Contractor of the Year Finalist: Van and Sue Tyler

Growing up, Van Tyler was ambivalent about his father’s grading business. “I saw it was a six-day-a-week job and I didn’t want it,” Van says. Instead he attended mechanical engineering classes at a local technical college. Three semesters later, however, he came to the realization “an inside job wasn’t gonna be for me.”

Only problem was, by the time he’d come to this conclusion his father’s business had slowed down. So Van took a job with a residential plumber.

Even though he enjoyed the work, Van knew he wasn’t where he wanted to be. “I just thought if I was ever going to have anything, I needed to work for myself,” he says.

So Van came home one day in 1985 and announced to his wife Sue that he’d just made a deal with an equipment dealer: he could use a backhoe for 30 days before he had to make a down payment. “I freaked out on that one,” laughs Sue, his high school sweetheart.

Working by himself, Van started operating a backhoe on commercial and subdivision jobs. Sue joined him full time in 1993, becoming the firm’s office manager.

Basement headquarters
Company offices were in the basement of the Tylers’ house. “As our number of employees grew, our basement got smaller,” says Sue, who has a ready sense of humor. “Some days they’d all show up and I’d go, ‘Shoo, we don’t have enough room!'” The company has grown from three employees in 1995 to around 28 today, including three pipe crews and two grading crews. “We wouldn’t trade our 25 field people for 25 of someone else’s,” Van says. “We rely on them.”

According to Van and Sue, their relatively low employee turnover can be directly attributed to their philosophy of treating their people well. “Of course,” adds Sue with a chuckle, “half of them think they’re adopted.”

The company’s quarters are much roomier now. A year ago, Van Tyler Excavating moved into a 5,000-square-foot facility about a half-mile from the Tylers’ home. Job schedules forced the firm to move gradually, however. “Whenever we had a rainy day, we’d come back here and work,” Van says.

The new office also has a three-bay maintenance facility, a parts storage area and a fenced equipment yard. (Prior to the shop being built, the company’s equipment usually stayed on the job or on land adjacent to the house.)

“Aside from fixing a blown hose or something that we can do ourselves, most of our equipment is new enough that we don’t have a lot of problems,” Van comments, “so I don’t see the need to have a full-time mechanic.” They also have a customer support agreement with their Cat dealer. “It’s expensive but we know it’s done right,” Van says.

‘Can’t knock on enough wood’
“You have to grow while the times are good,” Van says. “Lately we’ve been in a position where work has come to us, and I can’t knock on enough wood.”

While it’s wonderful to have developers handing you prints and asking when you can do the work, Van knows the times are coming again when all that matters in some people’s minds is a low bid … and how to get it lower.

Still, he claims, his company has never laid anyone off. “We always try to keep them busy,” Sue adds. When possible, this includes shop work and moving around crew members, although Tennessee’s rainy winters are always iffy.

“We’ve grown to the point we can take a subdivision development project from start until its ready to pave,” Van says. “We’ll team up with a contractor who has scrapers if there’s a large amount of dirt to move, but most of the time we can handle the dirt moving with our excavators and artics.”

A good investment
Van Tyler Excavating does a variety of commercial and subdivision site development jobs, installing storm and sanitary sewer, water and electric lines.

Recently the company added GPS equipment to fine tune its grading. “GPS has just saved us so much money and time,” Van says, “especially when fine grading with our dozers. You’re not paying for someone to grade check. Just grade it one time and walk away from it. It’s been a good investment, even though we’ve got enough money invested in GPS to almost pay for another dozer.”

The company mounts its GPS rover receiver on a Kubota all-terrain vehicle. “It just allows our guys to be closer to the work,” Van comments, “and if you’ve got a bunch of staking to do, it lets you get it done quicker.”

The case of the missing dozer
With growth, Sue’s learned a few technological tricks herself. “We didn’t get our first computer until 1999,” she says. When the computer arrived, Sue had a learning curve to go through. “Our CPA would call, and I’d tell him, ‘I hate this thing. I want to just throw it out the window and let a machine run over it.’ But I finally got it down pat.”

Sue also has learned to go with the flow of Van’s business investments. “I’m the world’s worst at not wanting to go into debt,” she says, “and he tells me not to worry. So now when he tells me we’re going to buy a new machine, I’ll get the payment book and just go on.”

But then she tells a story on herself: “One day I was working with our accountant and I found out we had two D5 serial numbers and I knew we just had one machine,” she says. “So I asked Van where he got the second number and he tells me, ‘off the D5.'”
“What D5?” asked Sue.

“The one you told me I could buy,” replied Van.

Stick time
“If I didn’t enjoy what I’m doing, I wouldn’t do it,” Van declares. “There are lots of things a person could do. I could even go back to working for myself.” Part of the reason for Van’s declaration is clear in his next sentence. “I still enjoy operating, and I don’t get to do it as much as I used to. That’s the biggest joy for me right now, being a machine operator. I grew up as an operator; I didn’t grow up as a business man.”

As much as they work, Van and Sue also take the opportunity to play, riding the countryside on their Harley Electra Glide. “We’re on the bike and gone,” Sue says.

Their other toy is their 1933 fully tricked out Ford roadster, selected by Rod and Custom magazine as one of the top 100 cars of 2000. The street rod is actually a reincarnation of a similar car destroyed by lightening while in the shop. Van used his equipment to help the street rod builder clean up after the fire, and the builder subsequently rebuilt the ’33, complete with traditional seaweed flames. The couple’s roadster bug is reflected on the flame-throwing, suped-up excavator logo they use on their semis and business cards. “We just have a good time with it,” Sue says.

Don’t forget the relationships
When people ask Van for his advice on starting a construction company, he tells them to buy a compact excavator and a skid steer. “There’s plenty of work out there for those machines and that’s not a huge investment for the return,” he says. “Then if you see this is something you really want to do, jump in.”

But don’t forget to build relationships. “The majority of our work is repeat work,” he says. “You have to go the extra step to make a job presentable. And if your clients don’t make money, they’re not going to do another project, and then you won’t be able to make any more money with them.”

Other voices
“Van has grown through hard work and attention to details. He recruits guys who share his philosophy, and together they’re all taking the company to the next level.” – Gordon Cox, Rinker Materials, Knoxville, Tennessee

“Van has developed an internal infrastructure of support within his company. He first created a safe and productive work environment for his operators with well-equipped, comfortable tools. He then developed foremen who understood what he and his customers demanded of their efforts. Finally, he obtained professional and experienced engineering and estimating talent to complement his abilities.” – Wes Stowers, Stowers Rental & Supply, Knoxville

“I have been in construction for the past 15 years and attribute my success to working with companies like Van Tyler Excavating. Working with Van Tyler is a win-win situation for us.” – Stan Hackworth, Concord Properties, Maryville, Tennessee

At a glance
Year started: 1985
Annual volume: $3.8 million
Type of work: Commercial and residential clearing, site grading and utility installation
Fleet includes: Five excavators, three loaders, two skid steers, two backhoes, two dozers, two compactors, two off-road trucks, a dump truck and a lowboy.