Contractor of the Year finalist: John Colomba, Colomba Bobcat & Trucking, Windsor, Ontario

John Colomba had one basic problem with his tool-and-mold job, a job where he had advanced to the status of journeyman: he was inside all day. “I had to get back outdoors,” he says. “I needed the freedom.” So in 1995, he followed his father – Peter Colomba, a masonry contractor – and started his own business, Colomba Bobcat & Trucking, re-entering the field he had started working in while in his teens.

From the beginning, John sought to distinguish himself, shunning what he calls “humdrum site development work.” Armed with a skid steer, trailer and compact excavator, he started putting in drainage systems for pools, along with doing a few pool installations.

Now he has his eyes on a new challenge: Opening the Windsor Equipment Training Facility, where he will teach and certify construction equipment operators. “The idea actually came from the crews I would hire in the summers,” says Colomba. “They’d say to me, ‘Hey, teach, what are we going to learn today?’ It just seemed like I had the knack. I’d always tell my guys to stop and think when they got their equipment into a potentially serious situation such as being mired in mud or tipped into a truck. And then after they got themselves out, I’d ask, ‘Did you learn anything from that?’ I’m big on safety.”

And now this rapid-fire talker is immersed in getting WETF up and running, while still keeping Colomba Bobcat a viable entity. From the initial idea in June of 2001, Colomba has made great strides, starting his first training courses last month.

These weekend courses are aimed at Windsor’s rental industry. Local rental companies are sending both their own personnel plus customers to train on the equipment they both designate and provide. “We’re encouraging the rental companies to involve their own customers in this training,” says Colomba. The two-and-a-half-hour training, now conducted at Colomba’s facility, can range from how to lay a concrete slab to how to operate a tamper, a post-hole digger or any other piece of rented equipment. “Then the customers get a 10-percent-off coupon on their next rental along with their course certificate,” Columba says. “It helps solidify the rental relationship and educate their customers to become safe and competent users.”

Also in the hopper is an equipment safety program for local high school students that Colomba plans to have up and running this January. Since students are allowed to run equipment, Colomba plans to teach them on small equipment, such as skid steers and compact excavators, along with jack hammers, roto-tillers and even hand power tools. “If you can come out of high school with a safety certificate in hand, you’re that much ahead with employers,” he says.

These programs are just the beginnings of Colomba’s true vision: A permanent facility dedicated to full-scale equipment training, located on a site that has enough room for equipment operation. He’s presently looking for property close to Highway 401 within 15 minutes of the bridge and tunnel connecting Detroit and Windsor. “That way I can also draw students from the United States,” Colomba comments.

Colomba has realized from the start that his vision is impossible to accomplish by himself. He is working with St. Clair College (Windsor Campus) to develop course curriculums, along with the Canadian ministries of Training Colleges and Universities, Transportation and Labor, plus the Construction Safety Association of Ontario and Ontario One Call, which just joined the U.S.-based Common Ground Alliance. This is in addition to the local rental companies and equipment dealers he’s calling on.

How will Colomba Bobcat & Trucking fit into all this? Colomba envisions his construction company as a place where students, in their fourth week of an apprenticeship training, will be able to hone their skills on actual jobs. “Right now, lack of work is not the problem,” he says. “This will give them on-the-job training, where they can figure out when materials need to be delivered to the jobsite and all the other things that are required on a project, from start to finish.”

His construction firm clients feel he has a firm foundation of how to properly run a project. “With John, you always get a fair price,” says Steve Lesak, president of trucking firm Kasel Logistics, “and there’s no problem with clean up after a job, because he’s a finicky person.”

“I was able to contact him at any time and he ran interference for me,” says Cheryl Baxter, a homeowner who used his services to install utility lines and dig her family’s swimming pool. “John gave us numerous suggestions,” she says, “established a realistic time line and identified potential issues. We found that he was always willing to go the extra mile to deliver a first quality job.”

“My father’s principles in running his business rubbed off on me,” Colomba says. “When I’m done with a job – whether it has to do with my construction firm or the training facility – I like to look on it that I’m leaving behind part of myself for other people to enjoy or use for years to come. The work I do gives me a great deal of satisfaction.”