Gil and Chris Egurola , Diggum Excavating — Tucson, Arizona

When you’re in the excavating business by yourself, equipment maintenance is sometimes something you do after dinner, after the kids go to bed, or after 12 or more hours in the field – as Gil Egurola knows only too well.

It was just such an evening, in the first year on his own, that Gil remembers trying to hammer a tooth onto the bucket of his backhoe parked beside the house.

“It was late,” he recalls. “It was dark. I was tired of swinging that hammer. I couldn’t see very well, and that bucket tooth was just not going to go on. And then I came down with that hammer right on top of my thumb.”

In a rage, Gil threw the hammer as far out into the desert night as he could and let out a yell that brought his wife Chris running with a flashlight and first-aid supplies in hand. She calmed him down, bandaged the thumb and then headed out into the cactus with the flashlight to find the hammer. “She knew,” says Gil, “that we were going to need that hammer tomorrow.”

Gil and Chris started Diggum Excavating 18 years ago with just the two of them. They were determined to pursue their dreams and to make a better life for themselves, their children – Michael, Daniel and Christina – and someday their grandchildren. Today the company has about 100 employees and bills about $4 million annually for its excavating, grading, residential site work and landscaping services.

Gil learned his trade as a union equipment operator. Chris worked as a nail technician by day and kept the company’s books in the evenings. It was even her idea in the early days to name the company Diggum. “We figured nobody was going to be able to pronounce our last name,” she says. (It sounds like: Egg-yoo-rolla.) “So I told Gil, why don’t we name the company for what it is you do – dig.” They view the business as a partnership, and something neither one could have achieved alone. And while the stresses and conflicts of building a business might hurt some marriages, it has only made theirs stronger. “In addition to being husband and wife, we are each other’s best friend,” Chris says.

First steps and long hours
Gil says one of the biggest surprises he found in leaving behind the life of an employee-operator and running his own business was how many hours it took to make the business go. “I was putting in 15-hour days, every day, seven days a week, for 10 years,” he says.

Despite the long hours, Gil managed to keep his family close. “If Gil had a job and the kids weren’t in school, he’d put their bikes in the back of the dump truck and take them out to the jobsite with him,” Chris says. “The kids would ride around the neighborhoods or go dirt biking while he worked.”

Being around all that equipment, it didn’t take long for son Michael to start begging Dad for some stick time. By the age of 10, Michael was a competent backhoe operator and eager to learn more. He not only learned to run equipment from his Dad, he got to see all aspects of the business up close. “We’d all sit around in the family room Saturday nights,” Gil says, “with a big box of paperwork and divide it all up. Michael would be right there with us – just a kid – writing out invoices.”

Not long after high school Michael went to work for his dad in a management capacity, but soon found the hours and constant decision making overwhelming. “I finally had to ask Dad to let me go back to being just an operator,” Michael says.

The trial by fire didn’t spoil him on the business though. He continued to move dirt and study those aspects of construction contracting he needed to master to become a manager. After a couple of years of seasoning, he jumped back into management and took on increasing responsibilities to the point where today he serves as Diggum’s vice president of operations.
Michael also stepped into another role his father has filled for many years, that of being a race car driver. They race the Diggum race car, a NASCAR-style car, in local events. Racing weekends are Diggum’s version of the company picnic. Employees serve as pit crew members and families come along to cheer and enjoy the festivities.

The high volume of jobs Diggum receives requires an office staff of six, including (from left to right) Ermalene Federico, Arlene Quiroz, Chris, Lori Fortner, Mary Rivera and Tonie Boushelle.

Keys to growth and success
Gil and Michael attribute a lot of Diggum’s growth and success to its ability to keep good clients and good employees.

Tucson’s residential building boom over the last 20 years has given area contractors a lot of opportunities. But repeat business only comes with great customer service – something Diggum is well known for. “They are pros at taking care of their customers and making sure the job is done right the first time,” says Jack Owen, account manager for Empire Machinery.

Sharon Ludwig, owner of III Oaks Development, says Tucson’s surplus of work and shortage of good contractors has caused the quality of some projects to suffer, but not with the Egurolas. “Diggum proves the theory that good leadership filters down from the top,” she says. “Every employee seems to exude the same respectful and responsible attitude that Gil himself displays. From the staff in the office to the operators in the field, one gets the impression that you are Diggum’s most important client.”

Another homebuilding client, Robert Storie, vice president of product development for The Kemmerly Companies, feels the same way. “I was always happy to recommend his services, because I had the confidence he would perform well and provide good value,” Storie says. “Continuous and significant growth did not preclude doing the job well. Over those many years, through the ups and downs, I have never seen Gil lose his temper or his cool. No one shows more respect for others – whether employees, clients or builder customers.”

Keeping good employees
In an area with a surplus of work and a handful of big, national construction companies, finding and retaining good employees presents a tough challenge. Diggum has succeeded here by doing several things differently.

“We know we can’t compete with big companies on wages,” Michael says. “So what we offer the guys we hire is a guaranteed 40- to 50-hour week, 50 weeks a year. And if an operator wants it, we can usually give him up to 60 hours of work a week. Their wages don’t fluctuate as jobs come and go. When a job’s done, we don’t send the crews home and tell them we’ll call when the next job is lined up. We already have the next job lined up,” he says.

