Knocking Things Down Helps Build Business

Story by Mike Larson, Editor | September 28, 2010

Great Lakes Excavating, Inc., Milwaukee, WI, is a family-owned company started in 1966 by Skip Bruckner, who still works part time and is strongly involved with operations after driving the company's growth for more than 40 years.

Company Started As One Man With A Rototiller

Says Skip, "It all started with one rototiller. I was working at an automobile manufacturer and rototilling people's gardens as a side job during evenings and weekends. Eventually, I left the auto company, bought a front-end loader and dump truck, and expanded into landscaping."

"After a huge blizzard in 1966, I moved mountains of snow for three solid weeks in Chicago and made as much money as I would have all year landscaping," Skip said, "so I added a bulldozer to my fleet and went into the excavating business full time. Things grew from there."

Today, Skip's sons Brian and Dan are the company's primary managers. Both not only handle administrative work like estimating, bidding and billing, they also operate equipment every day on job sites.

Great Lakes Excavating serves all of southeastern Wisconsin, from Madison to Lake Michigan, and from Fond du Lac to the Illinois state line.

Its workforce includes a total of 15 employees and a fleet of excavating, demolition and trucking equipment that numbers about 25 units ranging from skid-steer loaders to mini excavators, wheel loaders, crawler loaders, rubber-tired backhoes, bulldozers, large hydraulic excavators, and quad-axle dump trucks.

All of the equipment operators belong to the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139.

Demolition Often Part Of Excavating

Although commercial, industrial and residential excavating is the company's main business, Great Lakes will sometimes perform demolition that's part of an excavation project.

President Brian Bruckner says it is difficult to determine the percentage of the company's work that comes from demolition because the demolition always comes bundled as part of an excavating contract.

For example, Great Lakes Excavating frequently replaces signs for billboard companies, banks, hospitals, and other businesses. On those jobs, it often has to demolish and remove the old sign base, auger new holes, then install a new sign base.

One current example of a larger demolition job involved taking down an abandoned trucking terminal in southeastern Milwaukee, removing the debris, and grading the area to create more parking for the working terminal next door.

One of the company's most interesting recent projects was gutting the Greenfield, WI, police building — including jail cells — so it could be converted into a library.

The company generally tries to limit is demolition work to buildings of no more than one story.

"Many of our jobs are done by one operator and one or two machines," says Brian Bruckner. "Often a single operator can go to a job site with a quad-axle dump truck towing a trailer with a skid-steer loader and attachments. That package gives the operator what he or she needs to cost-effectively take down many smaller buildings, clean up the debris, and do the related excavating."

Some other jobs can be done by one operator, but with more equipment.

On the recent demolition of the abandoned trucking terminal, for example, 21-year veteran operator Tim Kothlow used a New Holland L190 skid-steer loader with hydraulic breaker to demolish the concrete foundation.

Kothlow says that the skid-steer loader's 67 horsepower and the hydraulic breaker enable him to remove as much as 4,000 to 5,000 square feet of concrete per day, depending on its thickness.

He also used the skid-steer loader with a 1-cubic-yard bucket to handle debris to clear snow from the work area.

Kothlow's favorite features of the L190 are the (optional) enclosed, climate-controlled cab, the one-button attachment-mounting system, and the hydraulic quick-connect. He also notes that on a hard-work day, it burns about three to four gallons of fuel per hour.

On the terminal project, Kothlow used a large hydraulic excavator equipped with bucket and thumb to remove the roof, knock down walls and trusses, dig out the foundation, and handle the debris.

Later, he used a bulldozer to form and level the parking pad before cleaning up the edges with the skid-steer loader.

For larger jobs, the company sends as many operators and machines as required.

All Of Equipment Owned And Largely Self Maintained

Great Lakes Excavating owns all of its equipment. About half is purchased new, and half is purchased used.

Explains Brian Bruckner, "When we need an additional piece of equipment, the decision to buy a new or used unit depends on the quality of the available machines, how often we'll use it, and how quickly it will pay for itself. We base most of those decisions on instinct and experience, not a rigid formula."

"All of our skid-steer loaders, however, are purchased new from Milwaukee Tractor & Supply," says Bruckner. "Great Lakes Excavating has been doing business with them since 1966, so we have built up a strong relationship."

Great Lakes Excavating generally owns a piece of equipment for about 10,000 hours of work before replacing it.

Normal lubricating, light maintenance and oil changes are often done by the operators. More complex maintenance and repairs are done by the company's mechanic. Larger repairs, such as replacing transmissions, are left to equipment dealers.

Generally Works As Subcontractor

On most jobs, Great Lakes Excavating works as a subcontractor for the project's general contractor. Brian Bruckner says that some of the work comes directly from long-standing relationships with general contractors, but that most often the company must win the work by bidding competitively with other demolition and excavating subcontractors.

"Every job is different, and the bidding gets more competitive all the time. But our extensive experience and efficiency enable us to earn enough work to stay busy — even in the tough business climate we're facing now," he says.

Excavated Soil Reused; Most Demolition Debris Recycled

Debris from Great Lakes Excavating's projects goes to a variety of places, depending on the type of material.

Steel, copper and other metals go to scrap dealers. Concrete and asphalt are sent to paving companies for crushing and re-use in new pavements. And soil is either re-used as fill on the job, delivered to another project that needs fill, or trucked to a dump site.

Brian Bruckner notes that finding dump sites for excavated soil within reasonable driving distance can be one of a project's larger challenges — especially in major metropolitan areas.

"We sometimes need to drive to a dump site that's nearly an hour trip each way," he says. "Naturally, before we do that, we try to use the excavated soil as fill on the same job site, use it on one of our other jobs, or sell it to nearby contractors instead of trucking it to dump sites farther away."

Brian Bruckner adds, "I just found out about a website that tries to match people who need soil with those who need to dump it. I'm definitely going to check that out."

The company's plan for continuing success, says Bruckner, is to keep serving its customers well and following a plan of controlled growth that will enable it to expand without overextending itself. "We want to keep the company strong so it can pass to the third generation in great shape," he says.