . . . and the potential.

“There are opportunities while you’re mobile,” says James Cornelius, president of U.S. Praxis, Sycamore, Illinois. “Contractors spend a lot of time on the road, going from job to job. You never realized just how many stumps are around until you’re looking for them.”

The best part of all is that there’s no up-front cost in adding this additional service to your menu. You already have the truck, you already have the customers; all you need to do is explain to your clients that you are now offering tree stumps removal.

If you pick up four jobs, you can go to the rental store and rent a stump grinder. They come in all sizes and varieties. Choose one that will allow you to do the job and you’re off to the races.

Once you’ve done these four projects and gained some experience with the machine, you’re ready to go out and do four more. Again, go rent another machine; maybe this time, try a different brand and size.

Since most rental centers offer equipment from a variety of manufacturers, contractors should rent a couple of different units before settling on one. However, contractors should keep in mind the cost of renting the equipment. They should bunch their jobs together to maximize their efficiency.

After you’ve done 10 or 15 of these jobs, you’ll begin to realize that you can generate additional revenue with ease. Stump grinding is now one of the services you offer to your clients.

Remember, until now you had no investment. As you got the jobs, you scheduled them together and went out and rented a stump grinder for the day. However, once you start doing more of this type of work, it might be time to purchase a piece of equipment instead of renting.

“If a landscape contractor is just starting out, he really needs to build his capital and business,” says Cornelius. “He should first identify his customers, then rent stump grinders and slowly start to add that service full time. When he begins feeling comfortable with the amount of stumps he’s removing and the opportunities available to him, that’s when he should consider buying.”

Owning your own stump grinding machine can also save you an abundance of time. The average time to remove a stump is 30 to 40 minutes. Remember Mr. Subcontractor, waiting for him for hours— and in some cases, weeks—to come in and grind down the stump? Now you can get the job done in a timely manner and let the money flow into your company’s bank account.

“It creates work during your off season,” says Neil Borenstein, senior marketing manager for The Toro Company, Bloomington, Minnesota. “Suppose your grass cutting business is in a cooler season, where grass doesn’t grow as fast. You could be off work for a couple of weeks. But during that time, you could offer your stump grinding service for those same clients.” In addition to your clients, a number of arborists and tree contractors would be interested in your service. They would sub out the work to you. You can be the guy who big companies call on, so they can focus on bigger things.

“There are two major tree companies here in Wichita that we subcontract for,” says Linda Morrow, co-owner of Gene’s Stump Grinding Service, Wichita, Kansas. “Tree contractors make more money cutting down trees, and just don’t want to deal with stump grinding and cleaning up the mess.”

Stump grinders can vary, from skid steer attachments to walk-behinds to tow-behinds. If you have a skid steer or mini-skid steer, a stump grinding attachment is highly recommended, and will make your machine more versatile.

If you plan on grinding a large number of stumps, choosing a dedicated unit might be a better investment.

But before doing your housework, let’s first do your homework.

There are a variety of lightweight, versatile and compact stump grinders from which to choose, each having its own pros and cons. Some contractors prefer lightweight stump grinders with 13hp engines. These units can be more accessible, affordable and less likely to damage turf. Others prefer 25hp hydraulic units because of their power and ability to get a job done faster. The question is, which is best for your business?

“I recommend starting with a smaller stump grinder, such as a 13hp unit that will cost you no more than $5,000,” says Dan Lowther, owner of T & D Stump Grinding, Delran, New Jersey. “After a while, you can get a bigger machine, like a 25hp hydraulic and keep the smaller unit for smaller areas.”

“Landscape contractors should be prudent in how they spend their money,” says Cornelius. “A 30hp, hydraulic stump grinder that costs $15,000 might finish a 6-foot diameter stump in an hour. A 13hp unit that costs $5,000 will do it in two hours. However, if the average stump is 12" to 18" in diameter, how many six-foot stumps will you be running into to justify having a $15,000 piece of equipment?” Most contractors would agree that purchasing big is not always purchasing smart.

Whether a dedicated unit, or an attachment to a skid steer loader, stump grinding can make your landscaping business more versatile and add additional dollars to your bottom line. Picture it: you’re in the midst of completing a trenching project. You come across a stump and are able, right then and there—using your new stump grinder—to clear the stump. If your client is aware of the time saved, which relates to cost, mark up one for the good guy.

Maintenance and safety

After purchasing a stump grinder, basic accessories are required to maintain the unit. These include purchasing or replacing the unit’s teeth, chain or belt when necessary. Also, changing the oil every two weeks and daily lubrication are essential. Depending on the amount of use, you might have to replace the motor every few years. And while it helps to be mechanical, a new user shouldn’t have any trouble catching on. But more important than the life of a stump grinder is its operator.

Some of the latest safety developments for stump grinders include remote-controlled units, which operate much like a child’s remote control car or airplane. An operator can stand several feet away and not have to worry about getting hurt. More expensive models have a photo eye at the control panel which shuts the machine off once the operator is out of sight. Others include an operator’s presence handle, or “dead man’s handle,” which essentially shuts off the stump grinder when the operator lets go of the handle. Another safety precaution operators use is putting plywood or a mesh screen at a 45-degree angle behind the unit’s wheel, so that most of the debris won’t fly out and hit them or a window.

Next to protecting yourself, you should also protect the work area. In certain commercial or residential areas, utility wires such as phone lines or cables could sometimes be buried six to eight feet underground. If a contractor cuts one of these wires while working, it could cost several thousand dollars. Some contractors have these areas flagged or marked, and will simply grind the stump to ground level.

For cleanup suggestions, some contractors suggest laying down tarps around your work area. As you’re taking out the stump, you can periodically stop and put debris into the tarp. When done, you can dispose of it by just removing the tarp.

The big picture

Kevin Grady, founder and owner of Stump Grinder Inc., Alpharetta, Georgia, was a corporate executive before entering the stump grinding business. A successful entrepreneur for 12 years, he treats his trade with the utmost pride and professionalism, and hopes other prospective contractors might do the same.

“There are plenty of ‘fly-by-night’ stump grinding companies, so you need to have a strong entrepreneurial background and be able to multi-task,” says Grady. “I’ve had people tell me in the past, ‘I want to do what you do.’ However, none of them have been able to for various reasons. Either they didn’t like the work, or they didn’t know the market, or they didn’t have cash flow management or they weren’t accustomed to owning their own company. But most importantly, it was poor customer relations.”

“I start my work at 9:15 a.m. and don’t stop till 4 p.m. I’m the only business in the metro area offering same-day service. Also, there’s a 100% guarantee. If they find a stump I missed, I go back and do it for free. I set up cones, site signs out front, and pay my customers 10% on referrals. And when I’m done, I’m at the post office at 4:30 p.m., sending ‘thank you’ cards.”

There is a lot of opportunity in grinding stumps, and a lot of ways to go about it. So the next time you hit that stump in the road, instead of going around it, try going through it.