Nov. 1 2004 12:00 AM
While the recent devastation in the southeast certainly illustrates the key role that a stump grinder can play in a contracting business, it doesn’t take a natural disaster to turn a profit on stump grinding. Many parts of the country are in the middle of a growth spurt, with tremendous amounts of land being cleared for new developments. And as land is cleared and trees are cut, stumps need to be removed. Landscape contractors can be perfectly positioned to take on the job and pad their profits.

Commercial land-clearing outfits are one stump-grinding option; there are other target areas. Another stump grinding market is the residential business. Stump grinders that focus on this segment generally take care of backyard stumps. Mark Rieckhoff, environmental segment manager for Vermeer Manufacturing, Pella, Iowa, says stump grinding is easy to tap into on a part-time basis. He explains, “The contractor with a full-time business can use stump grinding as a great source of extra revenue on nights and weekends.”

Look, then leap

Photo courtesy: Caterpillar

Photo courtesy: Husqvarna

Rieckhoff continues, “Here are two challenges to entering the stump grinding business: local competition and machine needs.” Assessing the local competition is relatively easy but important. Check the yellow pages, local trade magazines and daily and weekly newspapers to determine who provides stump-grinding services in the area. How much competition is out there? Rieckhoff advises, “You don’t want to be a me-too guy going into stump-grinding. Separate and develop a niche.” For example, if there are 10 companies offering commercial land clearing services, it might be a good idea to survey the residential providers. “This upfront legwork can make or break a business in the long-run,” concludes Rieckhoff.

Doing your homework is important, not only to differentiate yourself from the competition but also because different stump grinders are appropriate for different applications. The stump grinder has to fit the application. A large megahorsepower stump grinder is certainly overkill for the backyard specialist. In fact, the equipment may not even fit through residential gates, effectively eliminating a contractor from a significant portion of his target market. Similarly, a smaller handlebar stump grinder may not do the job for the specialist whose focus is commercial land clearing. Ultimately, the contractor needs to determine which machine is appropriate for his business and his target market. The appropriate machine is, of course, not only cost-effective but also earns a healthy return on investment.

Choices and more

Stump grinders run the gamut, from attachments for skid-steer loaders to walk-behind or handlebar stump grinders, to tow-behind units. Some contractors prefer multipurpose loader/grinder products. Brad Hamilton, director of marketing for the landscape contractor business for Toro, Minneapolis, Minnesota, confirms, “The multipurpose product category didn’t exist six or seven years ago.” Today, several companies market multipurpose loaders that can be used for a variety of different landscaping tasks throughout the day.

Most walk-behind or handlebar stump grinders are relatively low horsepower units designed for the residential market. They can be loaded and unloaded onto a trailer or truck fairly easily, and offer a lot of mobility for getting into and out of residential yards. The operator pushes the equipment up to the stump, and hand-controls the equipment to remove the stump. This option is excellent for the start-up contractor, as it requires a minimal investment, less maintenance and fewer parts than its more powerful siblings. Although low horsepower units translate into more time to complete each stump, a 13hp stump grinder can grind a stump up to three feet in diameter. It’s also important to take operator needs into consideration when investing in a stump grinder. Rieckhoff explains, “Stump grinding is not a hard job, but with a walk-behind stump cutter the operator must physically move the machine while he is cutting the stump. A good analogy is the difference between a push lawn mower and a rider. Because the walkbehind cutters are more labor intensive, they may not be the best choice for smaller or older operators.”

The next step up is the 25- to 35- horsepower stump cutter. The 25hp grinder may be the king of versatility. Most of the machines can just about squeeze through 36- inch gates, but provide more power (and speed) than handlebar options. These tools provide just a bit more muscle at just a bit more price, making them ideal for the contractor whose business is expanding. The increased speed, for example, allows the contractor to jump from 10 jobs per day to 15. Some options in this category feature automated grinding tools that automatically adjust the machine as needed.

