PA Firm Continues 30-Year Hunt for ’Buried Treasure’

Thu September 21, 2006 - Northeast Edition
CEG



Dave Popple often equates his business, Pioneer Aggregates Inc., with digging for buried treasure. For more than 30 years he’s continued the hunt, always searching for better ways to get the unique materials his company mines and quarries to customers in several parts of the United States.

“I do sometimes feel like a treasure hunter,” said Popple, president of Pioneer Aggregates.

“We’re working in places that have been mined in the past,and you run across some unique things. It gives you a real appreciation for the way people worked in the past and how much better the tools are today.”

With a home base in Laflin, PA, just outside Wilkes-Barre, Pioneer Aggregates encompasses three facilities: Valley Stone Quarry in Laflin, White Haven Red Rock Sales in White Haven and Simpson Quarry in Lackawanna County. His brothers Mark and Jeff are partners in the business. The three also have a construction company, Popple Construction, which covers the entire state of Pennsylvania, and they own a coal processing plant, Hudson Anthracite, in Inkerman, PA.

“We try to do things our competition isn’t doing, and we believe that’s what sets us apart from them,” Popple noted. “That’s how we survive as a family business in markets that are often driven by larger corporations. For instance, we’re in the coal business at a time when others have given up.”

Unique Products

White Haven was the company’s original quarry and was reopened in 1969 by the brothers’ father John Popple, who always had an affinity for mining. The quarry is widely known for its iron-rich red rock used as landscaping and decorative stone. Customers from as far away as Michigan and Florida bring their own trucks to the site for the materials.

Pioneer also hauls much of the material to its Laflin facility, where it’s sent by rail to customers across the east coast. In addition, the company hauls a large amount of the quarry’s material to Popple Construction for use in its excavation projects.

“There is a huge demand for the product because of its unique color,” Popple pointed out. “The quarry had been closed for a long time before dad decided to take the chance and open it back up. We’re producing about 350,000 tons of material each year and the customers just keep coming.”

Pioneer Aggregates produces another product in high demand at its Simpson Stone Quarry site: anthracite coal. The coal is known to be less expensive to burn and is cleaner, making it highly sought after by power and steel companies as well as private individuals.

“It’s a terrific material,” Popple emphasized. “Once we’ve got it out of the ground, we process it and haul it to our Hudson Anthracite plant in Inkerman, where we process it further and sell it. It’s another unique product. No one else is producing it, so it’s quite lucrative.”

To reach the coal, which is sometimes several hundred feet down, Pioneer Aggregates drills and blasts the overburden materials. It then processes those materials and sells some of them as aggregate products and topsoil. Much of the material is kept on site to use for reclamation purposes once the company is done mining an area.

The majority of the company’s aggregate materials are produced at the Valley Stone Quarry. Pioneer Aggregates recently added an asphalt plant at the site. Popple estimates that among the three quarry sites, the company is producing approximately 600,000 tons of material each year.

“We’re producing quite a lot, but we’re always looking to produce more,” Popple said. “Our aim is to make sure we have enough materials to satisfy our needs and the needs of our customers. Our ultimate goal is to produce a quality product for our customers because that’s what drives our business.”

Dedicated Staff

Popple said Pioneer Aggregates also is driven by a dedicated staff of employees whose hard work keeps the company running smoothly. Pioneer Aggregates employs approximately 50 people who work 10- to 12-hour days to keep production at its peak.

“One of the biggest factors in our success is our employees,” Popple acknowledged. “They’re the best in the business. We’re a small, family business, and it’s tough to compete with the larger companies, but we’re able to do it because we have such an outstanding group of people.”

Included in that group are key employees such as General Superintendent Bill Chase, who oversees daily operations. Other key and longtime members of the staff include Dave Lubetski, Angelo Lufano, Russell Belles, Tommy Nilon, Frank Borzell, Jason Shafer, Brian Chaump and Andy Wojcik.

“In this business, everyone plays a vital role, no matter what they’re doing,” Popple remarked. “We run 12 hours a day and sometimes eight to 10 hours on Saturday from April to November, so sometimes it’s a long day. But our guys handle it very well and are dedicated to making sure our customer needs are met. We’re very proud of them.”

Well-Designed Machinery

Popple believes an important factor in his employee’s successful performance is making sure they have the right tools for the job.

“The right equipment is just as important as having the right people to run it,” Popple said.

“First and foremost, we look for well-designed machinery, and that’s why we’ve relied heavily on Komatsu equipment for the past 20 years or so. We were one of the first in our area to use Komatsu, and we’ve stayed with it because the equipment performs well and lasts.”

Pioneer Aggregates worked with Midlantic Machinery and Territory Manager Tim Reilly for its most recent purchases, which included three 96,712-lb. PC400LC-7 excavators, one for each location, which the company uses to load haul trucks.

“We’ve found that the PC400s will load a 50- or 60-ton haul truck as quickly as a competitive machine that’s 50,000 pounds heavier, so we really like how economical the PC400s are,” Popple stated. “They use less fuel and our operating costs are lower, so they have some outstanding benefits.”

For stripping and reclamation work, Pioneer Aggregates uses a new 86,420-lb. D155AX-5 dozer equipped with a ripper for getting through heavier materials as needed.

“We keep that machine very busy,” Popple said. “The operators really like it because it’s comfortable and the controls are very easy to use. It’s well-balanced and fuel-efficient.”

To load outbound trucks and keep piles in neat order, the company uses several Komatsu wheel loaders, including a 315-hp WA500-3 and three WA600s.

“We have some competitive brands, but our Komatsus really stand out,” Popple said.

“We really like the powertrains and how quiet and comfortable the machines are for the operators. They put in some long hours and don’t feel tired at the end of the day because the Komatsus are so operator-friendly.”

Pioneer Aggregates handles routine service and maintenance on its machines and relies on Midlantic for work as needed.

“The machines are really easy to work on which saves us downtime, and that’s extremely important,” Popple said. “Performance is the number-on thing we look at, but dealer service is important as well. That’s a big factor in our equipment-buying decisions and why we’ve bought Komatsu. We know Midlantic will stand behind it, and they’ve given us outstanding service over the years.”

Staying Ahead of the Competition

Pioneer Aggregates has invested heavily in new machinery in the past couple of years as demand for anthracite coal has skyrocketed. Popple doesn’t see demand for the coal going down any time soon.

“There’s a huge market for it because it’s such a clean-burning material, so we’re doing everything we can to ramp up production,” he said. “I believe our long-term outlook is very good.”

Popple noted that competition is very strong for aggregate products in eastern Pennsylvania, but Pioneer Aggregates remains at the top of the field.

“It can be a tough marketplace, but l believe we’ll stay ahead of the competition by continuing to do what we’ve always done: provide exceptional customer service and produce unique products.”

(This story appears courtesy of “Midlantic Machinery News” magazine.)