Contractor of the Year Finalist: Jay Proffitt

Perhaps it’s appropriate when you arrive at Jay Proffitt Construction’s office on a bitter Iowa winter morning you feel the warmth as soon as you enter the small building. You could attribute it to the radiant floor heat of the six-year-old office, but another source is just as likely: Jay and Helen Proffitt.

The Proffitts’ conversation is easy and peppered with laughter as they recall how they’ve steadily built their earthmoving company for the past 23 years – most of those years in a fixer-up farmhouse just east of Solon, Iowa.

Solon is centered in the midst of a strong section of growth in eastern Iowa, bordered by Cedar Rapids and Mount Vernon to the north and Iowa City and Coralville to the south. Lately, the major crop in this rural area has been housing. Between the commercial and residential site development work, Jay Proffitt Construction hasn’t had to venture farther than 15 miles from home, a big plus to keeping its 10 to 12 workers happy.

Not that any of this has been easy. Even though they traded the fixer-up for a large new house three years ago, the Proffitts delayed a lot of the good things in life while making payments on the machines they used to shape their company.

Abrupt entry
At 24, Jay had an abrupt entry into company ownership: His mentor, Carl Klinsky, died of a heart attack at 48, right in the midst of training Jay to take over his land improvement firm. “I had to decide quickly if I was in or out,” Jay says.

Jay came to the conclusion he was in. At the time of his death, Klinsky had already sold Jay a dozer and half interest in an excavator, semi truck and a pickup. Under Klinsky’s direction, Jay had also directly billed clients for work. And Klinsky had told him, “You make your own name in this business.” And so with the encouragement of Klinsky’s widow, he formed Jay Proffitt Construction in 1983.

Although several people knew his work, Jay had to fight the impression he was too young to be the boss. “Before I got this distinguished look, people would ask, ‘Are you Jay Junior?’,” he says with his easy laugh.

Inside, outside
Helen got an early introduction into what life with Jay would be about: Their first date consisted of riding in the cab of the company’s semi while Jay moved a piece of equipment. “And on the second date, she got to help me clean out the gutters on my trailer,” Jays says with a smile. Helen shrugs. “I grew up on a farm and just love being outside,” she says.

Helen has handled the office from the beginning, working in what would now be considered primitive conditions. “It was a big day for her when she got an electric typewriter,” Jay says, only half kidding. After marrying, the Proffitts moved into a old farmhouse, creating a home and office out of what Jay says was initially a “disaster.”

For 18 years, the two worked on improving the farmstead. They enclosed the end of a cattle barn to create a garage for the company’s dump trucks, added a shop area and created an office area by enclosing a porch. In 2000, they built a new office building and moved their operations from the house.

By working for the family firm, Helen has the freedom to be available for the needs of the Proffitts’ three children, Abraham, 18; Isaac, 16; and Rachel, 13. She also handles dispatch between Jay and the employees.

A switch in priorities
The company’s fleet has about 14 machines, including excavators, dozers, wheel loaders, skid-steer loaders and five trucks. When the trucks aren’t busy with company work, company drivers do part-time sub-hauling work for a local aggregates company.

“Maintenance was always a huge priority for me,” Jay comments. “I was taught if an oil change was due at so many hours, and it was noon, it didn’t matter. You shut the machine off and changed the oil instead of eating lunch.”

For years, the Proffitts relied on their crew to do routine and specialized maintenance, but that changed about five years ago when Jay switched to Caterpillar’s Customer Service Agreement, managed by local dealer Altorfer. Jay explains why he made the change: “We have some young guys who are awesome operators but who don’t really have the desire to do the maintenance. And I don’t want our older fellows out there having to fix things.”

So Jay relies on Rodney Church, who works out of Altorfer’s Cedar Rapids branch. “Rodney saves me money every time he comes out,” Jay claims. “I don’t have to worry about preventive maintenance or even disposing my used oil. And Rodney will do any service in less time that it would take us to do it, and he works around my schedule.”

