Strack Manages Fleet for Growth

Dec. 22, 2020

When Jonathan Strack was 12 years old, he spent most of his summers in a ditch.

“Even after school, I worked on a crew and in a shop,” he says. “I was always more independent-minded and wanted to prove my worth, and show I was responsible at a young age.”

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With construction in his blood, it’s no surprise that Jonathan would one day become president of his family’s business, Strack Inc., based in Atlanta, Georgia. Strack’s grandfather started the company in 1948 after coming to Atlanta looking for grading work. In the late 1950s, he transitioned to pipe laying.

“Grandpa saw that grading wasn’t where the money was,” Strack says. “The [Cat] D6 dozer got rented out at $5 an hour, and he wasn’t making a very good living. Pipe laying brought in better money.”

His grandfather kept the company small and local, with only one or two crews running at a time. But when Strack’s father took over the business in the 1970s, he grew the team from 15 workers to 355.

“Atlanta was growing around that time, so it was a great place for work,” Strack says. “Housing was the driver for construction, and dad really rode that boom.”

In 2013, Strack became the driving force behind the company. The group specializes in “just about anything” to prepare for a vertical structure, he says, including grading, clearing, excavation, pipe laying, trenchless boring and tunneling, sitework services—the list seems unending. And that’s the intention.

“Our goal is to be a one-stop-shop for our clients,” he says. “When you control a large share of the pie, you can also look out for your client a little better. That’s what our whole business model is about. We might not be the cheapest upfront, but we are complete in the way we bid and look at a job.”

This isn’t always how the business operated, though. Strack says the 2008 recession played a foundational part in diversifying the company’s work.

“We went into the recession doing railroad work, single-family housing development, municipal water and sewer pipelines, and boring and tunneling,” Strack says. “We had 355 guys, worked in Atlanta, and made a good living. Then 2008 happened and by the time we reached 2011, we had 45 guys.”

In 2009, Strack couldn’t find jobs within 250 miles of the company’s home office. The team had to search for work across the Southeast until 2011.

“It was something else,” says Strack. “When we finally got as stable as we could be for the times, I told myself, ‘I’m not going through this again. I’ve got to get the company diversified in as many facets of construction as I can.’”

Strack knew he wanted to remain in civil sitework, but aimed to entice clientele that had a more stable financial backing and better ROI. In 2017, he decided to begin grading again.

“I found that I couldn’t get to that kind of clientele unless I started grading,” he says. “It’s one of the biggest pieces of any kind of civil sitework. For instance, a landfill is very grading-heavy without much pipe because you’re either capping a landfill or digging a big hole in the ground to put a liner in. Now it’s the biggest part of our business.”

By becoming a complete sitework contractor, he won back some old clients and gained some new ones.

“We got into waste doing landfill work, warehouse work, sites for industrial manufacturing, apartments, commercial retail, healthcare work, roadwork,” Strack says. “Any job that required preparing for a vertical structure, we were probably willing to do it.”

Strack Inc.’s revenue rose from $20 million in 2011 to $120 million today.

“[The business changes] are what it took to survive,” he says. “We always invested heavily in our business, so we put our own money back into the employees and yellow iron.”

Today Strack employs 425 workers and owns 325 pieces of heavy equipment, and 120 vehicles. He acquires new equipment with rental purchase options (RPO), renting for six months and purchasing if he sees continued need.

“Having gone through a recession, we always want to make sure that as we grow and the market grows, the work is going to stick,” he says. “So if a dealer is willing to carry out a longer RPO than they traditionally wanted to 15 years ago, they get the business.”

Nearly all of Strack’s heavy equipment has been acquired with RPOs. His mixed fleet includes Caterpillar, John Deere, and Komatsu machines.

“If we do decide to purchase equipment, we usually need it pretty quickly,” he says. “When you’ve done enough business with a dealer, they know to come to you with either the bottom dollar or pretty close to it right out [of] the gate.”

Strack has found Caterpillar machines have the best resale value. All of his machines are fully integrated with Trimble GPS, a payload function, and 3D grade control technology.

“Since Trimble is integrated into Cat’s equipment, they’ll get a little bit of the lean when it comes to renting or buying,” he says. “I don’t have to have an extra conversion box on my station to run it. For me, that’s the real consideration—does it have GPS, and what manufacturer is it?”

If a dealer is willing to help train workers, they will also get a favorable lean.

“If the workers don’t know how to use the technology and supervisors don’t know how to monitor, it’s useless,” he says. “Whoever can help train and support our field personnel and mechanics—that’s the most important thing to me at purchase time. The dealer has to be much more than a sales organization now.”

Strack employs 10 mechanics in the field, and 12 in-house. Their preventive maintenance program is set up exactly like a dealer’s.

“We pulled out the service manuals for every piece of equipment,” he says. “Anything a dealer would do as far as service intervals, even down to OEM filters, we do that. We buy all our fluids from dealers as well. That way, there is no debate when it comes to warrantied time. We have a running record that looks just like what a dealer would do.”

Strack’s field superintendents use HCSS Equipment 360 to track maintenance and request machine service. The service management team (a shop manager, fabrication manager, and field service manager) then meet and determine which work goes where.

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“Depending on workload and availability of our in-house guys, they determine what the dealer gets and doesn’t get,” Strack says. “Sometimes a dealer will do something labor-intensive for us that would otherwise take up a lot of shop space. But we typically do preventative care and maintenance on our own.”

Strack also uses the HCSS suite for tracking telematics, machine health, location, and bidding.

“We run every facet of their software platform,” he says. “That’s how we perform fleet analysis in regards to utilization.”

HeavyBid, HCSS’s estimating software, helps Strack evaluate equipment costs. The software also offers a living journal of what it costs to fix, repair, and potentially replace equipment and identify problem spots.

“The best thing I ever did was get on estimating software because we ran off of spreadsheets for a long time,” he says. “You get a really good picture of what’s going on with your business. Now we also use Dispatcher, an electronic magnet board, whereas before we were moving machines around with a sticky note and dry erase markers.”

Strack aims to develop an equipment operator-training program in-house by the end of 2021. He intends on setting one year aside to test the program, which has been on hold since the Covid-19 pandemic hit last March.

“Right now we’re trying to figure out job descriptions, roles, and responsibilities for every level of the company,” Strack says. “So if you’re a laborer and you want to be a superintendent one day, we give you the criteria you need to meet. We’re starting to rate all our operators level one through three in the company, and designate an equipment trainer. Part of that person’s job will be to qualify who is competent.”

Though details on “when and where” are unclear, Strack is prepared to test run the program as soon as possible.

“We need to get this knowledge out of everyone’s heads and documented,” he says. “That’s how we’ll be able to grow and train our people.”