Contractor of the Year Finalist: Dale and Nicki Gillepsie

Dale Gillespie’s wife Nicki says she went into their marriage with her eyes wide open. “We were high school sweethearts,” she recalls fondly. “I used to go with him to cemeteries on dates. He’d have to excavate a ditch or dig a grave … I’d just wander around the cemetery and read the tombstones to kill time while he worked.”

Today, Nicki has abandoned her job as a school teacher in Springfield, Missouri, to help her husband run their successful construction company, Gillespie Excavating, based in nearby Strafford. And at this point, it’s safe to say Nicki is fully integrated into the construction way of life. For instance, Gillespie has a passion for antique construction equipment. His shop is filled with 1930s vintage Caterpillar tractors. Building on this theme, Nicki bought her husband a 1938 Continental pull-behind scraper for Christmas last year.

“I’d seen the scraper around and mentioned buying it,” Gillespie says. “But she went behind my back and surprised me with it. It might seem like an odd gift to many people – but she knows me pretty well.”

Judgment calls
Entering into the construction business was a natural evolution for Gillespie. Gillespie’s father farmed and worked various jobs, eventually buying the excavating portion of a septic tank contractor’s business.

“This was about 1965,” Gillespie recalls. “Dad got an old, gas-engine, four-stick Minneapolis Moline backhoe, a late ’50s vintage dump truck, a homemade trailer and he was in the construction business.”

Naturally it wasn’t long before young Gillespie was out on the jobs helping his father put in septic tanks, laterals and water lines and doing site prep work. “His business grew by leaps and bounds thanks to his work ethic, his versatility and his knowledge about equipment and construction work,” Gillespie says. “Dad has an excellent personality. He can talk and visit with anybody that comes along. I was probably 14 years old when I started going out on jobs.”

Gillespie’s father laid the groundwork for his eventual career in construction. “Dad would give me a job to do on the backhoe,” Gillespie recalls, “then he’d show back up to check on me. And at the end of the day we’d walk around together and look things over while he gave me pointers.

“I asked him one time, ‘How do I judge, or know, when to stop? Nobody’s really around. How far do I take this? When do I know the job is done?'”

“That has to be your judgment – your opinion,” his father replied. “You set the standard on the jobs I give you. When you’re satisfied – when you’re pleased with it – then you know it’s done.”

“I think that advice was a test,” Gillespie says now. “If he saw me taking those extra steps to make sure everything on a job was just right – it would be a signal that I had what it takes to make a go of the construction business. If I’d stopped short, I expect he would have steered me onto a different career path.”

An experiment in equipment rental pays off
Gillespie worked for his father all through high school and college, eventually earning a degree in industrial technology from Missouri State University in 1981. “The economy was in a real downturn,” Gillespie says. “Dad was still working and he’d started renting out equipment to other contractors.”

Gillespie stayed busy doing jobs on his own or for his father, but he still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do now that his education was complete. Once again, it was his dad who provided him with an opportunity. “You hear contractors today talk about using rental equipment to get their start?” Gillespie asks. “Well, I started using rental equipment before there was an equipment rental industry!”

The joint venture actually began before Gillespie graduated college. “Dad had several pieces of equipment, which I had access to,” Gillespie remembers. “His idea was to provide me with the equipment I needed to work with. It would be my responsibility to line up my own jobs and take care of the paperwork for them. At the end of each job, I would pay Dad 50 percent of the profits after materials and expenses.”

The partnership was a success. Gillespie was able to take on work his father couldn’t handle while picking up customers of his own. “I started in 1982 and for five or six years after that Dad and I retained this business relationship,” Gillespie says. “Pretty soon, I hired an employee to help me out and we began to take on larger projects.”

Gillespie had always enjoyed construction work and operating equipment. But when he started running his own jobs his pride in his work began to grow. “I always enjoyed grading, more so than other construction jobs,” he says. “Being able to put a polish on a slope or cut a crown, something that you could just slide down through it and not see any ripples, or humps or dips – I liked that aspect of it; of just being able to do something that someone else in the business would know it took some effort to get the job done right.”

Gillespie’s business – and his father’s – weathered the mid-1980s recession and eventually began to grow. This was great news for father and son – until they started competing for equipment. “I had one of Dad’s dozers rented on a job,” Gillespie says, “and he called up to ask when I was going to be done with it and I told him not until the end of the week.”

