Komatsu PC138 is the “right machine” for the job
When Rick Lowder started Aztec Construction in Cheyenne, Wyo., in 1980, the company consisted of him and one other worker. Today, Aztec employs about 50 people and is widely considered to be one of southeastern Wyoming’s leading full-service site-development and utility contracting firms.
“Our growth has occurred gradually as we learned more, and as we brought on people who had different skill sets,” said Lowder. “In the beginning, we did small housing projects. Today, all of our work is commercial, both private and public. We do all aspects of site work from demolition to excavation/grading to utilities. We’ve done wind energy farms, subdivisions, office buildings, restaurants, churches, shopping centers and schools.”
The growth has caused Aztec to alter its motto from “No job too small” to “No job too large.” Nowhere is that growth more evident than in the company’s underground sewer and water work, specifically municipal rehabilitation projects, which have become an Aztec specialty.
“We started doing water and sewer work when we brought Larry Lembitz on board as Senior Project Manager and Estimator about 21 years ago,” said Lowder. “Larry had a strong background in that type of work and his expertise has made us one of the ‘go-to’ contractors for underground utility projects in this region.”
Sewer rehabs are among the most challenging jobs for any contractor because they typically deal with existing utilities, and because anytime a job goes underground, contractors never know for sure what they are going to find.
“We take a lot of pride in our ability to tackle tough jobs like that and find the most efficient and cost-effective way to do them,” said Lowder. “There are problems on every job. The best contractors know how to solve the problems without a lot of costly change orders, while constantly keeping the project moving forward toward a timely completion. At Aztec, we have a track record of doing that and it’s one of the key reasons we’re in demand.”
Challenging sewer job
Aztec Construction is currently working on a very demanding sewer replacement project for the town of Pine Bluffs, Wyo. The Pine Bluffs sewer system is located in about 10 alleys, each of them approximately six blocks long. Aztec’s work consists of replacing the main lines, manholes and service connections.
“Many things make the job difficult,” acknowledged Lembitz. “The fact that it’s in narrow alleys means there’s not much room to maneuver equipment. It’s also very difficult soil because it’s already been excavated once before and I’d say it wasn’t properly compacted when it was put back. Also problematic are the existing utilities. Virtually every house has a sewer line, a gas line, electrical, phone, cable — and we have to work around all of that.”
Aztec Superintendent Mark Sprengeler, who’s running the Pine Bluffs job, says he’s never seen so many underground lines to work through. What’s more, he estimates 60 percent to 70 percent of the lines were either not mapped or the locations were wrong.
“We have to do a lot of handwork to locate the lines ourselves and avoid cutting one by mistake. In the case of gas and electricity, a mistake would be very dangerous and potentially deadly. In the case of communication cables and fiber optics, it would be very expensive and disruptive. We would inconvenience the public by interrupting phone and Internet service, not to mention shutting down 9-1-1 and other emergency frequencies. So making a mistake is really not an option. We’re very careful and we go as slowly as we need to go in order to be safe.”
Aztec started the job in April of 2010 and expects to complete it in April of 2011.
The “right machine” for the job
In addition to working around the existing utilities, lack of space has also made the Pine Bluffs project particularly challenging.
“With the narrow alleys, we don’t have anyplace to put the material we dig up,” Sprengeler noted. “So when we get a bucketful of dirt, we have to swing all the way around and load it onto a truck. We have to come out of the trench slowly because of all the underground lines, then we have to swing very slowly and carefully because of how narrow the alleys are and because of overhead power and phone lines. Utilities both high and low are obstacles on this job.”
To combat the space problem, Aztec turned to Power Motive and Sales Rep Ray Milczewski for Komatsu tight-tail-swing PC138 hydraulic excavators.
“We already had tight-tail-swing Komatsu PC228s, but those were too big to work effectively on the Pine Bluffs job,” said Sprengeler. “So Ray got us some PC138s and a compact PC78 to use. At a little over 30,000-pounds, the PC138 is about 20,000 pounds lighter than the 228, but it still has enough lift capacity to handle the work here. It’s definitely the right machine for this job.”
“The PC138 has worked really well,” agreed Operator Levi Nowlin. “It’s smooth, comfortable and has very good visibility. That’s important on a job like this where we’re in such close quarters. It’s also nice to have the blade in the front for backfilling and for additional stability to improve lifting capacity.”
“We got our first PC228 in 2007 for another job that was in tight quarters and also had traffic,” said Lembitz. “It worked great. We found the tight-tail radius was the only way to go on jobs like that. Our overall experience with Komatsu excavators is that they are prime machines.”
“We’ve also recently discovered our maintenance costs are lower with Komatsu,” noted Lowder. “We just don’t have many problems. And when something does come up, Power Motive provides outstanding service. They respond quickly and take care of the problem.”
Employees are “biggest asset”
In order to successfully complete jobs like the Pine Bluffs sewer project, Aztec relies on a group of employees Lowder considers the best in the region.
“From Larry Lembitz and Jay Parks, who also is a project manager/estimator, to superintendents and foremen, operators and laborers, everybody here is topnotch. We offer good pay and good benefits and try to show our staff that we appreciate their efforts. As a result, we get high-quality employees, and they are our biggest asset. I’d put our team up against anybody else’s in terms of producing quality work.”
“We have very little turnover,” Lembitz pointed out. “Once somebody hires on here, they stay. And that longevity is important. The guys in the field — they are the company. The office can put out a plan, but the guys out on the job have to execute it, and ours do — time after time.”
Lowder says 2010 started somewhat slowly for Aztec, but business picked up as the year went along and finished very strong.
“The Cheyenne area came through the recession better than many parts of the country. There’s a very active economic development effort here. We’ve attracted some large projects such as the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputer Center which will help scientists study atmospheric research. There’s also a lot of oil exploration. We’re optimistic about what lies ahead for southeastern Wyoming.”
In addition to a fairly strong local economy, there’s another reason Lowder and Lembitz are optimistic about the future.
“We think attitude is important,” said Lembitz. “Our calling card is to be ‘user-friendly’ at all times and to everybody we deal with. If a project owner wants us to do something, we do it. If the public has a concern, we handle it. If an engineer calls and wants to run an estimate by us, we call him back and give him the information he wants.”
“That’s just the way we want to operate and the way we want to be known in the community,” said Lowder. “If we don’t get the job that the engineer was planning for, that’s
OK, we’ll hope we get the next one. Our thought is, the way we treat people all comes back to us eventually. We try to be straightforward, helpful and above board in all our dealings. That’s what being ‘user-friendly’ means to us, and as long as we keep that attitude and the reputation it brings, we feel good about our prospects for the future.”