AKRON, Ohio — The pandemic hasn’t slowed down business for Akron’s Finest Mulch, which makes mulch and soil products. In fact, 2020 was booming, with the company adding a new Morbark horizontal track grinder and more delivery trucks.
Akron’s Finest Mulch essentially has two locations. One consists of two adjacent tracts, a combined 30 acres. It contains the yard for collecting organic wood material and is where the company’s grinding and mulch production operations are located. The site also has two buildings, one 7,000 square feet and the other 2,000, for an office and showroom plus garages for servicing trucks and equipment.
The second location, on 14 acres, is only five minutes away and is used for operations making topsoil and soil blends. It also is used to stockpile soil products, leaf compost, finished mulch and wood chips. The company is in the process of constructing two buildings on the site.
The company sells “well over” 100,000 yards of products annually, according to Mario Halasa, whose family owns the business. The figure includes mulch, topsoil and soil blends, and gravel.
About 50 percent of the volume is mulch. “It’s easier to make and the margins are better,” said Mario. About 40 percent is topsoil or soil blends, and the other 10 percent is gravel.
His father, Husni, previously owned a trucking business. Mario operated a landscaping business while he was attending the University of Akron, where he graduated with a degree in labor economics. Being a landscaper, Mario frequently bought mulch from another company. He was struck by the business model of obtaining free raw material to make mulch or compost and grinding it to produce a revenue-generating product.
Mario and his father decided to get into the mulch business, with Mario in charge of the yard and mulch operations. At first they bought mulch wholesale from another business and had it trucked to their site. They invested in a backhoe, a skidsteer, and a truck for deliveries. They quickly learned they could begin producing mulch themselves and bought a used grinder for $80,000 in 2010.
“When we first started, we did a lot of mulch,” noted Mario. In fact, it was the company’s only product. However, it has expanded into topsoil and soil blends. “Now we sell almost as much topsoil as mulch,” he observed.
“We’re getting into a lot of blending, making different kinds of gardening soils,” added Mario.
In fact, he and his father have started a separate, affiliated business, Akron’s Finest Topsoil. The company’s topsoil is 100 percent screened to remove debris and is blended with peat.
Today, Husni, 62, oversees the company’s soil products operations. Mario, 31, oversees the mulch operations and also manages the company’s day-to-day activities.
Other family members also are involved in the business. Mario’s mother, Tammy, works as a secretary. His sister, Moriah, is a teacher, but she also helps as a secretary in the summer months. A younger brother, John, will graduate from high school this year and has begun working in the business. “We’re a very family-oriented business,” said Mario. “We actually work pretty well together.”
The company’s busy season is underway. It begins the end of March and runs until the end of November. During the peak of the busy season the business will employ about two dozen people. In the winter months, employment is a handful of people; the winter crew services equipment and prepares for the next season — they keep turning compost regularly to keep it aerated, and they also sell and deliver gravel and bagged salt.
The company uses all organic wood material — tree trimmings, logs, and brush — to produce mulch. It contains no grass or any wood from construction or demolition, no painted or treated wood or pallets. Dyes to color mulch are organic, too.
Akron’s Finest Mulch has steadily grown. “We now run 11 delivery trucks,” said Mario. The business also has progressed through a couple of grinders. The first grinder was later replaced with a larger, higher-production machine. Last year the company replaced that grinder with the new Morbark.
The pandemic has seen the company’s business increase. More homeowners bought mulch for delivery to their home. “We had to buy three more trucks last year for deliveries,” said Mario. The increase seems linked to a trend among homeowners, who have spent more on various home-improvement projects during the pandemic. People couldn’t travel for vacations as they did in the past, noted Mario; plus, the federal stimulus payments gave people money to spend.
Mario invested in the new Morbark horizontal track grinder — the 6400XT, Morbark’s largest diesel-powered model — because the company’s previous machine simply could not keep pace with the volume of business.
Mario bought the Morbark grinder in September of last year. He purchased it through the same dealer — Columbus Equipment — that the businesses uses for buying other heavy equipment.
He was drawn to Morbark for two reasons, he said. “They make a great machine. It’s very high quality.” The grinder’s tooth system, he noted, is “very beefy.” That, plus he knew he could count on Columbus Equipment for strong customer service. Not only has Columbus Equipment provided good support over the years, the local dealership is only 20 minutes away. Mario and his father have been doing business with Columbus Equipment since they started their business. Columbus Equipment has been representing Morbark for over 10 years.
The Morbark 6400XT is the newest and largest in Morbark’s line of horizontal grinders. It comes standard with a Caterpillar 325L undercarriage with 600mm double grousers.
Designed and built for processing wood waste, land clearing and storm debris material into saleable products, it has a 24-inch infeed bed and sloped sides for improved visibility and sight lines for loader operators. The infeed area is 60 inches by 59.5 inches.
Caterpillar diesel engine options range from 1,050 to 1,200 hp. The machine features the Morbark Integrated Control Systems (MICS), which automatically adjust feed rates and monitor pressures and feed wheel position to maximize production and engine efficiency. The grinder can be operated via remote control.
