Stone retaining wall stairs in Barnstable, Mass.
All cranes learn how to build from their instincts in the nest. Jason A. Souza learned how to build from his grandfather’s crane — the heavy iron version, that is, not the long-legged bird.
Souza, owner of American Excavating Contractors Inc. on Cape Cod, learned about the construction of handmade stone walls and the powerful machinery needed to move and pile large stones from his mentor and grandfather George Rapoza, while still a fledgling, just out of the nest, himself.
Rapoza had established a successful crane company, Rapoza’s Crane Service, East Falmouth, Mass. In later years, however, his business waned, and Rapoza started Azopar Corp., a related excavation business, in the early 1980s.
As a child, Souza would go to work job sites with his grandfather and then, as a fascinated teenager, would work on-site with him as a laborer. He never ran the cranes, but would move them, while greasing and loading trucks. His grandfather taught him the foundation of excavation and building and was a very positive role model in his life.
Learning Under ’Rip Rap’
According to Souza, George Rapoza, AKA “Rip Rap” was a rock star of a different sort.
His stage usually consisted of heavy wooden mats that the cranes parked on for stability while working on or around the beach. He was well-known for building jetties and sea walls from Provincetown, Mass., to the Jersey Shore.
As Souza got older and started getting his own jobs (as a DBA), he rented his grandfather’s old equipment, much of which had seen better days and was in need of repair.
“By the early 80s, Grandpa’s old three-quarter- yard LIMA cranes had become obsolete and parts were hard to come by. Whenever possible, stone walls were constructed primarily with excavators and backhoes,” he said.
But Souza would not be deterred. The pull of the crane was too strong. In 1998, at the age of 26, he started a firm called Above Grade Excavating. Four years later, however, he found himself in the wrong kind of hole.
In 2002, Souza took on a partner because he needed to expand the business, needed someone to handle the clerical operation and he needed more funding. Unfortunately, the partnership floundered after two years, because of creative differences.
Souza’s intentions were to go to court and divide the business assets amicably. But after a surprising upset in Superior Court, Souza found that once his ex-partner put up a substantial cash bond, he, and not Souza, was put in control of Above Grade Inc. during the dissolution.
“All I was left with was an old Dodge pickup, some rakes, some shovels and most of the customers,” said Souza.
He had always maintained solid relationships with his customers and his vendors, so he spoke to them about what had happened and, fortified by their positive input, was convinced he should regroup, stay in the industry and pursue his own company, just a few days after the dissolution of Above Grade.
“I called my insurance agent and after post-dating a check out for 30 days, I was able to secure a Workers Comp and General Liability policy,” admitted Souza. “Once that was established, we hit the ground running, sunrise to sunset, seven days a week, rain or shine.”
As a result, American Excavating Contractors was founded in July 2004, by Souza and his then-fiancée, now wife, Stacey.
Headquartered in Mashpee, Mass., the middle of Cape Cod, American Excavating Co. offers a complete array of full site development: excavation, Title V septic installation, boulder retaining walls, demolition, drainage, landscape construction, tree removal and more (a full list is on its Web site). The company also performs commercial and residential services.
While the company’s home offices are in Mashpee, its small fleet of trucks and equipment is located in East Falmouth, Mass.
Truly a Family Affair
Over the past nine years, Souza has reclaimed a niche in the local market. And, from grandfather to grandson, husband to wife, it is truly a family operation.
“Yes, our family business has grown. My wife Stacey is the office manager, but will work on-site from time to time. Jason Jr. is now 17 years old and he has spent the last couple summers going to work with Dad and learning the trade,” said Souza. “Even our three-year-old, Wyatt, helps Dad wash the big trucks when Dad comes home, and has helped us land jobs.”
American Excavating employs several full-time workers and uses various local sub-contractors on jobs. Services have expanded as well as family.
“We now offer septic financing, which is done through Barnstable County. We also have done some landscape construction jobs to keep the company busy in slow times,” said Souza. “We also do start-to-finish site development, which includes mulch installation, tree work, loam installation, seeding lawns, etc.”
For a small company, Souza has taken on some interesting projects, in and around the ocean on challenging Cape Cod, including a 10-bedroom house in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, on Anthier’s Way, a neighborhood of multi-million dollar homes.
“The house was 15,000-square feet,” said Souza. “We spent the entire summer of 2009 in Oak Bluffs, or traveling back and forth on the Steamship Authority [ferry shuttle system] across the Bay.”
His crew also finished a large boulder retaining in Barnstable Village on Millway, across from the harbor.
“We also did complete site work, including beach renourishment, in New Seabury on Squaws Lane,” he added. “First, we performed the demolition of an older house, the site work, septic installation, landscape construction and driveway installation.”
Souza’s greatest asset, besides his hard-working wife, is his personal accessibility.
“When you call me, you get me. I treat every job like it is my own property, while never forgetting that it belongs to my client,” he said. “Job sites are always left neat and orderly with roads swept and trash picked up. All clients receive daily updates via email, pictures and video walk through. Out of town clients especially appreciate this and we are happy to do this for them. Our smart phones come in handy for this.”
Another asset is endurance, 24/7. This came in very handy during strenuous operations like the noted New England Blizzard of 2005.
“We worked for 155 straight hours, taking only brief breaks for food and quick naps during a state of emergency for the Town of Barnstable. We did around-the-clock snow removal with a crew of four guys,” said Souza.
Safety is a top priority and focus on every job site and Souza gives wife Stacey tremendous credit for her devoted partnership (even to the point of editing his answers in this story).
“I credit my wife for dealing with me during these uncertain times, constructing our Web site and for supporting me and working late nights to complete last- minute proposals,” said Souza.
During those “uncertain times” that every contracting company sustains, Souza said the key to his smaller company is never refusing any job, no matter its size.
“Before, our main focus was heavy construction and primarily the excavation side of the business. Now, we don’t turn down any job, as long as it is within our realm of expertise. We don’t turn down a job because it is too small,” he said. “I am a universal soldier. I oversee every aspect of every job and am always available to answer client’s questions or concerns.”
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