MILLVILLE — For Dave Mitchell, business success began with golf.
In a fine example of how idle time is sometimes the most productive, when Mitchell got out of the Navy in 1979 and couldn’t find work right away, he played a lot of inexpensive golf. That’s what he loves to do, he said, and his job search left him with plenty of time.
These days, Mitchell still plays quite a bit of golf — on some of the world’s greatest courses. Those courses and many others count on his company’s specialty sands and chemical products to keep their turf healthy and green.
“I love golf, so it’s been wonderful for me. I’ve gotten to know many superintendents who run courses, and have gotten to play many of these clubs in the course of my business,” said Mitchell, who lives in Millville.
He started Mitchell Products more than 15 years ago, after working in the sand mining industry for a decade and a half, helping build a company’s sports-sands business and developing an expertise on the best sand and aggregates for golf courses and athletic fields.
Sand remains one of two divisions at Mitchell Products, the other being specialty chemicals. “We have probably 200 to 250 golf courses that buy sand products from us directly in the Delaware Valley,” he said.
Working with local sand plants, the company has shipped “tens of thousands of tons of sands and soil mixes for constructing and maintaining golf courses as well as other sports field projects such as the large athletic facility in West Deptford with their multiple sports fields,” Mitchell said. More recently, they’ve supplied all the materials for several high-visibility projects such as the Yankees Triple-A baseball field in Scranton, Pa., and the Philadelphia Union Stadium soccer field in Chester, Pa.
The sand division also makes and sells a top dressing to maintain existing fields, greens and fairways.
“You put a thin layer of sand on top of the surface, and it works its way down into the thatch layer and helps the thatch decompose by helping air exchange,” Mitchell said. “If you don’t do that on sports turf, the thatch layer will get thick and prevent water, nutrients and oxygen from getting into the soil.”
Sand products start at Cumberland County sand plants, and some are dried in Pleasantville. Sand’s weight and bulk limits the company’s market for many sand products to a radius of about 250 miles due to the high cost of transporting with dump trucks.
The exception is the company’s divot mix consisting of sand, organics, green dye and some proprietary ingredients, which are mixed at the Millville plant and sold nationwide.
“We can afford to ship that product great distances. You’ll find it on golf clubs like Pebble Beach (Golf Links, in California) and other courses around the country, as well as many of our great local courses,” he said.
Mitchell said his company might have remained a “safe little sand business” if he hadn’t recognized a business opportunity when it arose in the firm’s third year.
One of his sands had a problem: It was water repellent, so maintaining the moisture level needed by the turf was difficult.
Mitchell said his research into how to remedy that led him to soil-wetting agents. He saw there was a demand for products to help golf courses absorb water and enlisted the help of a leading scientist in this field, Santi Mane, of Cherry Hill, to develop what is now the company’s signature product, TriCure AD.
“Where soils naturally become water repellent, rain or irrigation can’t penetrate, and a lot of water runs off,” he said. “A wetting agent enables water to penetrate dry soils, optimizing the amount of water that stays in the soil. Almost every golf course in the world has to use them, and TriCure AD is sold all over the world.”
That started the specialty chemical products division, which has two scientists on staff and accounts for most of the work at the plant on West Main Street in Millville.
There, experienced and dedicated staff mix, modify, package and ship chemical blends that come in by tank truck — with a goal of quickly turning around customer orders and keeping inventory costs low.
Another key product is ProactinEX, a blend of amino acids, bio-stimulants and turf vitamins to strengthen a plant’s resistance to environmental stresses such as heat, drought and salinity, Mitchell said.
The company also sells Terreplex, a natural byproduct of the paper pulp industry, which adds carbon to soil, helps prevent salt buildup, and releases bound nutrients, he said.
A fourth product, DewCure, was developed by Mane and Mitchell Products to help grasses shed rain and dry quickly. It’s a favorite in Britain and Ireland, where the damp climate promotes turf diseases. In the United States, it’s used in advance of many golf tournaments to keep the grass dry, many major league football fields to help prevent slipping and injury, and was even used in the World Series when the Phillies played in the rain, he said.
Mitchell said the specialty chemical side of the business is significantly larger than the sand size now, something he couldn’t have imagined in the beginning.
That holds a lesson for other entrepreneurs.
“In the course of running a business, frequently you have things before your eyes that are opportunities for expanding or growing the business. If your eyes are wide open you’ll see them. If your head is down in the business, you won’t,” he said.
Mitchell said the company’s business is less affected by a slowdown in the golf industry because courses still need to be maintained, even if they have fewer players. Sales have grown every year since the founding in 1998.
A survey last year by Golf Course Industry magazine suggests some of that growth must be the result of increasing market share.
Of 750 superintendents of U.S. golf courses surveyed, 47 percent said they had reduced their spending on turf chemicals in the past three years. But course managers said their budget challenges were mainly energy, fuel and labor costs, and more said they reduced spending on labor, equipment and fertilizer.
Mitchell said his business can’t compete with large chemical companies, so he stays away from large commodities such as fertilizer and focuses on niche products.
Spending by golf courses shows the size of one of his niches.
Last year, superintendents of 18-hole courses spent an average of $4,399 on wetting agents, the Golf Course Industry survey said, while larger courses spent $6,764. Private courses spent about a third more than public ones.
Those same courses spent four times as much on fertilizer and seven times as much on fungicides.
Mitchell said his products are sold by 25 independent distributors nationwide and internationally, with a lot of the growth now coming from overseas.
He said he and his son, Kevin, recently started a new business in Australia, which is already thriving and may give them a reason soon to travel there and try out the golf courses.
“They’re not quite as pinched as we are here in the U.S.,” he said. “They’ve managed their money a little better than we have.”
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