Contractor of the Year Finalist: Ron King and Kevin Montes

The evolution of Skyline Engineers into a family business has been gradual. Ron King started the firm with two partners in 1979, concentrating on engineering and surveying. Before King and his partners split amicably in 1985, his wife Rita joined the firm to handle the office.

At the time, King used his former partner Johnny Erramouspe to do Skyline’s construction subcontract work. When Erramouspe retired about five years ago, King asked his son-in-law, Kevin Montes, to take over the firm’s utility construction jobs. And recently Tammie Montes, Ron and Rita’s daughter and Kevin’s wife, started keeping the company’s books.

The family connection has been good to Skyline Engineers, now a $1.5 million firm with 18 employees. It specializes in site development for new home projects in nearby El Paso, Texas, and the surrounding area. “We do everything,” King says, “including engineering and surveying, putting in most of the utilities and road sub-bases, and then subbing out the paving and curb and gutter.”

Natural transition
Montes had already spent several years in construction before joining Skyline, so the transition was natural. “If Kevin hadn’t had the field experience, there’s no way I could have done this,” King says. “I would have just kept subbing out the work.”

With Montes on board, King said the jobs haven’t changed, just the intensity levels. “We’re doing more work, and of course now we have to keep up with workman’s comp, insurance and liability,” King says.

Montes is proud of the construction crew Skyline has put together. “Most companies will run a crew of 16 to 20 guys and maybe half of them are laborers,” he says. “We have just one crew and each guy can do it all: run the equipment, lay pipe, etc., which makes us more flexible. For instance, we now have eight guys on a 52-lot housing project.” If problems crop up, Montes can also tackle the situation by operating one the company’s machines.

Homegrown recruiting
Skyline has found the best way to find additional help is to let its present crew do the job. “A number of these guys have been with us since we first started,” Montes says, “and if we let them recruit the new guys, they will bring in someone who will help them, not hurt them. They know they’re going to be the ones who are working with that person.

“Our crew is so small, with each man doing the work of two guys, we try to be flexible if they need to take off for necessary items, such as doctors’ appointments,” Montes adds. “They make some incredible overtime, because they’d rather take the extra hours than have us hire more people.” There’s still a balance though, King says. “You may get to the point you’re paying all this overtime but the production is not there. Then you need to hire more people.”

But production is rarely a problem. King and Montes cite a recent example, when a four-person crew installed an 8-inch water line at the rate of 600 to 700 feet a day, including backfill. “Most of the time, an average crew will put in 350 to 400 feet a day,” Montes says. “Our guys are at the job at 6 a.m., waiting for the gates to open. And when I’m off doing other things, I know stuff is getting done. There’s no babysitting.”

Backed by such a capable crew, King and Montes are eyeing public utility work in the area. “We’re real fortunate in that we’ve never had to bid anything, so this would be new for us,” Montes says. “We’ve gotten all of our jobs so far off our reputation.”

Saturday is wash day
Doing its own construction meant the firm also would need to start buying equipment. Skyline is slowly building its fleet, using a backhoe, excavator, loader, motor grader, water trucks and compactors attained through both rental purchase options and rentals.

When they first arrive at a housing development, Skyline sets up a chain-link-fenced area, which serves as its equipment yard for the duration of the project. In addition to storing equipment, the fence also contains the company’s tool trailer.

Since most of its equipment is two years old or less, maintenance usually can be handled by the operators. Each Saturday, the crew can earn extra money by washing all the equipment, whether owned or rented. “I’ve always lived by the rule that the cleaner the piece of equipment is, the longer a guy wants to operate it,” Montes says. “If it’s dirty and dusty, he’s just looking to get home.” Along with the cleaning, the machines get a preventive maintenance run-through.

A warm voice
Skyline has been in its present office, located in an industrial park it developed, for five years. King wants to build a new office this year on a half-acre parcel about two miles away.

Most people calling Skyline will first hear Rita’s warm voice, one she first honed working for a telephone company before quitting to have her and King’s four children. “I like talking to our clients,” Rita says of her work as Skyline’s manager of first impressions. “You can’t have someone who just answers the phone. It’s important to relay to them that you’re interested and you care. It means a lot.”

After nearly a quarter of a century in business, King knows the basics still apply. “The greatest challenge facing contractors is always cash flow,” he says. “We handle this by making sure we have the proper contracts and draw schedules for each project.” Keeping tabs on the cash is also a critical component of vendor relationships. “Our vendors will bust their butts for us because we pay them on time,” King says. “We just ask that they give us a good price.”

This attention to detail will likely serve Skyline well in the years ahead. King looks to Montes when he’s asked a question about the company’s future. “It depends on Kevin on how big we get,” he says simply.

Other Voices
“I can’t think of anyone I would give a better reference to,” says Jack Winton, owner of developer Winton Homes in El Paso. “Ron is a detail person, a stickler for accuracy.”

“Their ethics are as good as it gets,” says Gary Roth, project manager with developer Villa Encente, El Paso. “When we put one project out to bid, we approached three different firms but chose Skyline even though they had a higher price. And we plan on using them in future projects.”

“This is a family business and they have all their ships going in the same direction,” says Charlie Davis with Wagner Rents.