Nurturing a Cash Cow

Inge and James Kelleher founded Emerald Excavating Co., Inc. in 1973, and what began as a two-person operation today employs 60—including the Kellehers’ two sons, Rory and Sheamus. Here, the company’s business manager, Rory, details the company’s 10-year presence at the Pinehills, a residential community near Plymouth, Massachusets, where Emerald has adapted a special approach to site-work and excavation.

Emerald Excavating conducts road construction in Pinehills’s Great Island community.
Emerald Excavating has a dedicated crew of 14 working at the Pinehills.

In 2002, we successfully bid on our first Pinehills project. Pulte Homes, a longtime client, had purchased a large portion of the subdivision—around 600 lots—and for the next five or six years our Pinehills presence rested solely with them. Since then, we have expanded our client base to include AvalonBay [Communities Inc.], Toll Brothers, the Green Company, and Pinehills LLC. In a typical year, Emerald’s Pinehills projects provide around 20 percent of [the firm’s] gross revenue, but that percentage number can reach as high as 30.

Generally speaking, developers consider site work as sort of a necessary evil. They want it done quickly and correctly and with as few problems as possible. At the Pinehills, though, where the scope of our work ranges from site clearing and grading to sewer services and mainline utilities, management is intimately involved in every step of the process. Each decision requires their final approval, down to the clearing of trees. We once reconfigured an entire entrance to save two old-growth pines. Their hands-on approach provides a noticeable cohesion to the community overall.

Even in the worst economy, opportunities exist at Pinehills. [However,] our work is tied to developers’ build-out schedules [however]. They open new lots according to sales, and that can be a real struggle for us. We might have a project in a subdivision in southern Rhode Island, for example, where we’re on-site for a week, come home, and have to go back for one day of work the week following. [But] at Pinehills there’s a constant stream of new lot work. When individual developers’ production slowed following the downturn, we picked up new customers to make up for the loss.

A big piece of the puzzle is having a competitively priced product. One of Emerald’s strategies is to leverage our presence at the Pinehills. It’s much easier to price and access material for a new road when we’re already doing one on the other side of the development.

We also rely heavily on GPS equipment—systems that include layout rovers, three automated bulldozers, a computer-guided bulldozer, and two computer-guided excavators. Having the entire area in our GPS base provides developers with peace of mind and data access. If they want a record of what took place and when, that information is readily available.

We adapted our service approach to accommodate Pinehills’s level of discernment. Our guys tend to be production-minded; there was definitely a learning curve in those early years. Now we have a dedicated crew of 14 or so employees who have learned to pay extra close attention to detail. Our work happens within a living community. If one of our guys is driving a 40-ton site truck up some residential road, they know to pull over to avoid making those other drivers nervous.

A certain degree of pride comes with that experience. Our Pinehills crew has gotten really good at doing what they do, and we’re slow to integrate new members. When a new guy is on the job, you see the veterans kind of chuckle; you know they’re thinking, “Yeah, you’ll get used to it.” We depend on our employees to adopt the Pinehills mindset, though, and that difference is absolutely one of the reasons we’ve succeeded there. If a Pinehills manager suggests a change, our foreman knows to cooperate. If there’s a flag on a given tree, you don’t touch that tree.
You don’t so much as skin the bark. ABQ