Contractor of the Year Finalist: Lana and Derek Couch

Couch Excavating owner Phil Couch had a great obsession: heavy equipment. He always carried a Caterpillar key in his pocket and was known to stop by the side of the road if he happened to see a piece of Cat equipment and fire it up just to see how it ran. In country communities like Cassville, Missouri, a man could do that sort of thing.

On a midsummer Friday afternoon in 2001, Phil got up from his kitchen chair, took a few steps, and crumbled to the floor. Phil passed away, leaving behind three sons, a daughter, his wife, a small excavating business and 100 acres of red dirt in rural Cassville, Missouri.

“I promised Dad I’d take care of everything,” oldest son Derek told his mother, Lana.
Because Phil believed in the ’24-hour turnaround’ on his jobs, Derek was in his Dad’s office chair the Monday morning following Phil’s Sunday funeral. Like his father, Derek keeps his word and he had jobs to finish.

Building a life
On their Dallas honeymoon, Phil shared his love of heavy machinery with Lana, escorting her to all the Dallas equipment dealers to look at machines. Phil started Couch Excavating in 1973 with a John Deere D6C dozer and a Mack truck he didn’t know how to drive. He asked his new father-in-law for driving lessons.

Site preparation and land clearing were the primary projects for Couch Excavating. Cassville is nestled in the heart of the Ozarks, 14 miles from Table Rock Lake and home to about 3,000 people. In the 1970’s the Industrial Development Corporation successfully courted manufacturing plants, bringing jobs and opportunity to the area. Couch Excavating benefited by the region’s growth.

Phil ran the business and taught his boys how to operate the equipment while they rode on his lap. Lana raised the kids, taught home economics at Cassville Junior High School and did some bookkeeping chores for the company. But she also was a good listener when Phil talked about the business.

As kids, Phil and Lana’s daughter Gretchen would badger her younger brother Derek to play house. Instead, Derek would raid their father’s office, swiping the company’s triplicate order forms. The two would play Equipment Dealer, doing excavating jobs for high profile customers like the Reagan White House, and the two frequently renovated the Rose Garden.

Cassville’s steel magnolia
While putting her life back in order after her husband’s sudden death, Lana saw an opportunity to build their small family excavating company into a business that could support future generations. Lana told her sons they didn’t have to keep the business going if it wasn’t what they really wanted to do but Derek stepped up to the challenge. Lana had taught school for 30 years and was also ready for a change.

Realizing access to bid on commercial and state projects would be necessary for Couch Excavating’s growth, Lana applied for and was granted Missouri’s Women Business Enterprise certification. Bidding on Missouri Department of Transportation jobs meant Couch Excavating needed certification by the state’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program. Lana applied for certification and the state turned her down, telling her she couldn’t teach school and run a business at the same time. She did have the right to appeal her case, however, if she wanted to bring an attorney to a hearing in Jefferson City.

“I didn’t have counsel and there wasn’t a lawyer in town I wanted to spend eight hours with in the car,” Lana laughs. So she drove to Jefferson City and fought the state’s decision alone.

When state examiners asked how she knew enough about the business to carry it forward, Lana says, “I just listened all those years. Equipment was all Phil ever talked about!” Not surprisingly, Missouri changed its opinion and Lana got her DBE certification.

Lana quietly resigned her teaching job after 31 years. “When her long-time co-workers asked what she was going to do, she laughingly told them “I’m going to be contractor of the year!”

The quiet man
After high school, Derek left Cassville to earn a degree in Agricultural Systems Management at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Derek worked with his father for three years after college and loved it. He describes himself as a “fresh 25” at the time of Phil’s death.

“When my dad passed away, it set a challenge for me,” Derek says. “I had thought I might go into ranching,” he says, preferring the quiet life. Instead, his ASM degree gave him science and management skills that he easily applies to running Couch Excavating. “We still keep some cows, though,” Derek says.

Own what you can afford
Derek is steadily increasing his fleet of trucks and heavy equipment. Derek is more aggressive than his dad and wants to build up the Couch fleet. “I’m an equipment addict,” he laughs.

Derek’s confidence in his mechanical abilities allows him to shop and buy used equipment, stretching his equipment budget significantly. Since 2001, Couch Excavating has added tractors, scrapers, backhoes and trailer to bring their fleet up to 20 machines. Lana notes they have another $2.5 million in miscellaneous tools and equipment in the service buildings.

Derek prefers to own but rents machines when the need arises, usually when his equipment is already in use on one location and another job needs attention.

Houston Giles, sales representative for Murphy Tractor in Springfield, Missouri says, “Derek is a super guy and is very level headed with a lot of common sense. He’s particular, won’t cut corners and likes everything done right. He wants to give his customers exactly what they are looking for.”

