Merging the Old and the New

June 4, 2021
The young guns of grading bring in new technology to the family business.

Although much of the industry still faces a labor shortage, largely attributed to declining interest in construction trades, the future of the industry looks quite bright. Across the US, we are seeing a new generation of construction business owners bringing a fresh, young perspective to the people, processes and equipment needed to grow the businesses their parents and grandparents started.

Nationwide, contractors like Jonathan Shipps, Vice President of Venice, FL-based Shipps Excavating Inc. and Matt Peters, Superintendent of Pueblo, CO-based Solid Earth Civil Constructors Inc., are making their mark on their family-owned businesses. It’s no surprise that technology is playing a part, both in expanding the services their businesses provide and in expanding their appeal as a great place to work.

Legacy Evolution

For Jonathan Shipps, Shipps Excavating Inc. is more than a family-owned and operated excavation and grading firm—it’s a connection to his beloved father and grandfather who shared a passion for big machines.

Shipps Excavating is a grading, excavation, and demolition company with decades of experience. Jonathan’s grandfather, Doc Shipps, started the tradition of earthwork, founding a logging and excavation operation in Vermont called Shipps Construction in the 1960s. Doc moved to Florida in the 1970s with his son, Steven, who began clearing sites and building roads for a cattle farmer. By 1976, Steven founded Shipps Contracting, an extension of his dad’s company with a flatbed truck and a tractor.

The company grew its reputation and services in southwest Florida over the years, with help from the entire Shipps family, from Doc to Steven’s brothers and, eventually, his children.

His son Jonathan, in particular, has the same innate love for heavy equipment, working with his dad since he was a child. Jonathan fondly recalled driving tractors long before he drove a car. His first vehicle was a diesel truck that could pull a grading tractor. And like his father, he was working as a project foreman and equipment operator for his dad in his 20s. When his dad tragically passed from cancer, Jonathan chose to continue his dad’s company and his legacy and grow the business with a focus on tools and talent with the same culture of quality that he learned from his father and grandfather.

Jonathan says, “We had a really good reputation for grade work on projects of all types, but we needed to upgrade our capabilities to better compete in the business both in terms of talent and types of projects. I wanted the right skilled team so that we could grow at a pace to keep up with opportunity. But we needed to grow smart so we can do more with less.”

He also wanted high-performing tools to facilitate his talented operator team, so he invested in 3D grade control, GNSS survey tools, and job site management software.

What began with a John Deere 650 dozer equipped with the Trimble Earthworks 3D Grade Control Platform to complete the finish grade on a small subdivision grading project has expanded considerably. Today, Shipps owns four technology-enabled dozers with four Trimble Earthworks 3D systems equipped with Autos, three Trimble SPS855 GNSS Modular Receivers, and the Trimble SPS986 GNSS Smart Antenna with Tilt Compensation, as well as the Trimble Siteworks Software with the Trimble TSC7 Controller for easy job site data management.

Even his grandfather, who is now 91, and uncle, both highly experienced operators, picked up the technology-enabled operation with ease and were amazed.

"The technology allows our operators to keep tolerances to within one-half inch and slopes under 2% while completing jobs faster,” said Jonathan. “I’m able to provide a better quality product because we know exact elevations, grades and slopes with the GNSS—and we’re faster. Bottom line, I can knock jobs off faster with just as good or better results, so clients are happy and we’re able to take on more work.”

Jonathan is quick to say that he won’t sacrifice quality and culture in the name of growth. “My operators are extremely proficient at their jobs. My goal is to provide them the best tools to complete the jobs with efficiency and accuracy, not overwhelm them or lower our expectations of quality,” he said.

Today, just five years after Steven passed, Shipps Excavating has expanded from a handful of employees to more than 20 thanks to a growing portfolio of projects that range from equestrian centers and soccer fields to lake digging and road grading—and Jonathan’s inspired leadership.

Just as importantly, he’s already begun teaching his nephews, who also love all things construction, about technology and the ways of the modern equipment operator. After all, it’s the family tradition.

Solid Foundations

Matt Peters is the second generation of civil site work leaders in his family. His parents, Rae and Don Peters, founded Solid Earth Civil Constructors Inc. in 1996.

