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Emerald Excavating Flourishes Over Decades With Hard Work, Irish Luck

Wed August 10, 2011 - Northeast Edition
Jay Adams

Ingeborg (Inge) Kelleher, president of Emerald Excavating, Plymouth, Mass., went from drilling teeth as a dental assistant to drilling foundations when she founded the company with her husband James in 1973.

Inge’s involvement developed over time. Her role evolved through necessity as the young immigrant couple struggled to survive during difficult times. Inge was born in Straubing, Germany and had moved to Zephyrhills, Fla., at age 15 without knowing one world of English.

James had emigrated from Ennistymon, Ireland. Raised on a farm, he settled in a home in Cedarville, Mass., starting his own small hobby farm, which he still maintains.

The couple — with the help of hard-working employees, grit and more than a little luck — have expanded Emerald from a two-person operation into a major site work company with a stellar reputation.

Inge is trained in construction technology, concrete construction and accounting. She also is a licensed real estate broker and an active leader in her community.

Emerald Excavating was certified as a Woman Owned Business Enterprise because of Inge’s ownership and leadership.

Dental Foundations

More than 38 years ago, James Kelleher left a career in ministry and moved to Kingston, Mass., where his brother lived. To fill time, while figuring out what to do next, he helped his brother do some landscaping.

“While raking a lawn one day, my father saw an International 500 shovel dozer parked in a neighboring yard. It belonged to a police officer who had purchased it with the intention of performing the site-work for his own home,” said Rory Kelleher, now business manager of Emerald. “His plan hadn’t worked out and he was all too happy to transfer the machine and its payments over to my father. My father took ownership of this machine without even knowing how to turn it on.”

James also had married Inge who was a dental assistant. Ironically, the dentist she worked for had started another business, building homes on the side.

“Through my mother, my father was hired by this dentist-turned-builder to backfill a foundation with his new machine. In a performance that would have turned anyone else away from the site-work industry entirely, my father captained his newly acquired International 500 straight into the foundation on its maiden voyage,” said Rory. “Fortunately for my father, the dentist arrived at the site to finish the backfill and cracked the other side of the foundation.

“The dentist reasoned that he needed to replace the foundation now and, compassionately, opted not to take his pound of flesh from my father,” said Rory. “Somehow, this dentist saw something of value in my father’s skills as a builder, or possibly it was my mother’s skills as a dental assistant that were valued, and he employed my father for the next two years.”

After two years of building houses, the dentist returned to buildings bridges of another kind.

“He offered my mother a mortgage so that she could buy his equipment so my father could continue in site-work. My mother jumped at the opportunity and made my parents the proud owners of a six-wheel dump, a nine-ton tag trailer, a John Deere 410 backhoe and an Allis Chalmers HD-6 dozer,” said Rory.

Struggling and juggling two careers, the couple kept going.

“They still recount the celebration that followed the first week that they grossed over $1,000,” added Rory. “Slowly the business grew to the point that my mother left her post as a dental assistant and devoted her attention to the business. My mother juggled the business with raising two children.”

Livestock, Live Work

By 1978, the couple had incorporated and was fully invested in developing a successful business. By 1981, the business had grown to the point that they hired a laborer and a driver/mechanic.

“The ’corporate office’ at that time resided in the attic of our hybrid shop/cow-barn,” said Rory. “In 1984, my parents gave the livestock some sense of peace by purchasing a piece of commercial land and relocating the business.”

“My mother’s role as the leader of a successful site-work company resulted from her personal qualities proving invaluable to the business as it grew. She is thorough, organized, efficient, energetic and confident; these are qualities that establish her value as a leader regardless of gender and regardless of industry norms,” said Rory.

They selected the name of their company because of its Irish reference to the Emerald Isle.

“It was something my parents just liked the sound of,” added Rory.

Meanwhile, their two sons, Rory and Sheamus, grew up and into the business. Their mother is still majority shareholder and president. Their father, while semi-retired, still maintains an active involvement with day-to-day operations.

“Their influence is ever-present and still very much a part of the culture of our company. The decision for my brother and me to get involved in operating and managing the company has certainly facilitated the continued growth, adaptation and success of Emerald Excavating,” said Rory. “Through our involvement, my parents have been able to craft their roles and level of involvement according to their desires, rather than necessity.”

A Clear Strategy

The Kellehers have a clear strategy to thrive in challenging economic times:

“We attempt to leverage all the means at our disposal to predict the direction of our industry. We monitor national and local economic conditions through various media outlets. We maintain a dialogue with our bonding and insurance agents. We are in the fortunate position of having at our disposal the predictive powers of a customer base that includes many national and international firms. We attend trade shows such as ConExpo and MASCON searching for breaking technology and innovations in our industry. We listen to the engineers and architects we regularly work with and to our vendors, suppliers and even competitors. We maintain an active relationship with our equipment suppliers. We listen to the feedback and experiences of other businesses and members of our local community,” Rory explained.

“There are no shortcuts to developing a great reputation if you are in business for the long haul. Consistent excellence in safety, professionalism, quality, expertise, efficiency, fairness, value, dedication and determination lead to a stellar reputation,” added Rory. “When customers actually want you to do their work instead of anybody else you have an enormous advantage. Our mission statement is ’Be the best.’ It doesn’t get any simpler, but we mean it.

“As a company, we are willing to do any job, big or small. We will take a backyard-grading job for $1,000 or a $20,000,000 site job. We travel from northern Massachusetts to southern Rhode Island if the job is right.” said Rory.

Trying Times

“I can say with certainty that these difficult times have made our company much stronger. Coming out of this difficult economy, our company will be more diversified, more financially stable, more skilled and more efficient,” he said. “We will have a broader customer base, a larger geographic territory and better reputation coming out of this economic downturn than we did going into it. These hard times have forced us to improve as a company in ways that we wouldn’t have otherwise endeavored to.”

