Contractor of the year Finalist: Earl Johnson and Jeff Queen

When Earl Johnson’s high school teachers wanted to schedule a parent-teacher conference, they were out of luck. Johnson lived alone, supporting himself by cutting and selling firewood, plowing gardens with a tractor and doing other odd jobs to pay the bills at what was once his family’s weekend home in Blue Ridge, Georgia.

He met Jeff Queen at school, where the two clicked because of their similar backgrounds. Earl was operating a roller in his father’s paving business at the age of 8 and Jeff grew up around farm tractors, often accompanying his dad on large mowing jobs.

At 27 years old, the friends seem young to be running a paving company with an annual volume of $3.7 million and 16 employees. But they’ve been working at it longer than most people suspect. “I’ve done this all my life,” Johnson says. “This was all I knew.” And it was the only career he envisioned for himself. His dad would take him to work with him some days instead of to school. “He took so much pride in having a son who wanted to do what he did,” Johnson says.

Both Queen and Johnson say they were raised “old school,” with a strong work ethic. “We pride ourselves in knowing we got ourselves here,” Queen says.

Johnson originally moved to Blue Ridge from Jonesboro, Georgia, near Atlanta, with his parents. His father owned a paving company and had done a few jobs in the small town in preparation for relocating his business as well as his family. But Johnson’s dad suffered a fatal heart attack three days after the family’s move. His mother decided to sell the paving company and move back to Jonesboro, while Johnson chose to stay in Blue Ridge. He says he saw a potential for growth in the tiny town nestled in the north Georgia mountains that didn’t exist in already-developed suburban Atlanta.

Johnson started Johnson Paving when he was 18 with a $15,000 loan. “And the bank was really worried about that,” he says, laughing. With the money he bought a $7,000 paver and a $7,500 roller. Then he began paving driveways with the help of Queen, who had a skid steer and did site preparation and landscaping work while attending Southern Polytechnic. He eventually left college to go into business with Johnson full time.

Partner Insights
Information to advance your business from industry suppliers

One of the biggest hurdles the two had to overcome early on was their age. “Everyone wanted to know if we knew what we were doing,” Johnson says. While the firm soon developed a reputation for high-quality, on-schedule work, new customers still approach the owners wanting to know where to find Mr. Johnson.

Blue Ridge has lived up to Johnson ‘s vision, becoming a resort community for vacationers and a retreat for multimillionaires with second or third homes. People who can work from home also have contributed to the town’s growth. As banks, furniture stores and restaurants have cropped up to accommodate this expanding population, Johnson Paving has shifted from residential to commercial and department of transportation work, although it continues to do residential jobs occasionally.

Johnson and Queen spend 90 percent of their time in the field, operate equipment daily and are always present when one of their three crews is paving. The company has two estimators – Chad Whitaker, a former DOT engineer, and Richard McCrary, a former Fulton County employee who had experience in construction. The estimators stay with the jobs they bid until they’re complete, checking in on them at least two times a day. “They know what it takes to lay 10,000 tons of asphalt,” Johnson says.

Also contributing to Johnson and Queen’s ability to spend so much time in the field is office manager Lisa Waters, who handles all the company’s paperwork and is available to address questions customers have while Johnson and Queen are at jobsites.
Johnson Paving has developed a loyal group of customers who know they’re not getting the cheapest rate around, but are willing to pay a little more for the peace of mind of knowing the job will be done right.

More money, more equipment
The rickety equipment Johnson and Queen worked with when starting out taught them to value new machines. “We had junk to begin with,” Queen says. “We’d pave all day with the paver and then work on it half the night.”

Constantly worrying about something breaking down led the two to vow they would buy only new equipment as soon as that was possible. They bought a new paver their third year in business, and now keep two pavers on hand, trading in one for a new machine every two years. Having a stand-by machine has been well worth the extra cost. “It’s cheaper to make the payment than to lose eight to 10 loads of asphalt,” Johnson says.

Johnson and Queen don’t rent equipment. “If we need something, we buy it,” Johnson says. They know this philosophy has led to a fleet size that would make many contractors nervous – 40 machines for 14 operators, including themselves – but they say it’s a system that works for their company. Anything their customers want done, the company can do on its own, without anyone else dictating when machines will be delivered or picked up.

Another advantage is that they can keep their employees busy no matter what the weather is like. While 70 percent of the company’s contracts are for paving projects, which provide the highest profit margin, crews can also do grading, hydroseeding or clearing jobs. Johnson Paving does its equipment maintenance in-house, so employees have something to do on rainy days or, if they want to make extra money, on Saturdays. They keep meticulous maintenance logs, and besides trading in pavers, Johnson and Queen haven’t sold any of the equipment they bought new.

The proprietors don’t draw a paycheck from the company, opting instead to support themselves and their families (both are married with one child) through a side venture buying, selling and developing land. They say they want Johnson Paving to grow to a certain point, and they can buy a lot of machines with the money they would otherwise pay themselves. And buying more machines is what they really want to do anyway. “When most people have extra money, they think of buying a new car or new furniture; we want to buy new construction equipment,” Johnson says.

It’s an inclination they’ve learned to reign in, though. Four years ago Johnson and Queen discovered the limit to the number of machines they should purchase at one time. They tried to grow too quickly, buying seven machines at a price of around $100,000 each. The weight of the debt load was crushing, and the company ended up $250,000 in the red at the end of the year. “We didn’t know if we’d ever overcome it,” Johnson says.

They set up a line of credit and paid it off in four months. And they didn’t buy any mainline equipment for two years. “That was the best life lesson,” Queen says.

A career that pays off
When Johnson and Queen talk about their business, it’s obvious they couldn’t be happier doing anything else. Construction’s reputation as a fall-out industry seems ironic to them, and it’s something they’re trying to change. “We love what we do,” Johnson says. “We tell new employees that if they work hard training with the company for four years, they can earn as much money as someone with a college degree.”

But it’s not all about money. “It’s about what you want to do in life,” Queen says. “We’re getting to enjoy ourselves.”

Arriving at the 16 employees the company has today was an eight-year, “trial-by-fire” process, Johnson says. In general, those in the construction field today don’t take as much pride in quality workmanship as previous generations did, he says. The key to finding and keeping good employees, he adds, is to offer noticeable perks.

Hiring is easier now for Johnson Paving because it is known as a profitable firm that offers high pay and bi-annual bonuses. Prospective employees also know what will be expected of them. Johnson says they would rather pay one person more than average than to have three people standing idle. As for the bonuses, “If we prosper, they should prosper,” Queen says.

Johnson and Queen also want their employees to view their jobs as careers, pushing them to gain as much knowledge as possible about the business and rewarding them for it with bigger paychecks.

The future
In the next year or two Johnson and Queen think the company will reach a comfortable size and they plan to level out its growth. But they admit it’s a claim they’ve made before. “We get so wrapped up in what we’re doing that we don’t notice what we have done,” Johnson says. “If you’d have told us when we were 18 or 19 that we’d be here now, we wouldn’t have believed you.”

Other voices
“All they do is work. They’re very, very hard workers. If something needs to be done, they just go ahead and do it. They’ll go out of their way to make things right.”
– Jim Dupont, co-owner, Sisson, Dupont and Carder

“When they say they’re going to be there, they’re there. Their work is top notch. Even in bad spots where it’s hard to get water to run off, they find a way to do it.”
– Denny Laney, owner of Laney Construction

“Their tremendous work ethic and dedication to succeed have been the key elements in their rise to the top.”
– Richard York, vice president and manager, Bank of Blue Ridge