Young people looking for a way to build their skills in the construction world would be hard pressed to find a better path forward than the one taken by Don Peters. Fortunately and coincidentally, his wife Rae’s skills would turn out to be the perfect complement to Don’s.
The couple started small with a landscape company in 1996 and grew into a heavy-civil and concrete contractor. The Peters and their company, Solid Earth Civil Constructors, have faced the same challenges everybody faces in this business. What makes them uniquely successful is their approach to everything from new hires to technology and the financial management of their company.
And it doesn’t hurt that through it all they’ve cultivated a family atmosphere among their cadre of young employees. Whether on the jobsite or in the office, it’s not uncommon to hear them referred to as Momma Rae or Papa Don.
‘Anything for a buck’
By the time they started their company, Don had already spent the better part of his life mastering a variety of construction skills. At age 14, he was operating a Caterpillar DW 15 scraper while working for his dad in a high school work-study program. He went on to run dozers and excavators and then fell in with a veteran welder, spending two years in his fab shop learning everything about that trade.
When a job with a landscaping company came along, Don jumped at the opportunity. Soon after, he met Rae and went to work for her brother’s landscape company, running that firm’s construction, excavation and concrete jobs.
But they wanted more out of life. So Don and Rae launched their design-build landscape company about a year after they were married. “When we first started out, I’d do anything for a buck,” says Don. “If somebody would pay me to sweep their garage floors, I would sweep their garage floor.” Rae went door to door offering landscaping services and put in many long hours cold calling potential clients.
It didn’t take long for the couple’s energy and skills to find lucrative work. The husband and wife team spent long hours in their home office figuring out ways to realize their clients’ complex dreams and then in the field building a reputation for quality construction from the ground up.
‘Constantly ask yourself why’
Rae also brought a lot of relevant life experience to the new company. At one point, all five of her brothers owned landscaping companies, where she worked many summers. But perhaps the most valuable skill she possessed came from her post-college job as a management trainee in a savings and loan institution. The skill wasn’t so much in number crunching as in critical thinking and decision-making in a business environment, and it’s still the linchpin that keeps the company moving forward.
Rae recalls her supervisor at the savings and loan approaching her one day and asking, “What were you thinking?” But it wasn’t a reprimand, it was a challenge.
“She was looking for justification, reasoning, logical, critical thinking,” Rae says. “In running your business, you have to constantly ask yourself why. In business, that is invaluable.” As president of the company, Rae examines every business decision by this philosophy.
For example, the size of every job the company considers gets careful scrutiny. “Our office staff is small, and when you look at bidding as a prime contractor rather than a sub, that requires a lot of hands-on with your subs. That can be challenging,” Rae says. Solid Earth Constructors depends on its reputation for high quality, and ensuring that subs meet those expectations is not easy. “One of the worst things you can say is ‘good enough,’” says Rae. “But there is no ‘good enough’ for us. It has to be right.”
‘Debt is your enemy’
Equipment purchases are also carefully analyzed. Unless they can pencil in the jobs that will pay for the machine, they wait.
Says Don: “When the time is right, she tells me to give her a number, and she’ll write a check for that number. She knows how to control the spending. We don’t want to be tied down to payments when work gets slow. So, with each job, we’re continually putting money back into the company for future equipment purchases.”
Or to put in in Rae’s terms: “Debt is your enemy.”
When the recession hit, Don and Rae decided to sell their office building and move back into a home office rather than take on debt to ride out the slowdown. “I hate paying interest,” says Rae. “Why pay extra for something that’s already expensive? Interest digs into your profits.”
By 2011, Don’s skills and Rae’s business acumen seemed overmatched to the needs of the landscaping business. So, they focused on the bigger world of civil construction, testing their skills in a pool of large and well-qualified competitors.
By this time, Solid Earth’s reliability was well-known. It soon started winning bids as a subcontractor to companies like Kiewit Infrastructure and Bechtel National. It also contracted with many of the federal and government entities across the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies. Bechtel was so impressed with the company’s craftsmanship and reliability, it named Solid Earth a key contributor and top subcontractor in 2016.
Unlike some contractors who chafe at the paperwork and processes of government jobs, Don and Rae relished the opportunity. Rae says learning the government’s certified payroll systems helped her and office manager Shevawn Bensik move the administration of the business to the next level. Likewise, Don found that the extensive documentation, safety requirements and follow-up required on these jobs only made him better at his work.
Bigger jobs, better margins
Don and Rae’s original plan was to work together four years to launch the company. After that, Rae wanted to return to school to earn a master’s in counseling. Eventually, she got her master’s and opened a counseling business. But as the economy started to improve from the recession, and as their son, Matt, started to play an increasingly important role in the company, Rae felt it was time to step back in.
