Work Speeds Ahead on Replacing Century-Old Bridges With Tunnel

Harms Construction Undaunted by Major Civil Projects

Thu January 11, 2007 - Northeast Edition
CEG



George Harms was just a teenager when he founded George Harms Construction Company Inc. more than four decades ago.

“My first job was for $40,” Harms recalled. “I was 16 years old, in high school and working construction jobs part time. I started with just myself as a full-time employee, then added an employee and later went from one employee to three or four.”

That was 1960. Today, George Harms Construction Company Inc. of Farmingdale, N.J., is working on multimillion-dollar projects and managing approximately 250 employees, many of whom have been with the company for 20 to 30 years.

From part time to big time, Harms Construction now specializes in large-scale construction projects that range from highways, bridges, runways, toll plazas, and dams to landfills, railroads, electrification, pipelines, pump stations, buildings and pole line construction.

Harms manages all its construction projects and performs the majority of work without subcontracting.

“Control is the main reason we self-perform all the work,” said Tom Hardell, president and chief operating officer.

“We can control what we’re doing and we don’t have to rely on subcontractors who are tied up on another job when we call them. We’re able to maintain our quality, and by doing that, we create a cost savings that benefits everyone.”

Big-Time Projects

A recent high-profile project was the Route 35 Victory Bridge, the first precast concrete segmental bridge project in New Jersey. The project involved building twin bridges side-by-side over the Raritan River.

“That’s a signature bridge in the state of New Jersey,” said Hardell. The project cost $109 million and was completed in December 2005.

“We had never done a segmental bridge like it,” Harms admitted. “But we sat there and brainstormed, thought about what we could do and submitted our bid. Probably half our jobs involve doing something we’ve never done before.”

Harms Construction also demolished and reconstructed a high-level, center-island platform along the New Jersey Coast Rail Line in Woodbridge, N.J.

Taking on such big jobs, and the challenges associated with them, has helped the company develop.

“If you look back at the last 20-some years, highway and rail work have been our typical projects,” said Hardell.

“We’ve had some landfill work where we’ve either built new landfills or reclamation centers or we’ve capped old landfills. Prior to that, it was all pipe work up until our first highway job in 1980.”

Today, the majority of Harms Construction’s work is public-sector projects.

’We’ve transitioned from private work in the beginning to public-sector jobs — primarily utility and highway work,” Hardell described. “Most of the highway projects now involve replacing existing infrastructure and things like that.”

The Right Equipment

Hardell said an important ingredient in completing such work successfully is owning the right equipment, including Komatsu tight-tail-swing excavators acquired through sales representative Scott Warren of the Binder Machinery Company.

“The PC228s are dynamite machines,” Hardell asserted. “They’re like the Energizer bunny. They just keep going and going.”

Harms Construction bought its first PC228 in 1998 and has purchased three more since then.

“Initially the tight-tail-swing is what sold us on it,” Hardell recalled.

“We don’t have new construction anymore. We’re doing reconstructions where we’re working inside the center lanes of traffic or along rail lines in tight areas. What has kept us sold on them is that, other than if they’re damaged, they don’t stop running.”

“It’s a good machine,” agreed Bill Petrozzello, a Harms operator on a PC228. “It’s powerful and very smooth. Much smoother than some of the other machines we’ve had.”

Harms Construction also has two HM300-1 articulated trucks.

“They’ve been doing a super job,” Hardell affirmed. “We’re very pleased with them.”

Harden said technology has played a big role in making the machinery more productive.

“Excavators are a prime example,” Harms explained. “Back in the beginning, excavators were designed to dig a hole with a bucket and that was it. Today, the excavator is more of a tool carrier with the attachments and everything else it can do.”

Technology also has improved fuel efficiency, he noted.

“Obviously, fuel consumption is a big issue. Automatic throttles and newer engines inject the amount of fuel you need for optimum efficiency. And automatic transmission technology in dump trucks has eliminated axle problems.

“In the old days, with standard transmissions, even the best of drivers would break axles on most of the jobs. Today, we haven’t had a broken axle on automatic transmission dump trucks since we’ve owned them.

“We’re looking for a good product, good resale value and good support,” Harms continued. “We need equipment to do the job it’s supposed to do and not break down. Our Komatsu units have been very productive and reliable.”

Hardell said the relationship with the distributor is vital.

“Making sure the machinery is running all day long can be challenging. Parts availability is important to us, and I think Binder has done a great job in that area.”

Family Business

Several members of the Harms family help keep Harms Construction running efficiently. Among the second generation are George’s sons Rob and Kevin Harms. Rob has been working for the company full time since 1994 and is vice president of operations and general superintendent. Kevin has worked in the business full time since 1997 and is a superintendent.

But Rob said the Harms name does not mean special privileges within the company.

“If anything, it’s the other way sometimes,” Rob maintained.

“I don’t want anything handed to me. I’m here to do my job and I try and be the first one here in the morning and the last one to leave because I’ve got to set an example. That’s the only way I’m going to get respect from people when I ask them to do something.”

Harms Construction Company Inc. is like family in another sense: the company finds itself filling many job openings through the friends and families of current employees.

“We do draw many new employees in that way,” Hardell noted. “Current employees bring in other family members or friends … that’s our best way of finding people.”

Hardell himself started with Harms Construction in 1972, running a jackhammer his first full day. Today, his son Jason works for the company.

“Most of our key spots are filled by people who worked their way up in the company,” George pointed out.

“They had the schooling, but they basically worked their way into higher positions in the company. We treat them like family, there’s no doubt about that. When they have a problem, whether personal or business, it’s our problem, too.”

Continued Growth

George credited those employees with being instrumental in the growth of his company.

“We have a tremendous team,” he said. “I think the team is built by hard work, and as owners, when we’re in there working hard, it’s very easy to get other people to work just as hard.”

With its hardworking, experienced staff and reputation for tackling challenging projects, the future looks bright for George Harms Construction. Although future public spending on infrastructure improvements is difficult to predict, George said he sees plenty of good things happening.

“If there’s some sort of construction, we’ll be in it. We’ll work hard in order to be part of what’s going on here in New Jersey.”

(This story appears courtesy of “Building With Binder” magazine.)