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In today’s fickle world, many are often willing to abandon what they know and like for the latest and greatest, especially when it comes to the job market. Construction is no different; many contractors will tell you half their labor will leave and work for someone else for a seemingly tiny pay increase.
That’s one of the reasons Danny and Deanna Williams are so refreshing. The couple, who owns Dan’s Marine Service based in Grafton, West Virginia, excel in a lot of different ways, but one of the most impressive is retention. They succeed where others fail in keeping people around for the long haul. In an area where qualified labor is in short supply, Danny has turned employee retention into an art form.
Treating his employees well is second nature to Danny, but he also practices what he preaches, sticking with those who stuck with him in the early days. The payoff for his allegiance is a strong company and a sterling reputation.
Although the company specializes in mine maintenance work, commercial water lines and gas well locations, Williams says he’s not locked into a specific scope of business. “We’ll do just about anything that everyone else can’t do,” he says. “We don’t look at a problem as a problem; we look at it and find the solution.”
The attitude stems from the way his business developed. Williams’ father was in the oil and gas business, and in the ‘80s, decided he wanted out. Williams talked his father into letting him have his dozers, he bid on a project and started working seven days a week. The project lasted two years, and once completed, Williams was looking for business. “In 1987, I looked in the newspaper and saw a marina job at Tygart Lake,” he says. “The state wanted someone to install and operate a marina.” Although he’d never considered a career as a marina operator, he successfully bid on the project. The couple still owns and operates the marina – the foundation for their company’s name – alongside their construction business.
For a while, the business was basically three people – Danny, Deanna and long-time foreman Jeff McLean, who has been with the Williams’ for a quarter-century. Williams says McLean stuck with him during the hard times, when they would set fence posts at night – sometimes into the wee hours – to make enough money for gas.
“He often went weeks, sometimes more than a month, without being able to cash his paycheck,” Williams says. Today, McLean, who considers Danny and Deanna family, thinks of their generosity rather than of the hard times. “Danny’s like my brother,” he says. “He tries to help everyone, He loans us money, gives us trucks to drive and makes sure I have whatever I need.”
An honest, hardworking man who stands by his word, Williams was able to develop relationships with vendors and suppliers, and today uses many of the same vendors, including the same bonding agent and fuel supplier as when he started. “They helped me out when I was struggling,” he says. “I wouldn’t think about leaving these people, no matter what kind of discount or promise a competitor offers. Loyalty is more important.”
Kevin Amos of HD Supply, who provides pipe and other materials for the company, says he’s seen Williams go to great lengths to extend that devotion to clients, as well. “He does the job right,” Amos says. “He has an extremely good reputation. Most of the contractors offer a one-year warranty on a job, but I’ve seen Danny go back out on a job four years later and fix an issue at his expense.”
Although it sounds like an expensive way to run a business, it’s been remarkably effective for Danny and Deanna, who have reaped benefits from their fierce devotedness. There’s an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect between the couple and their employees, clients and vendors, and it translates to a job well done.
“We all make good money,” says McLean, “but we do what we need to. We’ll work longer hours and on weekends. We do whatever it takes to get the job done.” The company won’t undercut competitors, though, says bonding agent Greg Gordon, BB&T. “With the way the market has been, you see a lot of people’s true colors come out,” he says. “Danny’s continued to perform and the owners appreciate it.”
The company’s workforce, now at around 15, operates with a similar mindset to Williams’ approach. He’s surrounded himself with people he trusts, and is choosy about the personnel he brings on board. He hasn’t laid off an employee in approximately a decade.
The company went more than a year without having an applicant pass a pre-employment drug test, but for Williams, the safety of his people comes first. “Working in and around the mines is dangerous work,” Williams says. “My guys are going to get home safe at night.” He has an outside firm handle safety auditing, training and equipment inspection, and has a top-notch office manager, Ned Stone, take care of human resources, payroll and some bid work.
Like every other aspect of his business, Williams pays careful attention to his fleet. He buys both used and new – he says he loves auctions – and will fill in occasionally with rented equipment. He buys two or three pieces at the end of the year to take advantage of discounts, but otherwise buys when needed. Williams ensures the equipment is well maintained, says Kermit Melvin of Arch Coal, for whom Dan’s Marine Service performs a variety of slurry line, water line and general earth work. “Some of their equipment is older, but there’s never been an issue,” he says. “They always keep it up.”
Williams’ mechanic, Phil Cosner, also runs equipment in addition to keeping the machines in tip-top shape. The crews check out the equipment before the shift, and Cosner does everything but the warranty work. A 35-year veteran mechanic, Cosner came on board with Dan’s Marine Service several years ago. He is thrilled to be part of the team and is always ready to praise Williams. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been this happy,” he says. “I love him.”