BC Contractor Finds Opportunity in Grinding: Duratech Tub Grinder Processes Material Left by Cutting Roads, Landings for Oil Crews

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Duratech Grinder Keys Operations for Canadian Company

KELOWNA, British Columbia — Del Kohnke, president of Del Kohnke Contracting, grew up in the logging business. His grandfather was a logger as well as much of his family. In 1994, just out of high school, Del went to work in the woods for his uncle.
The ups and downs of the logging industry, however, led him out of timber harvesting into a related niche. “So many factors affected logging, from weather to market conditions, the instability of it all led me to looking for a change,” Del recalled.
He found the opportunity through his step-father, Andy Bouchard. At about the same time that Del got into logging, Andy branched off into another business, chipping and grinding wood waste material. “Andy was a front-runner as far as the industry is concerned,” Del said. “Not very many people were doing it. At that time there was hardly any competition.”
Del worked for Andy on and off, but in 2000 he began to work full time for his step-father. “In northern Alberta, there were hundreds of little sawmills with piles and piles of waste that nobody knew how to deal with,” said Del. “It was an area of the market that people were not paying much attention to. We would grind the waste on-site and send it to energy plants to use as fuel to burn in their boilers.”
Once Andy and Del established themselves in that market, they began searching out others. They noticed that in oil exploration operations, when crews went into the bush to cut roads and landings, the trees would be left. At the same time, mud from the oil drilling operations was contaminated and considered an environmental hazard.
“It was an intuitive idea, but we found if we ground up the waste wood and mixed it with the mud into a compost, it would all break down, and the contaminants would dissolve,” said Del.
While they expanded into this area, another market emerged. Typically, landfills had segregated wood wastes, which took up a considerable amount of space. “We would come in and grind the wastes on-site, which were then used for composting or a cover on the landfills,” Del said. “An odd landfill here or there used to do it, but once we got in, it was pretty much a new market. Contracts from landfills started popping up all over. It was a new market, another way to go.”
Andy and Del had an amicable split in 2002 – their business was becoming too busy. Andy kept grinding for the landfills, and Del focused on the oil fields. “It was better for me to go off in my own direction, to start my own business and sink or swim on my own,” Del said. “Also, he’s old school, and I’m new school, so we look at some things differently. We still work independently, but if he needs me, I help him out, and vice versa,” said Del.
They plan to work together again, although in a different way. Andy wants to ease into semi-retirement, so he plans to work for Del, who now has six employees.
When he was growing up around loggers, their attitude was to keep old machines running, to patch and fix. “With due respect, they worked so hard to keep the machines running that they lost money on down-time,” Del said. “I figured it might be better to invest in good equipment.”
That’s why Del decided to invest in a new Duratech tub grinder. Del had a friend who worked at the dealer, Gemaco Sales, who told him about the new Duratech grinders. Del was skeptical at first. He had experience with about five leading grinder manufacturers, including Duratech, and had a lot of insight into their design and actual performance.
Del’s friend encouraged him to visit the Duratech factory and said the manufacturer would reimburse his travel expenses if he decided to buy one. That wouldn’t have been much of an incentive if the machines were no good, Del thought. What tipped the scales, at least for a visit, was that Del read the spec sheet for the Duratech 4012 tub grinder.
“I noticed the thickness of the steel, the tub wall thickness, shaft sizes, hydraulic clutch, CAT motors,” Del said. “These were sturdy machines.”
Del and his wife, Nadine, flew to the Duratech Industries headquarters in Jamestown, North Dakota for a visit. “They walked us through the entire factory,” Del recalled. “What impressed me is that they really wanted to know my opinion of their machines. They really cared about what I had to say. As far as the design issues, there are some things I might have done differently, but all in all, I was quite pleased. They made it intricate enough so that it had everything that was needed but simple enough so you could understand it.”
Their visit was in December 2006. “I needed the new machine right away,” Del continued, to replace an aging machine. “They couldn’t deliver the one I wanted just like that, but they loaned us another new machine to tide us over and shipped it off in the middle of winter at 30 degrees below zero. They said they trusted us to take care of it until our new one was ready, and the loaner was made available to us at minimal cost.”
Other reasons that Del purchased the Duratech were value and price. “It gave more bang for the buck,” he said,” and was about $150,000 less than a similar model.
He also was impressed by the company’s service and the attitude of its staff. “Everybody I met at Duratech believed in what they were doing,” Del said. “Most people there had been there a long time. There was not a high turnover. Everybody seemed to like the company, which had been around a long time. All that impressed me.”
Del has had one major service challenge since buying the Duratech grinder. “We had a major mechanical failure,” said Del. “It’s still undetermined why it happened. But when I phoned Duratech and explained what was going on and needed it up and running right away, they didn’t just send me some parts. They sent the whole assembly involved so I could be up and running. That said a lot to me about them.”
He was not particularly disappointed or surprised. “These machines grind away at wood all day,” he observed. “Any brand can go down sometimes.”
“The Duratech grinder probably saved my company,” Del added. “The biggest downfall in this business is that you’re passing off a fairly large cost to your client. So you want to be able to deliver. You don’t want to go to a job site and make excuses about this and that. You need to be able to complete the job quickly and efficiently.”
In grinding or chipping operations, Del noted, it is important to be able to monitor costs on an hourly basis, including employee time, maintenance, fuel and other costs. “You don’t want to have hidden costs you can’t factor in that you then have to pass on to the customer,” said Del. “That’s no way to build a business.”
Del tells prospective customers that he can grind an average of 250 to 400 yards per hour, give or take a little depending on the nature of the job. “We recently did a regrind of a pile of hog fuel contaminated with bigger wood. We did 600 yards per hour with the Duratech, which is exceptional. It’s an easy machine to operate. And the better production you give a client, the more you build your relationship, and the more likely he is to bring you back.”
Del is in the market for another grinder for different applications. “I’m looking for a machine designed to do longer material,” he said. “Tub grinders deal with shorter material,” he noted, “and are much more forgiving, but now I’m looking for a horizontal machine to do longer wood as well. I need another machine.” (Duratech now offers horizontal grinding equipment.)
Del and Nadine have a son, Evan, 4, and a daughter, Sydney, 2. “We do a lot of boating and skiing and try to stay active,” Del said. Five years ago the couple lived in a $20,000 RV, but now they have a nice home in Kelowna.
When asked about the future, Del said, “The way I do business, maybe I’m right or wrong, it remains to be seen, but I try to keep moving, keep evolving. I talked about my step-father being old school. Well, for his times, he was ahead of his time. But I’m a new generation, and I want to be in the forefront of my times too.”
Del mentioned the toll the pine beetle is taking on British Columbian forests. The beetle is kept in check by cold winters, but in recent years it has flourished because of milder temperatures. The pine beetle is responsible for killing about 90% of the forests in northern British Columbia and some 60-70% in the southern portion of the province. “We’re trying to lead the way in getting rid of the waste,” Del said.
There is still opportunity in the forest products industry, Del believes. “We’re not satisfied in just turning one pile of wood into another pile but to also create uses from it, whether hog fuel for energy, compost, or other beneficial purposes.”
When Del and Andy first started working together, there was virtually no competition. Now, “A lot of companies are popping up,” said Del. “So I’m trying to do a lot of forward thinking, to move the industry a notch up, to develop a market for this waste, to find a friendly home for it, so it can be of beneficial use.”