Scott DeYoung, owner of Cedar Birch Tree Service in Hazel Green, Wisconsin, points out the importance of the right equipment for the job. “I rely on a self-propelled machine, and I trailer it. I couldn’t do 80 percent of my work with a pull-behind stump grinder because I couldn’t get into residential locations with it.”

The really big kahunas, the 50- to 110-horsepower stump grinders, are obviously relegated to commercial land clearing endeavors. These cutters may be towed behind trucks and provide automated control; the tricky part is backing the machine in to the stump.

The right machine for the job

Some contractors are partial to dedicated equipment, using each piece of machinery for the job it was designed for. Others argue that attachments, like stump grinding attachments, are the way to go. Marx, of Log Jam Tree Service, for example, combines two skid steers with a stump grinder and bucket attachments to tackle the task of stump grinding. He claims that this option is faster than a dedicated machine because he grinds the stump with one attachment, then switches the attachment to the bucket for loading and transporting the debris. A dedicated stump grinder, on the other hand, may require another machine to transport the debris—depending on how the job is bid.

Commercial land clearing, another business focus for Marx, requires more power. He relies on a larger skid steer, with more torque and lifting power to handle the heavy lifting. These machines come with a few other amenities as well, such as the radio, and air conditioning in the cab. This combination keeps employees happy and helps Marx meet contractors’ land clearing deadlines. Marx, too, is happy, as he confirms, “The machines have paid for themselves in nearly a year and a half.”

Another option for the part-time stump grinder is the multipurpose utility loader product category. Hamilton says, “We refer to this as the Swiss Army knife of the landscape industry.” These tools can be used to dig, haul rock, grind stumps and drill holes, effectively providing the landscape contractor with a mobile hydraulic power source to broaden the range of services that he can provide.

Staying safe and staying profitable

The most important safety consideration for a stump-grinding contractor is the diggers’ hotline. It is absolutely essential that the customer call the local no-dig phone number to verify that the contractor will not be cutting through phone, power, water or gas lines.

Other safety considerations that contractors can assess as they are evaluating various equipment options include the ability to brake or lock one or both wheels (multiple braking options keep the operator safe in a variety of situations) and blade location (the farther from the operator the better).

DeYoung adds to the list of safety measures. “Wear a hard hat, safety glasses and ear plugs. If you don’t, you’re asking for trouble.”

Photo courtesy: Husqvarna

Equipment maintenance belongs with safety near the top of the to-do list. Jim Finney, project manager for Atlas Tree Service in Santa Rosa, California, explains, “It’s important to keep the teeth sharpened or replace them as they wear out, because it’s less wear and tear on the machine.” Other important maintenance items that are sometimes overlooked include belts and fittings. Belts should be tight, and fittings should be greased daily. Finney says his company simplifies the routine maintenance on stump grinders by assigning one operator to a machine. He says, “This way, one person knows the machine and is responsible for it. When the grinder isn’t handed from person to person, the operator tends to take better care of the machine.” This, in turn, can lengthen the life of the equipment, which again adds to profits.

One of the inevitable realities of the stump grinding business is that the work creates chips, and lots of them. With a skid steer stump grinding option, the operator can switch out the attachments for relatively easy cleanup. Contractors who go with a dedicated stump grinder often opt to bid each job two ways, letting the customer decide between one price for stump grinding and a second, higher price for stump grinding and cleanup, typically raking the lawn or sweeping the driveway.

Another little item to check into on various stump grinders is the teeth; a lot of stump grinders can run through teeth at a rapid clip. Take the time to check the durability of the teeth, and find out how easy it is to replace them when they do wear out.

Finally, as contractors evaluate options from different vendors, it’s important to consider the durability, reliability and reputation of the vendors. Time is money and downtime is lost money, so a more economical stump cutter that is less than reliable or poorly supported by the manufacturer may not be the most profitable investment in the long run.

After you’ve done all your homework, starting with the assessment of the local market and proceeding with a business plan and purchase of the right stump cutter for your goals, it’s time to start your engine. Get going with some marketing, start grinding some stumps and count your profits.

DeYoung concludes with the golden rule of any business: “The numberone thing in this business is to earn the trust and respect of your customers by doing a good job.”