Gillespie tried hard not to cut into his father’s equipment needs but both men were extremely busy. Gillespie’s father eventually said, “Son, we’ve got to get you another dozer.”

Gillespie had learned other lessons from his father that came into play now. “I’d seen Dad come through highs and lows in the business and it was a huge concern to me,” Gillespie says. “I’d seen him work 18-hour days to make his equipment payments.”

So Gillespie adopted a business philosophy he still follows to this day: Operate mean and lean. “I wanted to prepare myself so if the economy takes another downturn, I’m not going to have to put two or three pieces of equipment in an auction to get rid of debt load,” he says.

A commitment to technology and comfort
Gillespie bought two pieces of used equipment: An International TD15 dozer and a Long backhoe. Once again, the two machines helped form a long-term philosophy for the young businessman. “I laugh when I think about those machines today,” Gillespie says. “These were rudimentary machines in terms of comfort. No cabs – I remember putting as many clothes as I could get on my body to work in the winter. They were hard to operate and there always seemed to be a sharp edge your elbow was hitting when you pulled on a joystick.”

The backhoe – Gillespie’s primary piece of equipment – was forever breaking down. “I’d have to call Tennessee and wait two or three days for parts,” Gillespie says. “After three or four years I was having to rebuild the ‘hoe’s hydraulic pump by hand every year. A couple years later, they stopped making the pumps altogether so I had to either buy the whole pump or find junked pumps to scavenge parts from.”

Driven by those lessons today, Gillespie insists on incorporating the latest equipment ergonomics and technology into his equipment fleet. In fact, he’s willing to investigate any new technology if he thinks it will help him work faster or more profitably. He recently purchased a Wacker RT450 remote control trench compactor to speed utility installations and added laser grading and excavating systems to his fleet as soon as he could. And Gillespie is constantly looking for new ways to enhance production. “My sales rep is under standing orders to monitor GPS grade control systems and let me know the minute they become affordable,” he says. “GPS is the next big step forward in earthmoving systems and I want to have it on my machines as soon as it’s viable from a cost standpoint.”

As far as equipment goes, Gillespie’s fleet is strictly Caterpillar and Peterbilt trucks. “My Dad thinks I coddle my guys,” he says with a laugh. “But I firmly believe if you give an operator the most comfortable piece of equipment possible, you’ll see measurable gains in productivity.”

But perhaps nothing is more important to Gillespie today than uptime. “I learned the hard way that you don’t make any money with a machine sitting in the shop waiting on parts,” he says.

Strong relationships internally and externally
Gillespie’s primary line of work is residential infrastructure, including site grading, underground utilities, curbs and gutters and slipform curb-and-gutter work. “I operate as a general contractor these days, subbing out the asphalt or concrete paving and the hydroseeding,” Gillespie says. “I’ve built up strong relationships with other contractors in complementary type businesses, and they’re a big part of my growth.”

Gillespie’s company employs 22 workers, including Nicki, who manages the office and worries about “her boys” when they’re off in the field. The Gillespies work hard to foster a family atmosphere with their business, which Gillespie says is another byproduct of growing up in the business. “In the early days, I would have good operators and just hope that they would stay with me,” he says. “But as my company grew, I decided to provide as many benefits to my employees as I could, because I realized the value in retaining and promoting good employees.”

Gillespie is proud today of his company’s progressive benefits package, which includes paying 100 percent of employees’ health care premiums, guaranteeing vacation time and, as of two years ago, offering a retirement plan.

All of this, Gillespie says, has allowed him to attract and retain employees who share his commitment to customer service. “It goes back to what my dad taught me about going the extra mile,” he says. “We always strive to do that for our customers, and all my employees share that philosophy. That commitment to do things right leads to two very important things: Repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals. And those have been two of the drivers behind our growth over the past 25 years.”

Winner, 2006 Wacker Light Equipment Award
Because of his unwavering pursuit of technology and innovative solutions to construction challenges, Gillespie Excavating was named the winner of the 2006 Wacker Light Equipment award, which honors contractors for productive use and forward-thinking application of light equipment on their jobs.