Contractor of the Year Finalist
| August 02, 2012
Ellwood City, Pennsylvania
Year started: 1973
Number of employees: 26
Annual volume: $3 to 5 million
Markets served: Residential and commercial site development
For Chuck Graham, owning a successful construction company means more than being able to provide for his family – it means giving back to his fellow man in a way many could never imagine.
By Amy Materson
Like many construction companies, Graham and Sons has always been a family affair. Started more than 45 years ago by Chuck Graham’s father, Regis, and incorporated in 1973, the company today includes Chuck’s wife Debbie, son Regis (EG), daughter Casey and son-in-law Chad. The division of labor in the younger generation is clear – Casey runs the office, EG runs one of the sewer crews and Chad handles layout and GPS. Having their family in the firm, combined with some loyal long-time employees, has allowed Chuck and Debbie to pursue something close to their heart – mission work in Haiti.
A long-term obsession
Chuck and Debbie have been using Graham and Sons as a Christian ministry since 1980, and made their first mission trip 16 years ago as part of the Northwest Haiti Christian Mission. When they saw the level of need, the couple began to make frequent trips, using company profits to fund their travel, as well as provide vehicles, machinery, parts and tools. “We paid to have a shop and apartment built,” Chuck says. “Debbie works with me in the shop.”
Now, the couple makes the trip to Haiti as often as every five weeks, where Chuck, a civil engineer, does double duty as a mechanic for the mission’s equipment and trucks. It’s a lifestyle that has made an impression on those around him. “He’s a heck of a great guy,” says Brett Schultz with Weaver Master Builders, based in Pittsburgh. “I think it’s a personal credit to him that he leads a non-extravagant life, using the money he takes out of the company for charity work. He’s also taken equipment such as big generators to Haiti, and I know he was on the ground right after the earthquake hit.”
The Grahams’ desire to give back extends to their local community, as well; they’ve taken part in career days at area schools, partnering with Cleveland Brothers’ dealer Dan Meszaros, who provided Cat hats for participants.
An enduring philosophy
Those who know the Grahams say their Christian charity and attitude is not just reserved for their mission work, but is applied across their business, and includes the highest standards on the job. “My father held the philosophy that one job well done will get you two, and one job poorly done will lose you 12,” Chuck says. “Without a good customer base and customer relationships that generate repeat and referral business, we would not have grown as we have.” They apply the same standards when they are the customer. “They are great to work with,” says Alma Long of A&A Concrete Products. “We have a 60-day policy, and they always pay around 45 days. Out of all the companies we deal with, they are exactly the ones I’d say are an example to others.”
The Grahams also view their employees as a valuable asset, treating them like family and empowering them to make decisions on the jobsite. Among their 26 employees, the average length of service is 18 years. “His company has an exceptional record of retaining good operators,” says Brett Schultz, who knows all of Graham’s foremen well. When the company does have to hire, Graham relies on the foremen to find good people to fill spots on the crew. Not only do the Grahams treat their employees fairly, they compensate them fairly. Their employees make a good wage and receive paid holidays and two weeks vacation. The company also takes safety seriously – Casey, the safety manager, has hired an outside firm to set up their safety program and craft company-specific toolbox talks for the company’s two sewer and two dirt crews. The approach has been effective; Graham has an experience modifier rate of just .812.
Chuck buys primarily new equipment and keeps it in top-notch condition. “Appearance means a lot,” he says. “I expect them to look nice.” He replaces equipment every 10,000 to 12,000 hours, and his 30-plus-machine fleet includes two new excavators purchased last year, a Cat 336E and a 320D. Most of the company’s dozers and excavators are GPS equipped, reducing their need for engineered layouts, a cost savings they pass along to their clients. The company does sub out trenching work. “We just have someone else do it … anything that keeps us doing grading and sewer work,” he says.
Although the company turns over their equipment regularly, they treat it as if they’re going to keep it forever, changing the oil every 400 hours and relying on oil analysis. Each operator is issued a maintenance sheet and keeps up with the preventive maintenance. All repair work is done in the field, and the machines are brought in to be spot painted in the spring.
Future plans and expansion
Chuck says his projects average around $1.2 million per job, which he feels is a good size for the company right now. Working in a 50- to 60-mile radius around the Pittsburgh area has always kept him busy, even during times when contractors in other areas of the country were suffering. “It’s a funny economy,” he says. “It’s never really booming or dying.” He does recommend taking on different types of work if it’s not too far outside your usual scope of work. For example, he’s been moving dirt at a landfill over the past five years. “We’ve had 1.5 million yards to move, and are paid by the truckload. It’s been seventh heaven for me.”
Since approximately 70 percent of Graham and Sons’ business is repeat, Chuck doesn’t exactly have to go out hunting for new customers. He does, however, acknowledge that his children will probably want to grow and expand the business, and says he thinks it’s great if they want to go after bigger jobs. Although he’s not nearly ready to retire, he’s happy the next generation is ready for more responsibility. “I still want to do the job, but I like it that I’m not needed as much,” he says. “I’m not going to stop work, though – I don’t know what else I’d do.”