Although he didn’t finish art school, Terry Szabo is still an artist, insists his wife Julia. “Instead of using pen and paper, he creates with a dozer and Mother Earth,” she says. “He can visualize it and it will be perfectly leveled or shaped.”
This fine finish skill has been honed on scores of land improvement projects throughout the 30-plus years Terry has worked construction. While construction wasn’t the first thing he tried his hand at, it’s been his profession ever since his father, Bill Szabo, quit farming and asked Szabo to join him in a rock and ag lime business in 1973.
A few years later, father and son incorporated as Szabo Construction, moving from Castalia, Iowa, to Postville in 1984. They branched out into soil conservation, grading and excavation work for area farmers.
“More than half of our business is repeat customers,” Terry says. “When I first started, I wanted to be a big guy. I started to bid on road jobs away from here and every time I did it, one of my repeat customers wanted something done and I had to reject them. I didn’t like turning away my faithful loyal customers. I feel we have a nice business just staying right at home,” he says.
Terry’s crew usually does not have to travel beyond a 20-mile radius. “It’s just one more incentive to keep our good employees, since they don’t have to spend any nights away from home,” he says.
The firm now has eight full-time employees. “Our guys consistently perform at a high quality level,” Terry says. “Maintaining good communication and giving your guys respect keeps them satisfied and challenged.”
Bill Szabo passed away in 1999. “He never really retired,” Terry says. “He’d drive a dump truck or pick up parts. He also really enjoyed driving to jobsites and watching the guys work.”
Terry continues that hands-on philosophy. “I do most of our finish grade work,” he says, a fact that made him pause before getting laser surgery on his eyes. “It’s pretty important to have keen eyesight for that type of work.”
An early riser, Terry likes to be in the office by 6 a.m. He also keeps a keen eye on the ebb and flow of construction work in his area, maintaining about $1.5 million in annual revenues. “We’ve tried to stay diversified to go with the flow of construction,” he says, “which in a little farming community like Postville changes frequently.”
In addition to his land improvement work, Terry is now doing more sewer, water and commercial work. “We can do such a range in the size of work we handle, anything up to $500,000,” he says. In the past, he’s also delved into over-the-road trucking.
Terry’s land improvement work has changed along with farming, where there are now more corporate farms that tend to require larger jobs.
Postville also has seen its share of changes over the years. The population has swelled to 2,500 in the past decade with a mix of nationalities drawn by the turkey processing plant and a kosher meat processing plant.
The town was hit hard this past December when a fire destroyed the turkey plant. Terry, who was a volunteer fireman for five years, promptly responds to all fires when called with whatever type of equipment needed. This included the turkey plant fire.
Everything is in its place in the Szabo Construction shop.
A tour of Szabo’s shop reveals his penchant toward neatness. All tools are placed in designated spots and the floor is kept clean. “A business runs more efficiently if you know where things are,” Terry says.
“For Terry and his company, business is about the details,” says Bill Fisher, territory manager for Ziegler, the local Caterpillar dealer. “His shop is impeccably kept and his equipment well maintained.”
Szabo’s spic-and-span shop even leads a neighboring contractor, John Moyna with C.J. Moyna & Sons, Elkader, Iowa, to joke, “If you dropped a slice of pizza on Terry’s shop floor, you could still eat it.”
Moyna also appreciates that Terry “knows his costs. And if he gets beat on a bid, he doesn’t go into a tailspin or bad mouth anyone. I’d give him a 10 in honesty and integrity.”
“We’re big dozer people,” Terry says. “For the type of work we do, the dozer is probably the quickest and cheapest machine to use.” In addition to his dozers, Terry’s fleet also includes excavators, backhoes, scrapers and dumptrucks.
Terry admits that his desire for good equipment leads him to trade machines “sometimes before my accountant tells me to,” he says. “I usually upgrade at least one machine and a truck every year.” New isn’t the only game in town, however, since Terry will also look at low-hour used machines.
Recent jobs also have lead Szabo to rent artics, specialty rollers and compaction equipment. He tends to keep his rented machines to a minimum, though.
Taking care of business
“The joke about Szabo Construction is that the bill beats the truck driver to the driveway,” says Julia, who used to work in the office. “We believe you get the bill out there and if there’s a problem, it’s fresh on everyone’s mind. That way, if something needs to be discussed, everyone remembers exactly what happened. If you wait 30 days to bill it, and then you wait another 30 days for them to pay, everyone starts to have memory lapses.”
Although there were three other contractors in Postville when he set up shop there, Terry is now the only contractor in town.
And so he keeps a close watch over what’s happening in his community. “We’ve always been able to go with the flow,” he comments. “If we have to branch off into something else, we’ll do it. All of our crew can do anything that’s required.” When he talks that way, you knowing he’s also talking about himself.
“He’s a straight shooter,” sums up Chris Reilly with Reilly Construction, Ossian, Iowa. “He sticks to his word and what he says is what he does.”