Contractor of the Year Finalist: Ron Arnold

Ron Arnold, owner of R.E. Arnold Construction in Gainesville, Florida, has only worked for one employer since he left college. In 1966 he began work for the Florida Park Service at the John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo. But when the Park Service told him part of his work also included cleaning out the park bathrooms, he quit. A long-time friend of his dad’s asked him if he’d build a house for him and Ron quickly recognized the opportunity to make his own job – one that wouldn’t demand bathroom detail.

Before he retired the first time in 1982, Ron had built up a lumber yard and construction business in the Keys that employed more than 120 workers. In his early 30s and enjoying the rewards of his hard work, Ron decided to take the opportunity to semi-retire and take time to enjoy life. He did occasional building projects to keep his hand in the business and eventually made his beloved boat his home.

Life changed suddenly when wife Jill came aboard. The confirmed bachelor fell in love at first sight and the couple married six months later. Jill, the pragmatic one of the pair, told Ron she wanted her husband to have a job, so together they built a residential construction business in the Upper Keys.

In 1999 the two Gator fans, with sons Jae and Aaron, moved back to Gainesville. Ron’s plan was to take it easy, build a few spec homes and some rental properties. Jae and Aaron expressed interest in construction and were eager to be a part of their father’s new business.

The three Arnold men were busy from the start, doing various residential and commercial construction projects. In the summer of 2000, Jae decided he wanted to pursue site work, so they bought their first backhoe. Answering that opportunity changed the direction of their business.

Ron laughs and says he frequently heard Jae come into the office saying, “Dad, we really need an excavator,” or “Dad, I really need a dozer,” and “Dad, can you get me a backhoe and a dump truck?”

They started out doing individual residential site clearing and building pads and soon decided to do site work exclusively, graduating from residential to commercial work, then subdivisions. New and larger jobs required additional help and equipment, so they hired equipment operators and truck drivers. “This is a tight-knit community and builders talk,” Ron explains. “We got some jobs from builders that other site contractors either didn’t have the time to do or were too expensive. As we got into the jobs, the builders started to ask me, ‘as long as you’re taking care of that, can you do this too?'” The company was soon doing underground utilities, water, sanitary and electrical work.

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Developers in Gainesville also discovered Ron would fix projects that, for whatever reason, required a do-over. Ron says he never places blame on the previous contractor or design engineer when he accepts a job. “It’s not my place,” he comments. “We’re all learning everyday.” His own readiness to accept opportunities has led Arnold Construction to expand into building roads, retention ponds, specialty concrete projects and asphalt paving.

Most of Arnold Construction’s projects are within 50 miles of Gainesville. The company employs 40 people and in 2007 had 30 jobs running concurrently. Jill is in charge of the company’s financials and also works as an ultrasound technician. Being the more conservative member of the family, Jill helps keep the company on course, Ron says.

His three sons
“Each of my sons has something he excels at,” Arnold says.

Ron’s oldest son, Gene, joined his dad’s business in 1999. Gene has a civil engineering degree from the University of Florida and earned his hands-on construction experience working for several large construction firms and as a project manager for Brown & Root. Gene is the businessman of the group and, like many of the next generation coming into an established family company, Gene was anxious to expand the business when he started to work with his dad. His sharp business sense and project management experience encourages the company to accept new ideas and technology. As vice president of the company, Gene is in charge of estimating and project paper work and is the unabashed marketer of the group.

Jae is the company’s superintendent and closer. “We had just started doing business in the area and we weren’t getting many calls except from a couple of first-time builders,” Ron says. He’d never sent out a salesman before but knew he might have to look into hiring someone. One morning Jae said, “Dad, I think I’m going to go out and meet some contractors.” Jae hit the street and came back that afternoon with three new accounts for the company, one of which was a builder who was putting up 200 new homes in Gainesville. Jae is also a skilled operator. Ron points to his son with admiration and says, “Jae is an extremely quick study when it came to running equipment.”

Ron’s youngest son, Aaron, is the builder and an artist with concrete. He can run equipment, lay asphalt and install underground utilities, but Aaron’s gift is the ability to look at a set of plans and visualize every detail. When someone on the job has questions about the project’s layout, elevations or radius, they go to Aaron. Ron proudly says Aaron is a leader of men.

Ron’s unofficial fourth son is Jody Skinner. “Jody was the first operator I hired in 2003 and is one of the finest operators in the area,” Arnold says. His road building knowledge and understanding of the underground utility business makes him a ‘most valuable player’ on the Arnold team. Skinner doesn’t need a job title because, as Gene says, “Everyone knows when Jody’s on the job, he’s in charge.”

Ron loves heavy equipment
Gene says, “My dad lives for equipment. He likes buying new equipment the way some people love to buy shoes.” Arnold stays true to his first pieces of equipment and still runs his first backhoe, dozer and loader every day. He likes to keep the company’s maintenance routines simple and costs reasonable. Donnie Young, a developer in Gainesville, says Arnold is a good equipment manager. “Their machines have never failed on one of my jobs. They take as much pride in their equipment as they do in their work.” Cat rollers and LeeBoy asphalt pavers round out Arnold’s inventory. The company’s large trucks are all Mack. They have thirteen dumps and two tractors and lowboy trailers. “My number one meal tickets are my dump trucks. If they’re running, Ronny’s making money,” he laughs. The company does its servicing in-house.

Arnold Construction has longstanding relationships with B & M Equipment Rental and Sales, Highland Tractor and Ring Power Cat in Gainesville. Renting equipment is not Arnold’s first choice, but Ron will lease a machine occasionally for special projects. “It just kills me to see a piece of rented equipment just sitting there, waiting to be picked up,” he says. “If we need a piece of equipment and we most likely will continue to use it, we buy it.”

Faith, family and fairness
Arnold says fuel and labor costs challenge the company but he tries not to let them affect how he does business. He is committed to doing the best work for a fair price. The recent slowdown in homebuilding has affected Arnold Construction but not severely. Ninety-percent of their work is commercial and they were recently awarded a site prep contract for a new chilled water plant at the University of Florida. That project will include clearing, underground utilities and pad work.

Arnold has purchased property for a new office and shop located next to the Santa Fe Community College in Archer, Florida, and hopes to begin building later this year. The location is important to Ron because he feels he can contribute to the economic development in the quiet rural town. The Arnolds work with the Boys and Girls Club of Alachua County, recently helping raise $100,000 for the charity.

The growth of Arnold Construction is a direct result of Ron’s commitment to doing an honest day’s work. Developers and general contractors who work with him say Arnold is impeccably honest and often does more than the work he agreed to, just to make sure the job is done well.

Eventually Ron plans to pass the company on to his sons, but his “show me” philosophy requires that his sons demonstrate they know how to do a good job. “I have faith in them and I try to instill pride in what they are doing,” he says. “I’ve been blessed because opportunities find me. I want the same for my family.”

But, until he decides to turn the day-to-day operations of R. E. Arnold Construction over to the boys, Ron will continue his habit of writing out everything he’s done that day on a yellow legal pad before he goes to sleep. He’ll keep eyeing new equipment because he hopes to do more government work and maybe an asphalt plant one day. Gene’s angling for him to get another boat but Ron probably won’t retire soon – he’s got too much energy, clearly loves his work; and Jill still wants her husband to have a job.