Contractor of the Year Update: Class of 2004

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 this month, and then announcing our 2006 Contractor of the Year in May.

Gil, Chris and Michael Egurola
Diggum Excavating
Tucson, Arizona

Our 2004 Contractor of the Year winner has enjoyed slow but steady progress, tweaking its mix of job types and equipment in the red-hot housing and development market around Tucson. The father Gil has pulled back some from sales of landscape packages, says son Michael, and is staying in the office more to focus on strategy and new markets.

The company is doing more turnkey or near turnkey housing developments, adding pipeline work and underground utilities to its offerings. Diggum has found a niche in developments of 18 houses or less and is kicking around the idea of developing land for itself. It recently acquired a Cat 315 excavator for this work, a machine that Michael says has nearly the same power and performance of a Cat 320, but offers better jobsite maneuverability and easier trailering. Ardent race car fans, the Egurolas continue to race the company stock car in Tucson, getting their first win last year and climbing to second in points halfway through the season before finishing seventh overall.

Advice: The biggest challenge the company faces, in 2004 and today, is getting good operators, Michael says. “I checked the Sunday paper to make sure they ran our wanted ad for operators, and there were six other ads looking for the same thing,” he says. “Solve that problem and you can bid a lot more work.”

John Hill
Hill Engineering and Construction
Canyon Country, California

Diversification is the watchword for John Hill. His business is still strong, although recent indications are that the housing market in California is cooling off. “Luckily we do a lot of industrial and commercial work,” Hill says, “as well as insurance work rebuilding landslides and hillside failures. So we’ve stayed busy.”

He stays focused on moving earth. “If you get hooked up with a good client who’s building houses, naturally you want to make that client happy. But if you realize his business is starting to slow down, you know it’s time to start looking around for other things to do. We’ve done that and it’s been a successful – if sometimes difficult – progression for our business.”

Hill says being named a finalist has been a huge plus for his company. “It’s helped us win over some large contracts,” he says. “We’ve done some custom houses up in the Santa Monica mountains – one doctor was building a house that needed $200,000 worth of dirt work. One way I helped cinch the deal was by sending him a copy of the magazine with our story in it.

“The other thing that’s been a benefit from the program is when we hire new operators or new personnel, we let them know that we’re an award-winning contractor and we expect them to act accordingly. It’s allowed us to recruit better people for our business.”

Advice: “Shoot for slow, measured growth. You’ve got to build a good reputation, and the best way to do that is to get really good at something, even if it’s just moving earth. Once you do that, other opportunities will come along.”

Bud Fultz
Ole South Excavating
Murfreesboro, Tennessee

“We’re still doing the same thing,” reports Bud Fultz, whose firm, Ole South Excavating, concentrates on site development for housing subdivisions within Murfreesboro. The city is in the midst of a housing boom, experiencing a 15 percent growth rate. “There’s a lot of high-end commercial work going on, which is prompted by all this housing work,” he says.

Always on the lookout for new jobsite tools, Fultz has begun using Stone Slinger trucks, which feature a conveyor-belt unloading system that places aggregates from the rear of the truck. “This has replaced our skid steer when we do foundations,” he reports. As part of the site development work, Fultz still employs his curb-and-gutter machine and crew.

Advice: “Get a good accountant, lawyer and banker. Most people getting into this business know how to do the work, but have no clue about the business end. You can’t afford not to have a good accountant. I don’t understand the guys who don’t know whether or not they’re making any money.

“I took some continuing education management courses, and even after 15 years in this business it was well worth the one evening a week to keep on top of everything. If you don’t know how to handle your money, or where your money is going, it will kill you.”

Larry Lafollette
Lafollette Excavating
Strafford, Missouri

With nearby Springfield, Missouri’s ever-expanding economy, Larry Lafollette has both expanded and diversified his company. “We’re getting into more residential work, including subdivisions,” he says.

His equipment fleet has also expanded, as he’s added dozers, dump trucks and a track loader. Lafollette, also a pilot, tries to fly the Cherokee Archer he owns with three other people “every chance I get.” He figures those chances will increase next year when he’s in line to become president of the Missouri Land Improvement Contractors of America. “I’m really looking forward to that because it’s a chance to serve other contractors in the industry,” he comments.

But what really makes life good is the continuing presence of his two sons, Brad and Eric, in the business. “They are my retirement plan so I want to take care of them,” he says with a laugh.

Advice: “Take advantage of the help offered by both the Small Business Administration and the counselors from the Service Corps of Retired Executives, or SCORE. They give you a lot of insight and shared experience at minimal cost. Also be ready to work hard.”

