Todd Bennick, high-flying motorcycle champ, finds new career in heavy equipment

|  January 01, 2013 |

Editor’s Note: Todd Bennick was a finalist for 2012 Contractor of the Year. He started Bennick Enterprises in in Nebo, North Carolina in 1998. He has 20 employees with annual volume between $3 million and $5 million. He serves the excavation, site clearing, grinding and shoreline stabilization markets.

By the time he was 18, Todd Bennick had earned a measure of fame, winning several top 10 finishes in motorcycle super cross competitions on the East Coast. His daring and prowess on the dirt tracks brought the kind of attention that might bowl over a young man. But Bennick looked around one day and decided that the wild and wooly life on the road was not the path God wanted him to follow.

So Bennick turned off the fast lane and in 1998 decided to deal with dirt in a different way. He bought a dozer.

“My men are what make this company a success and I work hard to treat my guys like family.”

The change in speed may have been dramatic, but Bennick brought the same boldness, work ethic and focus to this new endeavor – pushing dirt – as he once did racing on it.

Todd discusses operations on a tricky site with operator Scott Powell.

From the purchase of that first dozer 14 years ago, Bennick has grown his company to some 20 employees offering a wide array of services including grading, excavation, site clearing, shoreline stabilization and grinding. Many of his sites involve steep, heavily wooded mountainsides and require extremely skilled, safety-conscious operators.

 

A living to be made

The dozer started out as almost a hobby. Bennick already had a factory job when he bought it, but he got a few dozing jobs on the side to help pay for his big machine. He dozed driveways and did light grading. Soon he added a dump truck and trailer to his fleet, and before long, an excavator with a thumb to load and clear brush in the deep woods around Nebo, North Carolina, east of Asheville.

“At that point I began to realize that there was a living to be made in this business and a lot of opportunity,” Bennick says.

Steep and challenging engineering projects are a specialty for Bennick. Here he reviews an upcoming project with his estimator Tim Morris.

Demand quickly outran his capacity to work as a one-man construction crew. When he started looking for employees, he didn’t have to look far. A lot of his top people today knew Bennick growing up and joined his firm from other construction companies, bringing a lot of specialized experience to the company.

Bennick hired a lifelong friend and fellow motorcycle enthusiast Chris Clark as the first of a handful of key people. Then he added two other friends: Danny Wilson, who had worked for companies doing bigger commercial grading jobs, and Keith Parker, who now runs Bennick’s barge operations.

Good pay and benefits keep them on the payroll, but money isn’t everything. “If money is the only thing that matters, you’re going to have guys jumping ship,” Bennick says. “If a guy is treated right, happy where he’s at and taken care of, money is just a piece of the puzzle. My men are what make this company a success and I work hard to treat my guys like family.”

 

Office vs. field

Starting out, Bennick spent nearly all of his time in the field. “I like the dirt and I hate being in the office, and that’s a struggle,” he says. The solution was to hire another acquaintance, Tim Morris, to do his commercial bidding and estimating and some project management as well.

To work on sites too steep to reach by land, Bennick started a barge operation to open up home sites on a nearby lake.

“He’s made my life much easier. We know how much it costs to do a job now, and I wasn’t there two years ago. We’d go out and do a job and hope we made money. And I could tell you if there was money in the bank or not, but we didn’t know how we did on a per job basis.”

 

 

Love for equipment

Bennick admits to being an equipment junkie. “I like to see it and work with it, and I’ve probably got more than I need. But when something’s giving you trouble, and it’s a machine you depend on, then it’s time to move on. I’m not married to it either.”

The economy drives many of his equipment purchase decisions. “We went into a growth spurt between 2004 and 2007,” Bennick says. “When you’re making money you need to spend money. And I’d rather spend it on something I can use rather than give it to the government. So I used the deductions. But buy when you need to buy, not just for the deduction.”

Bennick also believes in doing as much maintenance as you can in-house. For a long time, he was the company mechanic. “I did everything: I was the operator, estimator, bidder, bill collector, and did all the oil changes,” he says.

But once he got big enough he hired a full-time mechanic. “If you don’t have that man, downtime and the cost of a qualified mechanic adds up fast,” he says. “There comes a point where you have to have somebody, and a good mechanic will put money back in your pocket.”

 

 

Surviving the recession

When the economy began to turn down in 2007-2008, the company faced some tough choices.

Bennick, though, saw the downturn as an opportunity to make his company more efficient. “I learned a lot of lessons through the downturn: how to make the company more profitable and how to be more responsible with the way I spend money. Three years ago when this thing turned, I didn’t sleep well at night. I owed a bunch of money and it was scary.

“I went back to the drawing board and looked for ways to cut overhead,” Bennick says. “Week by week, month by month, I chiseled down the overhead. I didn’t have to sell equipment, just make smarter decisions.”

Now, Bennick says, he’s reaping the benefits of making those tough choices earlier than most.

“It seems like we’re coming out of the storm,” he says. “The phone’s ringing more, the work’s picking up – 2011 was the best year we’ve had since 2008. There was a period there of two to three years that were dark days for every contractor, and it’s a leaner market now. The competition that couldn’t make it … they’re gone.”

 

Striving for perfection

Rocketing through the air on motorcycles takes a lot of daring, but also a single minded focus on perfecting the man and the machine. One wrong move, one loose bolt, can bring failure and a lot of pain. You don’t win by being just good enough. Motorcycle racing turns out to be pretty good training for a heavy equipment contractor, too.

“When I started out I wanted to become the best,” Todd says. “I want to give the customer the neatest site, the site that is perfectly on grade. I want us to go the extra mile and I preach that in every meeting. I tell my guys if there is trash on the job, I don’t care if it’s yours or not – pick it up. We should go above and beyond what’s expected. Just because we didn’t figure it in the bid, doesn’t mean we don’t do it.

“We have always believed your walk talks louder than your talk talks, so our reputation is very important,” Bennick says. “We have always told our men that we don’t want to be the cheapest, we want to be the best.”

 

Customers notice

The extra effort pays off not only with growth and success, but with a loyal fan base of customers.

“We never quote him against another contractor because we have such a good relationship with him,” says client Steve Ledbetter of Cottonwood Development. “We trust that we are getting good pricing. They’re honestly the best contractor we’ve ever worked with. If we ever have concerns he addresses them ASAP.”

“To have someone who is that accurate and completes what he says he’s going to do is kind of odd in the industry,” says Tracy Jones, also of Cottonwood Development. “He runs it like a business should be run. He’s brought in motivational speakers for his staff and the throws them parties. I’ve never heard of a disgruntled employee with Todd.”

 

Safety: teach it and preach it

It may seem counter-intuitive that a former motorcycle stuntman would be devoted to safety, but people who aren’t safety conscious don’t last long in either endeavor. Bennick gets topics for regular tailgate meetings from a safety services company. And once a month all the employees get together for a safety meeting.

“Safety is more important than anything,” says Bennick. “You can fix a machine, but you can’t fix a person who’s been killed in an accident. We’ve been in business 14 years and we’ve had one workers’ comp claim and no major accidents. I pray every day before I come to work and I pray at night that the Lord will keep us safe. You’ve got to practice it, preach it and teach it.”

Find out what Todd Bennick says are the secrets to success. Visit youtube.com/equipmentworld.

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