Founder Bill French Sr. (L), and son Bill French Jr.
The story of W.L. French Excavating Corporation began with a driven, hard-working, honest young man who today has grown his company into one of the most trusted in the Boston area, one that has grown to include 100 employees and has annual revenues that approach $40 million.
Wanting to be independent of having to work for someone else, eighteen-year-old Bill French Sr., of Belmont, Mass., founded W.L. French in May of 1972. He purchased his first truck — a 1972 B81 from James W. Flett, an established excavating company where Bill had his first job. The odds were against him — a teenage trucker, married with a child at home, working long hard hours for many years just to earn a decent living and establish a reputation for his family and his business.
From One Truck to $40 million
Growth was steady. French’s reputation grew, as did his list of clients. Over the years he became a “go-to” guy. Now headquartered in North Billerica, Mass., W.L. French has worked on some of the most important site projects in the Greater Boston area. The company recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.
The company specializes in commercial site development — including mass excavation, site remediation, heavy utility installation and other related construction services. They also specialize in transporting construction soils and materials and are licensed to transport hazardous waste.
Over the past four decades W.L. French has grown exponentially — being recognized for its growth by Inc. magazine as one of the Top 5,000 fastest-growing, privately-owned businesses in America and by the Boston Business Journal as one of the Top 100 fastest-growing, privately-owned businesses in Massachusetts in 2009 and 2010.
In an effort to increase market share and its client base the company has diversified and focused on new revenue streams. In 2008, W. L. French obtained its license to transport hazardous waste. With this license the company can now completely service clients by hauling all encountered materials/soils off site without limitation.
In recent years, the company made a decision to utilize heavy equipment and trucks more effectively during the winter months. A business plan was established to bid more aggressively to earn work related to the snow. Today, the company boasts a large snow services division, which includes plowing, snow removal and transportation and delivery of sand, salt and custom mixes.
In 2009, the company made national headlines when it participated in the emergency snow clean-up of Washington, DC, after our nation’s capital was besieged with unexpected and heavy storms amounting to more than sixty inches. In 2010, W. L. French was ranked 35th in North America for snow revenues by Snow Magazine. Bill French Jr. — the second generation running the company — was nominated as the 2010-2011 CEO of the Year by Snow Business Magazine.
Today, W.L. French operates one of the largest construction transportation fleets in the metropolitan Boston area. Other diversification includes processing aggregates in-house, and utilizing screeners/crushers, which create other commodities for the trucks to haul and sell.
W.L. French has worked on some of the area’s most interesting projects, including:
• Centerfield Taxiway — Logan International Airport (Client, J. F. White Contracting Co.): Site work construction of a new taxiway through the centerfield taxiway. Work performed included excavation to sub-grade, then furnish and install fine-grade and compaction of crushed aggregate base and geogrid soil stabilization for 160,000-sq. yd. (133,780 sq m) taxiway; furnished and installed 20,000 ft. (6,096 m) of under-drain system; transported and disposed 20,000 cu. yds. (15,291 cu m) of unsuitable material to an on site location; imported 300,000 tons (272,155 t) of stone and material. Contract Value was approximately $6 million.
• 225 Binney St., Cambridge, Mass. (Client Schnabel Foundation and Consigli Construction): Scope of Work — Installation of soil mix wall with cross struts and corner braces; removal of 100,000 tons (9,071 t) of contaminated soil; installation of water, sewer, electric and gas utility. The bulk of the work was scheduled for completion in June 2012, however utilities were not expected to be completed for several more months. Equipment utilized on the project included: Cat 345C, Cat 345D, Cat 365B, Cat 330D, Cat 314C, Cat 305CR and Gradall 4200 XL. An estimated 50 to 90 loads of material were moved off-site in a day. Estimated value upon completion is $8.5 million.
Other Projects Ongoing
• Harvard University — Old Quincy House, Cambridge, Mass. Site package for Dimeo Construction
• Salem State University — New Student Library — Salem, Mass.
Support of Earth and Mass Excavation for Lee Kennedy
• Novartis — Cambridge, Mass.
Transportation and disposal of nearly 400,000 tons (362,873 t) of soil[s] and concrete for J. F. White Contracting, Co.
• University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Mass.
Support of Earth and Mass Excavation — Site Package for Barr & Barr Builders
Such projects are the result of an outstanding reputation, great employees and the best equipment on the road.
