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Paso Robles, California
Michael Bray Construction
Year started: 1991
Number of employees: 12
Annual volume: $3 million
Markets served: Site development, commercial paving, utility installation
Spearheading a local online plan room, this central coast California contractor keeps current with jobs while logging time on the road.
By Marcia Gruver Doyle
Michael Bray knew when he got into construction the hours would be long. Growing up on a farm, he was used to long hours. But it was the time spent away from home that pushed him to start his own firm, Michael Bray Construction, in 1991. “My kids were growing up and I wasn’t around,” he says. “I was tired of being three counties away at quitting time on a Friday night.”
Bray had worked for a local road building contractor for 11 years. “Alex Madonna was a mentor,” Bray says of his former employer. “He helped make me fearless about tackling some of the jobs we’ve done.” And Madonna signed Bray’s contractor’s license when the time came, verifying he had the necessary experience.
Now Michael Bray Construction does $3 million in annual revenues doing site work and commercial paving in a 150-mile radius of his home in Paso Robles. Although he has an office at his ranch, Bray spends more time in his truck. “My office is pretty much anyplace I’ve got my laptop.” His wife Sharon does the company payroll.
Most of the company’s work is low bid, although Bray does have some private clients, including Martin Resorts. “They called me in on a small $15,000 job to remove a swimming pool and fill the hole,” Bray relates. “By the time the project was done, they had contracted more than a million in work, including parking lots and walkways. I’ve done almost $10 million them and we’ve never signed a contract.”
At one time, the firm employed 28 employees; it now has 12, and Bray is considering adding more. “I’m looking for military experience,” he says. “I feel if a person gives time to his country, then it’s part of my responsibility to employ them.” Three of Bray’s key personnel are also licensed contractors. “Nothing is obtained by just one person,” he says.
It takes more than a key
Bray’s operating engineer background comes out when he talks about those who run his equipment. “My biggest challenge is finding equipment operators that have a journeyman-level ability on multiple types of equipment,” Bray says. “I try to counter this by giving personal instruction to my younger guys and challenging them to increase their level of skill. They can’t just show up with a Cat key and be an operator.”
The company buys a combination of new and used machines, but Bray makes an exception on backhoes: they are all bought new. “Backhoes are a hard machine to maintain, and when you’re digging around utilities, you can’t have slop in the boom. It’s hard to find a good used backhoe that’s been maintained properly. I just feel it’s a better bang for the buck to buy new.”
He prefers his machines not to have cabs. “If an operator is encased in a closed compartment, his communication with the world around him is impeded,” he argues. “So many people are working around you in tight spots, with the cabs so quiet you could easily have a communication error.”
Bray has a shop at his ranch office, and likes to turn a wrench himself. But California’s strict construction equipment emission regulations will force him to maintain an eagle eye on the age of his fleet. “We have a D8 that I probably will have to cut up for scrap metal, and yet it easily has several thousand hours on it,” Bray says. He estimates complying with these regulations will cost him $1 million over the next few years in lost resale value.
Avoiding the holes
Bray has seen the average number of bidders on local projects increase from five to 25. “I refuse to go out and buy work, because I know it’s not the way to maintain a healthy company,” he says. “Everybody makes a mistake and leaves something out, but if you’re continually working at a nominal amount your resources are going to be depleted.” He knows this from experience – young and aggressive when he started his company, “soon I was in a hole I had to dig my way out of. You have to start making money.”
Bray has a mixture of private and public clients, and does a variety of work, primarily site development, utility installation and paving. But even with his road construction background, “I don’t try to compete with the big boys in paving,” he says. “I try to provide a complete package when I bid a project,” he says. “It seems to be more efficient when you do most of the things yourself.”
This has proved especially true as his firm has ridden out the recession, with some clients decreasing the scope or radically slowing down already contracted projects. Which is one reason he recommends staying close to your bonding company. “They are knowledgeable about the industry and know the issues,” he says. Another plus: good clients that are still doing work, albeit at a reduced level.
One such client is Tenet Healthcare. “Mike stays involved with his crews and is great with problem solving,” says Rick Ford, director of maintenance and operations for Tenet’s Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center, 150-bed unit in San Luis Obispo. Case in point: Sierra Vista’s $15 million parking structure, a project that present unique challenges, including working around an Indian burial ground. “He coordinated the excavation part of the job, controlling water filtration and keeping up with any Indian issues, and he was a class act the whole way,” Ford says.
The project called for digging a city block 24 feet down, hauling out 275,000 yards. “One of the most difficult parts was finding places to dispose of the dirt that met environmental regulations,” Bray says.
An upside on the project, however, was how much Bray learned from its general contractor, CD Smith Construction of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. “They taught me a lot about how to treat my subs and how to make money with them,” Bray comments. “It broadened my horizons in how I deal with people and contracts.”
This area of California coast is sparsely populated. “Unethical people don’t last long here and Mike’s been doing this a long time,” says Leslie Hall, executive director, San Luis Obispo Builders Exchange.
Bray, who’s been on the exchange’s board for more than 10 years, has helped push fellow exchange members into the digital age, spearheading the effort to convert the association’s plan room into an online service. “He’s tech savvy,” says Hall. “He went from not being able to turn on a computer to totally picking up what this online service could do for our members, and he ran with it. He tells other contractors to get with the program – if he can do it, anyone can.”
“My office is about 60 miles away from the plan room,” Bray says. “Putting things online has saved me a tremendous amount of fuel and energy, plus it helps match local projects with local contractors.”
Working with younger contractors is another aspect of exchange involvement that Bray relishes. “I’m rewarded when I can help someone, and help them not make mistakes I did,” he says.