Contractor of the Year Finalist

Mike Anderson

|  April 05, 2012 |

Steve Vesseli

Brick, New Jersey

 

Universal Wrecking

Year started: 2000

Number of employees: 20

Annual volume: $3 million to $5 million

Markets served: Industrial and commercial demolition.

 

Steve Vesseli is all too happy to clean up where much of industry leaves off – and where something new is hopefully on the way.

 By Mike Anderson

From the brownfields back home in New Jersey to the vacant Rust Belt factories of the Midwest, Steve Vesseli deploys his Universal Wrecking crews to the corners of this country sometimes described as being in transition.

“Every building has its life expectancy,” says Steve Vesseli, owner of Universal Wrecking. And, when the time comes for it to come down, his New Jersey-based crews of demolition professionals are ready to take up the challenge.

As Vesseli pulls up a metal chair in a trailer office to discuss the steps he’s taken to build the business he started alone in 2000, the hums of his shear- and grapple-equipped Caterpillar excavators outside are outdone only by the occasional whistle of a passing train. This is cold, damp, wintertime Erie, Pennsylvania, a once-industrious town now focused on reinventing itself.

On either side of choppy Cascade Street, in the middle of what was once an urban mechanical haven long silent, in-sync operators Ty Williams, Louis Estrada, Calvin Stubbs and supervisor Jimmy O’Malley are meticulously maneuvering the Caterpillars to carve away at buildings actually older than parts of the nation they once represented. The operators are “the cream of the crop,” says Vesseli. “It’s like a sports team. I’ve got all the best players.

When he can, Vesseli looks to late-model used Caterpillars to fill Universal Wrecking’s fleet of shear- and grapple-mounted excavators.

“Almost everything these guys do out there, I did,” adds Vesseli, who caught the equipment bug aboard a skid steer at age 15, when he did summer work at his uncle’s scrapyard in Florida. “That background is good as a boss, because you know how long things take. You know how hard the work is. You know what it’s like to run a machine, and then at the end of the day the hose goes and you’ve got to crawl underneath that machine and the hot hydraulic oil is dripping down your arm while you’re changing the fitting. I know what these guys go through on a daily basis.”

Upon graduation from high school in New Jersey, Vesseli returned to Miami to work with his uncle Lenny Fogel and, by 19, was actually running the scrapyard. At 20, after his uncle sold off the business, Vesseli sold his pick-up and boat, bought a 20-foot rack-body truck, and went to work on his own sourcing scrap metal. He eventually moved back to New Jersey and went into a partnership there for about 10 years, before establishing Universal Wrecking. Already in the business of buying and selling scrap, he discovered he could monetize the old material two ways when a source asked Vesseli to submit a bid to take down a pair of 60-foot tanks. He would be paid to take down and remove the metal which, in turn, he would sell. This led to a series of small residential demolition jobs, and he grew the business from there.

“One of the key things is not to bite off more than you can chew,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of guys go out there, and they just want to conquer the world: ‘We’re taking over.’ They want to bid every job, and I’ve seen it where if you grow too fast, you can fall pretty quick. You can lose it all real, real fast.”

One step at a time

Being patient, “taking your time and being comfortable with the jobs you are taking,” extends to Vesseli’s strategy on building an equipment fleet. “If you can’t afford a new machine, don’t buy it,” he advises.

Vesseli first bought an old Insley 1500 excavator, followed by another, then an Insley 2500. These throwbacks were not only what he could afford at the time, but actually set in place an approach to fleet management he calls “redundancy.” He holds to the same make and, if possible, same model, by type, when replacing or adding machines. For example, today it’s only Caterpillar for excavators, LaBounty for shears and Bobcat for skid steers. “It keeps it simple for operators, parts and attachment use,” says Vesseli.

He sources his Caterpillar excavators mostly from late-model used iron dealers he’s come to trust. “We’ll look for a machine that came out of a certain application, let’s say setting pipe or doing straight dirt work. We find good value in that.” He avoids renting a machine, although he occasionally rents out some of his surplus specialized demolition attachments. “We have enough equipment now where we pretty much self-perform,” Vesseli says. “We can run two or three projects at one time, but we try to acquire a piece on every major project,” by factoring the cost into the bid.

Just months earlier, the bare lot over Vesseli’s right shoulder was home to a dilapidated factory. The successful demolition along the Erie bayfront led directly to another long term job in the resurgent Pennsylvania city.

Universal usually operates two crews, supervised by O’Malley and 10-year company veteran Mark Presto. At the time of our visit, O’Malley and Presto were switching off between jobs in New Jersey and western Pennsylvania. Vesseli bids all large jobs, and is on site for set-up. Due-diligence prior to the bid and project start, identifying and addressing site conditions, is paramount, he says. But it’s also a constant evaluation under O’Malley and Presto once the work is underway. In buildings aged 100 years and older, it’s not unusual for one of the excavator operators to pull down a wall and suddenly be facing a crawl space or basement that was previously unknown. This is on top of the usual construction hazards of gas, electrical and water lines. When materials such as asbestos are discovered, environmental subcontractors are called in.

“One of your biggest enemies is rushing. When guys have to rush, they’re under stress and they’re not paying attention, and that’s usually when bad things happen,” says Vesseli. “I tell my guys that safety’s more important; the production will come: ‘Just take your time. If you’re not comfortable with something, evaluate it, go to your supervisor, and we’ll discuss it.’”

Universal Wrecking has a company-written safety program that includes recommendations from the National Association of Demolition Contractors. “Of course, there are also site-specific safety and health issues. Each site we go to, we identify those,” says Vesseli. “Every job, we have site safety meetings and a kickoff meeting, and we usually do a toolbox meeting daily. At the end of the week, we meet on the job progress and any other safety issues we’ve come across.”

Back in Erie

Six months later, back in Erie, it’s almost as if a large eraser simply wiped clean the gritty industrial site where the company worked. Wide-open lots, the only remnants being the paved pads on which future development may rise, are all that remain. Hopefully, somewhere in town, good photographs exist of the plants that once churned along both sides of Cascade Street; otherwise, proof will come down to memories only.

“In the demolition business, even in a down economy, we usually have work,” says Vesseli. “In an up economy, people are buying properties, clearing properties, building new stuff. In a down economy, a lot of times people unfortunately are closing down shop, going out of business, want to get rid of their tax liability on buildings.”

Universal’s largest projects usually run in the $1- to $2-million range, but “in the past year, I’ve bid some of the biggest jobs I’ve ever bid,” he says. “I think it’s just an evolution of our company, that Universal is now a player in this industry on a bigger scale.” Vesseli’s cautious, however, having seen contractors blow out their business by financing new equipment for one job or having to tie up 100 percent of their resources for the full year. “There’s a risk in putting all or your eggs in one basket,” he says.

The next step for Vesseli was to close on a 16-acre site in New Jersey, where he could expand ongoing scrap handling operations into the areas of concrete, wood and tire recycling.

Hey, somebody’s got to clean up.

To view a video of Steve Vesseli’s advice for contractors starting out, go to equipmentworld.com/digital or use your smartphone to scan the tag.

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