Diggum’s operators make a few dollars less per hour than those who work for the big companies. But over the course of a year, they total substantially more in wages by always having work – and extra work if they want it. It’s a deliberate strategy and not without managerial challenges.

“We run long,” Gil says. “We keep a lot of jobs going.” To handle the communications and paperwork for all these different jobs, Diggum employs an office staff of six, overseen by Chris and managed by her sister Lori Fortner, who work the phones, computers and fax machines. And Michael keeps two cell phones and a radio going sunup to sundown and then some.

Discovering hidden talent
As far as managing employees, experience has taught Gil some valuable lessons, mainly that you can’t put much stock in popular theories, shortcuts or snap judgments.

“We had this theory once that you can judge an operator by how well he keeps his truck,” Gil says. “If his truck is clean and well maintained, we figured that’s how he’ll keep your equipment. So one day we were interviewing for a operator’s job and one guy shows up in a pristine, older vintage truck. We figured he’s the one so we hired him. The next day he shows up for work in this ugly, rusted out, junked up beater of a truck. I asked him what happened to the nice truck and he said, ‘Oh, that was my friend’s truck. The day of the interview I couldn’t get mine started.'”

“As it turns out,” Gil says, “the operator, Dave Wareham, was the best the company ever hired, and the same proved true for Tom Sumner, our mechanic.”

What Gil prefers is to evaluate new employees over a period of time, sometimes giving them extra responsibility to see what they’re capable of. He also looks for hidden talents his employees have that can help the company in unforeseen ways.

An example is Martin Vazquez, whom the company hired as an entry-level mechanic. After he had been with the company a few months, they gave him some bodywork to do. They soon realized that they had one of the best bodymen in the area on their payroll and decided to put these talents to use. They started buying wrecked late model pickup trucks for pennies on the dollar and letting Martin restore them to near new condition for company managers to use. He also keeps the company haul trucks and the paint on Diggum’s racecar in showcase condition.

The landscape division of the company, which now accounts for about half of its revenues, likewise grew out of Gil’s eye for people and their talents. “A guy we were doing some sitework for asked me if we could plant some trees for him,” Gil says. “I knew if I tried to plant those trees, I’d kill them, so I called somebody who knew something about landscaping to help me.” That led to a relationship, which became a job and eventually a whole new line of business for the company.

Gil confers with Javier Acevedo, vice president of Diggum’s landscaping division, about an upcoming job. This part of the business has grown from one client’s request to almost half of Diggum’s business.

Laundry and uniforms
Diggum’s concern for its employees is perhaps most visibly evident in the uniforms most of them wear at work. A few years back a local uniform company had solicited Diggum’s business, and while earthmoving work – with all the dirt and mud it kicks up – may seem like an unlikely profession for uniforms, Michael says it made great sense.

For a small payroll deduction, each employee gets a freshly laundered supply of company shirts and jeans every week. “Our people work long hours,” Michael says. “A lot of their wives work too. The last thing anybody wants to face at the end of the week is a big pile of laundry. My wife Mandi has always been big on families and family time and we’d rather our people spend some quality time with their families instead of washing clothes all weekend.”
An additional benefit to the uniform program is that everybody – from Gil, Michael and Chris to the office staff and the operators in the field – look sharp, a positive impression that’s not lost on clients and potential clients.

The right size of business
Like many medium-size contractors, Gil and Michael have managed Diggum’s growth so as to remain profitable without having to squeeze margins on the bigger jobs where the economies of scale favor the large national companies. They both understand that customer service, a do-it-right-whatever-it-takes mentality and lots of face-to-face contact keeps clients coming back and keeps companies in their size range profitable and healthy.

The Egurolas also know the strength of the business depends in large part on the strength of the family and that the family is not just Gil, Chris and Michael, but everybody who works at Diggum Excavating. The first person Gil hired to help him in his fledgling business still works for him today and many of his key employees have been with the company for 10 to 15 years. When they talk about their employees, and when their employees talk about them it’s always with a sense of mutual appreciation.

“There’s a guy we hired a few years back,” Gil says. “I don’t see him everyday, but the times when I do get to talk with him he often thanks me for his job. That’s pretty rare these days, but I can’t tell you how much that means to me. To be in a position to enable that man to provide for his family it is one of the biggest rewards this job offers.”

One of the other big rewards, according to Chris, is knowing that they have built something of value – that these 18 years of hard work have strengthened her and Gil’s marriage, family and extended family and that those outside of the family have also been blessed.

But what Chris says motivates her the most is the fact they have built a company that will continue to provide meaningful work and bless the family into the future. Grandsons Anthony and Michael Jr. both wheel around in little ride-on plastic skid steer toys parked in the Egurola’s garage. And they love big equipment, the bigger the better.

While some kids their age would be content with video games, both boys want nothing more than the chance to sit in their dad’s or granddad’s lap and survey the world atop a few tons of yellow iron. “That’s what its all about,” says Chris.