Reader Profile: Phil Shaffer

Oct. 20, 2014

Even though Phil Shaffer’s company, Shaffer Excavating, in Ligonier, PA, is small-four employees including him-he says rapidly changing technology calls for him to keep equipment current. Shaffer was one of the first small contractors in the area to use GPS technology when he purchased a Topcon base and rover and a John Deere 700K dozer with integrated machine control-rare for a small company, he says. His company’s fleet includes four John Deere excavators, two bulldozers, two track loaders, one articulated dump truck, and some backhoes. The company focuses primarily on residential site preparation, with some commercial work. Shaffer views his relationship with vendors as being critically important in avoiding down time through good and fast service. Not all of his equipment is new, but he keeps it in good shape, Shaffer says. The company primarily runs John Deere equipment. His dealings with Bill Stewart, a sales manager at Murphy Tractor in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania-a dealership with which Shaffer has had a 20-year business relationship-“makes everything a lot easier when you can rely on them for taking care of problems you’re going to have,” he says. Shaffer belongs to the National Federation of Independent Business and the Westmoreland Professional Builders Association. His business strategies bring success, as most of his company’s work is for repeat customers.

What He Does Day to Day
Shaffer’s day starts on the phone with contractors, subcontractors, and employees to ensure everyone has what they need for the job site and knows the day’s schedule. He goes on to one or more job sites, doing layouts and operating equipment, his favorite activity. He’ll instruct employees and order and pick up materials. Occasionally, he returns to the office to do estimating or pay bills.

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What Led Him Into This Line of Work
Born and raised on a dairy farm, Shaffer took an early interest in running equipment. Intrigued by cars and engine repair, he attended vo-tech school. He credits his father for pointing him “in the right direction” by buying a backhoe for the farm and sending him to neighbors’ and friends’ properties to work. With a borrowed tractor and trailer, Shaffer worked evenings and weekends with an old International backhoe and an Allis Chalmers track loader taking any job he could get. “I would see other excavating contractors going up and down the road with new equipment and wondered how they paid for it,” he says. After several years of working a full-time job while trying to get his excavation business started, he got a break working for a general contractor/home builder and eventually started sub-contracting for others. “I like to think the quality of my work was-and still is-a factor in keeping busy,” he says. Shaffer says he’d love for his father, who passed away at age 56, to see “how far I’ve come and how much his influence helped me in life.”

What He Likes Best About His Work
Shaffer likes working with general contractors and other subcontractors and appreciates the lifelong friendships he’s made in the industry. “I work to make a living, but I enjoy getting my part of a project done so the general contractor can keep the project moving and keep other trades busy as well,” he says. At the end of a job, Shaffer finds it gratifying to look it over and contemplate his role in it. He enjoys the outdoors, the challenges of doing development work and considers himself fortunate that his brother works with him. “It’s rewarding to spend time with a family member who I trust and can count on,” he says.

His Biggest Challenge Finding and retaining good employees is Shaffer’s biggest challenge. “It seems the younger generation is not interested in the trades. I would love to play a hand in changing this,” he says. He helps young operators cultivate basic skills on the job. “On the plus side, younger employees learn the GPS and tech equipment very quickly. I often find myself asking them for help,” he says. To retain good employees, he says he pays well, treats them fairly and communicates expectations. In turn, he’s been rewarded with some “very good employees” over the years, he says.