J.W. Hughes Excavation


June 12, 2012

Komatsu equipment - “the most productive machinery on the market.”

Despite being located in the heart of Texas oil and gas country, John Hughes resisted working in the Barnett Shale that holds millions of barrels of the commodities. But when an oil company started drilling in his own “backyard,” he couldn’t hold out any longer.

“Our bread and butter was farm and ranch work,” Hughes explained. “When Marathon Oil showed up around Hico, where we’re based, and started drilling on the farms and ranches where we worked, it became a no-brainer. That was about five years ago, and during the past two years, oil and gas work has made up 60 to 80 percent of our business.”

J.W. Hughes offers gas and oil companies a long list of services that include erosion control and construction of roads, fences, culverts, pads and detention ponds. The company also does “mud farming,” taking wet soil from drilling operations and hauling it to area fields where the company discs the material into the existing dirt.

“We’re willing to do about anything our customers need,” said Hughes, who recently began working in southern Texas, setting up a location in Pleasanton, just south of San Antonio. “When we first moved down to this area, we really didn’t have much going, but I knew there was an excellent opportunity here. I heard that Marathon had moved into the area, and because we had a relationship with them, I set up a meeting. They gave us the start we really needed by allowing us to do roustabout work, even though we had no experience with it. That led to other work, and our business has taken off considerably in this area, including now having about 50 employees dedicated to roustabout work.”

The first challenge

Hughes has never been afraid to step up and challenge himself with something new. In fact, it’s how he got into the excavation business in the first place. In 1999, after several years of running a successful company that built sand volleyball courts around the U.S., Hughes moved his family from Dallas to Hico because he didn’t want his children growing up in a big city.

“I spent about a month puttering around the house fixing things up,” Hughes recalled. “My wife asked me if I was planning to go back to the office in Dallas, and I told her no, that I was thinking about working on a lake. She chuckled and walked away, but about a week later that’s what I was doing. It was an old conservation lake, and I started out by dredging it.”

Despite having no experience moving mass quantities of dirt, Hughes rented an excavator and began working on the 26-acre bass lake. What he lacked in excavation knowledge — his only experience with equipment was running backhoes and skid steers in constructing the volleyball courts — he made up for with vision.

“I didn’t want it to be just some round, flat fish bowl,” he explained. “I have experience in wildlife management, and I understand that bass and deer have the same habitats. So I basically built a deer habitat underwater by building berms and end rows, digging holes and laying in brush and other structures where bass could hide. A guy came out and saw what I did, called up Pond Boss magazine and they did a cover story on it. All of a sudden I was the go-to guy for building bass ponds.”

Despite a glowing report on the pond, Hughes said he still didn’t understand the basics of excavation. He contacted some engineers and began learning the principles of soil and compaction. “Things really took off. Within months, we were not only constructing new ponds, but repairing old dams, putting in bentonite cores and slurry walls. We did much of the work on ranches where old ponds that weren’t supposed to leak when they were built, were empty when a drought hit.

“Working on those ranches helped us branch out,” Hughes added. “Ranchers kept asking us to do other jobs while we were there. Suddenly, land clearing and building ranch roads became part of our resume.”

Komatsu Tier 4 Interim machinery fits right in

It wasn’t long before the service list grew again. Hughes recalled, “I was pulling an excavator off a ranch site and got a call. The guy I was talking to told me he got a call from someone who needed that Komatsu PC400 I was moving, but he told the caller I wasn’t interested. When he told me the job was doing emergency work for a train collision near Gunner, Texas, I told him to call back and say I would do it. That’s how we got in the ‘train wreck’ business.

“The first priority is to clear the track by getting the train or trains off,” Hughes continued, explaining the work. “There’s almost always damage to the tracks and subgrade, so building that subgrade back up was our part of the work. We did projects similar to that nearly every week for about three or four years, including repairing a long stretch between Slidell, Louisiana, and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. That was particularly hard on the equipment because there was some strong granite involved. We went through two or three cutting edges a month on our dozers.”

Those dozers were D65s, part of a large contingent of Komatsu equipment J.W. Hughes Excavation relies on for all type of projects. The company recently added two Tier 4 Interim D65-17 dozers, as well as a Tier 4 Interim PC360LC-10 excavator. It also has PC400, PC300HD and PC138 excavators and D61 and D51 dozers. Hughes also uses other products from Kirby-Smith, including Hamm compactors.

“To be honest, I had no real basis on which to buy Komatsu equipment other than when I needed an excavator to rent, the dealer in my area prior to Kirby-Smith was the only one who could get me one,” recalled Hughes, noting that his sales rep at the time was Brian Foster, who’s now Equipment Manager at J.W. Hughes. “That first piece impressed me greatly, so I started renting more and more Komatsu pieces, and I eventually started buying. I’m glad Brian answered the call because it led us to Komatsu, which we believe is the most productive machinery on the market.”

“We’re very impressed with the new Tier 4 machines, because they’re as productive as previous pieces in that size, with greater fuel efficiency,” said Foster. “The PC360 is very powerful and also smooth to operate. We use the D65s quite often for discing-in drilling mud on the farms, and they have good power to get through that heavy material. One of our operators, who’s very loyal to another brand, called in to tell us how much he liked the D65 and claimed it was his machine now. That said a lot to us.”

Hughes said Kirby-Smith Machinery’s service is equally impressive. “We’ve developed a great relationship and partnership with Kirby-Smith because they understand what customer service means. Our Sales Rep Ron Weaver, PSSR Terry Bailey and everyone we’ve dealt with at Kirby-Smith have bent over backward to ensure we’re satisfied. We do much of the maintenance ourselves, especially down in the oil fields, but we also take equipment to the Dallas shop, as needed. Kirby-Smith does an excellent, timely job and has the parts when we need them.”

An expanding footprint

J.W. Hughes Excavation’s footprint goes well beyond the oil fields that make up most of the company’s business now. It still does some farm and ranch work, as well as road work for municipalities as a general contractor. J.W. Hughes handles jobs, such as subgrade prep, while subbing out paving.

The company also general contracts facility construction, which includes everything from engineering to site work to the building itself, subbing out specialty jobs, such as electrical work. Recent projects include a building across the road from its Pleasanton office, a 50-acre pipe yard in Loving and an 80-acre commercial building site in North Dakota.

“These types of projects are something we started doing in the last couple of years, and like our other ventures, I went into it without any experience — just a willingness to try something new,” said Hughes. “I’ve never really been afraid of a challenge and learning something new. It’s how I got started, and it’s how we’ve grown.”

J.W. Hughes now has about 140 employees companywide, including key people such as Vice President Daniel Ross and Superintendents Bill Parks and Steve Lewis. “Fortunately, through the years, I’ve hired some of the most dedicated, trustworthy employees in the business,” asserted Hughes. “They’ve stepped up to every new challenge I’ve put out there. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”