Technology, Education Define Savko Potential

Feb. 17, 2014

As division manager of earthwork operations, he’s running a high-dollar job in Delaware, Ohio, building an internal roadway for a National Lime & Stone quarry. He also speaks to college classes about careers in construction and what employers are looking for in a new hire. He designed and built project control towers for his company’s GPS system, and just finished running a job for the CSX Railroad in Florida building a new rail distribution yard.

Keep your eye out for Martin Savko Jr. He’s someone you’ll be proud to say you’ve met. You have time, though. He’s just 24.

This is the first in a series of profiles highlighting Under 40 in Construction Equipment winners. Here is the 2014 application.

Marty (as he’s called around the office) is part of the generation that sees no reason to spell “Technology” with a capital T. They aren’t distracted by a new system’s gee-whiz factor and are able to cut immediately to the actual use and applications of different technologies.

“Marty has grown up with technology. He ‘gets’ it,” says Steve Schmitt of Sitech-Ohio. “From Marty’s perspective, all the new technology just makes common sense. His strength is finding the applications for tech products that will benefit his company and carry it into the 21st century.”

The family business, Nickolas Savko & Sons Construction in Columbus, Ohio, has always been the main topic of conversation when the clan gathers. Martin Savko Sr. says he made it a point to include his son in discussions and exposed him to the family business as soon as Marty showed an interest. That opportunity came early on because Marty admits that when he was young, he’d rather go to the job than go to school. “It’s sort of joke around the office that I’ve been in training for this job for 23 1/2 years,” he says.

Savko Construction specializes in roller compacted concrete (RCC) paving and site prep. Recent projects include intermodal transportation distribution centers for CSX Corp., large residential subdivisions, and a current job scraping off millions of tons of earth to expose more aggregate material and building an internal roadway system for National Lime & Stone’s quarry in Delaware, Ohio. The company has about 300 employees and a fleet of 600 pieces of heavy equipment.

In high school, Marty pored over the construction trade magazines that were delivered to his home. He became interested in the emerging GPS technologies he read about and quickly saw how his family’s business could benefit from global positioning and equipment monitoring systems. Marty made a few suggestions and talked with Steve Schmitt, 3D machine control sales/support manager for Sitech-Ohio.

His father Martin was not convinced. “I didn’t need GPS. I already had a POS system—piece-of-string,” he says, laughing.

But when the housing recession took hold of Ohio, Savko Construction saw an opportunity to expand its business in another direction and began working with railroad companies building rail yards in Ohio and Florida. His father’s “POS” technology would have worked, Marty says, but “I was able to show him that instead of pounding hundreds of stakes into the ground, with GPS we could go out and do 800 acres, move dirt, and pave with no stakes.”

Marty convinced his father that if Savko Construction was going to continue in the earthmoving and paving business, they were going to have to start using new technologies sooner rather than later.

“When we first got into using Sitech/Trimble’s GPS system, my father was skeptical and would send surveyors out to the job everyday because he was going to prove the system couldn’t do what Trimble said it could do,” Marty says. “Steve told us we’d see accuracy to 0.01 inch.” Savko Construction’s equipment operators also scoffed at the idea of a computer monitor in their cabs, but when they and Martin saw what the GPS system could do, “they were absolutely blown away,” Marty says.

Marty also understood that in an active rail yard environment where accuracy and safety are huge considerations, GPS technology would make a world of difference in his company’s efficiency, safety and results. “The CSX executives came out and were inquisitive. They wanted to understand how it works and if it’s correct. They had faith in our abilities even though they didn’t see stakes laying things out.”

GPS machine control

Schmitt guided the company to the Trimble PCS900 paving control system, a 3D automatic screed control system that provides the operator and contractor a visual representation of the actual depth and condition of the base material, eliminating need for a reference surface. Schmitt says that in active intermodal facilities, paving is often done in sections due to the need to adjust traffic, so having the 3D capability saves an enormous amount of time and set-up when the contractor needs to go back to an unfinished area. Traffic control is also simpler because there is no maneuvering around stringlines.

Marty likes the control and information flow the Trimble systems give him. “I can pull up the location data on any job on my laptop or iPad,” he says. “I can show you how much material we are using, how long it is taking, but what I can’t show you is how much downtime we’ve eliminated by using the GPS and machine control technology.”

Marty’s confidence and enthusiasm for the GPS and machine control technology so impressed the CSX team that when their chairman of the board visited the job site, he insisted on a live monitor in the truck he was traveling in so he could see and evaluate the project.

A solid understanding of how technology is going to help his family’s business grow into the next generation of Savkos is only a part of what will define Marty’s successful future. He graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in construction management and says he believes that a college education is going to be mandatory for up-and-coming career construction professionals. With that in mind, Marty returns to his alma mater to talk with undergrads about the opportunities in construction and, more importantly, explains what construction companies are looking for in new hires.

“Some of the things companies are looking for aren’t found in books or classrooms,” he says. “Newly hired employees need to expect to work hard to learn how the company—in fact, the industry—does things.”

Those sentiments are echoes of his grandfather, Nick Savko, who started the family business in 1946 after returning from the war. Marty’s grandmother, now 92, says as an 11-year-old boy, Nick was put to work with his father on Saturdays loading coal into mule-driven carts in a West Virginia mine. Those Saturdays were the motivation for Savko to walk two days to Columbus, Ohio, where he asked a local priest for a room to rent and, with a wheelbarrow and determination, set to work doing cement work where he could find it. In the early 1950s, Savko bought his first crawler dozer (restored and on display at Savko headquarters) and began doing small residential grading and excavating jobs. Savko Construction continued to grow, pouring basements, doing water and sewer work, building subdivisions, and paving streets.

“My grandfather was tough but fair,” Marty says. “He believed your word and your work are your reputation. He taught me that when the sun shines, you’ve got to go.”

Martin Savko made a conscious decision to teach his son some of the old-school business lessons that aren’t part of the usual college curriculum.

“Every year, I work on different skills I want Marty to have,” Martin says. “He knows that the people who work for our company need to be able to make a good living, to be safe, to go home at the end of the day. That is his No. 1 responsibility.”

Martin also started including his son in high-level business meetings when Marty was still in high school.

“He needs to be able to walk into a room and read it, understand the nonverbal signals the people in the room display,” Martin says. “I want Marty to understand that you can’t judge a person based on the size of their wallet. No matter who he is talking to, shake hands and look them in the eye. It’s important he never forget where he came from.”

Access to the business’s real life successes and challenges has given Marty the emotional material to form a positive perspective about how work should be conducted.

“Sometimes people are surprised to see me in the field, digging a trench,” Marty says. “But that’s just part of how my family does business. We won’t ask anyone to do a job we wouldn’t do ourselves.” Translation: Respect everyone you work with.

Marty is also concerned with external factors that affect construction’s future: excessive regulations, lack of domestic manufacturing jobs, and the inequitable weight given careers in industries other than construction. Like his father, he wants to encourage people to make careers in construction with more internships and educational opportunities with Savko Construction.

When asked what his plans are for the future of his family’s business, Marty displays his wise perspective on growing and sustaining a healthy business. “We have really good customers,” he says. “We have great people. I want to continue those relationships.”

“I want to see what Marty is doing when he’s 35 or 40,” Schmitt says. “There is a very good future for this young gentleman. At 24, Marty doesn’t have a long list of projects he can point to as proof of what he’s capable of in the future. Perhaps he has something better: his grandfather’s and dad’s hard work and determination DNA."