It was a bad break that led to a good break.
Lee Collins was playing in a charity softball game, doing what he does best, having fun and helping others, when he broke his foot.
He was considered an “insurance liability” and lost his job with the Union.
“I was a union equipment operator. I went into a little bit of a hardship after I broke my foot in a charity softball game. Basically, I lost my job, they said I was a liability,” said Collins. “I started my own company about a year ago. I always wanted to do it. I just didn’t have the finances to do it.”
With his best foot forward, and the other in a cast, Collins founded Collins & Sons Excavating. The C and S form the body of a large earthmover in the company logo. His company is dedicated to his two sons, at ages eight and six, who have been helping dad since they were old enough to walk.
Located in bucolic Wales, Mass., Collins who holds nothing back in interviews or at a job site, laughed when told the location wasn’t well known.
“You haven’t heard of Wales? Not many people have. They ask me where I live, and I tell them Sturbridge. It saves me a lot of time,” Collins said.
Caught in the Pits
Collins leaned on 25 years of experience in all facets of the construction industry, and started his company with his wife Alicia. At 16 years old, he started his career operating a loader at Piette Sand and Gravel. But how he got that job after school and on weekends is a tale of turning his young life around.
“I started running a loader for Piette Sand and Gravel when I was 16 years old. They were out of Hubbardson, Mass., but are no longer in business. I wasn’t initially drawn to running heavy iron. I was actually always drawn to law enforcement,” said Collins.
And law enforcement was unexpectedly drawn to him.
“I got caught driving my ATV in the gravel pit by the environmental police. The cop asked the owner of the pit what to do with me,” said Collins. “Mr. Piette gave me the option, back blade the haul roads with the old 966 loader, or go to jail.”
At the end of the following day and having paid his debt, the owner offered him a job operating that loader for the right reasons.
“I took to the loader like a duck to water. I ran the loader after school and on Saturdays. Piette retired and the pit closed so I bounced around operating equipment in the residential sector,” said Collins.
Work on I-4 in Florida
In his early 20s, Collins moved to Florida to get better work.
“From 1996 to 1998, I was part of the building boom down there. I worked for Granite Construction, one of the biggest companies in the world,” said Collins. “I worked on the Interstate 4 corridor for a while.”
Over time, his work ethic and reputation secured him a superintendent position in Florida overseeing construction on that corridor. After its completion, Collins returned to Massachusetts as an operating engineer for Local 4 in Boston, working on public works projects such as the Central Artery, MWRA Aqueduct Tunnel and Blackstone gas-fired power plant. As part of Local 4, he also worked with high visibility clients such as Harvard University, Brandeis University, MIT, Logan International Airport and Hanscom Air Force Base, all of which presented unique challenges.
Wanting to be closer to home after his children were born, Collins accepted a position with a locally owned construction company managing the day-to-day operations while executing the work.
Later, with a strong desire for new challenges and the dream of leaving a legacy, he founded Collins and Sons Excavating.
Collins’s vision is to be the most sought-after excavation company, known for its ability to manage, execute and complete projects on time and on budget. He builds friendships along with structures.
Accomplishing the impossible while treading lightly on the environment, Collins uses a family-owned approach and works with American pride.
Collins & Sons Excavating is dedicated to providing comprehensive excavation services of the highest quality to clients who seek experienced and knowledgeable professionals regardless of project size.
“We are committed to ensuring time and budget goals are met with a strong emphasis on craftsmanship not usually seen in the industry today,” said Collins. “We strive to develop and maintain client relationships through diligence and constant communication, while providing superior services. We are devoted to maintaining a safe, fair and pleasant work environment, which supports diversity and emphasizes strong ethical values.”
In addition to excavation work, Collins prides himself on providing a safe, efficient and organized work site that is completed in a timely fashion, even during demolition, utility work or septic/sewer installation or repairs.
“Over the years, I have had the opportunity to operate various equipment from cranes to dozers, and everything in between. I’ve run equipment on barges floating in the ocean, to underground in tunnels. I’ve assisted with the clean up of a live ammo dump that was interesting to say the least,” said Collins.
“When I started my own company about a year ago, I owned a backhoe that I bought to do the site work on my house, some 10 years ago.
“I got a lead from my friend Paul Morin, who works for Schmidt Equipment, that they had taken in a Hitachi 160 for trade. It was in good shape we mounted a power thumb on it, gave it a new coat of paint and went to work,” said Collins. “I’d like to thank Schmidt Equipment, and John Deere for taking a chance on a start up business in a less than ideal economy.”
Hobbling for Jobs
With a foot in a cast and a newly acquired machine, Collins hopped around the Central Massachusetts area for work.
“I had to go out and find jobs. I just basically jumped with both feet in, and one was in a cast,” Collins said. “The injury definitely bogged me down at first. It was miserable getting in and out of that cab dozens of times a day. I really slowed the healing process by pushing myself, but I was determined. And slowly we gained momentum and the phone started to ring.”
One of the first jobs he landed was for the Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary, restoring a riverbed. He then began doing frequent sub-contracting work for the well-established Iacovelli Excavation out of Northbridge.
One of the great advantages to working for himself is setting his own timetable/schedule. His wife Alicia is a vital part of the operation.
“I’m more or less a one-man show, and when I need help, I turn to my family. My wife Alicia is a controller for Farm Credit East. They are an agricultural lending cooperative supplying loans to industry such as dairy farms, vineyards and timber/logging,” said Collins. “She does our books and billing and all that good stuff.”
With his own company, Collins can finish work and watch his sons grow up while being a very active part of their lives. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: his oldest son is an award-winning Motocross GP rider and a skilled equipment operator at age eight.
“My sons are named Tucker Lee and Wyatt. Tucker’s weekend hobby is MotocrossGP. He just got 1st place, racing the JDay Series, off-road, which is held all over New England,” said Collins “Today [June 29], in Huntington, Mass., he got his first win in his division, based on age and bike size.
“Tucker decided to get into the dirt bikes all on his own. He decided it was something he wanted to do. I told him, ’If you do it, commit to it, be the best you can be.’ Today’s race was unique. It was called Dozer Memorial GP, sponsored by Girroir Trucking and Construction. The Dozer Memorial, right up our alley.”
Collins is the first generation in the heavy iron industry. He did not learn it from family members.
“I always kind of wished I had that opportunity, but I didn’t. So, if my boys decide that they don’t want to go to school to become a doctor or an architect I feel it is important for them to always have a trade to fall back on.”
Collins & Sons Excavating serves central New England, and the greater Boston area.
He has survived that tough first year with hard work and pride.
“We finished out the season in the black. In my opinion, during the first year of business for excavation, to know we live in a depressed area where there is not a lot of work, to have the bills paid, and the lights on, is a huge success, believe me,” Collins said.
“We built some new relationships and gained some friendships along the way, and that’s what it is really all about. We are really trying to bring a human factor and a level of craftsmanship back into the construction trade that has been lost.”
His advice is simple to anyone working for someone else that wants to go forward on their own but just cant pull the handle trigger.
“My advice would be to stop procrastinating and roll the dice,” said Collins.
For more information, call 774/696-8811 or visit www.collinsandsonsexcavating.com.
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