Canadian Biomass Magazine

Intersecting Industries: Ontario grinding company supplies the landscaping world

February 14, 2024
By Maria Church

How Killaloe Wood Products is supplying the landscaping world

Richard Cybulskie, Jerry Summers, Jason Felhaber, and Jason Petroskie at the Killaloe Wood Products yard in Renfrew County, Ont. Photos courtesy of Killaloe Wood Products.

Family-owned and operated Killaloe Wood Products has carved out a niche for itself at the intersection of forestry and landscaping, producing high quality, locally sourced mulch and custom wood-based soil amendments for clients across Ontario and Quebec. 

Siblings Megan Hundt and Kelly Summers are the second generation behind the Renfrew County, Ont., family business that parents Jerry and Cathy Summers started in 1986. Today, four of the family of five are regulars on site, each focused on an aspect of the business while seamlessly filling whatever jobs need tackling that day.

“It’s very rewarding getting to work with your family,” Hundt says. “People laugh and ask, ‘It is?’ But, yes, it is!”

History of change

Killaloe Wood Products started out as a logging and tree service company. Jerry attended the Algonquin College forestry program, but left when the opportunity for a job with the Algonquin Forestry Authority came up. “He always wanted to run his own business,” Hundt says, “So from there he jumped into running his own business taking contracts with Algonquin Park and Hydro one.”

Following a major ice storm in Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec in 1998, Killaloe grew exponentially to manage the tree damage, at one point having close to 30 employees. Once those contracts were fulfilled, the company downsized and looked for new opportunities. 

In the early 2000s, Renfrew County prioritized red pine plantation thinnings – a legacy of forest management practices from the previous century. Killaloe took on another niche with selective harvesting and soon after opened a roundwood fence post mill. 

“The smaller roundwood didn’t have a home at the larger mills,” Hundt says.  

The company quickly encountered challenges with the mill’s by-products – the peelings encroached on operating space, and they built up quicker than any existing market could use them. In 2008, they purchased a Morbark 1000 tub grinder and began producing mulch. 

Summers remembers the early days of manually powder mixing the mulch colouring. “You go over and shake it all over the material, spray it down with water, and mix it. You’d walk out of there and you’d be covered in it. When customers ask about the safety of the dyes we can personally attest to it,” Summers says. “Now it’s streamlined and I’m sitting in the comfort of a loader.”

Committing to mulch production, in 2008, Killaloe brought in a Marion Mixer and, in 2013, sold the fence post business. Business hummed along until 2019, when the local township informed Killaloe that they would not be given a half load permit to use the local road during the next spring rush, Hundt says. “We had made requests to meet with the mayor and roads committee to provide more information on the requested permits, but were denied repeatedly. Instead the request was discussed at the next council meeting, covered by the local paper, and it became apparent the decision was made with inaccurate information,” she says. “It resulted in us having to find new land and move our whole operation. We were forced into it, but ultimately it was a good business decision for us.”

Family roles

While Jerry remains the official patriarch of the business, he’s transitioning out of the day-to-day, Summers says. “He’ll always still be involved in the business, he’ll never fully step back, I think he just doesn’t want to put out fires day to day,” he says. 

“We were laughing because he’s out making composted pine mulch right now,” Hundt says, motioning out their office window. 

Matriarch Cathy continues on as an essential cog of the business wheel. “She’s the glue that keeps everything running smoothly, and we don’t have much overlap with her,” Hundt says.

Hundt, the eldest sibling of three, joined the company in a sales role in 2013 and has steadily taken on more as her dad steps back. Although the family hesitates to commit to job titles, Hundt fulfills a general manager role. “Things are pretty fluid with what we cover. Everyone here has a sense of responsibility for making things run smoothly, so we trade hats often,” she says. 

Summers, the youngest sibling, who played professional hockey in Europe up until last year, is now onsite daily fulfilling a sales and dispatch role as well as learning yard operations and maintenance. “This is my first time being home for the off-season, to see everything that goes in for the prep for the spring. It’s been exciting being back, learning the ropes,” he says. “I didn’t think they did anything in winter, but apparently there’s a lot!”

Middle sibling Jeff is a Hydro One forestry instructor and certified arborist, keeping forestry firmly in the family. 

Killaloe employs four other full-time staff and a couple seasonal workers, all of whom are like family, Summers and Hundt attest. 