Mark Moore
Green Earth Landscaping & Design
Montville, New Jersey

The most significant change in Mark Moore’s life since 2004 has been the birth of his first child, Maxwell, who is 11 months old. “While we have had a lot of accomplishments on the business front, Max is by far our biggest and best,” says Mary Moore, Mark’s wife and Green Earth’s marketing director. “He is a complete joy – a big equipment fan.”

As far as Moore’s company goes, Green Earth Landscaping & Design has grown 20 to 30 percent during the past two years. “Nothing crazy – just a good, steady trend upward,” he says. Green Earth still specializes in high-end residential design/build jobs and has stopped doing the small percentage of commercial projects it did in 2004.

The company has moved to a larger, 3 1/2-acre site and Moore is planning to tear down the existing office next year and build a two-story structure modeled after an old post-and-beam carriage house. “We just want to do something different from what the other designers in this area are doing,” Moore says. The upper story will feature an expansion of the company’s current “idea center,” which includes samples of materials such as pavers and photos of completed projects.

Advice: “Expand the things you do well and do less of the things you do OK or not so well. We’ve learned to focus on the things we’re really good at.”

Harry and Lori Foster
Green Ridge Construction
Tucson, Arizona

Since we last visited with the husband and wife team behind this construction company, business has boomed. Its revenue will likely double this year, reaching between $6 million and $7 million in sales, and the company has enough work on the books to last through the end of the year. Despite the boom, the company is still moving dirt with just 25 employees. “There is such a lack of competent and experienced people,” says Harry. “Its dog eat dog when it comes to hiring.”

So how does Green Ridge do double the work with the same number of employees? “We’ve got the best of the best,” Lori says. “Most of our people have years of experience and can do so much more work than those who are less experienced.” The key to keeping them, then as now, is to manage the company so that the employees see it as a career, not just a job. That means good benefits and a retirement fund.

Dedication to safety has been another hallmark of the way the Fosters do business – a philosophy that got put to the test recently when an OSHA inspector spent three days going through the company’s operations with a fine-tooth comb. But the result, Harry says proudly, was a “100 percent clean bill of health.”

Advice: One thing the Fosters learned at the Contractor of the Year roundtable was that no matter what part of the country they are from, contractors face the same challenges and obstacles. “You have to come up with the best ideas possible to keep ahead of the game,” Lori says.

Shonna and Mike Nadeau
Nadeau Excavating (Formerly BNR Excavating)
Hastings, Minnesota

Shonna, president, and Mike, vice president, now run the rechristened Nadeau Excavating, after buying out partner Jeff Rehder, who still works with the firm, in January of 2005. The company continues to concentrate on commercial earthwork, site utilities and demolition throughout the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

There is one important difference, however: Nadeau Excavating is now a certified woman-owned firm within the metropolitan area and the state of Minnesota, a hard-won designation.

The firm is up to 25-plus employees and has continued to use rental purchase options to add new equipment. Shonna and Mike maintain a competitive hold on their trade by growing and understanding their learning curves, building better business concepts and applying honest work ethics to all scopes of operations. “In addition,” Shonna says, “the company works to encompass goodwill toward all people by genuinely applying corporate philanthropy.”

Advice: “Always try to practice strong communication skills, no matter what the situation – banking, digging in dirt or talking to employees. Even the scariest situation can be handled by communicating the right way and by returning phone calls. Also pay attention to details.”

Glenn Huey and Jim Rogers
Nittany Mountain Excavating
Spring Mills, Pennsylvania

Glenn Huey says everything is going great for these two Pennsylvania farm boys. “We had a bit of a downturn locally last year,” he says. “But our backlog was such that we never slowed down a bit. In fact, we’ve recently purchased some new machines and even expanded our operations a little bit. So we’re still busy.”

Even though most of their clients have been using Nittany Mountain for years (many use them exclusively), Huey thinks the company’s exposure in Equipment World has been a good thing for them. “More people seem to be aware of us and know who we are now,” he notes. “But for me, my pride in being a Contractor of the Year finalist is that it showed folks around the country that even little guys like us can do the things it takes in this business to be recognized nationally.”

When asked if he’s learned any lessons since being a Contractor of the Year finalist, Huey promptly answers, “Yes! I’ve learned that I’m getting old and I need to retire!” he says with a laugh. “But at least I’m not as old as Jim – he’s going gray. So I’ve got that going for me!”

