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By Mike Anderson
Hometown pride keeps this California contractor working hard for his friends, family and neighbors
Year started: 1988
Annual volume: $5 to 7 million
Markets served: Grading and wet utilities
If home is indeed where the heart is, it explains plenty about why California contractor Terry Robertson, as one local public works official puts it, “comes through in every way you can possibly imagine.”
Born and raised in Brawley, a small city today of about 23,000 located in Southern California’s lush Imperial Valley, Robertson not only has his finger on the jobs his A&R Construction crews work on, but he truly knows, understands and appreciates the people for whom those jobs will benefit. This is not somebody else’s community; it’s his community.
That’s why, as 2011 was showing promises of increased work for his company, there was one project in particular very much on his mind. In the heart of produce-growing country, Brawley has forever been dissected by railroad tracks that, when trains stop for their fresh cargo, regularly block traffic from moving east or west through the town’s core. For as long as Robertson can remember, it’s been an ongoing safety concern in the community. “They’ve always talked about building another fire station on the east side,” he says. And now it’s going to happen. A&R successfully bid on the new fire hall’s site-prep grading and wet utilities work – the primary focus of the company co-founded by Robertson.
After 13 years with a Brawley-based land leveling and construction company, Robertson and a co-worker, Vance Allen, struck out to form A&R Construction in 1988. Allen remained a partner until 1995, and Robertson is now the sole owner. The company’s start was scary. “Those weren’t the best of times,” he says. “We got in on the bottom of an upswing. Reagan was president, but ‘88 was still a little iffy.”
The partners quickly fell into work at geothermal processing facilities along the sub-sea-level Salton Sea lake. “A pad, a road, a pipeline … whatever they needed, we did it,” Robertson reports. “We went from just the two of us to probably about 10 guys in the first year,” including Eugene Lofton, who followed his two former co-workers to A&R, and is still with the company today.
A&R has grown “into one of the best companies we have here in the Imperial Valley,” says Yazmin Arellano, City of Brawley public works director and city engineer. “Their quality control is exceptional. And, if I have an emergency, I do not hesitate to call them, because I know their price is right and the workmanship is great. They are very, very, very reliable.”
Arellano’s enthusiasm doesn’t stop there: “They’re always honest, and they justify their costs; they never try to take advantage of you with a change order,” she says.
Arellano’s sentiments are echoed by her colleague at the City of Imperial. “I have come to rely on them,” says Jackie Loper, public services director. “I have used them in situations where others may not be that reliable or good. They are so conscientious about what they do, and they are easy to sit down and talk with. When you run up on a problem that you’re really not sure exactly which way to go and do, they’ll sit down and help you work through it.”
Two days after last Christmas, A&R received an emergency call from a local irrigation district manager about an eroded concrete ditch near Holtville. Water from a torrential rainstorm had flowed off the roadway and down between the dirt and the ditch’s concrete lining. With two Caterpillar 345B L excavators, two 613C scrapers and a fleet of trucks importing about 5,000 cubic yards of dirt, Robertson’s crews went to work 24/7 for eight days culminating in the slipforming and pouring of a newly-built ditch with a 6-foot-wide bottom. “They had to have water back in that ditch in order for everybody to irrigate. These ditches are the lifeline around here,” says Robertson.
And just before the area’s Cattle Call Rodeo Weekend one November, a 2-foot-wide hole opened up on California Highway 111 in the spot where a manhole was supposed to be. “We worked all night,” Robertson says. “We closed the road, dug it out, poured a new base, set the new manhole and patched it back with cold-mix asphalt. Just as the sun was coming up, I drove it to see how smooth it was.”
If you take care of the people around you, they’ll take care of you, surmises Robertson. “We’re in it for the long haul,” he says. “We charge a fair price, do the job, and go on from there.”
Recovering from a recession that hit housing-crazy California harder than most, A&R is starting to add to a staff that had been reduced from a height of 75 to as low as 25. Site prep and underground utility work is slowly returning for both commercial and multi-unit residential developments. “We’ve got a little backlog now,” Robertson says. By the early months of 2011, A&R had about 35 people on staff and was planning to add more as needed.
It was his employees who ultimately decided it was time for Robertson to move A&R Construction headquarters out of the family home, where his wife, Carleen, had managed office operations since the company’s inception.
A&R had in the early 1990s bought a three-acre property in Brawley’s east-side industrial park, where the company at first had a shop only. By the end of the decade, Robertson was considering building on the site, and asked his employees whether they wanted to grow or remain small. “They all voted to grow, so that’s what we did,” he says.
The new 5,000-square-foot office, backed by a 4,000-square-foot “showroom” for Robertson’s deep-rooted California classic auto passion, includes a nursery that has allowed office staff to bring their young children to work. A grandfather of six, Robertson is thrilled that two of his three children now work at A&R – daughter Renee and son Kenny – and that his son Deuce has his own grading and wet utilities construction company in Brawley.
Kenny, 25, is an equipment operator with “a good blade hand … he’s got that feel,” reports his father. Rarely do company jobs take employees more than 30 minutes away, and that’s important to the elder Robertson. “And it’s a good feeling when you hire a guy, and he works for you for a year or two and then he’s able to buy a home,” he says.
Supervisor/estimators Chris Denton and Johnnie Combs, Jr. scope out grading and underground projects, “and then the three of us sit down and talk about it,” says Robertson. “We’re pretty close, the three of us, and we like to stay on top of what’s happening. I’m a pretty hands-on guy.”
Robertson’s devotion to Caterpillar equipment is, he says, in equal parts due to his mechanical service background predating A&R and the support he receives from Cat dealer Empire Southwest, which has an office in nearby Imperial. In this remote, blue-skied corner of America, “I bet you we don’t miss three days out of the year due to rain.”
He prefers to buy his equipment, including the 44 Cat-powered scrapers, graders, wheel loaders, and other equipment in his fleet, “because before I buy it, I’m going to make sure I need it.” This approach, too, has helped during the recession. “What keeps us competitive is that we own just about everything we’ve got. If we need to work pretty cheap on a job, we can. If you’ve got to go out and rent equipment, you’ll be in trouble.”
When he and Allen struck out on their own, their first purchase was a used 140G motor grader “that was pretty tired then, but I still own it,” Robertson says proudly. “I keep it for a spare; it’s like an old friend. If we have a job that needs a little bit of road maintenance while we’re doing something else, we’ll take it out there and park it, and if we need to run it for an hour, I’ll do it.”
An old friend always ready to help out? That seems about right for Terry Robertson.