Customers in Action

R.A. Alexander & Sons


March 07, 2016

‘Old-school’ employee loves the D51PXi

R.A. Alexander & Sons

Mark Ballard first ran a bulldozer when he was 10 years old. From that time on, his career path was set.

“After high school, I went to college for a semester and learned it wasn’t for me,” Mark recalled. “There was never any question in my mind what I was going to do with my life. I wanted to be in construction, and I wanted to operate equipment.”

Mark went to work for Owensboro, Kentucky-based R.A. Alexander & Sons, the company that had been founded by his grandfather in 1947. By the time Mark joined the company, his parents, George and Marsha, were second-generation owners. In 2008, Mark bought R.A. Alexander & Sons from his parents.

“My dad retired, but he didn’t stop working,” said Mark. “In fact, at 70 years old, he still works every day, but now he works for me, which I’m very happy about. I’ve been around him since I was a toddler; sitting by his side on a bulldozer. We’re very close. Having him work here is great for me because I can run ideas by him and ask his advice on almost anything related to the business.”

While R.A. Alexander & Sons has been around for almost 70 years, the company is not the same as it was when Mark’s grandfather and father were running it.

“The original focus was coal mining, and they had about a dozen employees and some pretty large equipment,” Mark noted. “When that slowed down, they got into land development and road work – so they still dealt with some big iron. I chose to downsize and focus on the homebuilding market, and it’s worked out well for us.”

Today, R.A. Alexander & Sons has just three full-time employees – Mark, George and George’s brother Joe, who has worked at the company for more than 20 years.

“We primarily develop land for homes – some individual house lots, but mostly subdivisions,” Mark explained. “We work for a number of homebuilders around the Owensboro area, but our largest customers are Jagoe Homes and Thompson Homes, both of which are homebuilders/general contractors. We’ve done their earthwork for the last 25 years.”

Keep the customer happy

R.A. Alexander & Sons’ calling card is to do good work and complete it in a timely manner, but Mark claims little credit for the work the company does with Jagoe and Thompson.

“Our relationship with them precedes me,” he said. “We’ve been working for them a long time. They’ve grown and brought us along. There’s a lot of trust and confidence on both sides. We know what they want, and they know what they’re going to get from us. It’s a close-enough bond that they often call us when they’re considering a project to see what we think. It’s like being part of their team, and we appreciate that they respect our opinion enough to make us part of their decision-making process.

“We know they have other options, so we do our best to keep them happy,” he added. “For example, if they want something fixed on a project, we go back in and change it at no extra charge. Some people don’t understand why we do that, but we don’t see anything unusual about it. Our goal is to give our customers the end products they’re looking for in order to keep them as regular clients. It’s really that simple, and it works for us.”

R.A. Alexander & Sons works almost exclusively in the Owensboro/Newburgh/ Evansville area.

“My dad, my uncle and I are all operators,” said Mark. “We’re hands-on and out in the field every day. I’ve been able to keep overhead to a minimum by coming in at night to do a lot of the estimating, bidding and office work.”

When the company has a large job, as it did recently at the Cayman Ridge Subdivision in McCutchanville, