Capitalizing on an opportunity: how a father and son built a business turning wood waste into mulch

When landfills throughout the United States and Canada began banning yard waste dumping in the 1990s, entrepreneurial-minded individuals carved out new businesses for themselves by opening yard waste transfer stations and compost facilities to collect grass clippings, sod, leaves, as well as tree branches, limbs and logs. Collecting all this material was a new way of making money, but the real opportunity was in taking someone else’s waste and turning it into a useful product.

One of those entrepreneurial-minded individuals started his company in West Chicago, Illinois, back in 2000. That’s when Charles Murphy opened a yard waste transfer station that would later be branded Midwest Compost, LLC. Back then, Charlie’s primary business was simply collecting the waste of others. Some 20 years in the waste and recycling industry allowed him to meet a lot of people in the waste, landscaping and recycling industries. He enjoyed it and grew the business to a point where he determined a second transfer station was needed. So Charlie enlisted the help of his son Pat, and the two of them opened a second facility in the nearby city of Elgin.

The father and son team saw many landscapers in those early years dropping off yard waste and leaving with empty trucks. That single observation would eventually lead to what Midwest Compost is today, a manufacturer of mulch and compost that sells and distributes landscaping material to professional contractors, as well as homeowners around the greater Chicago area. During the peak working season, the company employees up to 12 people and owns and operates a Vermeer® TG7000 tub grinder for manufacturing ground materials for mulch, a customized Colorbiotics coloring machine, several rubber tire front-end loaders and a fleet of trucks for hauling and making deliveries.

How it started

Pat joined the business in 2002, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later that the father and son team decided to expand their services. At first, the Murphys relied on other manufacturers to bring in mulch to their facilities, and then they would sell it to the landscapers who were dumping off yard debris. “The idea was to help our customers be more efficient with their time,” explains Pat Murphy, operations manager for Midwest Compost. “It didn’t take long for us to determine that selling mulch would be a good idea for our businesses.”

The Murphys decided they were on to something with this new service, but at the same time, they felt that it didn’t make sense to be relying on others to supply them with the material when they had access to raw materials needed to produce their own mulch products. They turned to their local Vermeer dealer to look at their options for grinding their own material. “When we started recycling our wood waste, we would rent a tub grinder from Vermeer Midwest, our local dealer, for a few days at a time,” explains Pat. “That option worked for a while, but we needed to increase the amount of grinding we were doing to keep up with demand, which is why we subcontracted the work out to another company that owned a Vermeer TG9000. We eventually grew the business to a point where it made more sense for us to purchase our own machine. And in 2010, we bought our own Vermeer TG7000 tub grinder.”

Expanding products and services

Having a tub grinder onsite allowed Midwest Compost to increase and control their production of mulch. Eventually, their TG7000 tub grinder was operating daily. “Things really took off when we made an investment into the right equipment,” says Pat. “Owning our own grinder allowed us to expand the types of mulch we could offer our customers, and that brought in more wholesale and retail opportunities.”

Midwest Compost makes its own single, double, triple ground and dyed products with materials they source locally. The company takes in logs and wood chips from several surrounding municipalities, tree care companies, and can pick up material from other places, like construction sites in the area.

When the Murphys began seeing colorized mulch and wood chips growing in popularity, they committed to jumping into the market with a better product. “Most of the colorized mulch on the market is made from dyed pallet wood, and not everyone genuinely likes it because it offers very little beyond its aesthetic appeal,” says Pat. “We wanted to give our customers the option of natural hardwood, which is why we began dying our double ground mulch brown. Now, it’s our best seller because it looks great and offers more nutrients for the soil and plants.”

Heart of the operation

Identifying and capitalizing on market trends has helped the Murphys build a solid and respected area business. Charlie and Pat both agree the volume of material their Vermeer TG7000 can process in a day is key to being able to keep up with the needs of their customers. “Starting in August all the way through February, we have that machine working hard getting ready for spring,” Pat says. “It’s working rain, shine, snow; you name it. It’s one tough machine.”

When people ask Pat, “why Vermeer?” he tells them how he’s done his research and found that Vermeer manufactures quality machines that last. “In addition to making great equipment, I have valued the relationship we’ve established with the team at Vermeer Midwest over the years. Those guys have bent over backward making sure we have what we need when we need it. They also went the extra mile to come out and make sure my guys were trained on how to use the tub grinder. That makes a big difference.”

The Murphys’ Vermeer TG7000 tub grinder can be found 95 percent of the time at their Elgin location, but it will occasionally see action offsite. “When our customers have large cleanup jobs, we’ll give them a hand,” explains Pat. “We’ll do that kind of work, no problem, during the offseason. However, as spring draws near, that machine is back in the yard grinding. Mulch season is so busy that we can’t afford to not have that piece of equipment there.”

Working with dad

Family is important to the Murphys, and Pat says there isn’t anyone else he would rather work with than his father. “My dad has worked in the waste and recycling business for a long time,” Pat explains. “He’s really good about giving me advice when I need it and giving me room to try things on my own when I need to grow. Together, we’ve been able to recognize opportunities early and then take action to capitalize on them.

“We make a great team, and we’ve had a lot of fun together building this business,” adds Pat.

Foundation for the future

Midwest Compost is always looking toward what’s next while making sure they are meeting the needs of their customers in the present. “I think there have been several times in the past 17 years where we struggled, but we just kept working and focused on doing the best job we can do,” Pat says. “We invest in quality equipment, communicate well with our customers and do a good job of training our team. And, I think that’s what has helped us get through many of those times where something may have gone wrong. No matter what challenge has been put in front of us, we’ve always taken comfort that we’ve built this business the right way, and that has helped get us through tough times to where we are today.”

A simple observation and a desire to give their customers more are what helped the Murphys grow Midwest Compost into the company that it is today. The father and son team recognized opportunity and jumped on it, proving there are still plenty of opportunities for people who are willing to work hard and take some risk to carve out their own opportunities.

This article contains third-party observations, advice or experiences that do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Vermeer Corporation, its affiliates or its dealers. Testimonials and/or endorsements by contractors in specific circumstances may not be representative of normal circumstances experienced by all customers.

Vermeer and the Vermeer logo are trademarks of Vermeer Manufacturing Company in the U.S. and/or other countries. Colorbiotics is a trademark of BASF.

© 2017 Vermeer Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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