Family Business Keeps Digging After 40 Years in California

Ryan Whisner Headshot
Updated Jun 26, 2023
Corey and Samantha Watt, owners of McKinney Construction
Samantha Watt and her husband, Corey, are the third-generation owners of the family business, McKinney Construction.
Equipment World

A certified woman-owned business enterprise, McKinney Construction is a third-generation family business celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2023.

Samantha Watt’s grandfather Earl J. McKinney founded the company in 1983, establishing a unique model for the underground general contractor to exclusively bid on water company and municipal projects, earning the company a seat on many private bid lists throughout Southern California.

Samantha's father, Michael McKinney, took over the company in 2002.

Between her grandfather and her father, she spent most of her life around the business.McKinney Construction Co. information

"I always admired the family business and thought it would be such an honor to work for my father," she said.

Shortly after graduating college with accounting and business degrees, Samantha joined McKinney Construction, serving as office manager and shadowing her father in every aspect of the company.

Every Friday, Samantha and her father would venture out to a jobsite.

“I'd put my work boots on and go with him and just learn,” she said.

College may have established a foundation for her; however, it was the 10 years of office work and jobsite visits that brought her full circle in learning more about what McKinney Construction does and what makes it unique.

Samantha, who took over the reins with her husband, Corey, operating in the field in 2018. Since the pair took over, the company was one of 12 finalists for Equipment World's 2023 Contractor of the Year award.

Stay up to date on the 2024 Contractor of the Year by clicking here.

Samantha said she has faced challenges as a young female construction company president.

“'I’ve always enjoyed having my own career and my own money and working hard and having something to show for it,” she said. “I've just always been a working girl and admired my dad and grandpa for their work ethics. Though I'm a woman, I feel I can continue their hard work on my path.”

To date, the legacy of integrity established in 1983 by Earl McKinney has carried through into her ownership of the company, as seen in the continuing relationships with the area water companies.

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"I'm very proud to say that McKinney Construction is known in the industry for doing what is right," she said. "Our customers know, when McKinney Construction is on a job, the work will be done right whether the inspectors are there or not."

Continuing that respected legacy as a family business and creating a place where people want to work and spend their careers are her goals.

Being a small company, everyone wears many hats. Samantha serves as office manager, corporate president, and general manager of day-to-day operations.

Just don’t ask her to operate one of the backhoes, because that's the job for Corey and his field crews.

“I think everybody just knowing their skill and being good at what they do, and doing it right and safely is the main thing,” she said.

McKinney employs about 20 to 50 crew members. The number fluctuates based on the number of jobs coming up for bid and the ability to find quality skilled laborers.

“It's always a challenge because we have such a high standard,” Samantha said. “We have the core things that we're looking for – dependability, trustworthiness, and skill. We're willing to train; its important to have someone willing to learn and eager to grow and take pride in their work. That is our baseline.”

To counter the challenge of finding skilled labor, she and Corey have transitioned to more internal promotions, offering competitive pay and benefits, and maintaining a generally positive work environment where the laborers get some appreciation for their hard work.

crew hooking pipe section to backhoeDue to the company's legacy, when McKinney Construction crews are on a jobsite, inspectors know everything is being done right.Equipment World“Our people work hard and want to know they're appreciated,” Samantha said. “We want them to wake up and want to go to work. We think of all the employees like family.”

Safety incidents involving injuries or damage are translated into training opportunities to avoid making the same mistake twice.

With a 24-hour emergency service call service available, crews are always "on duty."

“We've gotten calls on Mother's Day; we've gotten calls on Christmas Eve, and we need a crew. So we go through our list and gather up a crew and go fix the leak,” she said. “For the most part, the crew members know that we offer that service, and they do their best to make themselves available.”

While the goal is always for the business to be profitable, there is always the understanding that profitability must be shared with the employees.

“Without their continued dedication and hard work, McKinney would not be where we are today, celebrating 40 years of integrity,” Samantha said, noting that it all goes back to how Earl McKinney established the company and the respect he earned.

“The relationships we build with the water company inspectors, it's more than just contracts,” she said. “I think the neat thing about a small company is the connection with ownership that the customers still have with us.”

