A lean, mean, sustainable machine
“Our industry must heed the warnings and find ways to become increasingly more sustainable. Just calling ourselves the green industry does not accomplish this.”
That’s the opinion of general manager Kurt Bland, who owns Bland Landscaping Company, Inc. (www.blandlandscaping.com) in Apex, N.C., with his brother Matt, who serves as controller. The company’s sustainable philosophy is working from front office to jobsite.
|Photos Courtesy of Bland Landscaping|
|Brothers Kurt and Matt Bland use their fleet of STIHLblowers as a component of their energy-efficient operation.||A crew member of Bland Landscaping uses a backpackblower to clean up grass clippings.|
Bland Landscaping employs 155 to 200 people throughout the year. The bulk of its business is in commercial grounds management with a few commercial installation and residential accounts.
The company has received more than 100 awards, including the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) 2008 Environmental Improvement Award in recognition of Bland’s installation of the Venture Center at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, an office park for academic, government and corporate entities.
“We operate under the guidance of lean management and a triple-net bottom line approach towards sustainable business. We evaluate our success against the three Ps: people, planet and profit,” Bland says.
Lean management, based upon practices implemented at Toyota, is a business system that organizes and manages all aspects of operations. Lean techniques enable companies to increase productivity and quality with fewer resources, including human and energy.
Bland puts these principles to work by requiring community service of its employees and sponsoring pro bono projects, such as the installation of vegetable gardens and stormwater retention basins at schools. Bland’s scrap metal, office paper, blueprints, green waste and waste lubricants are recycled, and reclaimed pine straw baling twine is donated to an area nonprofit organization. A 16,200-gallon rainwater reservoir recycles runoff from one of the company’s 5,000-square-foot buildings for use in truck tanks and watering landscapes. The 20-foot-wide, 7-foot-high cistern rests on an 8-inch gravel bed. A 1-inch rain can be expected to yield 3,000 gallons of water in the cistern and allow Bland to continue installing and maintaining landscapes despite periodic droughts and water restrictions.
Regularly checking irrigation systems for leaks and proper clock settings and using spray heads that produce a larger droplet size, which minimizes drift and evaporation, further reduce water use. The company encourages the use of evapotransporation (ET) systems for irrigation, which significantly reduces a site’s water usage.
Equipment is cleaned in an enclosed wash bay that drains into a sediment trap and a three-chamber grease trap which discharges into the sanitary sewer to be treated properly. Biodegradable STIHL ultra mix oil is used at an 80:1 rate, reduced from 50:1.
Increasing fuel efficiency
Through their study of lean principles, the brothers recognized that fuel waste was a problem for the company’s triple-bottom line. Experimentation at a Kaizen event led to a change in blower models. A Kaizen event is a focused, intense, short-term project to improve a process. Such an effort usually includes training followed by analysis, design and rearrangement of a product line or process.
In the Bland project, a series of run-time tests were performed on STIHL (www.stihl.com) BR 420 C Magnums, Bland’s preferred model at the time, and BR 550s. Filled with equal amounts of fuel, the 550s used about 40 percent less. With last year’s escalating petroleum costs, Kurt estimates that the company’s fuel-efficient, low-emission 70 plus BR 550 trimmed $40,000 off of expenses. Clearly, the Kaizen experiment dramatically improved Bland processes and profits.
The 550s do come with different maintenance needs and demand a skilled equipment technician. Valves require adjustment and can put extra wear and tire on the head assembly. Bland says STIHL is working to improve that and has assisted his company as needed.
“Despite the requirement of maintenance, I still see it as a superior product with significant savings,” he adds.
STIHL 4-MIX hand-held equipment, more fuel-efficient than standard two-stroke devices, is put to work on all jobs. The equipment also produces less noise and fewer hydrocarbons while delivering more torque. Office energy use has been cut with the installation of programmable thermostats. The sales staff drives Mini Coopers that Bland says deliver 35 to 41 miles per gallon, and all vehicles have GPS programmed with speed and idling limits.
“This has resulted in a 41 percent reduction of idling time, safer driving and fuel savings of around 5 to 10 percent,” Bland says. “When vehicle speed exceeds a set threshold, the driver hears an audible warning that is followed by an e-mail to the manager if speed isn’t reduced immediately.”
The company fleet includes diesel trucks, tractors, trenchers and skid loaders. Diesel riding mowers are used for cutting large properties. Since 2006, Bland has used a blended diesel consisting of 20 percent biofuel and 80 percent ultra low sulfur supplied by Triangle Biofuels (www.trianglebiofuels.com) in Wilson, N.C. Depending on crude prices, the B20 is slightly more expensive; recently the company paid $2.19 a gallon. Although some claim that the blend is slightly less efficient than petro-diesel, Bland has found the products to be equivalent.
The biodiesel offers the perks of being made in the U.S. with American labor and materials. Its emissions are cleaner, and the product keeps internal engine components cleaner. The higher lubricity fuel can be used without retrofitting vehicles. On the downside, its higher solvency can harm older fuel systems; gelling may occur in cold climates. Availability isn’t consistent, but the future seems certain to change that.
Coping with a changing economy
Bland says the established lean principles are helping the company weather the current financial crisis.
“We are overcoming [this economic climate] by acting quickly when we see the need to make a change in our course. We are also doing our best to listen to customers and cooperate with their needs as best we can, “ he says.
Bland foresees a period of change for the business community in general, and in the lawn care industry. Along with immigration and other labor issues, regulation and competition, he views sustainability as a key concern. He believes it is important to prepare for a future “carbon economy” by promoting the carbon sequestration generated by turf, shrubs and trees.
“We must invest in product development, education, effectiveness and sustainable business practices as a whole,” he says, adding that the future is optimistic for those who accept and embrace a changing business community. “As a betting man, I am putting my money on a future where businesses are—at a minimum—expected to think sustainably, rather than being rewarded for doing so.”
Learn more about these practices online at www.sustainablesites.org.
Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.