Russell Jenkins, the president of General Excavation Inc., recalled the time he first met Don Powell, a Hitachi salesman of J.W. Burress.
“It was in the early 1980s,” said Jenkins. “Don Powell came to one of my job sites, and I happened to be running the motorgrader. I kept on running it, but he kept coming back, and coming back, until he caught me on the ground. Finally, we started renting various rollers, Hitachi excavators, and other equipment from Burress.
“Today we own 17 Hitachi excavators, and we’ve never looked back,” said Jenkins. “In each of the past five years, our goal has been to increase sales by 25 percent per year. It’s been a challenge, but we’ve been able to find the workers to do it. We’ve hired and trained Hispanics. We have done it all to increase our manpower and meet our growth goals.”
Based in Warrenton, VA, General Excavation is a heavy highway and site-development contractor that works a variety of private and public projects in the northern part of the state. Burress is based in Roanoke, VA, but Powell works out of a Warrenton office.
“Hitachi and J.W. Burress have been with us every step of the way,” said Jenkins. “And Don Powell has been a steady force on our behalf for more than 20 years.”
The Early Years
Jenkins is a low-key, soft spoken man who founded General Excavation in the early 1970s.
“We were running [another manufacturer’s] ’hoes from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s,” he said. “Then we sold the excavators and began to run Hitachi machines exclusively.
“We liked the durability of the Hitachi excavators, and we liked the service and parts availability from Burress, and still do,” said Jenkins. “Through the 1980s we bought eight to 10 Hitachi excavators — EX270s, EX400s, EX300s. We used them for digging utilities — storm and sanitary sewer lines, and water lines for subdivisions and highway work.”
Through the 1980s, approximately 80 percent of General Excavation’s work consisted of site-development construction for private developers and builders. Then in the 1990s, heavy and highway construction increased to take a 75-percent share of the company’s volume.
Both Jenkins and Powell recall a landmark project: a 2.7-mi. improvement of Route 522 near Winchester, VA. The company won a state contract to widen the existing two-lane highway to four lanes. The $4.8-million project called for removing portions of the existing road, building a 110-ft. bridge, and installing two 10- by 12-ft. double-box culverts.
The project required extensive drilling and blasting of shale and hard rock.
“It was difficult work most of the way,” said Jenkins. “But we knew what to expect when we took the project, so we were prepared.”
For Route 522, General Excavation gainfully employed as many as half-a-dozen Hitachi excavators. They were used for laying pipe and loading rock, Jenkins said.
That project served as a springboard to launch an increased volume of highway projects.
“Going into the year 2000, we probably had 85-percent highway work,” said Jenkins.
Next came a $12.7-million safety upgrade of Interstate 81 from Stanton, VA, to the West Virginia line.
“We extended on-off ramps, flattened slopes, eliminated gore areas, and more,” Jenkins said. “On that job, we had six to eight Hitachis excavators working in different places at different times — all loading earth and rock to on-road dump trucks.”
Then in about 2000, business at General Excavation took a major stride forward — in private site development. The Disney Corporation had bought thousands of acres in Haymarket, VA, with the goal of building a major theme park. But local opposition arose, and Disney backed out.
Instead, the Toll Brothers bought the land and began developing the Dominion Valley Country Club property. It’s a gated residential community that includes schools and two 18-hole golf courses designed by Arnold Palmer.
“We were called in 2000 to help do the infrastructure for Toll Brothers at Dominion Valley,” said Jenkins.
To date, the company has performed a sizeable portion of the grading, utility, and street work at Dominion Valley.
To keep pace with its expansion, General Excavation has recently bought two Zaxis 330 excavators and three Zaxis 450 excavators.
“Everybody here is satisfied with the production of the Zaxis 450 models,” said Chris Neal, equipment manager. “And we’re very satisfied with the uptime record of the Zaxis 450 machines. The reliability of Hitachi excavators has been their hallmark through the years.
“The quality and timely production of our crews, with their Hitachi excavators, have stood us in good stead with the Toll Brothers,” said Neal. “When you can perform and get good production, those are the key factors.”
On General Excavation’s projects at Suffield Meadows, a residential development in northern Virginia, foreman Richard Pennington and operator Luis Hernandez installed water main with a Zaxis 330LC.
“Yesterday, we got 600 feet of eight-inch water main, digging about four and a half to five feet deep in clay,” said Pennington. “Six hundred feet is a pretty normal day. This is a 2004 machine that came on this job last October. We run it most of the time in the trenching mode, and we’ve had no problems with it at all.
“I’ve run [other machines] and I like Hitachi ’hoes better than any of them.”
On a 3,000-unit residential phase of Dominion Valley Country Club in Haymarket, Dennis Pennington, foreman who is Richard Pennington’s brother, worked with a Zaxis 450 to place 15-in. storm sewer between 8 and 13-ft. deep.
“On good days we can do 350 feet of storm sewer, and you set two or three manholes as well,” said Pennington.
“We like the Zaxis very well,” he said. “We’ve had no problems, no downtime with it. The 450 is a pretty slick machine. It’s got good power, and it’s really smooth. We usually put it in the trenching mode — run it on the high side. But we change modes when we set a manhole.
“You should have been here last winter,” said Pennington. “We were digging 24- to 26-feet deep in shot rock. We were carrying about 10 feet of open trench bottom at a time, and we could do 60 to 80 feet of 8-inch sanitary sewer a day, working in shot rock. It was shot real hard, so every time we’d get 10 to 12 feet deep, we’d have to widen it out.”
Neal summed up the company’s keys to growth.
“We have good people who have a good work ethic, and we run good equipment,” said Neal. “That says a lot for Hitachi.”
(This article appears courtesy of Hitachi’s “Breakout” magazine.)