“Our employees have been key to our success,” Hundt says. “Jason Felhaber, Jason Petroskie, John Limlaw are experts at keeping the machines running smoothly, and they’ve perfected making a consistent, dependable product that we’re really proud of. Richard Cybulskie, our lead driver, makes sure our material gets to market in the most efficient way, while limiting downtime on the trucks, with the help of our new recruit, Phil Coulas. We have many other drivers that we work closely with who are real pros at what they do.”

Kelly Summers, Megan Hundt, Cathy Summers, and Jerry Summers are the family force behind the nearly 40-year-old forestry business.

Site operations

Killaloe will process around 1,000 tractor trailer loads, or 400,000 tonnes, of material each year. Incoming fibre is sourced from local mills and loggers, often hog fuel, slabs, and low-value or culled logs.

Caterpillar and John Deere loaders move material around the site, which first heads to either the Vermeer HG6000tx horizonal grinder to get larger material down to a manageable size, or the Morbark 1100 tub grinder that creates a consistent end product. 

A McCloskey trommel screener sizes the material, removing large rocks or woody branches, and McCloskey stackers – an 80-foot and a 100-foot stacker – allow for easy stockpiling of the mulch. The piles get up to 40 feet high with a 60-foot base diameter, Summers says.

Colour is added – black, red or brown – using a Colorbiotics Sahara Mixer. 

“We were very fortunate that we had made the move to the bigger site before the pandemic because we were very well set up when everyone was stuck at home and starting landscaping projects,” Hundt says. 

The company lists 16 products – various coloured mulches in a cedar or pine hardwood blends, some natural products, and some soil amendments. In the last few years, Killaloe has added custom, specialty blends for commercial growers who need a soilless growing medium. 

“We’re working with Vineland Research and Innovation Centre to fine tune our soil blends,” Hundt says. “Because wood is so renewable, whereas some other components in these mixes aren’t, there is more and more interest in using this renewable resource for that use.” 

Hundt says working with growers is a partnership. With growing medium being a crucial and costly component of their business operation, growers need to trust that Killaloe will produce a consistent, predictable product. “They need to know that what they’re getting in their delivery is consistent through the truckload, and across the different truckloads they’ve gotten that year.” she says. “When they’re growing plants with so many natural variables like sunlight, watering, seed, fertilizer, they need to be able to trust that the growing medium is consistent.”

Some of Killaloe’s mixes require composting for up to two years on site. Other product can be processed and sent out within six months. The six-month minimum allows organic breakdown to occur so that the mulch doesn’t pull nitrogen out of the soil. A specific product designed to supress growth can be processed and shipped green. 

Trucking for deliveries is a huge segment of their logistics. The company owns two trucks to run their four 53-foot walking floor trailers. Two other trucks are subcontracted to pull the trailers March to October. Around 80 per cent of their product is delivered to customers, landscape depots and growers in Ontario and Quebec. The remaining 20 per cent is sold to customers on site. 

Killaloe’s busy season runs from April to June. In the lead up, staff are in “set up” mode, getting the product on site and preparing logistics for the spring rush. 

“I kind of think of our business like that gameshow where you’re running through a grocery store and you have three minutes to get everything into the cart,” Hundt says. “Our busy season is like that where you’re scrambling. The rest of the year is getting everything set up so you can do that rundown efficiently.”

Family focus

When asked what drew them as young professionals to the family forestry business, Summers and Hundt don’t hesitate with a handful of reasons.

“It could be just looking up to my dad,” Summers says. “He’s been a chameleon of the industry. It’s been ever changing for him. From my point of view, he’s seemed to adapt well. I’m sure there were lots of processes that stressed him out then, but it worked very well for him. It’s good to see how well he enjoyed doing it. And to be a part of working with the family, working with my sister, my mom and my dad has been important. We’re a really close family.” 

For Hundt, who started with the company shortly after she graduated from the University of Waterloo in biochemistry and business, choosing the family business was the right lifestyle for her.

“I thought I was destined for pharmaceutical marketing,” she says. “I realized you kind of need to live in Mississauga. I kept running up against: ‘I don’t want to live here.’ For me, joining was really the idea of living in this area that I love. No day is ever the same and we get to be outside. I have a pretty office-y job, but I spend less than half a day behind a desk.

“We work with great people, our customers, our partners, everyone is often small owner/operators. I really enjoy working with people who like to get their hands dirty. It’s a very different culture from the corporate culture that I thought I wanted,” Hundt says.

And when it comes down to it, mulch is neat. 

“People must dread me at parties – ‘I sell mulch and let me tell you about it’ – but when you get down to the nitty gritty of it, it is so interesting!” Hundt says.

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