Frankly, there was no one who could take her place. “When you grow up with a company, you know all the ins and outs,” she says. “It was such a gradual thing; you don’t realize what you’re learning as you go.”
By this time, the company had stopped offering landscaping services and was pursuing exclusively civil construction and concrete work – bigger jobs, better margins but lots more demands. “We needed all hands on deck,” says Rae.
The young guns
While Don and Rae are the engine that drove Solid Earth Civil Constructors forward from the beginning, Matt, 22, is the turbocharger. Almost from birth, Matt has been enamored with heavy equipment. He didn’t care a fig for Dr. Seuss books. He wanted to read equipment magazines. His dad let him operate as soon as he could reach the sticks and follow instructions. He earned his spending money as a teen running skid steers, dozers and excavators for the company.
In addition to his equipment operating skills, Matt plays another role in the company that is crucial to its immediate and long-term success – training the new hires.
Everybody in construction struggles with the lack of workers, and nobody seems to have any good solutions. Don, Rae and Matt decided the best thing to do was to hire young workers with a good work ethic regardless of whether they’d ever touched a piece of yellow iron. Matt and Superintendent Richard Lewis, who was hired five years ago and brought a wealth of heavy equipment expertise and problem-solving skills to the company, are in charge of the training. It helps that Matt and Richard are about the same age as these new hires, and their youth, experience and enthusiasm for the big iron make them ideal trainers.
Don likens this new-hire training program to a four-year apprenticeship. “We give them the option of going into the excavation division or the concrete division,” says Don. “The majority want to go into excavation, so we train them in safety and slowly put them into a piece of equipment. We start small with a skid steer and then move them into a mini-excavator and progress from there.”
The company has about seven employees in various stages of skills acquisition, almost half its workforce, says Don. “You see them out there working on the site, and they just glow. They’re having a ball. But they have to work. We all have to bring something to the table.”
The new hires are paid well too – prevailing wage or better, says Don. And while many in this business say they can’t afford to give new hires on-the-job training, Solid Earth’s approach develops a strong sense of loyalty, little turnover and enthusiastic employees.
With Matt and Richard, respect for the equipment is also paramount and pays big dividends. Machines are washed and waxed regularly. Grease is a daily ritual. Matt bought battery-powered grease guns for all the machines, so operators had one less excuse not to grease. And he’s a fanatic about oil changes. “When the manual says 500 hours, we do them at 250 hours,” says Matt. “We have not had a single equipment failure or breakdown in years.”
With a small core of dedicated personnel, the team has been able to incorporate technology at important junctures. To better integrate their operations with Bechtel, they started using Bluebeam Revu in their estimating to increase their efficiency. Don credits the software with enabling him to triple his estimating output. In the concrete division this year, they bought a full Topcon GPS system to guide their new GOMACO slip-form paver.
No place for sissies
Although Solid Earth’s success is well-established, the path to getting there and the current demands are anything but easy.
“At 4 a.m., I’m in the shower. That’s my think tank,” says Don. “By 6 or 7 p.m., we’re still working, talking, thinking about the next day, the next job. One of the hardest things is learning to shut it down. You have to enjoy the work, but you have to enjoy life and your family around you too.”
In the early years, Rae wasn’t just working in the office, she was also raising Matt and two daughters and shuttling kids to sports practices and after-school events. She took her work with her wherever she went.
“There are so many personal sacrifices you have to make,” Rae says. “Your employees always get paid. Your bills always get paid. But when we were young, we didn’t always get paid. When you have your own business, your dinnertime conversation, everything, is superseded by the business.”
When asked what advice the couple would give young people looking to start their own construction company, the couple stay away from the easy answers and the “follow-your-dreams” sentiments. Despite their enthusiasm for the business, their counsel is logical and cautionary. You won’t find their words on any motivational posters, which makes them all the more valuable.
“I would say be clear on your motivations and the justifications for your decisions,” says Rae. “Is it an emotional decision or a practical one?” Some people want to see their name in lights, she says, but what happens when you can’t pay the power bill?
“Go into it with an educated mind,” says Don. “Look at it from top to bottom, inside out. Really evaluate what you are doing and make sure it qualifies in your wheelhouse.”
Having done just those things, it’s not hard to see the enthusiasm the couple have for the business they’ve created. For Rae, it’s the autonomy and how it knits the family together. “There are a lot of chiefs in the family,” she says. “And when it’s your own company, you can make room for those different personalities.”
For Don, it’s being able to see Matt and the young men they hire grow strong in their skills and their confidence and loving the work he loves, starting down the path he charted more than 20 years ago. “Every day I’m amazed,” he says. “That kind of thing makes me get up and pull my boots on every single day, period.”