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Jeff O’Risky had a stable factory job and two young children in 1997 when he had a chance to buy a small excavating business and its only piece of construction equipment – a 1980 bulldozer. The decision wasn’t an easy one.
“I kept saying to myself, ‘I’ve got a nice job and I’m going to throw it all away to buy this bulldozer,'” O’Risky remembers.
He grappled with the idea until a coworker at the General Electric factory in Mt. Vernon, Indiana, told him he was going to buy the excavating company if O’Risky wouldn’t.
O’Risky quit his job the next day and has been busy doing site prep – mostly residential – ever since. As far as the housing market in Evansville is concerned, there is no recession, O’Risky explains.
The city and its metropolitan area are home to the General Electric plant, a Toyota plant, a Bristol-Myers Squibb factory, an AK Steel plant and a Whirlpool factory. All these companies provide high-paying jobs, and houses for those workers are going up all over town.
When O’Risky started his business, the contractor he bought out was still scheduled to dig three or four basements, so he began with those projects. Now O’Risky Excavating clears lots, builds driveways, digs for basements, crawl spaces, footings and septic tanks, hauls dirt, prepares sites for commercial development and designs, builds and repairs lakes.
Quality work draws customers
O’Risky Excavating reported just under $500,000 in profits last year, a 92 percent increase since its first year in business.
The company works with 25 to 30 home builders in the Evansville area. O’Risky says he owes much of his success to the housing contractors he has worked with since he started out six years ago.
“A handful of contractors gave me a chance when I was a nobody,” he says. “And we still work with every one of them.”
Those home building contractors say they continue to work with O’Risky because he is dependable and does exactly what he says he will. “I can call him at the last moment and he makes it happen,” says Phil Kost, owner of Phil Kost Construction.
Steve Smith, owner of Legacy Homes, says O’Risky and his employees never make any excuses about why they can’t do what the builder wants done. O’Risky Excavating is also consistently on or under budget, Smith says.
“The nice thing about O’Risky is their can-do attitude in whatever you ask them to do,” says Smith, who hires O’Risky Excavating to do all his significant excavating projects. “Not a lot of contractors care about the other side.”
Employees key to business
O’Risky says he worried about having enough jobs when he first started out, but discovered doing quality work and treating people right brought him plenty of business. “We don’t load up the equipment until the customer is completely satisfied,” he says.
Smith says he’s impressed with the work of O’Risky’s four employees. When the owner isn’t around, a lot of subcontractors’ employees don’t put the company’s best face forward, he explains. But this isn’t the case with O’Risky’s crew. The workers are knowledgeable and make suggestions, and Smith says he always gets an hour’s worth of work for an hour’s pay.
O’Risky says his employees are the key to his company. “My employees are trustworthy and dependable and they are professional in appearance,” he says. Employees wear company uniforms and drive vehicles identified with the company’s name and license number.
All four employees have commercial driver’s licenses. O’Risky says anyone who works for him must have a CDL because he moves construction equipment back and forth across town every day. “You might be driving a truck in the morning and a dozer in the afternoon,” he says.
Other contractors have noticed O’Risky has had virtually no employee turnover. Still, he says finding and keeping good employees is the biggest challenge facing small contractors. That’s why he guarantees his employees 40 hours of work a week, no matter what the weather is like. If there’s snow or rain, they come to the shop and paint equipment or do other odd jobs.
“All the guys have families,” O’Risky says. “They have kids to feed, too.”
O’Risky also works alongside his employees. He doesn’t like being in his office and says he thinks his crew respects him because he never asks them to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. “If they need a man in the ditch, I’ll get in the ditch,” O’Risky says.
Working with the competition
O’Risky has a lot of competition in the Evansville area, where there are 75 excavating contractors. But he decided to work with his competitors instead of against them. If a competitor’s machine breaks down, O’Risky will loan him one of his. If other excavating contractors need some dirt hauled away, he’ll do that too. And they return the favors.
O’Risky likes to buy his construction equipment, but he rents occasionally when he has a lot of projects going on at once and needs an extra machine. He owns two dump trucks, an excavator, a crawler loader, an elevating scraper, three crew trucks and a backhoe. He says he likes owning his machines because he takes good care of them and can get a lot of life out of them.
O’Risky outsources heavy maintenance, but he and his employees change oil, weld, clean and paint the equipment.
When he has to rent machines, O’Risky says he won’t rent from a company that charges a flat rate despite weather conditions or other problems he might face. For instance, if he rents a machine for a month and it rains one week of that month, his rental supplier will let him keep the machine an extra week at no charge.
“I have to have a rental company that works with me,” O’Risky says.
O’Risky says he sees his firm at least doubling in size, but he wants the growth to be slow and steady. “I don’t want the business the grow too quickly, causing a loss of personal contact with employees, customers and contractors,” he says.
O’Risky’s wife, Linda, provides computer support for her husband’s company while running her own business as a private consulting chemical engineer. Her latest project at O’Risky Excavating was launching a company website, www.oriskyexcavating.com.
O’Risky says he wouldn’t mind venturing into some small construction projects in the future, but he’s happy with excavating as well. He says he hopes his children – Darren, 7, and Chris, 8 – will become involved in the business, but he won’t push them toward it. They already enjoy hanging out at their father’s jobsites and have been operating equipment since they were 4 or 5.
“I’d change the name in a minute to ‘O’Risky and Sons,'” O’Risky says.