Contractor of the Year Update: Class of 2001

Editor’s Note: Equipment World’s Contractor of the Year program has honored a variety of contractors during its five years. Now that the program has a few years under its belt, we wanted to go back and check in with our past finalists. We’ll be revisiting these former finalists through April, and then announcing our 2006 Contractor of the Year in May.

Drew and Debbie Andrews Andrews Excavation
McDonough, Georgia

The farmland that enticed the Andrews to McDonough has been eaten up by Atlanta’s sprawl, but the metro area’s phenomenal growth has also allowed the company to expand from a 23-machine fleet five years ago to a 178-piece fleet (including pickups) today.

Although the firm is still centered around residential site development, the Andrews have also taken on a great deal they used to sub out before, including wood waste grinding, horizontal boring, pipe testing and concrete inverts. The company – which now has 160 employees in about 20 crews – will realize close to $20 million in revenue this year. Wary of the continuation of the residential boom, the two also have their eye on commercial and municipal work.

“We still want to grow a little, but we’re almost to the size we want to maintain,” says Debbie, who serves as the firm’s chief financial officer.

Advice: “We try to read everything, stay abreast on what’s out there and promote a progressive atmosphere,” Drew says. “If someone’s got a better way of doing things, I want to look at it.”

George Forni
Aquatic Environments
Alamo, California

Specialization is still the name of the game for George Forni. His firm, Aquatic Environments, concentrates on aquatic construction, habitat restoration and lake and water feature maintenance. “We’ve grown steadily every year,” Forni says. “We’ve found real niches in jobs conventional equipment can’t get to.”

The heart of Forni’s fleet is his five Aquamogs, multi-function platforms capable of clearing channels and serving as shallow water construction barges. Aquatic Environments is the sole manufacturer and commercial operator of Aquamogs in the United States. Forni also has more traditional equipment, including compact tracked loaders and trucks.

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He takes his equipment all over the West Coast and even to Hawaii. “It was a situation where our machines were the only ones that could get into the job,” he says. “You have to have good senior operators when you run a project at those distances.”

Forni bought out his partner in 2003, and will realize $5.5 million in revenue this year.
Advice: “When the business was at the $2 million level it was still relatively easy to manage,” Forni says, “but after that I had to start relying on other people I could trust. You have to be prepared to delegate to someone who might not be exactly like you. Don’t get mired down in every small aspect of the business itself.”

Darick Franzen
D. L. Franzen Construction
McHenry, Illinois

Franzen has experienced the roller coaster ride construction is known for. “2001 and 2002 were good years, and the next two years were bad,” he says bluntly. “This year, we’re just getting on top again.”

Franzen attributes the down cycle of the ride to several factors, including state and federal road funding. When things get tight for the big guys, they start to go after the commercial and municipal parking lot jobs that are his company’s bread and butter.

“To survive, we cut overhead and downsized the company from 24 employees to 19,” Franzen says. “I had to dig in again, and put in more time in the office than I did before.”

Meeting his goal last year to break even, Franzen has hired a superintendent to handle the field, once again leaving him free to estimate, bid and sell. “2005 was a double, if not a home run and I feel more positioned for the future than we were in the past. We feel ready for a minor boom.”

Advice: “You need to stay in tune with what’s going on, and know when to say yes and when to say no. Looking back, I said yes too many times. This is a fast-paced industry, and like a farmer, we have an eight-month window of opportunity to make hay.”

Matt and Martine Hendry
Boulder, Colorado

Although Matt has dissolved his company, Tight Places Excavating, he certainly hasn’t left construction. Today he’s a John Deere product consultant for excavators and articulated trucks.

Several times Deere had called upon Hendry’s customer expertise in compact equipment, using him in a number of customer advocate groups. They came away impressed with his knowledge and way with words, and struck a deal with him in January 2004. With the new job, Matt’s wife Martine retired from her position as company president.

“It’s a tremendously fun job,” he says. “I do a lot of application specific training, helping companies do their jobs more efficiently.” There is a certain irony, however, in the size of products he’s helping promote. After years of working with compact machines and specializing in tight space work, he concentrates on 6- to 85-metric-ton excavators and articulated dump trucks. “It’s rare when I do a demo for a small machine,” he chuckles.

Tight Places Excavating lives on since Hendry gave one former client the rights to the name. “He’s doing quite well,” he says, “and has landed some significant landscape jobs.”

Advice: “Stay focused and do not let anyone dilute your vision. Hire the right people and make sure they are in the right job for their talent and empower them. Above all run your business with honesty and integrity!”

