Family businesses pride themselves on passing the operation down from generation to generation, and Cherokee County’s N.J. Wilbanks Contractor Inc. is no exception.
Celebrating 50 years in the clearing and grading business, the third generation of Wilbanks continues to prosper in northwest Georgia.
In 1957, Fred Wilbanks purchased a used D6 from Yancey Bros. Co.’s old Northside Drive location and began using it to plow potatoes on his farm.
The cable-blade machine was fairly new and had been on rent by Carroll County. At about the same time, Wilbanks took a timber job in Colorado.
He moved the D6 out west, purchased a lumber truck, and used them to build logging roads for the 170,000 acres (69,000 ha) of forest that were being harvested.
“Dad ran that machine for a long time and did a lot of work on it himself. We were 20 miles back in the woods so we couldn’t just run to town for parts or service. We’d tighten the track with a wrench. If the track came off, we figured out how to use what we had in the woods with us to get the track back on,” said N.J. Wilbanks, the second generation of the family to oversee operations for the company.
Returning to Georgia, the lumber truck was converted into a dump truck and was used to haul anything that needed to be hauled. Soon they purchased a second dump truck and they began focusing on the clearing and grading business.
“Our first new Caterpillar machine was a 955H. It was the first good front end loader ever built,” said N.J. “It could sit there all day long and load. We ran that machine for a long time and finally traded it in on a new 977L. And we just used these machines and our trucks to ease into the business hauling dirt where you couldn’t fill with scrapers.”
Working primarily in Cherokee County, they hauled stone for the county roads under construction.
“We saw an opportunity and started buying, stockpiling and delivering dirt to anyone that needed it. We would look for any kind of ’truck-dirt’ job we could find,” said N.J.
As business continued to grow, N.J. purchased two 619 cable-scrapers and added them to his fleet.
“In 1962, Carl Sanders helped the state acquire a $100 or $200 million bond for resurfacing the state roads so we bought more trucks. We had 44 dump trucks at one time.”
Over the next 30 to 40 years, the Wilbanks family continued to add a variety of Caterpillar machines to their fleet from skid steer loaders to D9 dozers.
“Caterpillar equipment just lasts longer and the resale value is so much better. And most of our operators like running the Cat equipment more than any others.”
Each generation in the business started young. N.J’s oldest son, Chris, started at 13 working as a parts runner, tire boy or whatever else was needed. His younger son, Kip, started working for his father when he was 12 surveying on job sites. After college, both worked full-time for their father and now are the third generation to continue the business their father and grandfather developed during the late 20th century.
During the past 50 years, they have seen countless improvements in construction equipment. According to N.J. “some of the best advancements I think I’ve seen would be the dual cone sealed rollers on the Cat undercarriage. We are running a System One undercarriage right now. The next biggest improvement was probably hydraulics over cable to operate the machines. And differential steering for grading — getting full power to both tracks all the time really makes a difference.”
And as each generation has put its own mark on the business and the different directions it takes, one thing remains in common — people.
“We like to know the people we work with, so it has paid to work relatively close to home. Our office today is still on our original family farmland. We like to know our customers well and we like to have strong relationships with our employees,” Kip said.
“We can add crews when our customers need us to. I can still go out today and know our operators on our job sites and that’s important to me,” stated N.J.
Some of the Wilbanks staff have been around for decades.
“We have two supervisors, one surveyor and one operator that have been with us for over 20 years and that means a lot to us. We consider them friends like we have considered our contacts at Yancey to be friends over the past 50 years. Yancey knows very well how important relationships are with suppliers, customers and employees. We are family-owned like Yancey is and we want our employees to consider this a place to work until they retire,” Chris said. “We have always done quality work and I think our customers know that. That’s what we want to continue to do.”