After being exposed to the business from birth, the brothers said it would be difficult to imagine ever doing anything else.

“Roughly in 1998, after obtaining undergraduate degrees in Civil Engineering, my brother and I verbalized our commitment to returning to the family business,” Rory added. “We would obtain our Masters Degrees in Geotechnical Engineering from Georgia Tech. I would then continue at Georgia Tech for an MBA while Sheamus worked for an engineering company until he was able to get his P.E. license. I finished in 2001 and returned to Emerald Excavating as business manager and Sheamus finished by 2002 and returned as the operations manager.”

Primarily focused on small local builders and homeowners in the 1970s and 1980s, the company procured a concrete form company and began offering concrete foundation services in the mid-1980s. From 2000 to this year, Emerald has expanded its services dramatically.

“During this same time period, we invested heavily in modernizing our equipment fleet and in technology such as GPS layout rovers, automated bulldozers and excavators and total stations,” said Rory. “In 2009, after we became more efficient in our efforts to process and recycle materials, we created a spin-off company called Emerald Landscape Supply and opened a retail material yard at our corporate headquarters.

“We sell a full line of landscape products to homeowners and landscapers including bark mulches, crushed stone products, patio and retaining wall materials, masonry stone products and more,” he added.

National Home Building Entry

In the 1990s, Emerald began performing more commercial site-work and was awarded its first job for a national homebuilder.

“On this first project for a national home builder, we only did the lot work and concrete foundations, another grading contractor performed the site cuts to fills, the utility work and the road construction. Nonetheless, this job was one of the most significant milestones in the development of our company,” said Rory. “We had to go from single lot construction to mass production. The steady stream of work that came from this project for nearly a decade was our first real exposure to an anchor job.”

On the eve of this job’s completion, Emerald was awarded the first phase of a 600-lot retirement community in the Pine Hills. This project included road and utility construction, sewer and water pump stations, mass grading and lot work.

“The Pine Hills development has since provided us with a steady influx of work and opportunity. In this one development we work for Pulte Homes, Toll Brothers, Avalon Bay Communities, The Green Company and The Pinehills,” said Rory. “We have since done the site work for similar large scale communities in Marshfield, Mass., South Kingstown, R.I. Pembroke, Lakeville, New Bedford, Hanson and Middleboro, Mass. We also have diversified, performing large commercial grading and site-work projects and specialized construction.”

Emerald has dredged the Coast Guard’s boat landing at Graves Light in Boston Harbor, performed the site-work for wind turbines, water storage facilities, wastewater treatment facilities, water and sewer pump stations, seawalls and much more.

Emerald’s ’Heart and Soul’

“Our employees are the heart and soul of any measure of success we have had. Over the years we have accumulated a group of employees that would be envied by any business owner,” said Rory. “As our workforce has grown and improved, we have developed a strong culture of safety, pride, professionalism and performance. Employees of Emerald Excavating are confident, decisive, proud, reliable and involved.

“We listen to our employees, take their suggestions, ask for their assistance and advice and rely upon their insights, experiences and expertise. We are truly gifted to have found these men and women and we would have nothing but a parking lot full of equipment without them,” added Rory.

Emerald currently employs some 58 people at its headquarters.

Loyal longtime employees include Richard Smith, who retired in 2007 after 26 years of service (he was the first employee hired by the founders); cousin Paul Kelleher, site foreman, who has been on the job for 30 years; Ray Martin, lead mechanic since 1985; cousin John Kelleher, private residential division manager who has worked at Emerald for 22 years; Denny Fratus, yard manager who has put in 18 years; and Jeff Florindo, equipment operator, who has worked heavy iron for 14 years.

Currently, the company is performing the site work for a new regional distribution center for Sysco Boston in Plympton.

“We are mass grading approximately 450,000 cu. yds. of material to bring the site to grade. This project includes a water treatment facility, a sewer treatment facility, site utilities, fine grading, foundation excavation and backfill, slab prep, paving, loaming and seeding,” said Rory. “The job will be 80 percent complete by December of 2011 and fully complete by October of 2012. It is approximately a $12 million site-work job.”

Community Involvement

Emerald has always maintained an active role in the community.

• Emerald Excavating donated its services to the new playing fields and outdoor classroom at Indian Brook Elementary School, a project that directly benefits youth in the community.

• Contributions of manpower and construction to the Manomet Youth Center community project

• Donations to the Great Island Family Fun Day

• Emerald’s Army of Hope marches annually in the Relay for Life of Greater Plymouth, raising thousands of dollars

• Helping with the “Let there be lights” Plymouth Pop Warner field lighting project at Forges Field in Plymouth

• A last-second intervention to finish the long-awaited playground project at West Elementary School. Emerald assisted when a contractor backed out of the project on the eve of the installation

• Honoring the dying wish of building a driveway and wall to honor Bill Walsh, a treasured member of the Emerald family, for his friend Lynne DePaolo.

• Annual sponsorship of a youth baseball and hockey team

• For years, Emerald has organized, sponsored, set up and staffed Cedarville’s Family Fun Day event, raising enough money for the community to revitalize a local park by irrigating and rebuilding a soccer field, resurfacing two tennis courts and repaving a basketball court

• Each year, when the holiday season arrives, Emerald hangs wreaths throughout Cedarville center with a front-end loader.

“This type of community involvement is important to Emerald because we are a part of this community; this is where we live, where we have raised families, where we have made friends,” added Rory. “We feel that our community gives to us every day and that it is an honor to give back when we have the opportunity to do so.”

For more information, call 508/888-3184 or visit CEG

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