New Owner Reinvents Earthworks From Inside Out

Thu December 21, 2006 - Southeast Edition
Jeff Cronin

When John Jackson took control of his Bradenton, Fla.-based contracting firm in 2003, he did more than change its name.

In addition to switching the sign out front from S&R Construction to Earthworks Land Development Inc., Jackson overhauled the company’s internal workings.

There was a significant issue with the company’s cash flow.

“While the company was good at estimating, there were not cost controls linking the bidding process to the construction process,” Jackson said. “One of the things we had to do was set up systems and procedures for just about every part of the company.”

He instilled business practices that would make a large-scale company jealous. Jackson targeted five aspects of Earthworks.

Jackson had to build an accounting system from the ground up. He installed the Timberline system designed for contractors, which allows the company to provide its project managers and superintendents information on a job’s cost goals.

Bringing a page from his time in the Army, where systems were in place to schedule maintenance for everything, Jackson was surprised to find this hadn’t been true at S&R. The company developed a written program to ensure preventative maintenance was performed regularly on its entire fleet.

The hiring process also was streamlined. Jackson set up a checklist through which every new employee has to go, including safety training and being issued equipment.

He also detailed who needs to be involved in the interview process for specific positions.

Jackson set measurable, attainable goals for his company and its managers.

“We pay for performance based on specific goals and we try to be very generous in rewarding them when goals are met,” he said.

And, lastly, once an employee is on-board, Jackson makes every effort to ensure he or she is treated right.

“We knew that if we were going to succeed, we would have to recruit the best and brightest people, so we set up an incentive program to help get and retain good people,” Jackson said. “We have a full benefit program, but it is tiered depending on length of service. For instance, our health insurance program starts out with coverage for the employee only after the employee has been with us for a set period of time. We add their spouse free and then later, we pay for the entire family. It provides an incentive to stay with us.”

The company also pays for the continued education of its employees.

And, based on the bottom line, it looks like Jackson’s efforts have turned the contractor into a successful business, with no signs of it stopping any time soon.

“When I took over, we were doing about $5 million a year. This year, we hope to do a little over $14 million. That meant we had to better manage the company.”

Earthworks is currently performing at the site of a shopping center anchored by a Publix grocery store in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., which is typical of the jobs it takes on in Hillsborough, Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties. Work at the 24-acre (9.7 ha) site, which is being developed by North American Properties, includes clearing, excavation and construction of two box culverts and installation of underground utilities.

The crew also will build the subgrade, base, parking lot and turning lanes. The asphalt work is subbed out to Superior Asphalt.

Approximately 22 crew members currently work at the site, but Jackson said that will increase to as many as 40 people when utility work begins.

They are working six days a week to meet the May 2007 deadline for construction on the $4.5 million project. However, the Earthworks crew must provide access to the building pad within 45 days so the general contractor can begin vertical construction.

Commercial development like the Publix site takes up half of its contracts, with the rest being residential development. Earthworks crews handle clearing, site preparation, utilities and road preparation. It subs out paving work.

Additionally, the company in July opened a borrow pit to produce material. Operating under the name of Tampa Grove Aggregates LLC, the Wimauma, Fla., pit is expected to produce 13 million cu. yds. (9.9 million cu m) of material a year.

Earthworks runs a fleet of approximately 42 pieces of Case equipment.

“We try to own most of what we need, but we will supplement it with rental units when we need something that we don’t use full time. We own a couple of water trucks, but if we need any additional ones, we rent them. We don’t own the off-road trucks because we don’t use them full time,” Jackson said.

Earthworks handles most of its service maintenance in-house under the direction of Fleet Manager Jerry Pulley. The company buys all of its equipment from Briggs Equipment.

“Our sales representative, Greg Woodard, visits us daily and works closely with Jerry to work out any problems. If a machine does go down and Briggs can’t fix it within 24 hours, they send out a loaner,” Jackson said.

Each piece of Earthworks’ equipment has been geared with a Qualcomm device since April. The benefits are twofold, Jackson said.

First, it has increased security, in that the system creates a geofence around the job site and sends out a notification if any machine travels outside of the border. In the past four years, Jackson said he has been the victim of machinery theft three times. A dozer and loader and a skid steer all have been stolen from various job sites and were never recovered.

He hopes Qualcomm’s security feature will stop any future thefts.

But more importantly, Jackson said Qualcomm has greatly improved the company’s accuracy when scheduling its machines for service. Qualcomm tracks the exact amount of hours a machine has run. In the past, Jackson’s team had to estimate how much a machine ran.

“That’s hard to tell sometimes because of all of the interruptions that happen on a job site,” he said.

Additionally, the Qualcomm system sends out e-mail warnings when anything goes wrong with the equipment.

When it comes time to service a machine, Jackson said the technician is able to print out directions that will take him to the machine’s location. This feature also is used by the lowboy drivers when transporting equipment to another job site.

The work put into changing how the business is run internally has created happy customers. Approximately 75 percent of its business comes from repeat customers.

For its work, Earthworks was selected as a Manatee County Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year for 2006 and was a finalist for the Tampa Bay Business Journal’s Business of the Year.

For more information, visit CEG

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