“Our company stands out in several different ways. The equipment, how it’s maintained and how it is kept is something that the company stands out for,” said Bill French Sr. “The company stands behind keeping pristine equipment and is known for doing so. In fact, in 2011, a piece of equipment, which was 16 years old, sold for approximately the same price it was purchased for. Employees are subjected to high standards and know that these standards are required to maintain employment.”
Safety Is Paramount
“Working in an industry that has obvious dangers every day it is important to constantly and consistently remind employees through meetings, training, refresher training and constant communication of project hazards and every day hazards in general,” said Bill French Sr. “Working in any dangerous industry means staff can become immune to the everyday hazard.”
Vice President, Tom Dion added “Working diligently on hazardous communication, safety awareness, continuing education and putting safety at the forefront is of the utmost importance. No project can be completely successful if there is an accident and the goal at W. L. French Excavating Corporation is to have zero accidents on every project it encounters.”
All in the Family
W. L. French has been nominated for Massachusetts Family Business of the Year two years in a row by the Massachusetts Family Business Association and by the Northeastern Center for Family Business. (2010 and 2011).
The family has never existed without the company and the company has never existed without the family. At some point, everyone in the family has contributed to the business and/or worked there.
Bill French, Jr. has been the person most responsible for expansion. Having a stable foundation to build on, he has been able to take the company to the next level. Bill has surrounded himself with a great team — hard-working employees who have contributed to the controlled, steady growth.
“Bill’s aggressive enthusiasm and his demanding nature have been the driving force for the company’s diversification and success over the last 10 to 12 years,” said his father, Bill French Sr.
“Seeking, finding and taking advantage of each opportunity, not just as a singular opportunity, but building off it and making it into something lasting has been a contributing factor to the company’s success,” said Bill French Jr.
Through recessions, the company has “gone nautical,” to coin a phrase.
“Pulling in the reels, tightening the ship, and hunkering down is what you have to do in order to pull through the recession,” said Bill French, Jr. “Focusing on what you can do best and not straying from your ’wheelhouse’ during difficult times is equally as important.”
In addition, W.L. French focused on working for the most stable clients. Equally important were vendors/subcontractors who worked with them during times when cash flow was difficult. Open communication, planning, keeping an even closer watch on production, costs, etc. were additional ways to weather the storm.
“A lot of family support, as always, helped,” said the CEO.
The Social Network
W.L. French also has made best use of the web. Most construction companies have a standard website listing who they are, a brief history, the services they offer, contact information and the like, perhaps with photos of various projects.
But French has a blogger with almost daily updates. They are on Facebook and Twitter, the most instant ways to immediately reach people in the digital age.
Whether the company is posting a career opportunity or sharing photos and videos with those who are interested, the effect is immediate and far reaching. Information is sent directly to their audience, rather than waiting for their audience to visit their website. The visuals have proven to be most effective, heightening the interactions between people who like to see the trucks in action, the site work performed and the sights and sounds of major projects. Traffic has increased due to social media, rather than just a one-dimensional website.
But machines, trucks, equipment, computers, are all things. It is W.L. French’s human component that really makes the difference.
“The success of the company would not be possible without the great team of employees. There is a core group of people that have been with us a long time,” said Bill French, Jr.
Several operators, including Ken Hand and David Hilbrunner, have been with the company for more than 20 years. Low-bed driver Scott Robbins also has been with the company 20-plus years. Project Manager Jon Shattuck started his employment as an intern.
Some employees were present when the business started — such as maintenance supervisor Mike Pacitto — who left for several years, and returned to manage the shop. Vice President Tom Dion’s first job out of college was with W. L. French. He left for several years to experience other firms and ultimately returned in 2003 after being persuaded by Bill French Sr.
The company marked its well-earned 40th anniversary with a small celebration among close friends, family and those who have been a part of the company’s success, including Bill French Sr.’s brother Frank.
“There is no major company celebration,” said Bill French Jr. “However, we want to mark this anniversary as it is truly an achievement for the business and for our family. This company is not finished getting to where we are going but we want to acknowledge what has been accomplished. Celebrating forty years in business means reflecting on both the good times and the difficult times and learning from all of our experiences.
“How did we get to this point? Where were our mistakes? How can we strive to be better? We are slowly coming out of a recession and I know the team we have in place, both internally and externally, will help ensure continued success,” he added. “But nothing is guaranteed without hard work. So, celebrate this occasion we will. And then, it is back to work, so we can make it to the next benchmark.”
For more information, visit www.wlfrench.com; http://twitter.com/
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