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Where it all started ....
1989/1990 – Countrywide Timber Products
In 1989/1990 my wife and I opened a tree-recycling yard called Countywide Timber Products at 521 Scarborough Beach Road INNALOO in the lovely city of PERTH in WESTERN AUSTRALIA, right where the Stevenson Freeway now joins Scarborough Beach Rd. The yard was essentially a private tip site for Tree Contractors or Tree Fellers who worked in Perth's northern suburbs.
Tim Lawrence, wife Siew-Lan holding daughter Shu-Ren & Brother-In-Law "BJ" holding his son Sean
For many years I had been aware that Perth, like many cities, has a forest of valuable & exotic trees growing in suburban back yards and each day this valuable and unappreciated resource was being cut down and dumped into landfill (approximately 200,000 tonne in 1990).
Using our house as collateral, I borrowed $40,000 dollars, leased an unused Freeway reserve, built a shed, brought an old front end loader, an old chain saw, a new Durston firewood docking saw and a new custom built 6” 40 hp electric brush chipper. I then contacted as many Tree Contractors as possible and waited. During this time, very few contractors had wood or brush chippers and initial response was slow however suddenly we were receiving several truck loads of tree pruning's each day.
MARKET not PRODUCT
From the outset after valuable advise from a friend and successful local businessman Brian Wickins, we approached the venture from a “Market” not "Product" focus. A basic but often forgotten vital business principal.
In the first year we sold approximately 800 bags of small potbelly logs plus approximately 300 tonne of split wood. Originally most of the was done physically with a simple hand held log splitter and then by subcontractors who supplied their own powered log splitter. I almost changed our business name to Tim's Weight Loss Center as the work was back breaking.
Finding a market for this type of mulch was very difficult. I dragged a bag of the mulch around to the Dept. of Agriculture, CSIRO and several Landscape Supplies for opinions and was told to go away. Luckily I met with a local Permaculture Guru, Dave Coleman who told me what a great product the mulch was and more importantly, why, and this gave me the encouragement I needed. Sales were very slow at first however as word of the product spread we started to sell everything we could produce. Price was a critical factor. Initially I was charging only $9 per trailer and no one was buying it until a local Landscaper, Trevor Butler, encouraged me to put the price up to $25 per trailer and then we could hardly keep up with demand.
Daughter Shu-Ren - quality control
Craft Wood for Wood turners:
Proved a huge interest not only to the wood turners but also to the Tree Contractors, some who were astounded to see us turn an old Apricot tree into $200. We had the only wood yard of this type in Perth
With the help of a part time timber enthusiast Peter Ure, who had built his own chain saw mill, we started to slab up many of the logs coming into the yard. Norfolk Island pine, Jarrah, London Plain Tree, Tuart, Stone Pine and many other exotic species. With the help of a carpenter mate Bill Vanderweid, we started to produce slab tables & benches and other simple but unique garden furniture.
Garden Stepping Blocks:
We had the only steady supply of logs in the Metro Area so we started cutting hundreds of stepping blocks. I paid off my old chain saw in one day. Garden centers from as far away as Mandurah were buying truckloads of the blocks and eventually I had to bring in a contractor to keep up with the demand.
Financially the operation was not a success. We were undercapitalized, the chipper was to small and didn't perform to expectations and the ancient front-end loader broke down constantly. The job was very labor intensive, unsympathetic local government authorities and ignorance on my part; the list could go on and on.
A land tax bill of $6,000 on top of an annual rent of $10,000 for leasing an unused freeway reserve was almost the last straw. Local and state governments, with few exceptions, are not in the slightest bit interested in recycling or about any of the other pressing environmental issues in our community, they all make the right noises but it is really just paper shuffling.
NOTE: When you lease land off the “Crown”, you are deemed to be the owner and Land Tax applies
One major problem was the incredible noise produced by the chipper, it literally screamed. After a two week shutdown, an expensive sound proof box lined with special "sound foam", was built around the machine but we still received complaints so chipping commenced at 0400 each morning and stopped at 0800, an exhaustive process.
Mulch produced by the 6' Electric Chipper & drying firewood, you can see the chute of the chipper sticking out of the shed wall.
