James “Pat” McGlinchy is not an Alaska native – he grew up 60 miles north of Seattle – but you couldn’t tell it now. Raised on a farm, he had the dream of coming to Alaska, and jumped on it when college came.
“I had learned how to fly small airplanes, and so I came up here to be a bush pilot,” Pat says. “Then I found out, gee, no big deal – everyone’s got a plane up here.”
Pat had his eye on doing anthropology and geology field work – the subjects in which he got his degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. But then he learned the work would barely generate a living – an important factor since he had just married Marie, who he’d met on the university’s rifle team. Time for Plan B. Pat turned to his operating engineers’ union card, one he’d gained while working summer jobs.
Pat worked for several companies, and his experience included the fabled Alaskan pipeline. But the pipeline was a boom-then-bust event, over in three years. By that time, he and Marie had three children, so he balanced working in a quarry in town with going north 500 miles to the Prudhoe Bay segment of the pipeline. It was a strategy that worked in the end – he still had his quarry job when the pipeline work dried up.
A pointed question
By 1982, though, the itch to do his own thing started in earnest. Then Pat made a Christmas visit to his father. His dad was blunt: “When are you going to go on your own?,” he asked. Just then, however, wasn’t the best of times to step out. The pipeline work was over, and Fairbanks was in an economic depression.
But his dad persisted. Pat got a call from him in March: a contractor in Seattle was going broke and his equipment was up for sale. “You’ve got to come up with $60,000 by Wednesday,” his dad told him. “This is your chance.” Several banks turned him down before a sympathetic loan officer offered him a letter of credit and Pat bought the equipment: a dump truck, trailer and dozer.
But buying the equipment also meant that Pat’s new firm was cold stone broke. Since it was March, there were no immediate jobs for the fledgling company. Joined by his brother Tim – hence the “M & M” in his company’s name – Pat put a small ad in the paper. While Pat kept working his day job, his brother would work the small jobs that came their way, joined by Pat when he got off work. This meant long hours, with the two typically going from 4 a.m. to midnight during the extended daylight hours of the Alaskan summer. (Tim left Fairbanks and M & M when a family medical problem prompted a move back to Seattle. Tim’s oldest daughter Hannah now helps in the company’s office.)
“By June, I realized I had so much work I couldn’t do both jobs,” Pat says. His hours didn’t decrease, however, when made the leap to self-employment. He and his brother did every type of job they could find: driveways, house sites, land clearing and putting in septic systems. But he had to put the pressure on – winter was coming. And he faced another realization: while he could do the work, the business end of the company eluded him.
And so Marie entered the picture. She started keeping the company’s books at the dining room table, a project she calls “learn as you go.” Adding to all that learning: the addition of their fifth child in 1983.
That initial year the firm grossed $40,000. The company is now at the $9.5 million mark, and doubled in revenues from 2005 to 2006. “I don’t want to do that again,” Marie says. “It was pretty stressful.”
She eventually graduated from the dining room table, moving in 1987 to the office the firm now occupies – and has expanded several times since.
Pat says there’s now a different attitude in Fairbanks about how jobs are awarded. “It used to be you’ve got to have the low bid. Now people are looking for someone they can work with easily. You couldn’t make it if you did substandard work up here. I would say 75 percent of my work is referrals,” including the site work for Fairbanks’ largest subdivision to date.
“Considering that there’s no year-round construction work here, the fact his employees come back each year to work for him says a lot,” says Dodie Sanders with client RDM Sanders.
Fortunately, all three of Pat and Marie’s sons – Ryan, John and Ben – work for the company as operators. Still, Pat knows he has some tough competition for his labor – including the operators union, to which he still belongs. He pays 100 percent of his full-time employees medical and dental insurance and offers a 401(k) and profit sharing program. “My specialty is taking young guys starting from scratch and training them,” Pat says, “and I’ve turned out some of the best operators in the area.” M & M is non-union, “but the joke in the union hall is we don’t have Pat but he’s trained a lot of our members.”
Pat likes M & M’s medium-size niche, staying away from projects such as state highway jobs that attract larger companies. “I’m pretty much the only one in this area that’s my size,” he says. Although it still does the small jobs that gave the company its start, M & M also does a variety of site development work.
Pat follows the wintertime maintenance routine many contractors in the lower 48 used before construction became practically year around. The company takes each machine into the shop and thoroughly inspects, repairs and cleans it. “When it goes back into the snow bank, it’s ready for spring,” he says.
But not all the equipment is put on ice, so to speak. In a heated shed, M & M’s snow plow feet – three graders, two loaders, two truck plows and two sander trucks – is always at the ready. The company has the lion’s share of service area contracts in the North Star Borough (or county). These contracts call for grading, ditching and culvert work in the summer and snow removal in the winter. “We have the contracts for almost 160 miles of roadway, most of it unpaved,” Pat says. Although this work isn’t hugely profitable, the fact that M & M has the most service districts in the state helps cash flow in the winter.
“Pat responds quickly to problems and has the best equipment in the area,” says Trent Mackey, Fairbanks/North Star Borough engineer. “Our office is the focal point for complaints and we never receive any about M & M.”
In addition to his snow fleet, Pat also has a variety of trucks and trailers, excavators, dozers, backhoes, skid steers and compactors, plus the equipment associated with his mobile crushing operation, including a cone crusher and a jaw crusher. Their crushing operation concentrates on doing the jobs too small for larger crushing outfits.
Not your normal working conditions
Not everyone can just come to Fairbanks and start working, Pat says. There’re less than a million people in the entire state, which is a fifth of the size of the lower 48 states, and 400,000 of them live in Anchorage, with another 100,000 in Fairbanks. And contractors here deal with permafrost, which presents problems no matter what the season. In winter, you’re digging up solid chunks of ice and rock. In the spring, it becomes a heavy muck. Then there are the short seasons and the scramble for skilled labor. Plus the area is isolated – if work slows down, you can’t just go bid a project in a nearby town. “Sometimes parts aren’t a 24-hour proposition,” Pat says.
All which makes preventing downtime an even more critical operation, underlying Pat’s basic equipment philosophy: buy new. “Instead of putting money into maintenance, I put it into a new machine and start all over again,” he says.
And he deliberately keeps his shop costs small – service intervals and part change outs are about all he does, and his one mechanic is also an operator.
Pat has strong ties to the close-knit Fairbanks community. When the school districts’ growing hockey program needed an additional indoor rink, M & M provided the answer. The company converted a roller-skating rink into a ice rink, known as the Polar Ice Arena. “We built it for the kids,” he says. “We were booked from the first day it opened in 1999, and the North Pole High School took it as their home ice.” (North Pole is a town just east of Fairbanks.)
M & M also got involved in a project produced by the television show “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” in North Pole in 2006. The firm did a major portion of the site work, a project that involved moving 3,800 cubic yards of dirt in seven hours.
“Contractors who are our clients saw us out there and said, ‘OK, next time you’re on our job, we expect you to get everything done in a day’,” Pat says with a smile.
Whatever lies around the corner, “my focus is to get the work done,” Pat says. “I want to do the best job, no matter what.”
And he’s staying put. “This was once a real pioneer town, and it’s lost some of that flavor with all its growth. But,” he pauses, then laughs, “this is it. This is as far north as I’m going to go.”