Swingen Construction


July 11, 2012

Versatility and longevity of Komatsu excavators

If you’ve driven the roads of the Dakotas and northwestern Minnesota, chances are you’ve crossed or seen one or more of the myriad of concrete structures Swingen Construction Company has built during its century-long history. Formed in 1911 by T.M. (Tom) Swingen, this year marks the Swingen family’s 100th anniversary in business, and as President Dan Swingen points out, it hasn’t always been easy.

“Think about what’s happened in the last 100 years: World War I, the Great Depression, World War II,” said Dan, naming a few historic events. “Those were major events that had profound effects on the economy and in turn, the construction industry. Then we’ve had recessions and other factors that impact the construction industry on top of that. To survive this long is certainly a major achievement.”

Dan and his cousin James L. (Senior Vice President) are the fourth generation of Swingens heading the family business. Dan’s father, Walter I. Swingen, and James’ father, Jim, were the third. Jim passed away several years ago, while Walter remains Chairman of the company and was recently named a member of the North Dakota Highway Hall of Fame. Jim and Walter’s father, Lonnie, was second-generation and moved the company from Cooperstown to Grand Forks in the mid-1940s, where it’s remained since then. He also incorporated the company around that time and changed the name from T.M. Swingen & Sons to Swingen Construction Company.

In addition to Dan and James, key management staff today includes Vice President of Construction Robert Peterson, Vice President of Engineering Jason Odegard and Treasurer/Secretary Laurie Christianson.

A chance happening

Through four generations and a name change, the Swingens’ niche has always been bridge building. But their foray into the bridge industry happened by chance. While founder Tom Swingen was doing a lath-and-plaster job at a church, the local banker suggested he tackle bridge work for farmers around the community.

“Bridge work has been our major focus ever since,” said Dan, who also noted that during rough times, the family performed services such as paving and home construction to survive, and also did utility work for a while. “We’ve built new bridges, repaired old ones, torn out and replaced ones we’ve built and ones we haven’t and added on to some. We self-perform all aspects, including pier construction, I-beam placement and paving of the deck, as well as any necessary removals on existing structures. If we’re the general, we’ll sub out items such as storm sewer and major earthwork.”

Throughout the past several years, the Swingens continued to add complementary services to their bridge construction specialty. Swingen Construction is also well-known for its work on flood walls, concrete box culverts, heavy foundations and pile driving. The company has seven to 10 projects going at any one time.

“Our work falls almost exclusively in the public sector for municipalities, county and state governments, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers,” said Dan. “It’s about a 50/50 split as to whether we’re the general contractor or a sub.”

Dedicated staff gets jobs done on time

About 20 years ago, Swingen Construction was general contractor on the largest project ever let in North Dakota. The company built the $12 million tri-level bridge in Fargo that routes traffic along Interstates 29 and 94, receiving an Excellence in Concrete Award as part of its work. It’s one of numerous accolades Swingen Construction has garnered during its history.

In the cities of Fargo and Moorhead, Swingen crews worked on flood walls, including a 121-foot extension of an existing flood wall the company built last year. The project called for incorporating a 48-inch storm sewer and installing a ditch liner. In Fargo, a crew built a 600-foot wall that runs along a creek on the back side of a residential neighborhood. Because of its location, the project called for the concrete wall to have a decorative look.

“We have the ability to complete a diversity of projects because of our staff, which during peak season numbers about 150,” said Dan, noting that the company typically runs seven crews of seven to 20 individuals at any one time. “We’ve always believed in finding good, motivated and hardworking individuals, giving them the responsibility to make decisions and supporting those decisions. That’s helped us build a very dedicated staff that plays a direct role in Swingen Construction’s success. We wouldn’t be where we are without them, and many have been here a decade or longer.”

Longevity in personnel, equipment

One of Swingen Construction’s many longtime employees is Equipment Manager Miles Christianson, who’s closing in on 42 years with the company. In addition to overseeing the contractor’s equipment fleet, he also does AutoCAD work and occasionally runs a paver.

“Our approach to doing a job hasn’t changed,” said Christianson, who started with the company as a laborer and has worked as a welder and crane operator. “The focus is still on getting a project done safely, on time and on budget. What has changed through the years is the quality and efficiency of the machinery we use to get the job done.”

Komatsu hydraulic excavators have been a staple in Swingen Construction’s fleet for about 20 years, including PC200 and PC300 sizes. “What I appreciate most about Komatsu excavators is their versatility and longevity,” said Christianson. “We hammer with them during the removal process, dig, load and place riprap. The applications are often ones that are extra taxing to a machine, but our Komatsu excavators have always stood up to the challenge. Because of that, we’ve been able to keep them for years with confidence that they’ll remain productive.”

In addition to excavators, the company runs Komatsu wheel loaders and dozers. “Our experience with the excavators factored into our decision to try other Komatsu pieces,” noted Christianson. “They have the same productive and fuel-efficient attributes. We especially like the D31 dozers because they’re just the right size for our projects, which often call for moving dirt in a confined area.”

Christianson worked with General Equipment Sales Representative Dale Hatfield on Swingen Construction’s initial Komatsu acquisition in the early 1990s and on all subsequent purchases. “Our relationship with Dale and General goes back that far because they’ve always delivered for us, whether it’s sales, parts or service,” he acknowledged. “We handle maintenance for the most part, but there are times I need General’s expertise. I know I can call Dale or anyone else at General and get a quick response.”

A committed focus

Now, fifth-generation family members are working, or have worked, at Swingen Construction. Although there are no immediate plans for the next generation to run the business, the possibility is there. If so, it’s likely that Dan Swingen would offer them the same advice his father gave him when he was younger.

“I remember my dad saying ‘Do what you do well, and when times are tough do it even better,’” Dan recalled. “We’ve developed our niche, and that’s what we focus on. Sure, there are other opportunities out there, and we’ve explored them. But we’re not ones to go after something just for the sake of being able to say we do it.

“In our 100-year history, the family had to do some other things to survive, but the main focus never strayed,” he added. “Fortunately, through the years, the business has been built to a point that we can concentrate our efforts on bridge building and other complementary projects. That, along with a commitment to providing quality work, will remain our focus for as long as Swingen Construction exists.”