Advice: Huey says he can spot the winners when a new contractor starts up a business in his area. “You see a new guy riding around in a $40,000 truck, talking on the phone all day and checking on his jobsites every now and then,” he says, “and you think, ‘Nope. He’s in this business for the wrong reasons.’ We’ll put our money on the guy driving the beat-up old truck who’s on the job with a shovel in his hand, working with his guys all day long. He’s the guy who’s going to be successful. He’s the guy who’s going to make the money in the long run. You can bank on it.”

(Editor’s Note: Jim Rogers was on his way to Las Vegas for vacation and was not available to respond to his partner’s hair color observations.)

Jim Pruss
Pruss Excavation
Dodge, Nebraska

The looming deadline for livestock owners to get their waste control facilities in conformance with state and federal regulations has kept Pruss Excavation busy installing lagoons with clay liners.

“2005 was our best year to date,” Pruss says. “We jumped into GPS with both feet and our son Matt has assumed this responsibility, taking care of the computer work. GPS really makes a difference and it speeds up our finish grade work considerably.”

Along the way, Pruss has traded in the four Cat Challenger tractors that power his pull-behind scrapers, a move motivated by improvements on the model’s track system and transmission. The company also has a dozer on order with expected delivery in May.

Advice: “Treat your customers right and they’ll call you back. We grew our business doing agricultural work and your reputation is everything in that kind of work. Always make sure they get their money’s worth.”

Donnie Roebuck
Roebuck Construction Services
DeBary, Florida

Donnie Roebuck’s company has almost doubled its annual volume during the past two years. “The construction industry is an interesting place to be right now,” he says. “They’re wanting to build things faster than we can put them together.”

Roebuck, who has been in business 17 years, says his focus on the client is continuing to pay off in Florida’s booming construction economy. He has developed a customer base that trusts him because they know he’ll do what he says, and do it in the time he says he will. Of his three business units – laser finish grading, heavy excavation and commercial site development – Roebuck says the latter has blossomed a great deal since 2004. For these jobs, Roebuck Construction Services starts with land clearing and then does everything from constructing building pads, roads and curbs to installing water systems and signs.

Advice: “Follow your gut. If something doesn’t feel right to you, at least take some time and think about it longer. If you’ve been successful in this business, especially after five years, you should be conscious of that voice telling you to do something or not to do it. It took me a long time to have enough confidence in myself to follow my gut.”

And some past winners and finalists:

Dave and Kerri Heyl, 2003 winners
Heyl Civil Construction (formerly Heyl Country Excavating and Construction)
New Castle, Colorado

Much has changed for the Heyls, both personally and in business. They’ve welcomed son Evan into the family and taken on financial partners, changing the name of their firm in the process. And after buying a local excavation company, Dave and Kerri now have a new 8,200-square-foot office (partially rented out), complete with a shop that includes a full-time service department.

“We’ve probably tripled our equipment fleet since 2003, and did just a hair over $10 million in volume in 2005,” says Dave, adding that the biggest impact on his bottom line has been a change in hiring philosophy: The company now hires more experienced management level people, including two project managers, two main superintendents and five job foremen.

There are three full-time office personnel, including an estimator. Kerri, busy with Evan, now works in the office part time. The company is doing more work in the Aspen Valley and in Vail, where they moved 200,000 cubic yards of dirt on one project.

Advice: “Don’t grow too fast, and know your costs. Know who you are and stick with what you know until you’re ready to expand.”

Dean and Ralph Studer, 2002 finalists
Studer Construction
Billings, Montana

“We’ve been growing at a controlled rate,” says Dean Studer. The company has two full-time employees along with seasonal help and Dean and Ralph added a motor grader to their fleet and updated their skid steers.

Lately, the weather has been so good in Billings that Dean bemoans the decision of local asphalt suppliers to use this time of year for plant maintenance. “We could be doing a lot of asphalt work,” he says.

Cousins Ralph and Dean have found a formula that works – Ralph runs the office and Dean handles the field. “It took us a couple of years to figure out the best way to do this,” Dean comments. Despite his office duties, Ralph still does a turn on the roller.

Even though the company is now nearing the $1 million annual revenue mark, Dean and Ralph’s emphasis on controlling costs has kept them in the RV that’s served as their office for several years. “I complain because he doesn’t keep my area dusted,” Dean says with a laugh. Still, one of their “down-the-road” goals is to have their own office, even though they enjoy the present lack of overhead.

The two did take a hit last year when their first piece of equipment, a 1996 skid steer, was stolen off a job. “We had insurance but that doesn’t give you the sentimental value,” Dean comments.

Advice: “Know your numbers,” Dean says. “Know the jobs you’ve got coming up and what it will cost you to do them. And make sure you love it. You have to enjoy the work and enjoy the people you’re with.”