Why this Colorado excavation contractor refuses to call his staff “employees”

Updated May 7, 2016

COY LeadAlthough it’s often said that you can’t please everyone all the time, Bradley Grubaugh says he’s sure going to try. With 35 years of construction experience, Bradley knew a thing or two about how to keep both clients and employees happy when he formed Bradley Excavating in Colorado Springs in 2002.

With a scope of work that includes site development and demolition for a range of clients, including federal entities, Bradley and his team work hard to ensure jobs run smoothly for their clients, such as Doug Woody with Bryan Construction.

“They’re over and above on customer service,” Woody says. “They’re easy to work with and they understand relationships.” Woody gives an example: When approached to work on an Operation Bahamas, Turks and Caicos hangar for the U.S. Coast Guard on a sparsely-inhabited Bahamian island, Bradley was ready to go, jumping on a plane with Woody’s supervisor.


All in the attitude

The low key, can-do attitude translates across Bradley’s staff members, who he refuses to call employees, referring to them instead as teammates. Dealing with his crews in a calm, collected way is a purposeful strategy, and one that Mike Milyard (the company’s Cat territory rep) noticed right away among his more than 700 customers.

“Sometimes you’ll see people who scream and holler and show no respect for their employees,” Milyard says. “That’s not the way Bradley operates. You really notice his demeanor with his employees and especially how he deals when things don’t go right. He works around it, and because of it, he has long-term employees.”

Bill Pursifull, with Wolverine Building Group, notes that Bradley’s people are impressive. “His general manager, Jonathan Thorne, is great,” he says. “He’s got a lot of experience and is very cool-headed – just what you want in a high stress situation.”

The business is the definition of a family business, including Bradley’s father, Larry; wife Julie, who is also from a family of contractors; sister Lindy Fury; daughter Kali and son Zach.

Larry, a one-time construction company owner himself, has been an invaluable resource for Bradley. “Dad taught me the importance of having a great reputation,” he says. “He taught me to be a man of my word.”

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Larry says he was able to pass along lessons he himself learned the hard way, while in business for himself in Nebraska. “A banker once told me I had to get off the equipment if I wanted to be a success,” he says. “He said to me, ‘Do you want to run equipment, or do you want to run a company?’”


Finding your own path

Although Bradley ended up eventually purchasing some of his father’s equipment after striking out on his own, he wanted to make his own way. Since his father was well-known in construction, he chose to use his first name, rather than attach the Grubaugh name to his brand-new firm.

He started from scratch. Bradley had a Cat skid steer and a backhoe attachment, but no trailer or truck to haul it with. Julie made some flyers to distribute, and he ended up taping some of the flyers inside several port-a-pottys on a jobsite.

“Within 20 minutes, my phone rings,” Bradley says. “There’s someone on the other end saying ‘are you available tomorrow?’ My first three jobs came from those port-a-potty flyers.”

From there, the company continued to grow until, when the recession hit in ‘08, Bradley had 36 employees in the field. In ‘09, that number dropped to 15. However, the company survived, thanks to a combination of smart equipment strategies and a busy period just before the recession. The company buys primarily new equipment, renting fill-in pieces and picking up a few items at auction. Thorne, who has been with Bradley since 1999, says during the recession a core group of guys remained. “There were no pay cuts,” he says. “In the years before the recession, we were so busy, it helped us to survive.”


A close-knit team

Over the years, the Bradley Excavating team has weathered many of the same challenges other firms faced during the recession, but in recent years, has had a more difficult time than most. In just a short period of time, an employee suffered debilitating medical issues, one lost his wife, another lost his mother, and two of the Bradley Excavating team members died unexpectedly. Bradley’s employees say that, in the midst of extreme grief and loss, the family put their team members first, offering financial assistance and helping with funerals.

The shared challenges have brought the team closer together than ever, and they feel a strong sense of loyalty to one another. “We’re all a family,” says John Stull, one of Bradley Excavating’s mechanics. “He takes care of his guys. This is the best job I’ve ever had, and I’m going to stay here and keep doing what I’m doing.”

For the family and the employees, each workday ends with a fun get-together at the office. Bradley makes smoothies and puts out fruit and veggie plates so the guys will have something healthy to snack on, and each Friday he cooks for them at the office. “I love the laid back environment,” says estimator Kate Varnum, a civil engineer with a master’s in structural engineering. “It’s like an extension of home.”

Treating their employees like family includes keeping them safe. A highly structured safety program, crafted by Safety Director Todd Sokol, includes spending the necessary resources on PPE and safety gear.

Guest speakers at the safety meetings from utilities, fire and rescue, and the state patrol address the employees on topics ranging from rescue operations to CDL truck walk-arounds.


Planning to succeed

With both parents and grandparents from strong construction backgrounds, it was a foregone conclusion that one or both of the Grubaugh children would be involved in the business.

Kali, in particular, has found a love of construction, and sees running the company alongside her brother Zach and Jonathan Thorne, as her future. That wasn’t always the case. After graduating from Colorado State University, she first entertained the idea of law school, and then a teaching career, before coming home to Bradley Excavating.

After seeing Kali’s interest and affinity for construction, Mike Milyard suggested she enroll in Caterpillar’s Generation to Generation program, a training program Wagner Equipment offers to customers who plan to pass their companies on to the next generation.

Not all Caterpillar dealers offer the program, so the Grubaughs were fortunate to be located near the Denver-based sessions. “I learned a lot of valuable information,” Kali says. “My class covered business ethics, business law and HR law, but we also discussed topics such as the difference between management and leadership,” she says.


Milyard says he thought Bradley Excavating was the perfect client to recommend for the program. “The first time I met Kali, she was out in the field,” he says. “When I saw how eager she was to learn, I approached Bradley about the opportunity. It requires the customer to put some money up front – money that they will get back in credits after the completion of the program – so you know if someone commits, they’re proactive about it.” The focus on business management and leadership techniques has allowed the company’s employees to view Kali in a new light, rather than as just the boss’ daughter they’ve known since she was in middle school. She feels she will be able to retain the culture and environment her father has created, while taking advantage of new opportunities.

“My grandfather and my father have passed their core values along to us,” Kali says. “With that in place, we feel we can look at the technology that’s advancing rapidly. We’re talking about incorporating newer things; for example, someday soon, we’d like to start surveying with drones.”


‘Riding the middle’

Although his children and general manager have big plans for the future, right now Bradley is just focusing on performing excellent work and keeping his clients happy. However, he’s considering a next step.

“We’ve been talking about increasing the size of the company,” he says. “It means more equipment and multiple crews. It means literally doubling the size of the company. We’re riding the middle right now, waiting to take that next huge step. When I was younger, I didn’t know how to manage growth, but now I take things a bit slower.”