Overall though, the venture was an interesting idea with great potential and we learnt a lot. In hindsight, I actually think I enjoyed myself but I doubt if my wife would agree. If anybody needs advice on how to set up an intensive green waste recycling yard and you wish to avoid some of the planning pitfalls, I'm your man and I will be happy to assists if you need free advice. WARNING: You will need plenty of the folding stuff.
1990 - Permaculture
In 1990, with the encouragement of local Permaculture Guru Dave Coleman and with the help of a bunch of his students, Dora Byrne and Tim Gill to name two, the second public Permaculture Garden in Perth was set up in the wood yard right on Scarborough Beach Road (Bentley TAFE had the first). Visitors to the yard were astounded to see a producing vegetable garden built on top of the ground.
The Permaculture garden was set up just to the left of the log
1992 – Change of direction – the Mulch Network
During 1992, I noticed that an increasing number of contractors were purchasing brush chippers and that we were starting to receive truckloads of free mulch into the yard as the market for this type of mulch was still extremely small and official tip sits were charging full tip fees, even for this beautiful, clean, environmentally friendly product. Almost immediately we stopped taking loads of tree branches and after taking three weeks to clear a large backlog of Prunings, the little electric chipper was switched of for the last time with absolutely no regrets. The monster did not have to be fed anymore.
I simply proposed to several contractors that if I could sell the mulch directly from the truck to the customer, would they agree to pay a commission on sales and so the Mulch Network was created.
After much trial & error, I found approximately 40 "reliable" tree contractors who worked indifferent areas of the city and I tried to localize each mulch order closest to where they lived and operated.
The Million Trees Project - MOTT
50 cents every cubic meter of mulch ordered through the Mulch Network was donated to the Million Trees Project, a school based tree-planting program initiated by Men Of The Trees in 1990.
This method of supplying and marketing mulch direct to the customer off the truck is extremely cost efficient as there is no double handling involved and the mulch is free of any soil or tip site contamination.
1993 – New Location
In 1993 we had to vacate the freeway reserve for the construction of what is now the Stephenson Freeway link from John Sanders Drive to Scarborough Beach Rd. Just up the road I found the perfect yard, 2 1/2 acres of abandoned land and run down old sheds owned by the University of WA. After the bitter lesson of the land tax, a lease of $200 per week with NO out goings was the perfect outcome. With two small children, finances were very tight and I was driving a cab night shift part time to keep our head above water and working in the yard during the day. The stress was unbelievable.
A business associate was looking for somewhere to park trucks and machinery and he made me an offer that I would ultimately live to regret. We decided to share the lease on the land, share running costs and share in any profits from the sale of material from the yard. The Mulch Network setup was not included in the deal.
The short story is that I was forced out of the yard and lost approximately $70,000 worth of firewood and stock, just at the beginning of a very cold winter. I was advised that I could either take expensive legal action with no guarantee of a win or simply walk away. I walked away and continued running and expanding the Mulch Network from home. In hindsight, the best decision.
A "calling card" from another group who didn't like what I was doing - I still have the knife
1995 – FREE MULCH for schools
To try and help promote recycled tree mulch within the wider community, I initiated, with the help of Linda Lyons from the City of Stirling, a "free mulch for schools" offer in 1995 in exchange for free advertising in school newsletters and started to see several interesting developments:
1) School gardeners started using the product often for the first time and in many cases purchasing extra mulch from us.
2) Because of the several hundred schools that expressed interest in the concept, contractors had many convenient drop points for excess mulch right across the city thus saving themselves considerable time and money.
3) The free mulch offer to schools actually caused a slight demand
4) Some schools started on-selling the mulch to parents as fundraising, thus exposing the product to more people
5) Schools started using & recommending Mulch Network Tree Contractors for tree work
Whilst Headmasters & staff embraced the idea, school gardeners were the ones who could see a dramatic increase in their workload, and subsequently, many did not appreciate the free deliveries. To be fair, few gardening staff have the equipment or time to move large quantities of mulch around school grounds, areas that sometimes cover many acres. Offering free mulch to schools helped generate excellent goodwill amid the broad community, a definite marketing plus.
1995 – On the World Wide Web
In 1995/96 the Mulch Network went on-line with a single page at a cost of $600. We simply advertised the site as a green waste recycling business and as a fund-raiser for Men Of The Trees. We were a little ahead of the times as most of our customers were not on the Internet. The Internet at that time did not allow commercial activities, how times have changed!
