When Wally and Jean Thompson started their construction firm in 1980, their sons were not far behind them. Scott, now 52, had already put in time along side his father at local construction firms. Kelly, 44, was then in high school and started working summers in his father’s firm. The only son still too young to participate at the time was Steve, now 37.
Wally had plenty for his boys to do, installing soil conservation dams and structures. By 1990, Steve joined the team, working summers while attending college. Kelly also double-teamed work and college. Eventually, all three were working fulltime with dad. “We just didn’t know any better,” Steve laughs.
“The chance to build something for ourselves was probably more of a draw than anything,” Kelly says. After receiving his degree in civil engineering in 1987, Kelly took over the firm’s bidding and estimating. When Steve joined the firm in 1996, the transition from father to sons became official, with Kelly named president, Scott becoming vice president and Steve taking over the secretary status from Jean. Those positions are for the corporation papers, though. In working terms, Kelly manages the business end of the firm, Scott looks over the equipment in addition to project supervision and Steve serves as a project manager and safety director. Brother-in-law Mike French also serves as a project superintendent along with Dave Rhoades. Kevin Schutt is the office manager that handles all of the accounting including payroll and employee benefits.
After soil conservation funding dried up, the Thompsons had to transition into a different type of work, putting in sewer and water lines. “It was a natural transition with the type of equipment we owned,” Kelly says. The company still installs dam structures, and concentrates within a 50-mile radius around the family’s eastern Nebraska hometown of Arlington. Customers include the nearby city of Fremont, Omaha’s Metropolitan Utilities District, the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District and other cities throughout the area. Around 60 percent of the firm’s jobs are public works, with private development jobs making up the rest.
Wally’s now retired, but he still pulls truck driving duty and makes supply runs. “We don’t make him get up at 6 a.m., though,” Kelly says with a grin.
Kelly admits finding skilled workers is a challenge, one the company tries to meet with a good benefits package and a family-friendly working environment. The Thompsons want to avoid jobs that require overnight stays, something they’ve tried in the past. “The cost of working out of town was prohibitive, plus everyone’s got a family and it’s important to us to be a part of our kids’ activities,” Kelly says. Besides the brothers, Mike, Dave and Kevin have been with the company since the late eighties. “These are some real quality people that have never been afraid of hard work. Their loyalty and dedication have been essential to the success of our company,” Kelly adds.
Equally important is safety. “We feel our commitment to our safety program is one of the best ways to ensure hiring and keeping quality people,” Kelly says. “Having a safety director and implementing a good program pays dividends in the long run.”
The company, which has $2 to $3 million in annual volume, has 12 employees and strives to maintain an experienced team. “Having the same people working on your projects will not only make you more productive, but it’s also a great comfort for your clients,” Kelly adds. “Our workforce is the lifeline of our company, so we have to work at keeping this important part of the puzzle a priority.”
Larry Andreason, water and sewer superintendent with the Fremont Department of Utilities, appreciates this consistency. “You never have to oversee them,” he says. “They know how to take care of a job.” Andreason remembers a project that involved a 24-inch-diameter sewer line. “They got stuck in a curve and were there working until midnight, and the whole crew stayed there until the job was done and the services hooked up again,” he says.
Scott watches over the company’s fleet, which includes excavators, dozers, skid steers, wheel loaders, backhoes, two dump trucks and a tractor/lowboy combination. “We’ve got people in our shop who are very capable of working on our equipment,” Scott says. “But sometimes we use our dealers because of the time factor.” The capabilities extend beyond the shop, however. Those working on machines also pull double duty in the operator’s seat.
Although the company buys its core machines, the need to rent does come up. “There are just so many equipment options out there, we find it easy to rent if we need something for a specific job, such as a zero tail swing excavator for putting a sewer line down an alley,” Kelly says. Plus, adds Scott, renting gives you a chance to “try out the new stuff.”
“Most of their equipment looks like the day they bought it,” says Rusty Rogers with dealer Nebraska Machinery. “They take care of their machines, and they have something to trade off when they trade.”
“Having and maintaining an updated fleet is the key to attracting good employees as well as enabling those people the best opportunity to complete your jobs on time and within budget,” Kelly comments.
Serving a niche well
Since so many construction firms don’t make it beyond the first generation, Kelly attributes one simple factor to the fact there was a solid company for Wally to pass on to his sons: “We stick with the things we know how to do best,” he says. Adds Steve: “When we are on a job, we treat it as if it’s going to be ours. That way, when we’re ready to hand the project over to an owner, they feel they got exactly what they’ve paid for.”
And Kelly maintains that a professional appearance – both in personnel and equipment – plays a role. “It makes a difference, especially in private work, where it’s not necessarily the low bidder who gets a job,” he says.
“They try to make the public happy, which is the key to any project, because there will be interruptions,” says Dan Norman, project engineer with HWS Consulting Group. “They do their best to make sure everyone is informed.” Norman in particular remembers one instance where this emphasis on communication came into play. “We were working on a job in an upscale neighborhood, and the people there were concerned about the sewer installation. The Thompsons made it a point to talk to each homeowner. They even replaced a driveway for a guy to make him happy.”
Kelly says most contractors who have been in business longer than 10 years have one thing in common: a willingness to change and adapt with the times. “The technological advances over the years have been enormous,” he comments. “Contractors must stay current with their equipment, training and personnel if they want to remain competitive.
“Even though we’ve been in business for 27 years, bids and opportunities just don’t walk through the door,” Kelly continues. “You’ve got to be out there actively pursuing it. It seems you’re almost proving yourself again every year. This requires you to constantly re-evaluate your operation, techniques and the equipment you use.”
The Thompsons like the slow but steady growth the firm has experienced in recent years. They have their niche in a local market that’s served them well. “We’re able to make a good living and work together as a family and not a lot of people can say that,” Kelly says. “We all live five miles from each other, which I consider a benefit that you can’t put a price tag on.”