Contractor of the Year Finalist: Ryan Beckley

Ryan Beckley would be the first to tell you he didn’t have a lot going for him when he finished high school in his hometown of Roseburg, Oregon. In fact, Oregon in general didn’t have much going for it at that time. The 1980s were rough on the state: First came the national recession in the early part of the decade. But just as the timber industry began to shake off a sluggish economy, it was hit even harder. Environmentalists had identified the area around Roseburg as prime habitat for the now infamous – and endangered – spotted owl. In ’86 and ’87 the Federal Forest Lands office completely shut down all logging in the area. And a lot of businesses shut down as well.

Ryan’s father, Tom, had spent much of his adult career running a construction company, building roads and crushing rock for the timber companies and a nickel mine that also went under about this time. “He changed the focus of his business to more consumer and residential jobs,” Beckley recalls. “The bad economy forced him to scale back a fairly large operation until it was pretty much him working as an owner-operator with a backhoe. And, of course, I worked for him operating equipment while I was in school.”

Like many kids right out of school, Ryan spent more time focusing on his recreational activities and put little thought into his future. He worked for his father and other construction companies in his hometown. But any money he made quickly passed through his hands. “I was pretty much just marking time,” Beckley says.

But even then, there was still a little voice in the back of his head telling him he could do better. “I still had aspirations for living a better life,” he says now. “I always liked the idea of being successful; I just didn’t seem to have the drive to do anything about it.”

Open for business
It wasn’t until he was 24 years old that Beckley decided he wanted to go into business for himself. He was working for his father again, and he’d struck up a friendship with the local Caterpillar salesman in their area. “It was a little odd that we started talking, because my father hadn’t bought any equipment in ages,” he says. “And when he did buy equipment, it was never new. As a consequence, we spent a lot of time working on machinery when we weren’t in the field.”

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Lucky for Beckley, the Cat salesman saw something in the young man he thought he could take a chance on. And he did so in a fairly risky way. “I think he was certain I was full of it for the first six months we talked,” Beckley says, laughing. “But when I finally told him I wanted to go out on my own, I was totally honest with him because at that point in my life I really didn’t have any other options.”

Beckley laid his cards on the table: He had no money. His credit rating was trashed. He had no way beyond his word to guarantee anybody anything. Taking a professional risk, the salesmen set Beckley up with what they euphemistically termed a “long-term equipment demo.” “It was an extremely long term demo,” Beckley says with a laugh. “He basically gave me a backhoe for a month, with the understanding that I’d pay him for the month’s rent – and the second month’s rent – at the end of that time.”

The gamble paid off. Beckley lined up some jobs and went to work. And not only was he able to make the agreed upon payments at the end of the first month, four months later he was so busy he added a D5 dozer to the rental-purchase agreement.

By now, Beckley had a close friend working with him. “We went out and worked hard – all day, every day,” Beckley recalls. “Back then, we were both pretty good operators. We were all about getting things done – because I knew this was my chance to make something of myself.”

Pooling resources
Beckley’s father Tom still operated his company in the area, so it was natural that father and son teamed up on many jobs. “I’d kind of pushed him into upgrading his equipment and trying different types of projects,” Beckley says. “So we realized it just made sense for us to pool our resources into one construction company.”

There were other advantages, too. As father and son worked closer, they realized that their individual strengths perfectly complemented each other’s. “My Dad’s real talent is in the field running equipment and managing jobs,” Beckley says. “I enjoyed working in the field and that’s how I built my business. But my ability is best used in the office. If I have an asset in business it’s that I’m pretty personable. As a result, I never had any trouble finding stuff for us to do. Even when it was slow in the middle of winter, I still could go out there and drum up work. I had to kick that talent in gear recently. We had a lot of jobs wrapping up and a little bit of a gap before our contracted summer work starts. So I went out and spent a half a day making rounds and talking to engineers and got us $500,000 worth of work. And that’s always been my biggest asset – being able to keep the doors open and keep the wheels turning.”

For Beckley, marketing is key to his company’s phenomenal success over the past seven years. “You can be the greatest equipment operator in the world,” he says. “And you can have the best head for a construction jobsite. But if you can’t go out and market yourself and put yourself in a position to do a job for somebody, you’re in trouble. If you just sit back and rely on the phone ringing to bring you work, you’re probably going to be sorely disappointed. You’ve got to be able to go out there and make a project come to you.”

Beckley’s approach to doing business has led him to take a different tack when it comes to the work his company does and the people they work for. “In my opinion, the ideal scenario is to work for a smaller group of people and work for them all the time on a negotiated basis. That’s my model for success. I’d much rather have a dedicated client list that’ll fit on one page than a whole book full of open bid.”

It’s hard to argue with Beckley’s philosophy. This March marks his company’s seventh year in business. In 2006, the company experienced 114 percent growth – the sixth straight year in a row it has doubled its gross volume.

Looking to the future
Beckley readily admits to being particular about every aspect of his business, be it the equipment in his fleet, who he hires, who he works with and who he works for. And he’s able to adopt this posture, he says, because of the quality of work his men do. “We’re as selective about our customers as we are about our employees,” he notes. “We won’t work with other contractors who don’t use integrity in their everyday business practices.”

Repeat business is key for Beckley Excavation & Utility. “We treat every one of our customers like they’re our business partner – because they are,” Beckley explains. “I can’t go out and do a job for somebody and look at a set of plans and say, ‘Hey! These guys missed this, and we can make a huge profit because they left the door open here.'”

“I want a customer to be a customer for a long time. I don’t ever want to have the reputation of being the cheapest guy in town. I want to be the guy who looks at projects and finds a way to maximize profit and minimize costs for everybody. Because if I can make the kind of money I expect to on a job, every single time, that just helps us grow and have customers who are going to grow right alongside us and keep us moving in the right direction. You really have to put their needs in front of yours because if you put the almighty dollar down as the first priority, your business is going to dry up in a hurry.”

Because he’s so particular about his business, Beckley readily acknowledges he can be tough to work for. “I’m definitely demanding. But I show everyone respect and I expect everybody to behave like family around here. We have to be able to communicate with each other to be successful. This is a pretty tough business to be in. I don’t want anybody coming to work and trying to put one over on another guy. My expectations for everybody are pretty high. I like to think this is a good place to work.”

In keeping with that view, Beckley places great emphasis on spending quality time with his employees and their families. Hunting and fishing trips, vacations or just simple evenings out with spouses are the norm. “I want everybody to feel like they’re part of something special,” he says. “And in my experience, a nice trip or an evening out it can help motivate people when they come back to work the next day and feel like they’re in this for more than just a paycheck.”

Today, Ryan and Tom’s Beckley Excavation & Utility company is the core business unit in a family of four construction divisions. The company has just founded Beckley Resources, a new quarry operation in the Roseburg area. Beckley is also selling and installing GripTight Foundation productions through his Terra Firma Foundation Repair. “We’re now almost completely out of the residential construction business,” Beckley notes. “We’ve started doing partnerships on concrete construction jobs and begun pipe bursting. Meanwhile the foundation business has taken off to such an extent it’s become my number one priority. But in all of our businesses, we’re always keeping an eye on delivering service. Because service is what got us where we are today and will take us where we’re going in the future.”