Contractor of the Year Finalist: Cyndi Wheatley, Tab Construction

Ambition propels success, but Cyndi Wheatley, owner of Tab Construction, Colorado Springs, Colorado, believes it takes more than that. For Cyndi, her construction company didn’t happen by simply setting a goal and hoping to reach it. It developed after she and her family established a strong foundation from which to grow.

This meant gradually building Tab Construction one machine and one employee at a time and by focusing on the quality – not quantity – of Tab’s work.

The company now boasts revenues of around $6.9 million, and even though Cyndi admits the economy has taken a toll on the amount of work they’re seeing, Tab’s sales stand about $1 million ahead of where they were last year.

It helps that the Wheatleys have such a large family with an interest in the business. “Our family is why our company is where it is today,” Cyndi’s husband and Tab’s manager, Bud, says.

Realizing the value of developing a good work ethic early in life, Cyndi and Bud involved their children in the business early on. The boys learned how to run a shovel and worked alongside the employees installing laterals for septic systems. They also helped Cyndi set up a computerized accounting system.

Now, three of the Wheatleys’ five children, Tabatha Fotenos, Travis Wieman and Jody Wheatley, and Tabatha’s husband, Alex Fotenos, are part owners. Tabatha deals primarily with the company finances and human resource functions. Travis was in the construction field for 11 years prior to working for the family business, and now acts as an estimator for Tab, using his experience to better evaluate what it takes to move dirt economically. Tabatha’s husband, Alex, came to the company several years ago after selling his own business.

According to Cyndi, Alex brings well-honed financial and business management skills to Tab, which helped him quickly receive a promotion from project manager to chief financial officer.

Here’s a story…
When you first meet the Wheatleys their story sounds a lot like a Brady Bunch tale, with an underlying construction theme. When Cyndi and her husband, Bud, married in 1974 they brought six young children together. “We had five boys and one girl – and she held her own,” Cyndi says.

In the early years of their marriage, the Wheatleys lived in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where Bud opened the Bud Wheatley Excavating Company. It was there Cyndi became interested in the construction business, as she and Bud both did underground utility work. “Bud comes from three generations of earthmovers, and he grew up in Oklahoma learning how to operate equipment,” Cyndi says.

But Cyndi wanted to return to her home state of Colorado after trying to withstand the then weakening economy in Oklahoma. The Wheatleys moved back in 1984 and construction hit a low point in Colorado soon after. “We were basically broke at the time,” Cyndi says.

Bud and son Travis went to work for R.E. Monks, a local construction firm, doing earthmoving, while Cyndi tackled smaller side construction jobs when she could and worked in the high school the kids attended for a few years. She then began working for TRW, a defense contractor. “Since building was so bad in Colorado, R.E. Monks asked Bud and Travis to go to Arizona for a three-month job,” Cyndi remembers. While they were there, Cyndi took a leave of absence from TRW to visit Arizona and scope out business opportunities, but she didn’t like the climate. “The short-term job turned into five years of work,” Cyndi says, laughing.

When they finally came home in 1993, Cyndi realized she wanted to branch out and lead her own construction business in Colorado Springs. She started with a few odd projects and ran the business strictly from the basement of their home, relying on the family for help. Cyndi and Bud decided to name the company Tab Construction after their daughter, Tabatha, who helped start the business by doing a lot of legal leg work.

“We started out with $1,800 and rented equipment,” Cyndi says. “We didn’t buy anything new until we could pay for it. So when we bought our first used backhoe, it was a big deal.”

To do this day, Cyndi says the company lives by this philosophy: to pay for one piece of equipment before they buy another, and research their options thoroughly to make sure they’re getting the best deal. “Bud also buys the equipment before we really need it, realizing one may have to pay a premium if you wait until you must have a piece of equipment,” Cyndi says.

Luckily, in addition to starting out debt-free, Cyndi and Bud had developed relationships with project managers at R.E. Monks. It wasn’t long before Cyndi obtained subdivision projects, doing grading, curbing and trenching in lines for utilities.

In 2005, the company experienced enough growth to move into a 24,000-square-foot office space with a shop building and a 10-acre yard, which coincidentally, sits right across the road from their old house. “It really lets us see how far we’ve come,” says Cyndi.

Finding a forte
Now, Tab Construction relishes its niche in the commercial and military markets doing site preparation, structural excavation and the installation of underground utilities. “We want our customers to know we can be their sole excavator,” Cyndi says. With an equipment fleet of a little more than 100 machines, and its ability to offer complete bid proposals, the company aims to do just that.

Lately, Tab does the majority of its work for military bases in Colorado Springs and the surrounding areas, including the U.S. Air Force Academy, Shriver Air Force Base and the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Base. Early this year, Tab signed a 10-month contract to install storm sewers, water lines and slotted drains for Fort Carson’s tank service area.

Early on, Tab relied on an estimating software to bid more jobs with better accuracy. This past year, the company switched to AgTek’s dirt estimating system, so estimators could import engineers’ CAD files and download those to an AgTek GPS unit. “This take-off program allows us to do all of our own estimating, which really gave us a lift for commercial and government work,” says Travis Wieman. Tab now plans projects far ahead of time, instead of manually drawing out grids and chancing inaccuracies.

Not that there were any inaccuracies before they invested in the software. According to Mike Hester, project manager with Gerald H. Phipps Construction, one of the general contractors Tab subs for, “Nobody knows an estimate like Cyndi – she has it down to the last spoonful of dirt.”

The Wheatleys’ other son, Jody, uses the GPS in the field to set stakes faster and more accurately. “Currently, we’re using the GPS for grading, staking and all the surveying,” Cyndi says. “It’s working out well and has been able to save customers money, and even got us a couple of jobs. I think those that don’t get on board with this technology will be left behind in the next couple years.”

Keeping it in the family
As it has grown as a company, Tab Construction developed a reputation for completing jobs in a timely fashion, without cutting corners. “I like the satisfaction I feel when I drive around town and see all the work we’ve done,” Cyndi says.

A lot of the general contactors Tab subs for would like the company to work in Denver and other distant areas, but Bud says Tab has made the decision to stay close to home for now.

“The most challenging thing for us has been finding good employees,” Cyndi notes.

Recognizing that the average age of a construction worker in the United States is more than 40 years old, Cyndi has taken a strong interest in attracting young workers to the construction field. (See sidebar below)

These days, it’s not uncommon to see any one of the Wheatleys’ 13 grandchildren at the Tab office learning the ropes of construction or hear the entire family talking about jobsite plans over lunch in the office kitchen.

Eventually, Cyndi and Bud hope to retire and pass the Tab Construction legacy on to the next generation. Since the Wheatley family comes from three generations of earthmovers, it will be no surprise when the company retains its family roots.

Colorado’s future contractors?
Noticing how hard it’s been to find and keep good employees, Cyndi, who belongs to the National Association of Women in Construction, worked with the Associated General Contractors of America, Colorado Contractors Association in Denver, NAWIC and both the federal and Colorado Department of Transportation to develop a Construction Career Day for high school students. Cyndi acted as chairperson for the first CCD, which is now in its fifth year.

For the past four years, CCD was held in Denver, which made it hard for students in Southern Colorado to participate. This year, CCD will be held at Tab Construction in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on September 29, and will be sponsored by NAWIC and the El Paso County Contractors Association. There will also be a CCD in Denver in October.

“The goal is to get local schools and surrounding areas involved for the Colorado Springs CCD,” Cyndi explains. “We hope to have at least 600 juniors and seniors participate this year.”

As for other CCD locations, plans may be in the works for NAWIC to offer a CCD in Grand Junction, Colorado, next year.