Spreading his love for the work has been key to this California excavation contractor’s success

COY LeadAlthough a star football player in high school, Dave Spurr had the sense to realize that only a rare few ever rise to the top in that profession. When he looked around at where he might make his mark, construction seemed a good bet.

Out of high school, Spurr built houses, drove the water truck and made himself useful, including some dirt work. To expand his knowledge of yellow iron Spurr spent weekends alongside the mechanics so he could figure out how the machinery worked. A bit later he landed a job, driving a lowboy and moving equipment all over California and the Western United States. “It was one of the best jobs I ever had because it was stuff I didn’t really know how to do. It was knowledge you can’t get anywhere else. You can’t go to school and get it,” he says.

After Spurr got his fill of truck travel he settled in for a regular construction job. But his skills and work ethic were in such high demand that contractors were begging him to work side jobs as well. “I was working my regular job 10 hours a day, then coming home at night and working on plans. Saturdays and Sundays I go do house pads.” he says.

At the age of 24 Spurr was getting enough side jobs to justify his first dozer. “I walked into Quinn Cat and worked out a deal for a D4H. It cost more than my house did at the time,” Spurr says. He also bought a used Peterbilt to move his tractor around. But in 1989 when the opportunity to bid on a job with 30 house pads came along, Spurr knew it was time to launch his own company.

Be your own boss

The first few months were eye openers, says Spurr. “You start finding out what the actual cost of doing business is. I had no idea. You get these big checks and you don’t think about it. But you have to start planning to keep that nest egg. Thirty-three percent of that is going to go to Uncle Sam.”

But thanks to his earlier freelance work for developers, the jobs kept coming and Spurr kept adding people and equipment. “Around here it’s such a small area that everything is word of mouth. If something goes wrong with a job go ahead and fix it. Even though I have a one-year warranty, if something goes wrong, four or five years later, I’ll go back and fix it. By doing things like that, word spreads.”

Managing the big picture

While Spurr had learned the technical side of his vocation early on, success in the field brought challenges in the office. “I’ve had to learn a whole bunch,” Spurr says. “A lot of times I think I’m an air traffic controller, got to get all my planes up there flying and keep them from crashing.”

The addition of Missy Tuck in 2008 as office manager helped quite a bit. With experience growing up in her family’s business, Missy’s skill set was the perfect complement to Spurr’s. Tuck also manages Sara Denny who is responsible for the payables, receivables and releases and Ashley Spurr who does payroll processing, insurance and job files. “Missy is a blessing,” Spurr says. “She will bring the reports home and work on them. She keeps me in line. These girls do a tremendous amount of work for three people. We could not operate without their expertise.”

In-house estimating

Despite the company’s size, Spurr still prefers to do all the estimating in house.

I’ve been doing it long enough I know where to look for those little details that will get you if you’re not careful. It’s so easy to make that little mistake.”

When it comes to estimating, there’s no substitute for experience, Spurr says. “You just have to learn how to plug the numbers in the right way. Material prices are all the same for everybody. The more years of experience you have the more accurate that number can be.”

The dynamic duo

Spurr started letting his twin stepsons experience a taste of the business when they were just ten years old. In high school they wanted to work for someone else, he says, but soon came back into the fold.

“Jimmy has the ambition to do what I do in here, run numbers, go through the plans. He wants to understand the business aspect,” Spurr says. “Gene wants to be the field guy.

“I tell the boys, when you get ready to make that move it’s not an eight-hour day. If you think you’re going to make it in eight hours you won’t survive. I work 10 to 12 hours a day sometimes six or seven days a week, especially after this recession. But you’ll get rewarded for what you put into it. They understand that perfectly. They’re willing to step up to the plate and deal with that.”

Spurr is well aware than many contractors have turned a company over to the kids only to see it fail, and he is determined not to make that mistake. “I think a lot of that is the kids didn’t get involved early enough to understand the business part,” he says. Now in their early 30’s, Gene and Jimmy are, according to Spurr, “willing to step up to the plate and deal with the hours and the challenges. They’re close to the top and they want to keep on going.”

Coaching the team

Another “soft skill” that Spurr emphasizes is keeping the crews and employees working as a team and enjoying the work. He see’s himself as a coach and motivator. Even his concrete subs fit into Spurr’s family-oriented company culture.

“Every one of them would have your back if you needed it,” he says. “It’s pretty cool. Everybody gets along. With everybody working together you can accomplish a lot,” he says.

Customers and vendors can tell. “For me personally, he’s been very helpful for our business here,” says Joel Cabreros at Hanson Aggregates. “His business has been a key part of our business and building a market here. We’re very thankful he’s on our side.”

Battling the recession

When the recession hit in 2007-08 developers began dropping like flies in California, says Spurr, and nobody expected it to last like it did. But as the work dried up Spurr and Missy sat down and figured out a way to survive.

Working with their dealer, Quinn Cat, and Cat Finance their game plan involved liquidating underutilized equipment and using that equity to pay down their loans. “Our equipment payments went from $80,000 a month to $25,000 a month. We held on to the majority of our stuff but we reconfigured everything,” Spurr says.

Then they went through each part of the business with a fine tooth comb looking for ways to save, including insurance, workman’s comp and overhead. Spurr also took the time to study operations and make sure his foremen were what he calls “working foremen,” not just sitting in the truck all day.

Serious safety

In 1998 Spurr was on a jobsite and jumped into a trench to retrieve a shovel. The trench wall collapsed around him, burying him up to the top of his head. Had not another worker seen his ball cap floating on top the dirt, he might have been lost. But with the ball cap acting as a locator, the crew was able to dig him out immediately. Spurr suffered a broken bone in his knee but was otherwise ok.

“Ever since then safety has been a whole new deal for us,” Spurr says, OSHA training, hardhats and vests, trench shields, weekly tailbox talks; are all are mandatory. He won’t even let other contractors on his sites unless they conform to his safety standards. If he sees something on a jobsite that looks unsafe, he will stop the job in its tracks and hold an impromptu safety meeting to fix the problem.

One mechanic

Spurr has enough equipment to keep one mechanic, Dylan Hickok, busy full time. “He is a godsend,” Spurr says. “He works his butt off taking care of 40 pieces of equipment and 30 trucks.”

For big repairs Spurr sends his equipment to the dealer. And he’s learned that it is easier and more profitable to keep his fleet fairly new. “No sense making all those repairs if they cost as much as a payment,” he says. The newer machines are also CARB (California Air Resources Board) compliant, and help his stay ahead of the state’s strict emissions regulations.

Tax considerations also drive the company’s equipment acquisition budget. “My accountant tells me what I can offset on my taxes for depreciation,” Spurr says. “And I’d much rather buy a new tractor than pay taxes. But we buy new tractors because we’re in it for the long haul.”