Video: Oregon Contractor Making Millions Playing in the Dirt

At 9 years old, Jeff Fowler started working at a ranch baling hay and other duties. He would ride his bike 13 miles to do the work.

“My dad brought me up to work,” Jeff says. By 14, it was clear he had found his niche, and his mentors were telling him that he should one day go into business for himself.

“I like to play in the dirt,” Jeff says. He worked for his mentor’s excavation company for 11 years and then took a role as an inspector with the local water commission. While inspecting a job for a contractor, the owner asked Jeff about buying him out. 

Jeff and his wife, Alyson, president of Pilot Rock Excavation, can time the transaction based on their youngest son’s birthday, which was Jeff’s last day with the water commission. They’ve never looked back.

From the early stages, Jeff was in the trenches with his crews, and Alyson was in the background keeping the office together, first as the corporation’s secretary and now as president. 

“I was a pipe layer, and that's what I enjoyed doing,” Jeff says. Able to operate all the equipment, he prefers to be in the dirt. “I'm always looking for quicker, better, smarter ways to get pipe in the ground. It's more of a game for me. It's not necessarily competition, it's just more of a self-gratitude.”

Today the company has annual revenue of around $6 million and employs 20-25 people.

Find out what’s next for Pilot Rock Excavation as they continue to grow.

Pilot Rock Excavation was a finalist in Equipment World's 2022 Contractor of the Year program. The program recognizes contractors who display the highest standards of business acumen, equipment management expertise, attention to safety and community involvement. Each year, 12 finalists receive an expense-paid trip to Las Vegas to participate in roundtable discussions and an awards ceremony.

The 2023 program will coincide with ConExpo-Con/Agg, North America’s largest construction trade show. Nominations for the 2023 Contractor of the Year awards are open now. Submit your entry by September 23, 2022 to be considered. For more information, visit https://www.equipmentworld.com/contractor-of-the-year.

Video Transcript

Jeff Fowler, owner. Pilot Rock Excavation:

I started work at nine years old. I just always had a lot of jobs when I was young. My dad brought me up to work and worked for a rancher/contractor, excavation contractor. And then when I was 15, he'd bring me into town from the ranch and we'd worked together on city street improvements and pipeline replacement projects, subdivisions, and so on. Really took a liking to the excavation and playing in the dirt, just like any kid would.

I worked for John for 11 years and then went to work for the water commission for four and a half years. I was approached by another existing contractor that was retiring. He was out on a job I was inspecting and he says, "Hey, Jeff, you really ought to think about buying me out." And again, I, "Yeah, sure," laughed it off. And then, well, we ended up buying him out.

I wanted to start small, but I didn't want to start with a backhoe and a dump truck, because I was used to doing pipeline jobs and you need certain equipment to be productive and efficient and have fun doing it. We started off primarily as a pipeline contractor, replacing water, sewer, and storm pipes for the city projects. I was in the field every day. First one to the shop and the last one to leave. I put in a lot of hours and I was in the trenches. I was a pipe layer and that's what I enjoyed doing.

Still, to this day, I don't really care to run the equipment. I'd rather be on the ground. I'm always looking for quicker, better, smarter ways to get piped in the ground, and it's more of a game for me. It's not necessarily competition. It's just more of a self-gratitude.

Now, we're doing a lot of city street improvements. Our company strengths, I would say, is our all-star team. We have really good people from top to bottom. I would put our guys up against anybody in the industry here locally. Probably our number one thing that makes us stand out, I would say, is communication and respect go a long way in my line of work. We are a very tight knit group. We're all just one big family. It's a unique friendship.

As far as why would somebody want to work for Pilot Rock? We respect our employees. We take very good care of our employees. Our guys know that if they get a job done on time or ahead of schedule, they're going to be appreciated. They're going to get bonuses. We treat them with respect they deserve.

For a new contractor starting out, I say, start small, take baby steps, don't rush it. Don't get in over your head, it does take time. It will pay off. It's just not going to happen overnight. And it's a lot of hard work. A lot of stress involved. Being a contractor is not easy and it's not for everyone, but it is very rewarding in the end.

I live in the future. I don't live in the past, so I've always been that way. I just know that one day things are going to be better than they are now. If we continue to improve our operation and mindset, we're going to improve the business and our life as a whole.

We've had these goals set from day one, and we've come a long way in the last few years. And we're really comfortable with being right around that 20 to 25 employees. I know that one day in the future, we will be looking to grow, but, as of now, we're fully comfortable with the size and dimension of the business.