Walter Svoboda, Jackson, Minnesota
By Georgia Krause
For forty years, Walter Svoboda has been Jackson, Minnesota’s “Dirt Doctor,” practicing his precision excavating skills installing field tiles in the spring and fall, and operating his underground utility and site prep business year ‘round.
In the small town of Jackson, Minnesota, farming is the area’s economic foundation and modest traditional values are held close. There, in a 100-year old house you’ll find the offices of Svoboda’s Excavating, owned by Walter and his wife Debbie and run with the help of vice president Paul Fishel and Walter’s son John.
In 1968, 22-year old Walter bought a new Ford backhoe and advertised that his services were available to dig water lines, basements, culverts, etc. “For $12 dollars a day they’d get me and the backhoe,” laughs Walter. Having learned surveying from his grandfather, Walter also rented a Cleveland tile machine for several years and was able to lay 500 feet of tile a day – an impressive production for a one-man operation. Eventually he bought a used tile machine for $7,700 and hired on his first employee. They had enough work to pay off the machine in six months.
His business “grew like a plant”, Walter says and in 1978 his company began doing sewer and water work for the town of Jackson. Laying new farm tile and replacing old tile is done in the spring and fall, allowing Walter to tackle larger site prep and municipal projects in the summer and push snow in the winter.
In fact, the southwestern Minnesota area’s meteorological demands have helped Svoboda’s Excavating grow into multiple market sectors and stay financially sound during down years. “Our diversified equipment fleet allows us to be flexible in the scope of services we offer,” says Walter. “We are not tied to one type of work. If there is a lower volume of work in one sector we are able to switch gears and pick up work in other areas.” Svoboda’s flexibility has led the company to include such services as demolition, tree clearing, installing field driveways, and constructing and maintaining waterways. In the winter, the company removes snow for area manufacturing plants and even digs grave openings when the frost is too deep for the local cemeteries’ equipment to cut through. In addition, Svoboda’s Excavating has been called on to remove log and ice jams on the Des Moines River, which runs through Jackson.
“We’re on call for our local city utility departments to repair broken water mains, replace valves and service connections,” Walter says. “We are willing to do what is needed to satisfy our customers because we want their business. Heck, we even buried a customer’s donkey when it passed away.”
Equipment for success
To help him grow his company, Walter brought on Paul Fishel in 2004. Paul had been a general contractor who knew Walter for 15 years before joining Svoboda’s Excavating. Paul’s expertise is in municipal work and underground infrastructure and helping make the company more profitable. “Municipal bid work’s profit percentage has dwindled,” Paul says, “and the only way you can do municipal work is by being efficient.”
Walter says he trains his heavy equipment operators, teaching them how to run a shovel first before they are allowed to migrate up to heavier machinery. He runs a non-union shop and is expanding his reach to include more state wage jobs. Walter relies on Paul and his other supervisors to set the tone for his employees to make each day’s work something to be proud of.
“Attitude is contagious and it needs to start from someone. If you spread a good attitude it’ll follow down through your foreman and through your help, but it needs to start from somebody and if your attitude about your equipment is that it’s your pride and joy, it’s going to spread down,” Walter says. “Because you care about it, your guys are going to see to it that it looks good because they want to keep the image up, too. So it’s contagious.”
Walter prefers to own his equipment but will rent if he thinks he’ll need the equipment for less than a month. He feels well maintained equipment reflects the pride his employees have in their jobs. Svoboda’s Excavating fleet of 32 machines is predominately Cat, including a 277C track skid steer loader, two C-Series and two B-Series excavators, a 938 and 966 wheel loaders and two D5 dozers. “We have added trucks (Mack and Peterbilt) and trailers to our fleet to allow us to do more clay, dirt and aggregate hauling,” he says. He does his own servicing to ensure his fleet runs at maximum productivity. “What kind of price can you put on a machine that’s down?” he asks.
Although Walter describes himself as a ‘beans and baloney’ guy, he looks forward to new construction technologies. Svoboda’s Excavating has embraced GPS technology for mapping tile installation and for surveying site work, but does not use it on their machines. “We have dozers that are GPS ready but we’re waiting for the job that will justify the cost,” Walter says.
Working through the economy
“We live off the success of the farmers. If they do well, we do well,” Walter says, and good growing seasons have kept the Jackson area financially stable and somewhat insulated from the effects of the global economic downturn. Still, Debbie says they are seeing municipal jobs being severely underbid, many times by companies more than 100 miles away from Jackson. “Our tile work this past spring has kept us going well,” she says.
Walter’s advice to a young person looking to begin a career in construction is find a contractor who’s doing what you want to do and work for him for about five years. “When you start from nothing like I have, every mistake I’ve made I’ve had to pay for. Just once I always thought it would have been nice to work for somebody else so if I screwed up somebody else would have to pay for it,” Walter laughs. “Once you get to learn the ropes, you really have to be self-motivated to start your own business. It’s your paycheck. You get yourself out of bed. You get yourself to the job. You get yourself motivated to go to work. It’s a self-driven job and I love it.”
Walter also reminds a new contractor to always obey the 11th commandment: Collect the money. EW
The Dirt Doctor
Year started: 1968
Annual volume after first year: $20,000
Annual volume today: $3.7 million (2008)
Markets served: Farm drainage, underground utility, site prep