Digging is digging, not rocket science

Predominantly, McKinney Construction uses Caterpillar backhoes.

“We can excavate the trench with the backhoe and then the loader helps with cleanup and backfill,” Samantha said. “The main thing is whether or not the machine can lift the pipe.” 

The company's fleet includes a couple of different sizes of backhoe loaders, a skid steer, and about a dozen work trucks loaded with all the smaller tools for pipe installation, connection, and service.  As needed for larger jobs, other larger machines, such as an excavator, can be rented. Replacements or acquisitions of new equipment are reviewed on an annual basis.

Due to the precise nature of their work, even with GPS and other options, much of the latest technology is not beneficial to McKinney Construction. “The way technology is going, I think there's too much technology in this new equipment. It just causes problems," Corey said, noting that most issues on today's machines are no longer about the hydraulics but rather the electrical or technology systems.

McKinney Construction crew workingMcKinney Construction is an underground general contractor that works primarily with water companies and municipalities.Equipment WorldUnfortunately, as stricter regulations on noise and emissions are being enforced in California, many contractors like McKinney Construction, are forced into using battery or electric tools and machines.

“It's difficult here, especially when your older stuff is better than the newer stuff you're buying. And it's breaking constantly, but you have this old one sitting there that you can't use,” Corey said.

“You used to be able to do it on your own, and now you've got to keep the old equipment around because when the new stuff breaks, the old equipment is still tried and true and works great. They make it now where you must pay a technician to go in there and fix whatever is wrong.”

Sadly, even when the techs come out, they can't always figure it out. He recalled an incident when three techs came out to try to solve a problem and couldn't figure it out. Their answer was akin to a computer reboot. They unplugged the system, then turned it back on, and everything seemed to work again. 

“I'm not too excited about the electronics in these machines,” Corey said.

Not only are the repairs challenging, but they're more expensive, as are the machines themselves. Over the past few years, between advances in technology, and inflation, prices for materials, equipment, and fuel have risen exponentially.

Both Corey and Samantha know that if they didn't have the established base formed by McKinney Construction, they would not have been able to start from scratch back in 2018.

Unfortunately, the customers are absorbing most of the increased costs.

McKinney Construction crew moving pipe with backhoeNearly 90% of McKinney Construction's equipment fleet is made up of Caterpillar backhoes for digging trenches and moving pipe.Equipment World“When we have projects coming in and as the state tightens up on the machines we're allowed to use and the trucks we're allowed to drive, it burdens us with the cost of buying new equipment, new trucks with all these emission filters, and ultimately, we're going to add it to our bid and we're going to pass it on,” Samantha said.

Previously, bids could be provided with a general timeframe that the price could be held. Now, contracts are carefully worded to state that material pricing is only good for seven days.

“I hate to do that, but as a small company, we can't absorb these inflationary fluctuations in pipe and related material prices,” she said. “I think it's just being transparent with the customer." 

While the cost still looms and technology is not necessarily at the forefront in the field, Samantha readily acknowledges that she would welcome a tech upgrade in the office.

Currently, Excel is her best friend in terms of fleet management, maintenance, scheduling, and payroll.

“We're definitely on the forefront to be transitioning to digital,” she said. “For now, we communicate with daily forms, phone calls, or texts. All the foremen have me on text and they let me know anything that comes up.”

All in the family

Samantha’s father, Michael McKinney, who is happily retired in Arizona and proud of his daughter, remains an invaluable resource.

As to the future, with their daughters being only 8 and 11 years old, there are no specific aspirations for one or both to become involved in the family business. “As the years progress that will become more apparent if that's an option or not,” Samantha said. “Ultimately, we would like to sell the company to someone that will continue the legacy. That is what's exciting about it, the future is just open.”

In terms of growth, she said, the sky’s the limit.

“We are growing and evolving and always looking to determine how we can be more efficient, safer and offer more for the employees," she said. “We just want to create a win-win, where Corey and I can provide for our family, but we're able to create a company that provides for our employees as well and provide a service in the community that we're proud of. Just continuing that legacy as a family and creating somewhere that people would want to work and spend their career and having a relationship with the water companies that they're proud to say we're a contractor for them makes me happy.”