Richard Hicks
Hicks Construction
Niangua, Missouri

Our 2001 Contractor of the Year has hardly been sitting on his laurels. “Business is booming,” says Hicks. “We’ve tripled in size since 2001.”

This has been accomplished by sticking to what he knows best: concrete pumping, excavation and concrete slab work in southeast Missouri. With the ability to pick and choose his work, Hicks says the “good Lord is smiling on us.”

Hicks formed his company in 1993 to go after the residential concrete market, but soon found the commercial sector was a better fit. Now with 17 employees, Hicks works for a variety of commercial clients, including Walgreens and Wal-Mart.

The same basic principles apply, Hicks says when asked about the continuing success of his business: do a good job, have quality people and be able to hang onto them. He takes special pride in his employees, who are faithful and will do whatever is asked of them. He continues to take his key people to the World of Concrete, a trip that is not only a perk for a job well done but a chance to gain ideas that could lead to profits later on.

Advice: “Take that one last step to finish the race proper,” Hicks says. “The first place horse in a race just took one step faster and further. There’s really not that much effort in taking that one extra step.”

Randy Kneebone
Randy Kneebone Excavating and Trucking
Evans, Colorado

Growth has been the name of the game for Kneebone, both with his company and his family. He and his wife Amanda had just had their first child in 2000; now they have three. And they’ve moved from Milliken, Colorado, to nearby Evans, taking their business with them.

“We’ve just had the busiest summer ever,” Kneebone reports. His company is doing both residential and commercial site development work. Additions to his equipment fleet include a semi truck and low boy, a backhoe, a road grader equipped with a laser and a large soil compactor.

While home building has been good to the firm, “it’s not something you want to hang your hat on,” Kneebone says, so in addition to the commercial work he’s doing, he’s exploring the possibility of municipal road work.

After working from his home, he’s also looking at buying land for an office. “We’re starting to get too much equipment at the house,” he laughs.

Advice: “Be patient and smart and don’t try to grow too fast,” Kneebone says. “Take your time and things will come. And keep your personal debt to a minimum.”

Jake Lacey
J.F. Lacey and Sons
Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

Lacey calls the past few years an “education.” He signed up on two jobs that quickly became non-paying legal quagmires, forcing him into bankruptcy. Now he’s finding his way out, doing what he’s done from the beginning: moving earth.

“I have a master’s degree now in surviving the construction business,” Lacey says with wry humor. “The main thing is to just keep going.”

With eight employees, Lacey is doing mass excavation work and putting in utilities for commercial and housing projects, continuing to tackle the rock-laden soil of Hawaii. He’s also added asphalt paving and seal coating to his menu of capabilities.

“This business is too hard for me to walk away from,” he says, “especially when there’s so much opportunity.”

Advice: “The hardest thing in this business is finding out exactly what it costs to do business,” Lacey says. “You have to know where your costs are and how to negotiate yourself out of a bad situation.”

Alex Roberts
S.A.S. Contracting
Bethel, Connecticut

“There’s still a lot of work up here, even though the market had a slight hiccup in the past few months,” Roberts says. “But we’ve got work until March.”

S.A.S is keeping busy with land clearing, septic tank installations and drainage work – all primarily estate work for high-end clients. “These clients like to keep you busy, and you almost work on a retainer basis with them,” Roberts says.

Sometimes busy can be too busy. Last year “we ran ourselves ragged and my wife Susan and I found we didn’t have enough time for ourselves,” he comments. “So we scaled back.” As part of this downsizing, two of their former employees became subcontractors, doing S.A.S.’s smaller drainage and land clearing jobs.

Advice: “Never expand beyond what you can handle; don’t do every job that comes your way. Learn the value of personal downtime – those 18-hour days have to be balanced with zero-hour days. And go where your heart leads you.

Paul Strasko
Site Solutions
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Strasko is keeping things close to home these days since he serves as his daughter’s primary caregiver. “I’m still doing the same work, though, just not in as wide a geographical area,” he says.

Strasko concentrates on site development work for housing projects. He has roughly the same equipment fleet as before, including a dozer, two tri-axle dumps and two pickups. He rents everything else.

“The builders I work with have been good to me because they know I’ll be there,” Strasko says. “You have to be reliable or you won’t get any repeat work.” He’s keeping a concerned eye on his area’s housing market, especially since the present boom has been extremely long. “Most of what we’re doing is mid-level housing, and we just started work on an over-55 community.”

Advice: “If you like what you’re doing, don’t change. I wouldn’t.” It’s a love he seems to be passing on to his daughter. “I have one of the few 7-year-olds around who can run an excavator,” he says.