Like with most businesses in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic certainly impacted McHale Landscape Design, based in Upper Marlboro, Md.
“Hitting us right at the busiest time of year – it was kind of like the perfect storm,” says President Kevin McHale.
However, it turned out to be the best year in the company’s 40-year history.
“In May and June, we saw all these people who had been home for quite a while…our phones started ringing excessively,” McHale says. “At the end of the year, it was one of our best year’s top line and bottom line. We certainly wouldn’t have forecasted that in March or April of last year.”
And this wasn’t the first storm McHale Landscape Design had to weather. Back during the Great Recession, the company found a way to tighten its belt by starting an in-house recycling program – a move that’s still paying off today.
McHale says being a 100% high-end residential company helped the business fair better than others during that time, but it also allowed them to take a closer look at where they could cut costs.
“It gave us the opportunity to really examine our operations and how we were doing things,” he says. “And one of our pet peeves has always been our trash removal line item… it just seemed like it was always such a large number.
“We ran the numbers and saw what we were spending on hauling trash out in dumpsters, and a lot of it was green trash that could be recycled,” McHale adds.
So, the business bought a tub grinder to process that green trash themselves.
“Mostly, it’s stuff that comes from projects that we bring back,” McHale says of the recyclable material. “If we’re cutting down trees, eliminating brush, it’s also our grass clippings and leaf debris, the cutbacks from perennials and certainly our flower rotations. Most of our customers have two to three seasonal color rotations in a year, so we bring all that back.”
All that organic debris is turned into a natural mulch that McHale Landscape Design then uses at customers’ homes, passing the savings on to them.
“We would use it on certain properties, far out and away from the house where it’s really used for nutrient and horticultural benefits and not really aesthetics,” McHale says. “It’s a savings for the client. We also use it at our 40-acre nursery and incorporate it into the soil along with some leaf grow we made with all of our leaf debris. Our maintenance division brings in quite a bit of leaf litter every year.”
McHale Landscape Design cut its dumpster expenses in half with in-house recycling.
In the last decade since starting the recycling program, McHale says it continues to prove itself a worthwhile investment.
“By the end of the first year, we saw a lot of progress,” he says. “It’s turned into a real good approach to be green, and it’s cut down on our dumpster expenses by 50%. It seems to have been a win/win for us all the way around.”
However, McHale says learning to separate the recyclable material was something crews had to get used to. And the business learned an expensive lesson in what can happen if that step is ignored.
“The one thing we learned the hard way was it doesn’t matter how good the machine is and it doesn’t matter how good the operator is, if you don’t train the crews to separate their trash, all it takes is a piece of stone, or a tool, to get stuck in that tub grinder and then you have a pretty major expense on your hands,” he says.
No added labor was needed to operate the tub grinder, as McHale Landscape Design utilizes its existing employee base.
“We’ve dedicated one of our operations people to operate the tub grinder two days a week, and still perform his duties as a truck driver the other days in a week,” McHale says.
McHale advises other companies to consider starting an in-house recycling program – especially if trash expenses are eating way into their profits.
“We’ve always tried to keep trash removal at about 0.5% of our revenue,” he says. “As long as we can keep it under that, we feel pretty comfortable.”
But he does acknowledge that buying a tub grinder may not be feasible for everyone.
“I’d be really careful about running out and buying a big machine unless you’ve run the numbers,” he says. “I think a lot of it has to do with the size of a company and what it costs you to manage your trash expense. For us, we had the space, and we had the personnel.”
For smaller companies, McHale suggests stockpiling recyclable material and then renting a tub grinder a few times a year. He adds that this is something his business still does even with owning one machine already. “What we’re looking at now, as the company is continuing to grow, is bringing in a large rental tub grinder to come in twice a year to help us, because the machine we have now is at its limit,” he says.
“One of our pet peeves has always been our trash removal line item.” Kevin McHale, president, McHale Landscape Design
Regardless of if they decide to rent a tub grinder and create their own natural mulch, McHale urges landscaping companies to reach out to their local landfill.
“Maybe you can separate your recyclable material and work something out with a local landfill or supplier,” he says.
Not only are the cost savings to the company and its customers important, but McHale says the environmental benefits are immeasurable.
“We did this initially because cutting our trash expense was our goal, but being part of the green industry, all of us are obligated to be stewards of the environment and we really need to do everything we can to be green,” he says. “It’s not cheap to be green...But with the industry we’re in, we are the representatives of making sure we limit our waste. Our group has taken this pretty seriously.”