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Mobile Area Contractor Builds Biz on Solid Reputation

Tue April 30, 2013 - Southeast Edition
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Using a Komatsu PC300 excavator with an extended stick, a Hughes Plumbing & Utility crew digs a deep trench at the Wright Smith Wastewater Treatment Facility jobsite in Mobile, Ala.
Using a Komatsu PC300 excavator with an extended stick, a Hughes Plumbing & Utility crew digs a deep trench at the Wright Smith Wastewater Treatment Facility jobsite in Mobile, Ala.
Using a Komatsu PC300 excavator with an extended stick, a Hughes Plumbing & Utility crew digs a deep trench at the Wright Smith Wastewater Treatment Facility jobsite in Mobile, Ala. Hughes Plumbing & Utility Supervisor Jamar James (R)and TEC Mobile Branch Manager Chris Howard. Although Hughes Plumbing & Utility has a number of large excavators, it also relies on compact units, such as this Komatsu PC35MR, for smaller-scale tasks. Hughes Plumbing & Utility Owner Preston Hughes (R) turns to TEC Mobile Branch Manager Chris Howard for his equipment needs. A Hughes Plumbing and Utility operator uses the company’s Komatsu WA250PT loader to carry pipe at the Wright Smith Wastewater Treatment Facility. A Hughes Plumbing and Utility operator uses the company’s Komatsu WA250PT loader to carry pipe at the Wright Smith Wastewater Treatment Facility.

If you see a major municipal utility job going on in the Mobile, Ala., area, chances are Hughes Plumbing & Utility is involved. The local utility contractor has completed a number of projects for the Mobile Water Department during the past 10 years, primarily dealing with heavy underground utility construction, including lift stations, water and sewer, and other pipe work.

Hughes Plumbing & Utility owner Preston Hughes went into business on his own in 1997 with a foundation in the plumbing business. “My father was believed to be the first African American master plumber in the state of Alabama,” said Hughes. “My first experience in the business was in Livingston, Alabama, working for one of my brothers. Eventually, I began bidding on jobs myself and hired my first employees, who were all brothers of mine. I started out with just three employees and now, 15 years later, I have 25.”

During those years, Hughes Plumbing & Utility has built a solid reputation for quality work, done right and done quickly. “One of my main philosophies is we try to do it right the first time. I don’t take any shortcuts, even if it costs me money,” Hughes insisted. “My reputation means more to me than the bottom line. I’ve instilled that in my employees and they know that even if it costs more, our intention is to do it right the first time.”

That outstanding reputation is a major reason why the company has been awarded so many jobs for Mobile Water, according to Hughes. “They don’t award a contract just because it is the low bid. The contract goes to the “lowest responsible bidder” as they call it, so a good reputation is key, especially here in the Mobile area.”

Its positive work record has kept Hughes Plumbing & Utility working primarily in the Mobile County area during the past several years. However, Hughes notes that he has a general contractor’s license for Mississippi as well as Alabama, and has done some work in that neighboring state. “Depending on the work that’s required, we will go wherever we have to.”

Largest Job to Date

Right now, the contractor is focusing its efforts on its largest job ever, the Wright Smith Wastewater Treatment Facility outfall. The $6.7 million project for Mobile Water is also one of the largest jobs the municipality has let out. “We’re laying a 42-inch forced main on this project, so that requires some deep digging. We have a year to do this job and we are on track to finish it in six to eight months, so we’re well ahead of schedule,” Hughes said. Hughes Plumbing & Utility crews are micro-tunneling under railroad tracks as part of the Wright Smith project.

At the same time, Hughes Plumbing & Utility is working on the North Mobile Wastewater Treatment Facility for the town of Mount Vernon, a $975,000 job. The project is what Hughes describes as a packaged wastewater system. “Three sets of tanks are installed; one is basically a storage tank where all the influent enters, the second is a large septic tank, and the final stage of treatment recirculates into the third tank before it’s discharged.”

In addition to laying pipe, Hughes Plumbing & Utility handles excavation, trucking, concrete work and asphalt work. “We do about 95 percent of the work of our contracts,” Hughes said. “The only thing I sub out is electrical work or major road paving. Other than that, we do everything ourselves.”

Right Equipment Needed

Completing such major, complex jobs on time and on budget requires experienced, dedicated workers and reliable, productive equipment. That’s why Hughes turns to TEC Mobile Branch Manager Chris Howard.

“The Wright Smith Wastewater job has cuts ranging from 15 to 25 feet deep, but it’s no big deal to me,” Hughes commented. “It’s just having the right equipment to get the job done, and that’s where Tractor & Equipment Company comes in. The first thing I did before I started this job was to buy a Komatsu PC300 excavator and a WA250PT loader because I knew what we were going to be doing on this job. I knew we would have deep excavation and I wanted to make sure we had a lead hoe (the new PC300) and a secondary hoe for backfilling— the PC300 we already owned. It takes just about everything I have on a job this size to do it in a timely manner. I believe in getting the equipment that we need for the job.”

Hughes Plumbing & Utility has a large number of Komatsu machines, including 10 excavators (two PC300s, a PC200, a PC228, a PC138, two PC78s, a PC50 and two PC35MRs), a WA200 and a WA250PT wheel loader, and a D31PX-21 dozer, among others.

Hughes conducted his own field trial comparing the Komatsu PC78 excavator with another brand machine of the same size. “One of my operators got on the Komatsu and I was on the other machine from 8 a.m. to noon,” Hughes said. “We were putting in a water line, digging at a four-foot depth. In those four hours, he dug 60 feet more than me. At lunchtime, we switched machines and dug for another four hours. In the afternoon, I used the Komatsu and dug 60 feet more than my operator using the other excavator. That was a real-world comparison — same dirt, same ditch. For that scenario — four-foot depth, digging a water line with 18-inch buckets on each machine — the Komatsu outperformed its competitor with close to 15 percent more production.”

While productive equipment is critical to completing jobs in a timely manner, Hughes says the relationship he has with the dealer is also important. “We have a good relationship with TEC,” he reported. “We can call TEC Mobile Service Manager Richie Sievering on his cell phone whenever we need something. I don’t even call the TEC office anymore, I communicate directly with Richie. I wouldn’t ever second-guess what he says, that’s how much confidence I have that he will do the right thing.”

Comfort Zone

Preston Hughes is not only comfortable with his equipment dealer, he is satisfied with the direction his company has taken. Through the years, Hughes Plumbing and Utility has been able to take on more work and complete increasingly larger projects.

“I’m comfortable and content with managing around $5 million to $7 million worth of work, although this year we’ll end up with about $9 million,” he said. “The way the market has changed, I have to do $9 million to make the same percentage as I used to doing $4.5 million. But I’m very pleased with the work we are doing and I’m hopeful that the future will bring more of the same.

(Republished with permission from Tractor Times.)