NILES, Michigan — Mike Kachur has seen his tree service business continue to grow since he converted a challenge into a business opportunity. The company has flourished since he added equipment to grind wood material into mulch. Along the way his business, Kachur Tree Service, has come to rely on Bandit Industries for machines for chipping material from tree service jobs as well as horizontal grinders for processing whole trees and other wood material.
Mike’s company is located in Niles, which is in the southwest corner of Michigan on the Lower Peninsula. It is only 11 miles north of South Bend, Indiana, home of Notre Dame University, which is a commercial account of Kachur Tree Service. A lot of landscape contractors from Indiana buy mulch from Mike’s company.
In the busiest time of the year, Kachur Tree Service averages about 15 employees. The company has three facilities and recently purchased a 12-acre industrial site in order to open a fourth and expand mulch production operations. The four sites are in Niles.
The business has two tree service crews and another crew that performs land-clearing work. It sells mulch, compost, screened topsoil, and firewood. About 60 percent of the company’s revenues come from tree service work, 30 percent from mulch sales, and 10 percent from clearing land. Firewood accounts for less than 1 percent of revenues. The company also plows snow in the winter to keep busy.
The company’s office and yard for selling products at retail is located on 3 acres; the two tree service crews work out of the same site. A short distance away, on a 6-acre site that is half paved, the company has a shop and a yard and also uses some adjacent land; the yard is used to collect wood material from tree service companies and other businesses and also for the company’s grinding and mulch production operations. In addition, at the 5 acres where Mike has a home, he stores firewood for sale and also does some soil screening.
The land he recently purchased on the north side of town is where Mike plans to expand mulch operations. It will be devoted to producing the company’s biggest seller, a dark brown colored mulch. Soon the company will begin accepting wood material at the new yard. The expansion will give the current yard “a little bit of breathing room,” said Mike, 53.
Mike grew up in the area and has lived in the community all his life. He was “fascinated with trees” as a teenager and worked cutting and splitting firewood one season and enjoyed it. The next season he got a job for a tree service business and worked for the company for about five years. The owner used another contractor to grind stumps, and after two years Mike suggested he would buy a stump grinder, and his boss could sub-contract the work to him; his boss wouldn’t have to wait on another contractor to show up and do the work. His boss agreed.
After three years, Mike had paid for the grinder, and he began knocking on doors to solicit more work. “I saw a path to make more money, and I knew I wanted to be self-employed,” he recalled. Another motivating factor was that Mike and the owner of the business “didn’t always see eye to eye…Everything was his way.” Mike was able to begin generating enough business that he could quit and work his own company at about age 24.
A lot of the company’s tree service work is residential — trimming a tree, removing a tree. The company has commercial accounts, too, with businesses, factories, property management firms, and Notre Dame, which is only about 4-5 miles away.
Mike ramped up the land-clearing side of his business about four years ago by investing in an excavator. The work helps keep the company busy during winter. The company has done jobs as small as clearing a half-acre lot to build a house to clearing a site of more than 40 acres. Most land-clearing contracts average about 10 acres for a subdivision or a commercial development project.
Mike added grinding operations to produce mulch about 15 years ago. Grinding was a solution to the challenge of disposing of wood debris from tree service jobs. In addition, producing mulch created a new source of revenue for the business. He opened up his yard to let other tree service companies off-load their material for free, which provided him with more raw material to make mulch. Today, tree service companies offload chips for free and pay a tipping fee for other wood material.
“I’d like to think that we’re unique,” said Mike. “We started off as a tree service company. Now we recycle 100 percent of tree material.”
All wood material goes to the yard, including chips from tree service jobs and grindings that are produced on-site at land-clearing jobs. The company also grinds pallets at the yard; pallets come in by dump truck or roll-off container. If the pallets are clean, Mike does not charge a tipping fee.
After a first grind, the wood fiber is allowed to sit for 6-9 months to begin to decay. Then it goes through a second grinding process to make a finished product before it is colored. Most of the company’s mulch is colored a dark brown — Mike calls it mocha brown; about 80 percent of mulch sales are the mocha brown product.
Mike reserves the wood grindings from pallets to use for certain types of colored mulch — red, black, and cherry brown. The clear, white wood fiber from the pallets is better suited for being colored those hues.
As Mike’s business grew, he tried chipping and grinding equipment from various manufacturers, but he has stayed with Bandit Industries for about the past 15-20 years. He has two Bandit Beast model 3680 horizontal grinders; one is a track machine that is used at land-clearing jobs, and the other is a fifth wheel unit that operates in the yard. Both machines are powered by 765 hp engines. The newest one is the fifth wheel unit, purchased in 2018. The grinders are operated via wireless remote control by the man who operates the machines feeding them material.
One of the features of Bandit grinders that is noteworthy, according to Mike, is the cutter body assembly. It is engineered to be easily removed and designed so they can be easily removed. “It’s two bolts and you’re done,” he explained.
“It’s just a great product,” added Mike. “It handles foreign material very well.”
Another feature of the Bandit horizontal grinders that he appreciates is the hydraulic gate that can be opened to remove foreign objects. “If you hear a foreign object pinging around in there, you open the gate, you can let it pass right through,” said Mike.
