Made in the Tri-States: Dubuque mulch-makers enjoy family business

There are different styles of mulch, along with it coming in a variety of colors. PHOTO CREDIT: NICKI KOHL

At Dubuque Mulch Co., spring is the time of year business blooms.

Employees at the family-owned business spend about eight months ramping up for a four-month busy season.

“At our peak we will have Saturdays when cars are lined up here from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., one after another,” said Operations Manager Tom Miller. “We can sometimes see 75 or 80 cars (picking up mulch) in a day.”

Located at 10492 U.S. 52, Dubuque Mulch Co. operates on about 20 acres. The majority of this land sits within an old rock quarry.

The area is populated by massive piles of mulch, some standing higher than 50 feet.

The product ultimately makes its way to customers that stretch out for 200 miles in either direction.

Owner Dave Miller said the business works with a variety of clients.

“We are capable of taking care of the guy who needs a half yard (of mulch) or the guy who needs 10,000 yards,” he said.

FAMILY HISTORY

The origins of Dubuque Mulch Co. date to 1977, when Syd Miller started a sawmill company that operated under the name Dubuque Hardwoods. The business was later owned by Syd’s son, Robert Miller.

Robert’s sons, Dave and Tom Miller, now represent the third generation to own the family business.

“It’s changed a lot over the years,” Dave said. “It is all I have ever known.”

Tom Miller fondly remembers growing up around the business, but acknowledged that he had not always planned to make a career out of the family enterprise.

As an a adult, he spent multiple years living in Colorado and later tried his hand at being a bartender.

“I think it is pretty cool (to be a part of the family business),” he said. “There was a time when I thought I wouldn’t end up doing this, but now I believe this is what I’ll be doing until I die. I couldn’t be happier about working here.”

MAKING ITS WAY TO MULCH

Through the years, the company has experienced a noteworthy evolution.

Perhaps the biggest change has been its pivot to becoming a leading provider of mulch products.

Dave said the company began selling mulch in the 1990s. The name Dubuque Mulch Co. was not minted until 2011, he noted.

Dubuque Hardwoods exists as the “bulk-commodity carrier” and wholesaling arm of the company. Dubuque Mulch Co., however, is the brand and name associated with the company’s retail efforts.

Under the umbrella of both companies, there are 20 employees.

Today, Dubuque Mulch Co. brings in its raw materials from four sawmills in Iowa and Wisconsin.

The product that arrives on scene is later sent through massive machines known as grinders. The wood is then sent through a screen, which reduces the product to the smaller fragments typically seen in mulch.

Some products will pass through a smaller screen, creating a more refined product known as “double processed.”

As customer preferences have changed, so too have the processes in place at Dubuque Mulch Co.

“Mulch has grown since I started (in 2009),” said Tom Miller. “You see a lot more people laying mulch now and you see a boom in the colored mulch.”

Staff members meet the needs of customers by adding color to the product on-site.

This is accomplished by using a machine known as a “colorizer,” which mixes specified colors with water and applies the mix to the wood chips.

Tom Miller said that a colored product know as “double chocolate” recently has taken off with customers, noting that the darker color provides a nice contrast with the green plants that populate gardens.

KEEPING ITS CUSTOMERS

Formerly located in the Port of Dubuque, near the current McGraw-Hill property, Dubuque Mulch Co. relocated in 2003.

Dubuque Mulch Co. conducts its grinding and coloring in the same space where the company performs its retail operations.

Its office on U.S. 52 displays a wide range of products that vary in both type and color. Mulch varieties include double-processed, single-processed, cedar, hardwood chips and red oak. Red, gold, brown, black, chocolate and double chocolate are among the available colors.

“Consistency is a huge key with what we do,” Dave said. “People expect the products the be the same each time they get them.”

In addition to its mulch sales, the business sells a variety of rock products. While the decorative rock isn’t produced on-site, it does give customers more choices when it comes to their gardens and landscaping.

It also helps spread out the demand for a company that deals with seasonal ebbs and flows.

“For our mulch business, the busy season typically ends around July 4,” Tom said. “People will put rock down at just about any time of the year. “

Dubuque Mulch Co. has developed a wide and diverse range of customers.

In addition to selling mulch to retail and landscaping customers, the company sells wood products to a paper mill in Wisconsin and a compost yard in the Quad-Cities.

No matter the location or kind of customer, Dubuque Mulch Co. is committed to keep them.

“We don’t lose very many customers,” Dave said. “Once we get ‘em we keep ‘em. We have a lot of customers that have been with us for 20 years or more.”