“Stormy weather is quite common around here in the autumn,” Ian Flatters looks out across a wide expanse of low-lying English farmland: a patchwork of fields, striped with bright wheat stubble after the recent harvest. “Norfolk is sandwiched between the North Sea and the hillier inland parts of the country. So, we’re in a sort of funnel, which channels the winds down the coast. And this is the result,” he says, gesturing to the remains of a large fallen spruce, logged and ready for removal.
Flatters’ team has been working all day to clear the storm damage at a former vicarage that’s now a thriving visitor attraction. People come from far and wide to admire the 32 acres of themed modern gardens.” The grounds are closed two days a week, giving a short window to get the work done,” explains Flatters’ wife and business partner, Jenny. “But we’ve been able to get everything cleared and made safe in a single day. That’s really important to the proprietors, because it means they can open tomorrow as usual, without any loss of income.”
Being able to move quickly and provide a comprehensive service is central to the Flatters’ business model. A model that’s propelled their company Target Trees from startup to major player on the regional tree care market in the space of 13 years. “Speed, quality and reliability are our big selling points,” says Flatters. “And delivering on those points has enabled us to operate in higher-value market segments and grow the business.”
According to Flatters, standing out from the crowd is all about efficiency. Which, in turn, is the product of smart logistics combined with investment in labor-saving machinery. “You’d be surprised how many firms in this industry still do a lot of the work by hand,” he says. “They’ll have a couple of guys dragging brushwood across the site and feeding it into a chipper armload by armload. We’re always looking at how we work and asking whether we can’t use machinery to speed things up. That’s where the skid steer comes in. It’s a great bit of kit that cuts out a lot of manual labor.”
Target Trees’ mini skid steer is a Vermeer S925TX: a multipurpose tracked vehicle roughly the size of a ride-on lawnmower. The company uses it for moving logs and brushwood, pulling roots and loading their chipping machine. “Without attachments, it’s only a couple of meters long and a meter wide, so we can take it pretty well anywhere and get it through narrow gaps onsite,” said Flatters. “For its size, it’s got nice wide tracks, meaning it doesn’t sink into the soft ground you get all over Norfolk. If we need to cross a lawn or something, we’ll lay a path of galvanized plates. It only takes minutes to drop a line of plates ahead of the steer, and then we don’t churn up the ground. When you’re working in private gardens, you don’t want to be doing a lot of damage.”
Despite being compact, the S925TX is a brawny workhorse. “In our line of business, power-to-weight counts for a lot,” said Flatters. “The more powerful the machine is, the more work it can do in a given amount of time and the more it boosts your productivity. But more power generally means a bigger machine, and the bigger your machine, the more problems you’re going to have with access, maneuverability and so on. A high power-to-weight ratio means big efficiency gains without those drawbacks.” It’s easy to see why the Vermeer machine appealed to the Flatters’. Their petrol-engine version delivers nearly 30 kilowatts and has a rated operating capacity of almost 420 kilos.
“And its weight is mainly at the bottom, so it’s really stable,” Flatters added. Stability matters to Flatters because, while Norfolk may be flat, the surfaces he encounters onsite are anything but. Raised roots, debris and deep hollows left by fallen trees are the norm, making it vital that the skid steer is at home on uneven terrain. With its low center of gravity, high ground clearance and rubber track system, the S925TX is exactly that.
Target Trees’ rationale for mechanization isn’t purely economic. The company places great emphasis on safety as well. “Using a skid steer to feed the brush chipper means the operator is standing well back from the intake,” said Flatters. “Another neat feature of the S925TX is that when the operator steps off the platform, the ground drive and boom travel are automatically limited. The chariot-style design, where you stand on a platform to drive the skid steer, has safety benefits, as well. You’ve always got a clear view of what you’re doing.”
A commitment to responsible enterprise is equally clear from Target Trees’ environmental policies. “We try to look to the future and lead by example,” said Jenny Flatters. “Diesel engines have traditionally been popular in this sector because of their high torque. But the particulate emissions tend to be an issue. The availability of a petrol-driven version definitely made the S925TX more attractive to us.”
Another petrol-driven machine with a prominent role in Target Trees’ setup is the Vermeer SC292 stump cutter. “When a tree needs removing completely, the stump cutter really speeds things up,” Ian Flatters explained. “Extracting a tree stump is a long-winded, labor-intensive job. And when you’re done, you’ve still got the problem of how to dispose of the stump. With the SC292, the stump doesn’t have to be taken out. We grind it down to below surface level, then backfill and smooth everything off. It takes a fraction of the time and produces far less waste. We pick up the spoil in a bucket on the skid steer and we’re done.”
Flatters’ enthusiasm for the stump cutter is emblematic of a focus on efficiency that characterizes Target Trees. “We believe in micro-mechanization,” he says. “The more like a production line the operation is, the less time you need onsite and the less manpower you need to get a job done. That appeals to customers who want disruption minimized. And for us, it translates into higher productivity.”
A high-capacity brush chipper is integral to that vision. Target Trees’ machine of choice is the heavy-duty Vermeer BC1000XL brush chipper. “We went for something big with a mechanical feed to maximize the amount of brush we can process in a short period of time,” says Flatters, before adding with a chuckle, “The BC1000 brush chipper’s throughput is enormous!”
Because it relies on drum-mounted cutters, the Vermeer chipper is able to achieve that throughput without a large, fuel-thirsty engine. The Deutz 2.9-liter power unit delivers 55 kilowatts and 250 newton-meters of torque, yet Target Trees can run the machine all day on a single tank of fuel. That means low running costs and a small carbon footprint. “And no time lost pausing the work to refuel,” adds Flatters. “Details like that add up when you’re operating a machine on a daily basis.”
In addition to enabling Target Trees to provide a turnkey service and leave a “clean” site, the BC1000XL provides the company with a saleable product. Chippings from solid wood are sold for footpath surfacing, while lower-grade material enters the biomass supply chain and is ultimately fired in power plants.
Securing the many benefits of mechanization does depend on the machinery working reliably throughout its lifetime. The Vermeer track record on reliability was a major factor in the Flatters’ decision-making. “We’ve had a number of Vermeer machines, and we’ve always found them very rugged,” said Flatters. “But all machines need maintenance, and all machines develop problems from time to time. So, what counts as much as anything is how easy they are to service and how long you have to wait for parts. We do minor maintenance jobs ourselves, and one of the things we like about all our Vermeer machines is the smart design. They’ve really thought through the access issues, putting service ports close together and making the panels easy to remove, for instance.”
For major servicing, such as changing chipper blades or replacing degraded tracks, Target Trees uses professional engineers. “A big plus with Vermeer is that the dealer keeps all the common wear components in stock,” Jenny Flatters points out. “Even if a part has to be ordered from the U.S., it’s usually here in days. Whereas in the past we’ve waited months to get parts for locally made competitors’ machines.”
Flatters confirms that the customer-focused approach to after-sales support that Vermeer provides is one of the main factors behind the investment decisions that he and Jenny have made over the years. “We find Vermeer very responsive,” he says. “They’re open to feedback, and we have a proper two-way dialogue with them. A while back, for example, we gave them some feedback on the location of grease points, which we didn’t find very convenient. When the next model came out, the grease points had been moved. That kind of thing gives you confidence. It tells you here is a company that’s not content to stand still, but always looking to improve, to deliver a better service. We like that because it’s very much like our own philosophy.”
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