The feature was particularly beneficial last fall when his company was clearing land for a new power plant. The land included an old railroad track bed that was now grown up with trees. As the trees grew, they enveloped railroad spikes, steel plates, nuts and bolts. The hydraulic gate helped remove the metal. When grinding stumps particularly, the hydraulic gate usually was left open because of the potential of metal being in the stump or root system. Mike collected 5-gallon buckets filled with pieces of metal. Although some teeth and rakers had to be replaced and one cutter body, the mill of the grinder was never damaged, noted Mike.
Bandit Beast horizontal grinders also now feature an optional progressive feeding system. It senses the load on the motor and speeds up or slows down the feeding system. Older auto-feed systems would turn off the feeding system if the engine began to bog down. The feature is on the newer fifth wheel Beast grinder that Mike owns.
“It’s a great feature,” said Mike. “When we re-grind, we’re getting the maximum amount of volume through the machine without having to stop and go, back and forth. We pump out 300 yards per hour. The feed system is what does that for you.”
Mike’s company normally services and makes routine repairs on the Bandit grinders. When a giant rubber gear from the clutch to the engine on one machine needed to be replaced, he turned to Bandit, which had a technician on the scene within a day or so to take care of it. “I’ve never had a bad experience with any of their service people,” said Mike whether for service under warranty or repairs.
Mike deals directly with Bandit when he buys a machine. Bandit Industries is located in Remus, roughly in the center of the Lower Peninsula. It is about 3 hours away from Niles. The proximity has been a factor in his business relationship with the company, Mike acknowledged.
However, more important has been the level of support he receives from the factory personnel in Remus. “If you have a problem,” said Mike, “you can call the factory and somebody will help you.” It doesn’t matter if the equipment was purchased from a dealer or directly from Bandit, he added.
“I can’t put Bandit on a pedestal high enough. I really can’t,” said Mike. In fact, when there were rumors that Bandit would be sold, Mike was “really afraid.” However, the company was sold to the employees in an employee stock ownership plan in 2018. “To me, that keeps the closeness,” said Mike. “It keeps the personable part of their business.”
“They truly are for the working person,” he added. “If you have a legitimate complaint, they listen to you.”
Bandit Industries manufactures hand-fed chippers, stump grinders, skid steer attachments, Beast horizontal grinders, whole tree chippers and stationary chippers, and track carriers. The company also is a distributor of Arjes slow-speed shredders.
The Bandit 3680XP is the most popular horizontal grinder in the Beast series of machines. It has a 35-inch by 60-inch opening and is powered by engines ranging from 440-800 hp for towable models and 755-1050 hp for track machines. It features Bandit’s patented cuttermill in either 60 or 30 tooth configurations or optional chipping drum. Production capacity is 300-500 cubic yards per hour. Track machines are equipped with a Cat 325EL track undercarriage.
(For more information on Bandit equipment, call (800) 952-0178 or visit www.banditchippers.com.)
The tree service crews are equipped with a Bandit 280HD drum chipper and a 1590XP disc chipper; the latter is Bandit’s largest hand-fed disc chipper and, with an 18-inch capacity, is big enough to chip whole trees.
For clearing land, the company uses the excavator to push over trees. The machine then digs out the tree, intact with the root ball. If the tree has a good firewood log, it is cut out with a Stihl chain saw. A few logs are merchandised to niche wood products businesses. Otherwise, the whole tree with the root ball is fed into the Bandit Beast grinder.
The newest piece of Bandit equipment he has is a 72FM mulcher head mounted on a skid steer. “I bought that for brush hogging,” said Mike, and learning that the property people wanted brush hogged usually contained thicker, heavier vegetation requiring a different type of equipment. “That’s opened up some doors for us to make trails for people and other customers who want to open up some forest land and make it more park-like.”
The company is equipped with several large and smaller front-end loaders, including machines from Case, Cat, Doosan and Kubota. Mike also has a pair of Bobcat telehandlers, small loaders with long booms that can load high trucks.
Mike has two different machines for coloring mulch. One is an Amerimulch system and the other is a Morbark 4000P. He uses the Amerimulch machine for coloring mulch from pallet grindings.
He has been using liquid mulch colorants from Florida Coastal Colors for several years. “One way to judge a colorant,” suggested Mike, “is to ask for red. If they have a good red, they have a good product. When I saw how good their red was,” he was sold.
Mike has been producing and selling firewood since his first year in business. “It’s a by-product of what we do,” he noted. “We sell out firewood every year by November.” About half of firewood sales are picked up by individual homeowners with their own pickup truck or trailer; the company uses a small dump truck to deliver the rest.
“As long as we can bring in nice straight logs from land clearing,” said Mike, the firewood operations are viable. “I could have sold twice as much firewood this year,” he observed, although that part of the business “is not a big money maker.” Nevertheless, it turns a small profit and keeps employees working.
Mike’s company offers a group health insurance plan, and the business pays half the premium for the employee. Workers get three personal days and three sick days after 90 days, a week of paid vacation after one year, and two weeks after three years. The company has five paid holidays.
Mike, who is a member of the International Society of Arboriculture, enjoys going to Montana to elk hunt about every two years. Other than that, “My hobby is my family,” he said.
Mike has two children who have ambitions to own the business one day when Mike is ready to retire. His daughter, Leah, works full-time in the company office along with Kelly Settle, who runs the office and has worked for Mike for 18 years. If needed, both women can get on a machine and load up a customer’s truck or trailer. His son, Michael Jr., is a student at Michigan State University, expected to graduate next year with a degree in horticulture. “He’ll be the family tree doctor,” said Mike.