The hammermill system features a heavy-duty rotor and thick laser-cut rotor plates to ensure precision and enforced steel strength. The hammermill pattern includes 18 balanced, forged heavy-duty hammers, 18 wide, double-edged replaceable inserts, and 18 rakers. The hammermill drive tensioning system is independent for ease of adjustment.
The Morbark 6400XT is equipped with the company’s new VTECTION system. In fact, Akron’s Finest Mulch is the first company with a Morbark grinder equipped with the new system, which can be retrofitted to other Morbark grinders.
The Morbark VTECTION system monitors rotor vibration to reduce damage from contact with contaminates or other causes of damaging vibration, such as an out-of-balance rotor, broken insert, or defective bearing. When coupled with Morbark’s Break-Away Torque Limiter, these features help to protect the hammermill.
To use the VTECTION system, the operator sets an acceptable operating vibration level through the electronic controller. Since different feedstocks produce different vibration levels, the operator can quickly fine-tune the trip point to match the grinding application. If a contaminant object enters the grinding chamber, the VTECTION system will sense the spike in vibration or trip point and instantly stop and reverse the infeed conveyor.
Morbark has innovated and manufactured durable, high-performance equipment for the forest products industry for more than 60 years. It manufactures a full line of brush chippers, stump cutters, mini skid steers, forestry mulchers, aerial trimmers, whole tree and biomass chippers, flails, horizontal and tub grinders, sawmill equipment, material handling systems, and mulcher head attachments. (For more information, call (800) 831-0042 or visit www.morbark.com.)
The VTECTION system is a nice feature, noted Mario, because grinders are subject to a lot of punishment from contaminant objects, like scrap metal and rocks. “It’s the number one way a grinder gets damaged,” he noted. In the past, his other grinders were damaged after hitting objects like crowbars, hammers, chains, scrap metal, even a car engine. “It’s crazy sometimes.”
For that reason, he is “like a hawk” when it comes to looking over material that contractors and homeowners bring in to unload to try to ensure it is free of rocks or metal.
The teeth on the Morbark grinder “are like bricks,” said Mario. “They’re big and beefy” compared to other grinders, and he anticipates spending much less on wear parts because the teeth are rotated weekly.
During the busy season, the grinder operates four to five days per week. Mario also just bought a new Colorbiotics Sahara Pro mulch coloring system. (The previous grinder had an attachment for adding colorant during the grinding process.) The Sahara Pro mulch coloring machine features the Global Equipment Management (GEM) system; it uses an array of sensors to constantly monitor the coloring process in order to optimize the use of colorant and water at any production speed. The company also is using Colorbiotics colorants on a trial basis.
The topsoil operations are equipped with two McCloskey trommel screens. Other equipment for mulch and soil operations include three Komatsu excavators, two Cat bulldozers, a handful of skid steers, stacking conveyors, and various delivery trucks.
Mulch products include double and triple shredded mulch. The company offers natural mulch as well as colored brown, black and red; it does not make red mulch but buys it from another supplier. Black is the most popular mulch with homeowners while landscapers buy a lot of natural brown mulch.
Besides topsoil, the company offers a gardening blend, which is a mixture of peat moss and topsoil, and leaf compost and peat moss. The peat is harvested on the company’s land.
Although the company sells direct to homeowners, a lot of its business is direct to landscapers and nursery businesses that resell mulch and soil products. In fact, 60 percent of sales are to landscape and nursery businesses, and the remaining 40 percent to homeowners. Customers can order online from the company website. All products are sold in bulk form.
Akron’s Finest Mulch has a policy of same-day delivery for homeowners. “You call today, you get it today,” said Mario. In years past, other mulch suppliers were focused more on landscape contractors, not homeowners. “We saw that as an opportunity,” said Mario. “We’ve pushed that pretty well.”
The company charges a $10 tipping fee to unload wood material except for contracted customers that buy a good volume of mulch. For large logs, a cone-type splitter is used to break up the wood.
It obtains topsoil from contractors of building projects. The topsoil is stripped away at sites of various building projects. Mario’s company is able to obtain it for free in some cases and in some cases pays for trucking or does his own hauling.
The company’s yard is just a few miles west of downtown Akron, centrally located in the region. “We’re lucky in that sense,” said Mario. The company delivers products up to 60 miles.
“The good thing about the mulch business, if you do it the right way, you make a decent living,” said Mario. “The bad thing is you’re always busy.” It’s not unusual for him to work 60-70 hours per week.
When he has free time, he is interested in restoring old homes. He buys older homes, renovates them, and rents them. He lives in a house in Akron that is 100 years old.
Other similar businesses use temp agencies to hire workers for the busy season, resulting in a lot of turnover, according to Mario. “Part of our success is we try to create a work environment where people want to come back every year. We offer better pay, retirement benefits, and a good work environment. I would rather work with the same people every year than turn over 25 new people every year.”
“I think it’s important that our company is a family business. We wouldn’t have grown as fast as we have if my father or I had done it alone. It’s a team effort, and it’s worked out well.”