Jay’s equipment acquisition strategy is to finance for the longest period of time for the lowest payment – then shoot to make a payment that’s one-and-a-half to two times that amount. “Even if you just pay $50 more a month, it’s a way to push yourself to get things paid off,” he says.

The key to keeping people
While Iowa winters can play havoc with work schedules, the Proffitts say they’ve never laid anyone off. “They may work fewer hours, but in the summer they can work up to 65 hours a week, so they like the time off,” Jay says.

But the key to keeping people, Jay believes, is giving them a sense of ownership. For example, long-time drivers have their names on their trucks. “They don’t swap trucks, and they keep them clean,” Jay says. “We all take pride in our work and each other. We take time in the mornings to communicate with one another and to follow through with our plan for the day. For example, safety has always been a top priority. We have safety meetings twice a month and stress the importance of taking time to be careful.”

The Proffitts also have a secret weapon in the employee retention war: Helen’s cooking. “We all like to eat well,” Jay says simply, “and Helen’s known for her pies.” Even vendors get a taste. Jay shows off a picture of Helen in her kitchen with 10 freshly baked pies – all bound for Altorfer.

To the rescue
The principal idea of Jay Proffitt Construction to the rescue quickly becomes clear when you talk to his clients.

“Jay is always my number one choice for excavation, grading or hauling,” says Jim Glasgow, Metro Plumbing and Marathon Construction, Iowa City, Iowa. Proffitt came to Glasgow’s aid during a 1997 project, stabilizing an eroding, 60-foot wall with a maze of drainage tile, rock and 10,000 tons of high-grade riprap. “Watching Jay and his crew operating huge excavators perched high up gently placing rock was like watching acrobats at the circus,” Glasglow says. “I was amazed at the skill, coordination and end result.”

“I developed a lot of long-term relationships on that job because so many people couldn’t believe I was doing it,” Jay says. “The machine we used was 8 feet wide and the benches were closer to 6 feet wide, so you had one chance to get everything right, because as soon as you were past the area the only way to go back was by hand.”

“On a scale of one to 10, he’s a 10,” says Jerry Hingten, owner, H&H Construction, Iowa City. “We had a Parade of Homes project that had poor soil bearing capacity. In the dead of winter, he came in and solved the problem and saved our butts. He doesn’t have to do any advertising. His work speaks for itself.”

“When I’ve been in a bind, he’ll regularly put his work to the side to help me,” says Margaret Tuthill, manager, River Products, Iowa City. “He helps us out when we’re short and he doesn’t drive junk trucks.”

Be direct
Jay likes to deal directly with people. “You have to be honest with them,” he says. “They don’t expect you to know everything.”

This emphasis on communication especially comes into play with collections. “People say they have trouble getting paid, but to me, that’s a sign you’re not talking to your customers until it’s too late,” Jay says. “If you let someone go out to 120 days and then ask them if there was a problem, they’ve forgotten what it was. They just know they’re mad about something and they’re not paying you.”

And once you make a commitment, you have to try as hard as you can to honor it, Jay maintains. “If a situation arises that you can’t honor it, call people immediately and let them know,” he says. “Don’t wait.”

Jay says this attitude has its rewards. He describes himself as “having absolutely no idea” when he took on a sewer plant job a few years ago. “I learned a lot,” he says, “but I finished the job without worrying about how much I was making per hour. Nobody’s gonna call me a quitter. And I’ve gotten jobs from that experience.”

Jay’s advice to those starting out:
“You could make a good living with a tandem dump truck, a tag trailer, a mid-size excavator and a small LGP dozer with a six-way blade. You can use the dump truck on a rainy-day job and the tag trailer is cheaper than a low boy. Once you get established, add a skid steer loader. But realize you don’t have to have everything new. Find an occupation you truly enjoy. Don’t try to be the second generation in a firm just to make others happy. Find satisfaction each day knowing you’ve done an honest day’s work.”