Howes Vegetation Management – SUPERTRAK Machines Spur Business for Florida Contractor
NORTH PORT, Florida – Having the right machine for the job is important to contractors, particularly those that provide specialized services.
When Eric Howes went looking for a machine, he found a supplier close to home – SUPERTRAK Inc.
Eric and his wife, Milissa, are the owners of Howes Vegetation Management Inc., also known as HVMI, which uses custom equipment from SUPERTRAK to provide specialty vegetation removal and clearing services. SUPERTRAK machines enabled Eric to grow their company and expand into new areas of service.
Eric has made his home in North Port, which is situated on Charlotte Harbor on the Gulf Coast of Florida, roughly mid-way between St. Petersburg to the north and Naples to the south.
Eric grew up in nearby Sarasota. He earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Troy State University in Alabama, choosing the major after he took a criminal justice class as an elective. He attended the campus in Troy, about 50 miles south of Montgomery, an area with abundant forest resources, and where he was introduced to logging operations.
He returned to Florida after graduating from college and went to work for the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Department. He worked several years in the county jail, then went on the road as a deputy sheriff, and he was a detective in the years immediately before becoming self-employed.
In the 1990s Eric began thinking about making a career change. He knew he did not want to remain in law enforcement for the rest of his career. He and his wife, Milissa, considered the options. “We decided we would start a mowing company,” he recalled. The company was not going to focus on residential business, mowing yards for homeowners. Instead, it would focus on mowing larger acreage, such as vacant 3-5-acre lots that needed to be maintained. They bought a tractor and mower, and Eric did the work on weekends. They started their business in 1999.
Eric, a member of the local Rotary Club, and his wife have two daughters, Brieanna, 15, and McKenna, 9. The couple had definite aspirations in starting the business. “Like anybody,” said Eric, “we had hopes and dreams.” The long-range goal was to develop the business until he could become self-employed.
They marketed the company’s services to real estate businesses. The real estate business and home building were booming, and there were literally real estate offices on every block, according to Eric. He would go to their offices, introduce himself, explain HVMI’s services and how they could benefit from them, and leave business cards.
The business was a hit with the real estate agents, particularly those with waterfront lots to sell. If the lot was overgrown with vegetation, the waterfront may not even be visible if they took a potential buyer to look at the property. His service “sold itself…once they saw what it could do,” he said. Maintaining the lots and clearing the vegetation essentially helped the real estate agents market and sell their property.
Eric also did some advertising in the Yellow Pages and other directories, but word of mouth and referrals helped propel the business forward. If a real estate agent hired him to clear a lot and was pleased with the results and the way it helped their business, they would contract with HVMI to maintain all their properties.
“There was a need for land clearing because the real estate market was just catching fire,” recalled Eric. “It was unbelievable how fast” real estate sales took off.
When the time came to step up from a tractor and invest in more heavy-duty equipment, Eric knew where to go. He knew of SUPERTRAK, which was only about 20 miles away, and went there to look at the company’s equipment. He had never seen that type of equipment before and was very impressed with the way it performed.
“I thought there was a niche market for it,” he said, “and it worked. It took off like wildfire. We were fortunate to be on the front end of that.”
The first SUPERTRAK machine he purchased was a TL150, which is a Takeuchi track skid steer loader equipped with a mulching head. “It mulches standing trees and brush in place,” noted Eric. He bought his first machine from the company in 2000, and the business has continued to grow since then.
The Brazilian pepper tree, an invasive species, flourishes in south Florida. “It literally takes over everything,” said Eric. “Many waterfront lots are completely covered — every inch — with Brazilian pepper trees. We would go in and mulch them so they could build or have access to the water. We did a lot of jobs like that using the first machine.”
When they first started the business, Eric worked it on weekends and hired some friends to work with him. Within just a few years, Eric and Milissa had grown the business to the point that he could exit law enforcement and become self-employed full-time. “I got so busy, I couldn’t keep up,” he said.
