By P.J. Heller
Nine decades after “Grandpa Sol” started his business by repurposing wood waste materials, his legacy lives on.
“We’re doing the same thing 90 years later that grandpa did in the ’30s,” says his grandson, Rusty Rexius.
Grandpa Sol’s business – Rexius Fuel Service – initially involved going to Oregon sawmills to collect sawdust, which would normally be burned as waste, and delivering it to homes and other establishments to use to fuel their furnaces in the winter.
“He’s seeing all this waste material being burned up and thought there had to be a better way,” Rexius says.
In the summer, the thousands and thousands of cubic yards of sawdust that was collected would pile up, rot and turn black but could then be sold for landscaping and decoration. Bark from logs was also collected from the sawmills and used for mulch. Wood shavings were collected and sold for animal bedding.
Over the decades, the company morphed and expanded and in 1986 became Rexius Forest By-Products. It remains a family-owned and operated business, recycling and processing organic waste and wood residual materials for the landscape, agricultural, and environmental industries.
The company has remained true to Grandpa Sol’s vision.
“We’re trying to make something out of nothing,” Rexius says. “We’re interested in making stuff and inventing things and trying to make a business model out of something that nobody had tried before.”
Headquartered on a 157-acre site in Eugene, OR, the company has nine divisions including landscape and irrigation services, landscape maintenance, environmental restoration services, organic erosion control systems, and conveyed delivery systems manufacturing. It markets mulch, bark, compost, aggregates and regular and certified organic potting soils, as well as planting mixes and soil amendments. It provides bagged products under about three dozen different labels for retail and garden centers and wholesale distributors. It also sells bulk super sacks (2 cubic yard totes are the most popular size among growers) and semi loads. The company’s products are sold worldwide.
“We ship millions of bags every season,” notes Arlen Rexius, who is also a grandson of Sol Rexius and who serves as co-president with his cousin Rusty Rexius.
As a youngster, Arlen Rexius worked on the bagging line, earning 8 cents for every filled bag.
“I could make $5.60 an hour if I was really fast,” he laughs.
With a degree in diesel technology, he developed an automated bagging machine to meet a request from a chain store customer that wanted more than a million bags a year of bark, mulch and steer manure.
He later went on to run the bagging operation for about two years.
Rusty Rexius recalls working after school at the company when he was 11 years old.
What probably ranks as one of the more unique sales for the company was the shipment of 70 semi loads of soil to New York City, where it was put on the roof of a Manhattan skyscraper to grow blueberries.
Rexius also markets a variety of premium Opus Grows soils, one of which is prized by the cannabis industry although some growers prefer to mix their own blends.
“They (cannabis growers) think they have their own secret recipe, so we sell them the components,” Arlen Rexius notes.
Other customers can also take advantage of custom mixes.
“If you prefer to opt for a custom mix, we have a wide variety of base ingredients and organic amendments to choose from to create just the right mix for your needs,” the company tells its customers.
Rexius has grown to 350 people (it had fewer than 100 employees 20 years ago).
“With 350 employees, we’re a force to be reckoned with,” Arlen Rexius says.
Some of those employees have been with the company for 40 to 50 years. Arlen Rexius has worked full-time at the company for 50 years.
“It’s the only job I’ve ever had,” he says.
All manufacturing is done in Eugene but the company also has facilities in Portland and Bend. The Portland location has a fleet of blower trucks while Bend, as well as Eugene, offers landscaping services.
“We’re a unique company because we have so many things going on,” Arlen Rexius says. “We’re not just one thing. We don’t do just landscaping. We don’t just do soil.”
Among its many offerings is design and installation of outdoor kitchen and living spaces, outdoor water features and outdoor fire features.
The Eugene site takes in thousands of yards of green waste as well as food scraps from restaurants and grocery stores.
It also gives back to the community, through its involvement with charitable organizations and its annual Earth Day promotion, when it gives a free half yard of compost to anybody who stops by.
“We take their yard waste and turn it into something they can use and we give it back to them,” Arlen Rexius says.
In 1950, Sol Rexius invented what his grandson describes as a “very primitive” blower truck that could blow sawdust into the bins in homes for their furnaces. Arlen Rexius subsequently developed an automated blower truck and holds numerous patents on those Express Blower vehicles. Although that part of the company was sold in 2002 to FINN Corp. of Ohio, Rexius still builds Express Blower trucks for FINN and provides sales and services from its Eugene location.
“The blower truck spreads the same amount of mulch as 20 workers,” Arlen Rexius says. “When companies get short of workers, people buy blower trucks.”
Even so, it’s not always the solution to labor issues as Rexius well knows.
“When I’m trying to do a landscape job, I need 20 workers to put in the plants and the irrigation system,” he says. “We’re looking (for people) all the time.”
Some of the jobs to be filled are listed on the company’s website.
Beside labor shortages, problems getting equipment and parts to make equipment have become more difficult as companies nationwide continue to face supply chain issues.
Another Rexius division is Conveyor Application Systems (CAS), which manufactures Slinger trucks which can place stone, sand, soil, mulch, and other aggregates at a distance of 150 feet.
“We’re a leader in blower trucks and slingers,” Arlen Rexius says.
Despite the growth over the decades, Rusty Rexius insists that “bigger is not better.”
“Bigger to me is not better,” he says. “Better is better. I bristle at the whole idea that success is equal to the size of your company. I don’t think that’s true at all.
‘It’s important to me and it’s important to my family that whatever we do we’re doing it better all the time, as best as we know how. It’s certainly not perfect but we’re working on better all the time. That’s just a really important part of this company and what our family has tried to adopt as why we do what we do. So bigger is not better, better is better,” he says.
Dan Sutton, a third grandson of Sol Rexius, serves as senior vice president of the company. He started part-time at the company in September 1978 while he was attending college.
“As a very young child, I always wanted to come back and work for the company,” he says. “It was something I always thought I would do. I didn’t know how or when or what. I knew at some point in time I would like to come to work [here].”
His mother, June Rexius Sutton, was one of three children of Sol and Lillian Rexius. The other two Rexius children were Ray (father of Arlen Rexius) and Marv (father of Rusty Rexius).
In 1959, the three Rexius siblings – Marv, Ray and June -- became partners in the company along with their father. After Sol Rexius died, the company was run by Ray and Marv Rexius and June Rexius Sutton was a limited partner.
“The company started off just as a fuel company and developed over the years,” Arlen Rexius says. “Everybody was using sawdust for fuel. When that went away, we had to invent new things. We kept developing other uses, other soils.
“Twenty years from now, maybe we’ll be making spaceships so people are going to Mars . . . We might be using fumes from composting to power all these electric vehicles and to generate electricity. We’re nimble enough. We’ll keep an eye on the next great thing.”
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