Hopes Run High for $20M Phenix City Development

Mass. Firm Downsizes Projects to Grow Amid Tough Times

Fri January 30, 2009 - Northeast Edition
CEG



Francis A. Hebb didn’t realize it at the time, but adding a compact excavator to his fleet was a stroke of genius. The general contractor from West Boxford, Mass., was faced with an extended downturn in the commercial construction market and had been shifting resources to residential work.

His backhoe had been the mainstay of smaller remodeling projects, but limited his ability to land jobs. So Hebb started to look for an alternative and eventually found one in a Hitachi Zaxis 35U-2.

Smaller’s the Answer

Founded in the 1950s as a construction firm, Francis A. Hebb prides itself on being one of the area’s few one-stop general contractors.

“One of our biggest strengths is our ability to take a project from start to finish — everything from initial excavation, to utilities, to finish work,” said Hebb. “Customers like dealing with only one contractor, plus we don’t want to be at the mercy of another contractor’s schedule. That served us well until the market started drying up. Then we started to rethink our approach and saw that smaller work could help get us through this rough patch.”

As the residential and light commercial work started coming in, the shortcomings of their backhoe became apparent — specifically maneuverability, versatility and ground pressure. Hebb contacted his Hitachi sales representative to look at alternatives.

“We’ve had a great relationship with them for a long time. They showed us what they felt would work best, and that happened to be the Zaxis 35U-2.”

A Perfect Fit

The impact the 35U-2 made on Hebb’s operation was immediate. It was like taking the shackles off their business plan because suddenly they could bid jobs that weren’t possible before.

“This machine is a perfect fit for the type of work we’re getting now. “We’ve used it to dig well and septic lines and perimeter drains. We can easily get into a backyard to dig for footings and foundations. And in excavations with limited access, the machine’s zero-swing design lets us rotate a full 360 degrees to load out the dirt. With a backhoe, we’d have to put dirt in a pile, then handle it a second time with a loader to get it onto a truck.”

Hebb’s brother, Robert, a foreman in the company, said they first looked at purchasing a compact excavator last year, but didn’t think they had enough work to justify it.

“This year we felt we did, however, so we went ahead and bought one,” said Robert. “Right after we bought the 35U, more and more projects started coming that were ideal for it. We also started looking at work we had been doing one way and found better ways to do it with the Hitachi. It’s really been a nice addition.”

All About the Boom

One of those projects includes construction of restroom structures for use in state parks, campsites and RV areas. In the past, the company had been relying heavily on manual labor for some of the trickier parts of the assembly. A minor addition to the Zaxis 35U changed all that.

“We fabricated a boom attachment for the end of the stick and hung a scissors clamp on it. It was ideal for lifting panels and roof sections into place,” said Robert. “This work used to be done with manual labor and our telehandler, but this is easier and safer. Plus we now can do a lot of this work inside our shop because the 35U is so compact.”

Hebb notes that while the restroom construction niche kept them busy this year, he was optimistic about even larger volumes next season.

“This has been a nice piece of business for us,” he said. “But the important thing is that we can now do the assembly safer and faster than ever. In the past, we were limited to two structures a day; with the Zaxis 35U we can easily do three, probably more.”

It’s Swing Time

In addition to the increased accessibility the Zaxis 35U provides, the company cites a number of features that are only now starting to make an impact.

“There is a feature called the backhoe swing mode, which allows the boom to move laterally while the machine stays in place,” said Robert. “That allows us to work right alongside a building, so things like perimeter drains are extremely easy. The 35U cut our handwork by 80 percent. Plus the fuel economy is great, noise levels are low, and the wide assortment of attachments makes it an extremely versatile piece of equipment.

“The 35U has simplified a lot of what we do. It’s opened a lot of doors by introducing us to projects we never could’ve bid in the past. We couldn’t be happier.”

Francis A. Hebb is serviced by Schmidt Equipment, N. Billerica, Mass.

This story was reprinted from Hitachi Breakout magazine, Fourth Issue 2008.