Neither lengthy winters nor a crippling recession slowed down Steve Mueller or Dan Thiel.
Instead, they combined their business savvy, passion for the outdoors, honest work ethic and love for their community to create J&S General Contracting in Osceola, Wisconsin.
Mueller’s first industry experience came when he was 8 years old, mowing lawns with a push mower. Then in eighth grade, his parents gave him half of the money to buy a four-wheeler, and he got one and put a blade on it to plow snow. By the time he was 16, he managed the property at a grocery store and bank.
He later partnered with his friend, Jason, hence the company’s name, J&S. Mueller didn’t focus on the company full time until 2001 when he quit his engineering job.
Thiel, who grew up on a dairy farm just five miles from the current office, joined the company in 1998 as a silent partner. He originally wanted to work with computers, but after he met Mueller and discovered they had a lot of common interests, Thiel decided to take a different path.
He had 20 years of experience in the IT industry working as a programmer and project leader before leaving to focus on J&S full time in 2005.
The two brought a good balance to the business, with Thiel as the realist and Mueller as the dreamer, they say. “We always compromise,” Mueller says. “It’s gotten us through tough times.”
At the beginning, they just had a skid steer and a single-axle dump truck. They later expanded to add a Cat 924G wheel loader and screening plant. “If you have a screener, people will come,” Mueller says. “It became a quarter of our business.”
J&S now has mostly Caterpillar equipment, including compact track loaders, skid steers, backhoes, dozers, wheel loaders, pickup trucks, a tracked power buggy, dump trucks, mowers, smooth drum rollers, tractors and a UTV.
Changing it up
Adding services during the recession was a common remedy for many contractors. But Thiel and Mueller turned these add-ons into a thriving part of their business.
Not only do they offer landscaping, excavation, concrete work and snow removal services, but they also expanded their list of services to include playgrounds for schools, pools, selling hard goods such as rocks, hauling materials for railroad companies and installing an athletic facility for a local high school.
Their work at Osceola High School in 2013 ended up being their largest job to date: a $3.2 million project. “You have 3,000 customers when you work for a school,” Mueller says, referring to the city’s voters. Before the project began, Mueller made phone calls to gauge public opinion on the project. It gave them encouragement that the referendum would pass and they bid on the project. Most of their employees live within a 15-mile radius so J&S is committed to the community, the school system and all of the organizations in the area.
Their business is also one of the few construction companies left in their area – but they’ve done a lot more than just survive. Since 2006, they’ve experienced a 360-percent growth.
“By having a broader base of services, we run a turnkey business,” Thiel says. “We’re a one-stop shop. Clients can just turn to us for everything.”
While offering a variety of services can set a business apart from the competition, Mueller and Thiel say it’s important to not overextend themselves. Instead, they focus on finding new services that are just an extension of their current expertise.
“J&S General Contracting is a first-generation construction company, and they started from scratch,” says Tom Scalzo, area sales manager for Fabco Caterpillar. “They not only survived during the economic downturn, but they actually grew during that time. Most of the time, it’s too risky to create success, but J&S General Contracting shows they’re a company that has succeeded and has grown since then.”
Forming solid connections with suppliers has been beneficial for the pair.
“They’re another critical part of your business, and I think we benefit from having good relationships with suppliers,” Thiel says. “They know the business, so establishing those relationships is key. I wish we had known that starting out.”
These relationships have been especially useful when they’ve considered buying a new piece of equipment. “If we spend $200,000 on a dozer, and it runs us out of business, the vendor has no business,” Mueller says. “So, they need to make sure they sell us good equipment that we need.”
Going above and beyond is just part of Mueller and Thiel’s way of life. They donate their time, money and materials to help groups and organizations in their area. “Our community is important,” Mueller says. “If you don’t provide for it, who will?”
They’ll even fly clients in their plane to get an aerial view of a project or take local farmers to pick up an equipment part.
“They are the most honest people I’ve ever met,” says Roger Breault, maintenance manager at Osceola Medical Center. “They’re definitely worthy of industry recognition.”
Not only do Thiel and Mueller build lasting relationships with their clients, but they also encourage their employees – many of who have been with the company for a decade – to do the same.
Each employee has a personalized business card they share with customers, and they wear logo apparel that includes their names while on the jobsite. During the employee interview process, each candidate takes a questionnaire to make sure they are the best fit for the position.
“The key is our people,” Thiel says. “We look for good, down-to-earth people.”
Another aspect that sets them apart is their tech-savvy business model. Each of their foreman have an iPad, so they can take photos and send them to Thiel to show what each has done that day. The company also has GPS installed on the equipment and daily log sheets where employees track their hours and projects they’re working on.
“Pretty much everything they do is above and beyond,” says Chris Wilcox, sales rep for Hedberg Aggregates. “Other contractors see them as good competition, and they don’t like going up against them when bidding.”