By ANN ALI ∙ firstname.lastname@example.org
ARTHUR — Some businesses start because of expertise in an area or a clear vision to fill an unmet need.
The success story of Grant County Mulch doesn't start like that, but it has a happy ending.
"If you'd have told me that 26 years later, Larry and I would have six locations with three daughters helping us run it all, I'd have told you that you were nuts," said Janie Berg, who started Grant County Mulch with her husband Larry Berg in 1986.
Larry Berg was a truck driver. He owned his big rig and hauled coal from the southern part of West Virginia into Maryland.
When the price of coal started to take a dip, Larry started to look for other options.
"He started going to sawmills, and the byproduct of bark, they didn't know how to get rid of it," Janie explained. "He would take it for free.
"At that time we didn't have to pay for it because they had a mountain of it, and they didn't want it, so he hauled it."
Larry found a landscaping business in Maryland that wanted the product, but eventually the owner told him point-blank to add a step to the process.
"He looked at Larry one day and said, ‘Larry, you need to take our grinder up there in West Virginia somewhere, and you need to grind your material before you bring it,'" Janie said. "Grinding mulch takes a very big operation with a lot of land and a lot of open space, and they didn't have that, so we literally did that."
Janie recalled their roles clearly were carved out the day they started.
"Larry said, ‘Janie, you can't run the grinder because it's too dangerous, but you're going to have to learn to run the loader,'" she said. "So I ran a 745 John Deere loader, and that's how it started."
Janie said she was a housewife with three young daughters at the time, and she cleaned houses for other people while the girls were at school.
When the Bergs started the mulch business, they started with one or two loads of mulch per day.
Today, they push 250 loads of mulch out of six different locations with about 200 employees during their peak season, which runs from mid-February to July 4.
"When Larry or Janie Berg tells an employee or vendor or customer, when we tell them something, that's it," Janie said. "We mean it; we do it."
Tonya Berg-Whetzel, one of the three daughters who grew up working in the family business, said while her parents remain incredibly private and humble people, they have a reputation that ranks them at the top of the landscaping industry in the Mid-Atlantic Region.
Grant County Mulch is distributed to Lowe's stores throughout West Virginia and Eastern Ohio. Lowe's is one of their biggest customers, but Grant County Mulch serves a variety, from landscapers to garden centers. Their headquarters is in Arthur, and they have locations in Baker and Hazelton in West Virginia as well as in Strasburg, Va. and Burtonsville, Md.
The company also put colored mulch in Pittsburgh.
"My uncle Stacey, he is our sales manager here … he is the one who came to you guys 15 years ago and said we should take a chance on that," Berg-Whetzel said. "He talked you guys into buying the machine, which was expensive back then."
Grant County Mulch recently produced green mulch just for First Niagara Pavilion near Pittsburgh.
Berg-Whetzel said the business was her parents' life, but they kept priorities in order.
"Us three girls were all ballplayers, and it didn't matter if it was a game at Berkeley Springs or in Tucker, mom and dad were always there," she said. "It didn't matter what they dealt with through the day, and they're still like that with the grandkids."
And the Bergs quietly, anonymously donate to the community year-round.
"I think it's one of the great things about mom and dad, and I think that's why us girls are so grounded too," Berg-Whetzel said. "If someone needs something, they just go get it, but they don't broadcast it during the game and it doesn't go in all the papers."
And the three Berg girls had no choice but to learn all the jobs of the business.
"It was kind of second nature to us," Berg-Whetzel said. "We still laugh about this, that if a load were called in on a Saturday afternoon and they had already let everybody else go, the bagger back then was not automatic, you held the bag on a shoot, and shook it down and you sealed it. At that time, if someone would call in a load, mom would call us from whatever we were doing."
Janie Berg said it often led to a lot of extra hands doing the work.
"If they had a date at 7, all of the sudden I had boyfriends throwing bags so they could get it done," Janie Berg laughed.
And the employees who are not blood relatives feel like they are anyway.
"They're good people to work for, just like family," said 21-year employee Dale Rohrbaugh. "They would not ask any employees to do anything they haven't done themselves."
Janie Berg said she and Larry were raised by great parents in Maysville, and she sometimes doubted her own parenting skills.
"I raised them with a stern voice, and I just toed the line," she said. "I didn't have time for nothing else, but I see my three girls now toeing the line with their girls.
"Now that I see my children mimicking what I did, I think maybe I did more right than I realized."
Janie Berg said it's hard for her to look inside at the business she raised like a child, and despite lean years and growing pains, she and Larry raised a good business as well.
"The mulch plant is just like another child to us," she said.
"I do know this, by the grace of God, literally, Grant County Mulch has made it with two people who didn't have anything."