Contractor of the Year finalist: Dean and Ralph Studer, Studer Construction, Billings, Montana

Perhaps the logo of Studer Construction says it all. First, it’s the same logo the fathers of cousins Dean Studer Jr. and Ralph Studer used when they had their own business, one the two brothers sold out in 1982. And if you look closely, you’ll see the initials “RJS” on the logo, added by Dean when he began his firm as a homage to his grandfather, Ralph J. Studer, who started Studer & Sons Construction in the 1950s.

“We’re just like the firefighting families out East,” says Dean, “only out here in the middle of Montana we’re into construction.”

So it was no coincidence that Dean was working for another uncle’s construction firm – this time on his mother’s side – when he decided to break out on his own in 1996. In fact, both Dean and Ralph were working for the same firm, but it took three years of convincing on Dean’s part before Ralph made the leap.
The partnership

It’s a partnership that Dean appreciates, and he starts several sentences with “the beauty of Ralph is …” Dean continues: “Ralph knows more about concrete, and he’s a whole lot better on the financial side of the business. He’s good at watching our costs.”

Dean started operations in his home, but the constant distractions there prompted him to rent an office, a choice Ralph questioned once he came on board. The two now operate a lean operation, located in the back lot of a friendly fellow contractor. Their office is a two-bedroom RV. “We have an office on each end with an employee lounge in the middle,” jokes Ralph.

Dean started off doing excavating, backfill and gravel placement for other concrete companies. “I found one of my first invoices the other day,” Dean says, “and it had me working for $140 a day. I thought that was great money back then, but now we couldn’t afford to do the work at that price.”

Progressive growth
“Ralph is the older brother I didn’t have,” says Dean, who has six sisters. “It was like we hadn’t missed a beat when he joined me.”

When Ralph came on board, the firm progressed to curbs and gutters, sidewalks, asphalt patchwork and parking lots. Studer Construction divides its efforts between placing concrete and asphalt – Ralph thinks concrete is easier and Dean thinks asphalt is easier. The company now does roughly a half-million dollars worth of work in the greater Billings area.

They do this work with two skid steers, two compactors, a dump truck and a new asphalt paver they bought in September, 2001. “Last year, our asphalt guy was too busy and we bid three jobs at the same time and got all three,” Dean relates. “So we went out and bought a paver.”
The company still does excavating work, but it rents all the equipment it needs when a digging job comes up. “Those are big-ticket machines,” Ralph says, “and there’s a lot of excavating contractors around here. We don’t want to worry about keeping an excavator busy.”

Ralph also appreciates the fact they can get an hourly rental rate from their main rental source, MP&E. “And if they don’t have a 312 excavator on hand,” Ralph says, “they’ll give us a 315 or 318 for the same rental rate.”

The two cousins believe in paying their owned equipment off quickly, so revenues can be directed to profits. And they believe in what their fathers taught them: Which would you rather do: a $1 million job and earn $1 profit or a $100,000 job and make $1,000 profit? “We’re small enough,” Dean says, “that if we make a $200 profit, that’s $200 we didn’t have.”

Credit due
Dean and Ralph credit the help of several contractors in the area with their growth. First there’s Gary Gray with utility contractor Gray Construction, who offered them a place to locate their office RV plus gave good business advice. Then there’s COP Construction, another utility contractor in town. “They are interested in client relationships,” says Bryce Rost, COP project manager. “At their instigation, they will sit down and bring me pricing in my favor because they want to work with us.”

And there’s Greg Hardy with Hardy Construction, who gave Dean three jobs when he first started. “They absolutely do what they say they’ll do,” he says. “They’re good at what they do, and they’re not griping about their problems, which is a nice change of pace.”
“The relationships and loyalties we’ve built are very important,” Dean says. “Our biggest competition is ourselves – we have to keep improving.”
Then of course there are their dads, always at the ready to help out. “Ralph’s dad helped us in controlling costs,” Dean says, “and both of them have lots of good advice.”

Showing up
Their size – often Dean and Ralph are the only workers although they have summer help – works to their advantage, Ralph says. “Instead of telling our clients when they should have their work done so we can come in,” he comments, “we show up when they need us. People also want you to be up front in your pricing. We want them to trust us that we’ll treat them properly.”
“Those are the kinds of things that beat a recession,” Dean adds.

When asked where they see themselves going from here, Dean laughs and says “globally.” Adds Ralph: “Deano [Ralph’s nick name for Dean] first said his goal was to work three days a week, and now our goal is to keep it down to six.”

But kidding aside, both Dean and Ralph have two sons and gee, it wouldn’t be the worse thing that could happen to see them take over the business when the time comes. It’s not like it would be a Studer family first. RS