Offering numerous services helps Baltimore-area contractor pave way to success
Since the age of 19, Cory Freeman has been an owner in a construction company. He believes it’s the only thing that suits him.
“I like having the choice of jobs I want to take on instead of doing what someone else tells me I have to do,” said Freeman, President of Gradeline Construction Company, Inc. “I’ve been down that road before, working as an equipment operator for a large paving company. I just believed it would be better for me to take the reins and run my own business.”
Freeman started working for himself when he founded Freeman Construction Services, which he ran solo until the mid-1990s when he teamed up with Paul Schaeffer to form Gradeline Construction. Schaeffer is Treasurer of the Brooklandville, Md., company.
A decade after its inception, Gradeline Construction has become one of the top paving and sitework contractors in the Baltimore metro area. The company’s work also takes it into southern Pennsylvania, western Delaware and Washington, D.C.
“We’ve become a full-service company,” noted Freeman. “When we started out, the focus was mainly on asphalt paving. Eventually, we began to offer our customers more and more services, such as digging and backfilling basements, grading yards and paving driveways for residential builders. The business has come a long way since the beginning.”
Shift in emphasis leads to growth
As the company grew, its work emphasis changed. Today, instead of doing onelot residential housing jobs, the bulk of Gradeline Construction’s projects are large subdivisions and site and paving packages for private and commercial developers. The company’s commercial work generally comprises warehouse, apartment complexes and retirement communities. Gradeline Construction usually has three to four jobs going at one time, using six paving, grading and utility crews to meet demand.
“The shift toward subdivision and commercial projects has really worked in our favor, as far as growth,” remarked Freeman, who added that the company occasionally breaks its services out at customer request. “The jobs are bigger and our customers usually want more than just paving or grading. We offer everything: clearing, erosion and sediment control, stripping the topsoil, cut and fill, stone placement, asphalt paving and final grading.
“Our latest offering is utility work, which we just started doing a couple of years ago,” he added. “I believe that really puts us in a good position when it comes to working with general contractors because we can do everything in-house without subbing things out. We control everything, and our customers appreciate dealing with only one contractor. Because of that, much of our work is for repeat customers, and we’re negotiating more and more.”
Challenging projects,value engineering
Commercial work includes preparation for warehouses and retirement communities, as well as large apartment complexes, such as the Ashbury Courts building that Gradeline Construction recently worked on in western Baltimore. Gradeline crews cleared the site, set up sediment control, installed utilities and performed cut-and-fill operations.
“It’s one of the most challenging jobs we’ve ever undertaken because there were so many unforeseen circumstances that popped up, such as a ton of trash that no one knew about,” explained Project Manager Jim Shea. “We hit dry wells and wet wells, plus, the site soils had a high moisture content. We ended up hauling out about 11,000 yards of dirt and replacing it with better material to build the site up. The underground utilities involved putting in 60- inch corrugated metal pipe for storm-water management, as well as sand filters, inlets and manholes, and running pipe along North Laurel Road. It’s an extremely busy street, so that added to the difficulty.”
Gradeline completed a park-and-ride project for the state of Maryland that proved to be another challenge. The company kept the 300-space parking-lot job on schedule, despite working in adverse weather conditions and having to modify an existing storm-water management issue. Gradeline solved the problem by pumping down a three-acre pond, sandbagging it and installing a new riser. It also graded the site, making earth berms with waste dirt, placed stone and paved it.
“We’re very proud of how it turned out, and we got many compliments on it,” Shea noted. “There was quite a bit of value engineering involved, which we’ve being doing more and more of lately. Often, we see a better way of doing something, and as long as it meets the job specifications, we’ll do it. In most cases, it’s a cost savings to the customer, and they really like that.”
Versatile equipment helps lower costs
With Gradeline’s increase in service offerings, came an expansion in its equipment fleet, much of it Komatsu machinery purchased from Midlantic’s Baltimore branch with the help of Territory Manager Chuck Scott.
“Service is one of the most important aspects of our equipment-buying decisions, and Chuck and Midlantic have taken exceptional care of us since we started buying Komatsu a few years ago,” Freeman said. “We recently set up a service contract with Midlantic. They come out and service all our machines, including brands they don’t carry. We contact Service Manager Butch Harris and he works around our schedule, so we have little, if any, downtime. They check everything when they do a service call, which is great because if there’s a problem, they can identify it before it becomes a major issue. It’s worked out very well, and will save us money in the long run.”
Freeman has noticed a savings in his operating costs with the Komatsu equipment as well. Recent additions include a WA250PT-5 parallel tool carrier, a WB140-2 backhoe loader, two SK1020 skid steers and a CK30 compact rubber-track loader. Gradeline also uses a PC300LC-6 and two PC200LC-6 excavators.
“We’ve noticed an overall decrease in fuel consumption since we began buying Komatsu equipment,” Freeman said. “That lowers our operating costs, but what also helps is the production we’re getting, which has been quite good. Our downtime has been minimized, and our operators love the equipment for its power and comfort. They don’t feel beat up at the end of the day.
“The comfort has been very notable in the CK30,” added Freeman, citing its rubber tracks, which make for a smoother ride compared to traditional skid steers. “It doesn’t have the tendency to jump like rubber-tire machines do. We do quite a lot of fine grading with it, which helps lower our operating costs because we’re not using a dozer as much. Its size and power also allow us to load trucks. It’s very versatile.
“Versatility is a big bonus in our other Komatsu equipment too,” he continued. “We can haul pipe and backfill with the wheel loader and the backhoe loader, and our excavators allow us to do mass excavations and put pipe in the ground. They all have good power and cycle times. The PC300 has been incredible in that regard. We match it up with a couple 25-ton haul trucks, and it’s proven to be the quickest and most-efficient method of moving dirt.”
Freeman is looking to up Gradeline’s overall efficiency while growing the business at a slower pace than he’s seen in the past decade.
“We’ll continue to grow,” he confirmed. “We’re in the process of expanding with another utility crew doing more governmental work. I’ve been at this a long time, and I’ve come to realize that we have to look for ways to keep building; otherwise, we could become complacent and our work could suffer as a result.
“Our ultimate goal is to always improve what we do,” Freeman added. “We’ve built Gradeline to a level I’m fairly comfortable with. What I want to do now is continue to improve by being more efficient. To do that, we have to slow our growth some. I don’t want to be the biggest; I want us to be the best.”