Over the last 20-plus years, the Pueblo, CO-based Solid Earth Civil Constructors (Solid Earth) has transitioned from a small design/build company working on residential and commercial projects to a heavy civil/infrastructure firm with services that include site work, excavation, concrete, and demolition for the commercial and defense industries across Colorado's Front Range.

It’s been an impressive growth that was realized through teamwork, a continuous improvement philosophy, and investment in equipment—an exciting process that delighted and inspired Matt as he grew up on equipment. At his earliest opportunity, he joined the company as an operator, a foreman, and more recently as a superintendent and technology leader—a job he relishes.

He says, “As jobs have grown in scope, scale, and complexity, and timelines have gotten tighter, we have had to expand our capabilities and workflows to ensure productivity and efficiency especially in the way of project estimating, construction site positioning, stakeout, measurement, and machine control.”

Today, it’s Matt’s job to evaluate, test, and implement the best solutions. The transition to estimating and project management software has been fairly straightforward in recent years, GNSS and GNSS-enabled solutions have been a more difficult discussion.

"Not because we don't see the benefits, but because of the many solutions and the necessary investment," Matt explains. "We're a small company and every person takes on many roles. As a site superintendent, my job is to manage projects and crews while also trying to assess and apply the best software and technical capabilities that can help us get a relatively quick return on investment."

The grade control software was among his first investments—and the ROI has been impressive. The Solid Earth crew put the grade control platform to work across all the company divisions, especially Concrete and Site Work & Excavation. Concrete projects range from curb and gutter slip form paving to structural slabs on grade and commercial foundations to parking lots and roadways.

“For our concrete projects, we no longer have to wait for surveyors to layout and check boundaries,” Matt explains. “We can provide immediate support when our crews need something. We’ve achieved 10-15% in job proficiency just in time savings.”

Matt recalls a recent custom home project that had complex angles and architecture with many different corners and arcs. He added, “It would have taken weeks to layout this project using conventional methods. It’s easy with grade control. This technology simplifies the most complex layouts. Further, we cut labor costs and increased accuracy considerably."

Crews have realized similar savings on commercial projects. On a municipal site excavation project, Solid Earth crews finished the project in 56 days with help from grade control, well under the estimated 100-day duration. "We're seeing huge savings just in labor," confirms Matt. "In this case, we were able to move to the next job before the first job was supposed to be complete."

The total stations have also helped improve site prep and excavation projects as well. For example, on a lump sum land clearing and site prep job, crews were expected to move 7,000 yards a day. “Land clearing jobs are typically a challenge because we’re estimating how much material we can move. With help from UTS, we know exactly how much we move on any given day.”

The success of the grade control technology investment soon led to an interest in machine control.

By 2019, Matt and his crews were ready to invest in machine control to support the growing number and size of site work contracts. These projects can range from commercial lot grading and site excavation to storm pipe installation. After some evaluation, a demo, and testing, Solid Earth invested in Trimble Earthworks Grade Control Platform for dozers and a track loader. Using the Trimble Earthworks "Autos" or automatics mode, the operator controls the stick, and Earthworks controls the boom and bucket delivering a consistently high accuracy finished grade in much less time.

Matt says, “I believe that Autos helps a new operator get up to speed much quicker. They will learn the machine behavior and replicate that when they are not using 3D grade control. It’s a great tool for learning. And it helps experienced operators move faster with accuracy.”

In the last year, the company also implemented 3D paving for its slip form, curb and gutter machines. Specifically, they use the PCS900 and SPS930 total stations alongside the Wirtgen SP15 Slipform Paver.

Matt confirms, “Going stringless was a bit of a shift, but luckily we had background knowledge on the grade control system. We don't have to set string line, which is a pain and we're able to pave every day, unlike our conventional methods of every other day. I'm much more confident with those types of projects."

He’s also invested in site visualization capabilities to manage site data, track project progress, measure points, lines, and cut/fill values, identify issues, and collaborate to resolve issues.

Matt is quick to say that profits are reinvested into their talented team as well as more technology and equipment. “Every year we add more technology. It’s a huge investment, but, if we want to grow, it’s a priority to give our talented team the necessary tools they need to help them do their job safely with precision, quality, and speed.”

Matt’s leadership, and interest in exploring technology, is a key reason why Solid Earth is among the top civil site contractors in Colorado.

These two young men, from different parts of the country but similar foundations, represent a new era in heavy construction with passion, leadership, vision, and, of course, a reliance on technology.