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A landscaping design/build company that grew into a heavy civil and concrete construction firm took top honors in Equipment World’s 2018 Contractor of the Year awards ceremony at the Encore hotel in Las Vegas Saturday.
In 1996, when Don and Rae Peters established Solid Earth in Pueblo, Colorado, they knew the road wouldn’t be easy. The husband and wife team spent long hours in their home office figuring out ways to realize their clients’ complex dreams, and more in the field building a reputation for quality construction from the ground up.
“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.
But Don’s skills as an operator, welder and project manager seemed overmatched to the needs of the landscaping business. In 2011, Don and Rae decided to use their knowledge to delve into the bigger world of civil construction, testing their skills in a pool of well-qualified competitors.
By this time, Solid Earth’s reliability was well known. They soon started winning bids as a subcontractor with big companies like Kiewit Infrastructure and Bechtel National. They also contracted with many of the federal and government entities across the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies. Bechtel was so impressed with their craftsmanship and reliability that they named Solid Earth a key contributor and top subcontractor in 2016.
Don gives big props to Wagner Cat for helping him on the equipment side. He and Rae buy almost exclusively new equipment and pay cash—no rentals, or leases. “We don’t want to be tied down to payments when work gets slow,” says Don. “So we’re continually putting money back into the company for future equipment purchases.”
Don and Rae are also raising the next generation of leadership for the company with their son Matt, now 22. Matt didn’t need much encouragement. He dove into the world of yellow iron at an early age, actually learning to read from old copies of Rock and Dirt. By his early teens he was a top notch operator.
Don and Rae also sing the praises of superintendent Richard Lewis, a recent hire who brought a wealth of heavy equipment expertise and problem-solving skills to the company. Matt and Richard take a lead role in the field, running the jobs, managing the equipment and training new hires on how to operate equipment with a high degree of skill and efficiency.
Rae, the company president and a former bank manager, is a fanatic about staying away from debt.
“Debt is your enemy,” she says. Before any equipment is purchased it has to be rigorously justified in terms of future utilization. During a roundtable discussion at the Contractor of the Year event Saturday morning, Rae’s impassioned comments about conservative money management and protecting your financial assets earned her a round of applause from the other 11 Contractor of the Year Finalists.
Equipment management is serious business at Solid Earth. Machines are washed and waxed on a regular basis. Grease is a daily ritual. The company bought electric grease pumps for all the machines so operators had one less excuse not to grease. On 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.”
The road to success was not always simple, and Don and Rae struggled to find skilled labor and dedicated employees who wanted to work in construction. Their solution: go hard after technology and find young people right out of high school with a strong work ethic.
Many of their new hires have had no previous equipment operation or construction experience, but Don says it’s the work ethic that matters most.
With Matt and Richard’s guidance these new employees come up to speed quickly. Don sees it as a four-year apprenticeship. They pay them well, prevailing wage or better, and make them a part of the family. On the jobsites or the office, it’s not unusual to hear the crews refer to “Papa Don,” or “Momma Rae.”
With a small core of dedicated personnel, the team has been able to incorporate technology at important junctures. This year, they’ve added a Gomaco slip-form paver to their concrete division, and integrated Bluebeam Revu into the estimating department to increase the efficiency. Don credits the Bluebeam Revu product for enabling him to triple his estimating output.
The reputation that Solid Earth earned as a landscape contractor has extended into their current role as a civil contractor. Says client Bryan Jackson from Olgoonik Diversified Services, “Solid Earth understands the value of relationships and how honesty and integrity ensure repeat business, I know that when I task Solid Earth with work that it will get done, and that they view the work as a partnership with us. That is a unique and endearing quality.”
Adds Reid Kobelik, project manager for Kiewit: “Their reputation is that they get the job done on time and it’s a quality product. They’re well known in southern Colorado, and they’re growing all the time. Other contractors could learn from them how to communicate with others on the jobsite. “
The Contractor of the Year program is sponsored by Caterpillar and Equipment World magazine to choose and recognize to top small/medium construction contractors in the country each year.