1997 - Article In USA Recycling Magazine
In 1997, a respected United States recycling magazine, Bio Cycle, printed an article about the operations of the Mulch Network in WA. We had international recognition (page 46)
1998 - Permaculture WA Business Awards - City Farm (WA)
In 1998, the Mulch Network shared the award of "Best Permaculture Commercial Project" with the Planet Ark shop in Fremantle.
1999 - A New Direction
In 1999 the Mulch Network was stagnating and I was contemplating closed the business down. I was back driving cabs again, still trying to work out a way of making a living whilst still achieving good environmental outcomes.
And then it happened, the "eureka" moment we sometimes hear of. It all started by asking myself totally stupid questions.
Question 1: What is the Internet!? Answer: A parallel world in cyberspace!
Question 2: What would happen if I put the world on my web page? Answer: You would own the world!
Question 3: What could I do if I owned the world? Answer: You could rent it out to someone else!
And their it was, the bare bones of a new & unique business model for the Internet.
2001 - A Unique Internet Business Model
With only about 3,000 Post Codes in Australia that people live in, the MulchNet system gives business owners the holy grail of business - LEVERAGE.
We are now a locally focused interactive "House & Garden" Products and Services Guide that has revolutionized how businesses and customers can interact. Thousands of tons of the best water saving and most environmentally friendly FREE MULCH delivered direct to thousands of gardens, all FREE MULCH registrations must be made through the clients Post Code ensuring a constant stream of quality visitors. As of writing May 2010, an estimated 75,000 tons of Free Mulch delivered since 2001.
2003 - Great Gardens
In 2003 a good friend of mine Chris Ferreira and his Business Partner, Garry Heady founded a groundbreaking WA focused sustainable gardening education program called Great Gardens. With excess nutrients leaching into the Swan River causing pollution & fish kills, ground water contamination and declining rainfall, the West Australian Government agreed to fund a handful of Great Garden workshops in 2003 to gauge public response and the feedback was overwhelming.
Chris mentioned to me that he liked the recycling concept behind MulchNet and asked if I would like to promote the service at the workshops and seven years later I am now the "junior" of the team helping with setups, etc.
As of beginning 2010 over 40,000 people have attended a workshop and the team run approximately 150 workshops each year all over Western Australia. Major sponsor is the Water Corporation of WA followed be the Swan River Trust and Synergy, all WA Government agencies. The three hour workshops are free and are not sponsored by product manufactures so visitors receive excellent, impartial advice on how to garden with far less water and use far less or indeed any fertilizer.
Chris Ferreira, Garry Heady, John Colwill, Peter Coppin, Ben Mitchell, John McWilliam, Tim Lawrence
2007 - New MulchNet Web Site
In 2007 a FREE MULCH client sent me an email asking if I would like to have a coffee, he said he liked what I was doing but thought my very basic, home grown web site needed an upgrade and he was right, managing the hundreds of email each week was chewing up most of my time. That was how I met the wonderful Paul Faix from Fortix.com.au. After months of meetings & planning, Paul and his team designed a new state-of-the-art web site that now covers all of Australia and manages hundreds of emails each week automaticly. I now have my life back, the back up from Paul and his team has been fantastic and the system is working perfectly.
If you run a SME and want a new perspective on your business going online into the future, give Paul a ring (08) 6161 0106 and go and have a cup of coffee with him, I can't recommend him highly enough.
BENEFITS: Clients can register on-line, anywhere in Australia, for a FREE TREE QUOTE, FREE LOAD OF MULCH, FREE LOAD OF FIREWOOD. Tree Contractors can access the data base 24/7 for a local registered drop point if they need to empty the truck, saves valuable downtime. EVERYBODY WINS - The contractor saves time, you get a free load of "Green Gold" and I get paid!!
2010 - Presence on the East Coast
As of June 2010 the FREE MULCH service is now available in Sydney, Melbourne & Hobart.
2011 - Beyond Gardens June 2011
The Great Gardens program disbanded with Garry Heady forming a new water-wise education group called Beyond Gardens. Only sponsor is the Water Corporation of WA with Local Governments supplying venues & catering. This give the Beyond Gardens Team the freedom to give free, impartial gardening advice to workshop attendees.
The Team: Garry Heady, John Colwill, Peter Coppin, John McWilliams, Steve McCabe & Tim Lawrence
The journey continues ................