Contractor Of The Year Finalist: Rick and Susan Rollins; Austin, Texas

Excell Fueling Systems
Year started: 1993
Number of employees: 8
Markets served: Turnkey commercial and retail fueling systems, underground storage tank installation and remediation, compliance upgrades, tank tightness and line leak detector testing.

Shortly after he got out of high school in 1989, Rick Rollins got a job with a company that tested gasoline pumps around the Austin, Texas, area. It wasn’t much more than a helper’s job and the pay wasn’t that great, but Rick saw enormous potential to the upside.

He worked hard, learned everything he could about this complex, highly technical trade. He obtained his OSHA certification and TCEQ license (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality). In 1993 the company he was working for ceased operations, and Rick and another employee started Excell Fueling Systems. The work consisted mostly of testing tanks and lines with a little bit of construction and some small retail installations. But Rick kept noticing contractors with big backhoes and excavators doing similar jobs, on a much larger scale, and wondered if that, in fact, wasn’t where the future lay.

Up until then Rick and his partner had run a pretty simple cash business. They owned some small equipment and ran a lean operation. But Rick continued to think the big commercial installations were where he was going to find the best profits. Large commercial jobs with new heavy equipment, additional employees, new insurance and a whole new business model were going to require financing and a big leap of faith. But by 2005 Rick knew he had to take the business in that direction. His partner, not willing to take on those risks, decided to bow out.

A boost from the bank
Fortunately, Rick had established a good reputation and had gone to school with a local banker. When it came time to ramp up the business, his banker friend saw a lot of potential in Rick and his new business model and set the company up with a good line of credit. “That was big for us,” Rick said.

The step to the next level opened up a new world of opportunities. Now he could do not just the mechanical installations but turnkey solutions with the excavator and site work that went with it – something only a few contractors in the region could offer. Instead of retail installations, Rick could bid on big commercial jobs: marina fueling stations, bulk fuel storage and dispensing systems for schools, DOTs and other state agencies, and underground storage for backup power generators for “server farms” and data centers that have to run 24/7.

The new mission brought a lot of growth and Rick’s wife Susan came on board to be the office manager from a background in the medical and state insurance fields. To her, the freedom and entrepreneurial challenges of managing a fledgling company were exciting. “I love it,” she says.

Versatile services
The list of services that Excell provides is extensive. In addition to turnkey fueling systems, the company removes old underground fuel tanks, performs state compliance upgrades, installs and repairs cathodic protection and automated monitoring systems. Because of the expertise of the company’s installers, it also performs tank tightness and line leak detector testing and compliance inspections. And they’re also well set for general excavation, on-site remediation and load, haul and disposal jobs.

Rick is also a distributor for the Fuel Master brand of fueling equipment. Pat Goff, regional manager for Fuel Master says, “Rick is beyond whatever the next grade up from excellent would be. His attention to detail and rapport with customers – municipalities, construction companies, commercial trucking fleets – is excellent. When he’s done with a job, he’s done. I don’t get calls from customers with problems. Rick has never failed to do what he said he’s going to do.”

Safety first, with training
As you might expect, safety issues are paramount when it comes to any aspect of fueling systems. The technicians, who install, inspect and test these have to be recertified every two years and obtain continuing education credits every year as well. Rick and Susan instituted a mandatory drug testing program two years ago to further increase safety.

Digging in central Texas is no easy task. The area “soil” is sometimes no more than a few inches deep, covering limestone, granite or caliche. It requires serious equipment and knowledgeable operators. Rick frequently rents big equipment, finding that more cost effective than transporting the company’s own equipment when doing jobs out of town.

And the strategy of going after the big jobs also meant that the crews travel quite a bit, as far as Dallas and Houston in some cases. Having Rick out of the office for these long stretches of time would have strained the business, but in many cases, Rick’s been able to rely on superintendent Bob Cox to handle most of the out-of-town jobs.

Investing in people
Being willing to branch out into new areas of the industry and take on big jobs has proven a successful formula for Rick and Susan. Since 1993, the company has grown from three to nine employees and increased sales five-fold.

The biggest challenge is hiring and retaining qualified employees and being able to offer the type of benefits that will attract the most experienced individuals. In this industry the technology changes rapidly. Keeping their employees at a high level of industry knowledge and professionalism is essential to success.

Before a worker can be certified, he or she has to work in the field for a minimum of two years, then be tested. “You have to make an investment in them,” Susan says. “And then you hope they don’t take those two years experience and go somewhere else. You can’t just advertise in the paper and expect qualified people to show up. You have to grow your own.”

“We understand that our employees are an integral part of our success and that we must make the investments necessary to keep them,” Rick says. “That means offering employees not just a job but a career.”

One of Rick and Susan’s goals is to give the business a family atmosphere. One of their sons and a nephew are working for them. And Rick and Susan celebrated the company’s 15th anniversary last year and took the employees and spouses to the coast for a fishing trip.

Word-of-mouth marketing
The strategy works sufficiently that Rick says he gets most of his job leads and recommendations by word of mouth.

“I’ve done business with Rick for 15 years,” says Marc Childers, the Austin general manager for Sun Coast Resources. “He is always available, even on the spur of the moment. If we get a call about a gas tank leak it is absolutely critical to react promptly and Rick is there. He is very conscientious about his work. Often he is the low bidder, but he always gives a lot of value for what we pay him for.”

Stephen Wallace, former project manager for Wurzel Builders in Austin, concurs. “Rick makes it easy for us. With Rick, he just gets in, does his job and gets out. He does not hold a job up with change orders and if there is an issue to be addressed, he just does it.”