Building acceptance
Couch Excavating is building on its reputation for excellent work. They are well known in the area and are invited to bid on larger projects, which Derek sees as a sign of acceptance in the business community. “I’ve gotten a taste for the little larger jobs now,” says Derek. Lana’s foresight to become DBE and WBE certified has also paid off. “When a contractor has to fulfill minority percentage requirements for a job, he knows he can trust us do the job for him. Being WBE has opened us up to work we might not have known about,” she says.

Derek is quick to point out they still need to be the lowest bidder.

Derek’s business model is simple. Work hard, work honest, take pictures and get it in writing. “People know we’ll do what they want done,” says Derek. “Some people get creative and take shortcuts. We go in and address the plan the way the architects and engineers drew it. We tow the line they draw.”

Giles agrees. “Couch Excavating is on many people’s ‘First Call’ list.”

An ongoing project for Couch Excavating is the Royal Ranger’s Camp Eagle Rock Campground and Conference Center. Couch widens roads, does clean and clear operations and land maintenance projects on the camp’s 1,500 acres. Last summer, Couch was running 24 hours a day hauling asphalt for MoDOT at night and doing site work during the day. Couch also does work on the airport in Bentonville, Arkansas, home of Wal-Mart. Currently they are preparing the site for the Cassville Junior High School addition. With the acquisition of more haul trucks, Couch is doing more road work. “Derek and Lana are pragmatic in their decisions. I see them as a steady growth company,” Giles says.

Couch Excavating works within a 75-mile range of Cassville and is favorably located between Joplin and Springfield, Missouri, and Fayetteville, Arkansas. Services include hauling, excavation, site prep, storm drainage, demolition, sewer lines and road prep.

Live and take pictures
Derek and Lana’s advice for someone new in the excavating business is to get everything in writing and take pictures on the job. Derek keeps a photo archive of Couch projects as they develop and refers to it when working with utilities and other contractors. If there is a question about the job, Derek can go to his files to pull the project’s pictures. He says having a visual and written history of a project’s progress clarifies discussions if a problem is found.

The Couches also stress taking the time to do the job right. “We are the first ones and last ones a customer sees on a project. We take pride in leaving a clean jobsite,” say Derek. “I don’t like trash,” says Lana. “In my next life I’m coming back as a landscaper.”

Another lesson Derek has learned running the business for the past five years is “sometimes you have to swallow hard and apologize, even if you haven’t done anything wrong.” There are Murphy’s Law projects even in Southwestern Missouri, including a recent site prep job for a car wash. An elderly resident sold his property to a developer but didn’t quite understand that all the dirt on the lot went with the sale. When Derek went to clear the property, the old-timer argued that the dirt was still his. Instead of disagreeing, Derek wisely bit his tongue and let the man have his way. Couch Excavating dutifully hauled away several loads of dirt from the carwash site and deposited it at the man’s house.

Who really runs Couch Excavating?
“Address it as a democracy,” say Derek. He runs field operations and Lana takes care of the office. Occasionally, Derek says a contractor will feel “I don’t have enough gray hair or my forehead isn’t high enough” and ask to argue with Lana.

In his gentle manner, Derek will warn the caller to tread lightly. “You don’t want to mess with Mama Couch,” he says.

Looking forward
The Couches plan to do more road building and eventually becoming a general contractor. Expanding their trucking operation and buying more excavating equipment is high on their list. Derek is looking forward to turning over some of daily management to younger brothers Ethan and Kenan. Lana is working on doing less micro-managing (“I’m a control nut”) and wants to bid larger projects. “We have room to grow and Ethan’s showing signs of being a businessman,” Derek says. Lana is pleased to point out that her boys grew the business from $450,000 in 2005 to $700,000 in 2006.

During building season, the company employs about ten people. “We try to hire young people from our area,” Lana says. “We have good jobs that pay well and we like to give them a chance to make decent money. We’ll hire inexperienced people and teach them to drive a truck or operate equipment – skills they can build a career on.”

In honor of Phil, the family established the Phil Couch Memorial Scholarship Program. “We look for someone who has a vocational or technical ambition. The dollar amount of the scholarship changes every year, depending on how business goes,” says Lana. There is no application process and no formal presentation. Lana has taught most of the kids in the area and simply chooses a student she knows will appreciate the help.

“I love what I’m doing,” says Lana. “It’s all for the kids, you know.”

Lana says she doesn’t miss teaching and then proudly pulls out a pile of binders. All those jobsite pictures have not been filed and forgotten. Lana Couch might be the only Contractor of the Year finalist who keeps a decorative scrapbook of each company job.