“Komatsu machines are very dependable”
Longtime friends Bob Brooks and Fred Thompson haven’t fully grasped the concept of retirement. After enjoying highly successful careers – Brooks owned a hardware store and Thompson was an attorney – the duo decided to go into the compost business in 1990.
Growing public concern about a shortage of landfill space and the benefits of recycling gave Thompson and Brooks an idea. They would start a facility to accept yard waste from local communities, keeping it out of the landfills, and turn it into compost that their company could sell. It would serve two purposes: protect the environment and make money. Both turned out to be correct, but far from easy.
“Truth be known, we started the business because we were going to get paid to take stuff that we thought God was just going to turn into dirt anyway,” admitted Thompson. “Our mentality was, ‘How hard could it be?’ As it turned out, pretty darn hard, actually.”
Today, Indian Summer Recycling processes roughly 40,000 tons of leaves and grass clippings annually and has contracts to sell the resulting compost. However, before the firm could reach its current level of success and efficiency, Brooks and Thompson had to literally create the blueprint on yard-waste recycling.
The business was one of the first private yard-waste recycling centers in the United States. Not only was there a lack of information and research on the industry to pull from, but also there was little legislation governing the suddenly popular field. The pair threw themselves into the business, helping develop standards and practices that paved the way for the industry.
“I had at least 10 people tell me that we wouldn’t survive one year,” recalled Brooks. “Here we are 27 years later. We’ve outlasted a lot of our competitors, and we did it on our own.”
Indian Summer Recycling has eight employees and accepts yard waste from communities within a 35-mile radius of its 30-acre campus in Casco, Mich. This territory includes all of Macomb County.
The smell of success
Having ample space to store incoming yard waste and securing contracts to sell it are two vital components to running a successful recycling company. To set their firm apart, Brooks and Thompson mastered another aspect of the business: smell management. However, don’t expect them to share how they keep 40,000 tons of yard waste odorless.
“It’s a trade secret,” said Brooks with a wink. “Controlling the smell is a huge challenge in our industry, because it can get really bad. It made Fred sick one day, and my wife used to ask me to change clothes in the garage before I came inside. The odor ruined the car I had when we started. We did some research, tried a few things and finally came up with a good solution.”
As recycling centers opened, the resulting odor caused many communities to change their zoning laws to keep the facilities away from residents. It became readily apparent to Brooks and Thompson that solving this problem would be a key to future success.
“Overall, people were excited about the service we were providing, but the smell was a bit overwhelming,” recalled Thompson. “It went from a nice addition to the community to an ugly situation. Once people figured out recycling was profitable, we had a lot of competitors, and they didn’t care as much about controlling the smell. Compost centers got a bad reputation and zoning regulations changed as a result. Fortunately, it did help to weed out the people who weren’t committed to doing it the right way.”
“Keeping the odor to a minimum is important because no one wants to spend their day smelling this stuff,” Brooks added. “That’s one huge aspect of our job, and it’s also an important part of being a good neighbor. We’re very proud of our record.”
Innovating with Komatsu
With few established industry protocols in place, Indian Summer Recycling recognized an open invitation to experiment with its day-to-day operations. One area of focus was equipment.
“When we started, I had a garden tractor with tongs behind it,” laughed Brooks. “I was a little overmatched because we had about as much material coming in then as we do today. Everyone was still learning how to run an operation like this. It involved a lot of expensive trial and error.”
Indian Summer Recycling finally found the right fit when it turned to Continental Equipment Company (CEC) and Sales Manager Greg Doyal for Komatsu dozers and wheel loaders in 2000. The business further increased its efficiency when the partners made the decision to purchase new machinery instead of used equipment.
“We tried a lot of equipment that was supposed to be specialized for our needs, but it just didn’t work,” noted Brooks. “Thirty percent of our costs were going toward keeping our machines operating. Finally, we called Greg and got serious. He had been telling us the advantages of buying new machines for years, so we finally decided to listen. After that, our fuel consumption went down 40 percent.”
With Komatsu equipment from CEC slotted into the equation, Brooks and Thompson continued to tinker with their efficiency, and that led to a “light-bulb” moment.
“Originally, we were using dozers to turn the piles – which is necessary to help the material break down into compost – and wheel loaders to move it to the screeners and load trucks,” detailed Thompson. “The ground here is made up of a lot of clay. No matter what we did, or how good our operators were, we kept getting clay mixed in with our compost, which isn’t ideal because clay is non-organic. Then, one day Bob had the idea to use an excavator to turn the piles from the top-down. It was perfect.”
“The Komatsu machines are very dependable,” said Thompson. “We know they will start up every morning and go all day. It has really helped us increase production and efficiency at our site.”
The company also trusts CEC for machine maintenance through Komatsu CARE, a program that provides complimentary service on its new Tier 4 equipment for the first 2,000 hours or three years.
“Having CEC maintain our equipment has been so nice,” said Brooks. “We used to spend eight hours trying to get a machine to work for part of a shift. With new Komatsu equipment, that’s not an issue. Plus, CEC monitors the machines and schedules service and maintenance for us. We also trust them to work on types of equipment they don’t carry.
“We really value the relationship we have with CEC,” he continued. “Greg does an amazing job for us, and if we ever need anything, he is on it.”
Need for expansion
Neither Brooks nor Thompson are in any rush to start a second retirement; they see Indian Summer Recycling as positioned for continued success.
“This is a lifetime business,” declared Brooks. “We’ve been around for more than 25 years, and the service we provide has become a value to the public. I think that if a decision would be made to put yard waste back into the landfill, the communities we serve wouldn’t stand for it.”
With the popularity of recycling and increased awareness regarding the benefits of composting, Indian Summer Recycling would like to add a second facility.
“The demand is there,” said Thompson. “Recycling is as popular as ever. Compost is excellent topsoil for growing grass and other crops. We have customers who have sent us photos of a site that has lush grass grown from it in three days. Compost is also a great way to lower lead levels in the ground because it changes the composition of the soil, which is a big deal in our area.
“If we had a second facility, it could be just as busy as our current one,” he added. “We’re working on it; we have some zoning issues to navigate, but if we could get one, we’d benefit.”