Most people start their own construction companies with a loan, an inheritance or savings. Harry and Lori Foster started Green Ridge Construction with a charge card and a $10,000 credit limit. “And we’d already used up about half of that,” says Lori.
Green Ridge Construction, however, was anything but a shot in the dark. Harry, who got his first construction job at 15, stringing pipe and drilling dynamite holes in northern Arizona, was a seasoned professional, having worked on construction crews from Florida to California. Lori also worked at C&D Pipeline in Tucson for several years and as an office manager at several architectural firms.
What prompted Harry to finally strike out on his own was watching the company he was working for in California run itself into the ground. So in 1993, he and Lori moved back to their hometown of Tucson to set up shop.
“We had been in Tucson before for quite a few years and we knew most of the suppliers, so credit wasn’t a big deal,” Harry says. “I got my first $50,000 credit line with just a handshake. We rented some used equipment at first and a year later we wound up buying one of the machines we were renting. We had been in business for about three years before we bought our first Cat backhoe.”
That first year the company made $50,000. Today sales have reached $4.2 million. But growth for growth’s sake has never been the goal. “I never really had a strategy for growth,” Harry says. “I knew where I wanted to be and I didn’t want to be a whole lot bigger than I am right now.” The company has 15 employees including an estimator, two foremen, three operators, a grade checker, two pipe layers, two laborers, a mechanic, shop foreman and two drivers.
Keeping the company at this size enables them to remain competitive and excel at the things Harry and Lori consider most important: quality work, personal relationships and safety.
Clean, well-run sites
Bob Colt, a project manager with Diamond Ventures, has been using Green Ridge for about five years and says the company’s workers always leave their worksites cleaner than they found them. On this, Harry is adamant. “It’s a must, if for no other reason than a good report,” he says. “Sometimes we go to sites where other people have been working and it looks like a bomb went off. People have a real problem with leaving garbage and trash. We haul our stuff out every day. It’s not something somebody has to tell us to do.”
The building boom Tucson enjoyed in the late 1990s brought an influx of low-bid contractors desperate for work. Harry and Lori’s reputation and strong relationships with their customers helped them survive this onslaught. Green Ridge built its clientele based on repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals.
Gary Brown, owner of Garold C. Brown Family Ltd. Partnership, values his relationship with Green Ridge because of the extra level of service it provides. “They’re always on the spot when I need them,” Brown says. “And they’ll take care of things they don’t necessarily need to do to help me with things like inspectors.”
Harry and son Adam, who works for the company as a foreman, review plans for a waterline installation.
Only the talented need apply
Part of what makes Green Ridge successful in the relationships department is that it won’t put just anybody on a machine. “It’s hard to find operators,” Harry says. “We’ll try people out on the job, and if they can’t do it we won’t keep them. You can tell within a few minutes if the guy has what it takes, and 95 percent of them can’t do what they say. My best operators are grown right here in the company.” This includes two sons, Chris, who has been with the company seven years, and Adam, who has put in five years.
Once you make the cut at Green Ridge though, you’re treated well. “We’re competitive with the big contractors on wages,” Lori says. “We offer a benefits package that includes: medical, dental, STD, life insurance and for retirement we have a Simple IRA Plan that has been in effect since 1999. We want our employees to feel like they have a career here so they’ll stay around for a very long time, that it’s not just another job.”
Safety taken personally
Green Ridge Construction doesn’t stint on safety-related training. “We require all of our people to be trained as an OSHA Certified Excavation Safety/Competent Person,” Lori says. “If we hire an employee that has not been through this program, Green Ridge will send them to the course that is put on once a year by TUCA (Tucson Utility Contractors Association).”
Harry’s emphasis on safety is more than academic. “I didn’t think too much about it until 1984 when I was in a cave-in,” he says. “It was one of my own jobs, I was in the trench and it wasn’t a very pretty sight. Now it’s always in the back of my mind.”
When Harry met Lori
Harry and Lori met while both were working for C & D Pipeline. Both continued to work in construction after their marriage in 1987. But having been through several regional construction booms and busts, they decided at first not to put all their eggs in the construction basket. While in California, Lori went back to school, got a degree in sports medicine and orthopedic assisting and then went to work as an ortho tech. In addition to being a mom, she did the company books at night for five years before quitting the medical profession and going to work full time at Green Ridge.
“That was the best thing we ever did,” says Lori. “Having someone to take care of the office full time meant that Harry could concentrate on the field full time. Things started picking up then. That’s how Green Ridge started evolving.”
At first, the couple had problems sorting out who was to do what. “She stepped on my toes in the field and I stepped on her toes in the office,” Harry admits. But like in any good marriage, the partners find a balance. “You have to start out as best friends,” Lori says. “You share everything, your ups and downs and your trials and tribulations. But I wouldn’t want anybody else for a partner.”