He and his wife carefully weighed the pros and cons of becoming self-employed, and they had plenty of concerns, like losing the employment benefits of the sheriff’s department and wondering if the company would succeed going into the future. “We put our faith in the Lord is what it came down to,” said Eric.
Pricing the company’s services was a bit of a learning experience, he admitted. “There was a period of learning, some lumps and bumps. If you do something too cheap, you learn the next time.” Basically, it was a matter of determining the hourly cost of running the machine, and getting experience to learn how long it would take to do a job. “That’s on the job training,” said Eric.
“I had an idea…I knew what traditional land-clearing was costing in our area. Our service is a little more environmental-friendly,” he noted. Mulch will deteriorate over time and return nutrients to the soil. Mulch reduces erosion, and the root bases that remain in the ground hold the soil and help prevent erosion, too. Permit costs were cheaper, too; HVMI’s services only required the use of a local brush removal permit, which is only about one-third the cost of a permit required for normal land clearing operations.
Since then he has added two more machines from SUPERTRAK. The newest machines are different, a little more powerful and both mounted on rubber tires. One is a Hydro-Ax 421E with mulcher, and the other is a Barko 930 with a mulcher. Eric went to wheeled carriers because they are better suited for the terrain and wet conditions he encounters.
“We wouldn’t go anywhere else but SUPERTRAK,” said Eric. “They absolutely go above and beyond what is expected, from their service department….to sales…to the president, Tom King. What’s nice about SUPERTRAK is you can go in any day and shake Tom’s hand. That’s hard to come by…We don’t consider ourselves a big company, but they always have time for us. It’s been quite awesome to deal with them.”
As an example, he said, a SUPERTRAK mechanic came to Eric’s garage on a Sunday to fix a machine so he could use it the next day.
HVMI has a host of other equipment, including a mower attachment, commercial mowers, bush hogs, buckets, rakes, root grapples, and a special vertical tree cutter. The company also clears vegetation to maintain rights-of way for utilities, such as power lines and pipelines. “It’s added a new dimension in terms of work volume,” he said.
Eric has four employees. He ramped up after Hurricane Charlie, when the business did a lot of clean-up work following the storm and he had as many as 16 employees.
SUPERTRAK specializes in modifying Caterpillar and other brand machines for land clearing work and other land management activities. The modifications include higher hydraulic pump flow, oil coolers, improved seals, Lexan cab windows, and much more. “They make it durable for forestry use,” said Eric. “They sell that as a package, and they excel at what they do.”
For his latest machines, Eric wanted equipment with more horsepower. “We’re doing more volume, more work load per day,” he said.
Eric and his employees perform about 80% of the preventative maintenance on the SUPERTRAK machines, such as greasing, changing oil, filters, and other routine tasks. “If it gets into mechanical work or the hydraulic pumps, SUPERTRAK works on it,” said Eric.
HVMI uses two types of knives on his SUPERTRAK machines, so he has a choice of cutting tools, depending on what kind of vegetation and terrain in which he is working. The Barko-based machine is equipped with double-carbide cutters, and the other machines use chipping knives. “There’s no difference in the end result,” said Eric. The double-carbide teeth will last 300-500 hours before they need to be replaced, according to Eric; he buys replacements from SUPERTRAK. The chipper knives can be re-sharpened regularly for extended use.
Safety is very important to Eric and to his business. “We are very safety conscious,” he said. He holds daily and weekly safety briefings for employees, and they are trained according to educational standards for workers involved in clearing utility lines of vegetation. They also are properly equipped with safety goggles, boots, gloves and other gear.
Like other businesses and industries, HVMI has been impacted by the recession. “It’s definitely off last year and this year,” said Eric. “It’s just like anywhere else. We’re slow, but you have to keep plugging along.” He has compensated by taking on other types of jobs, such as clearing trails to enable surveyors to conduct a survey of a tract of land. He also did a job for Charlotte County, removing vegetation to create a Frisbee golf course.
There are numerous other contractors in the region, Eric noted. The competition keeps him focused on providing a high level of service to his customers. “Customer satisfaction truly is number one,” he said. “We want everyone to be happy with the product we provide.”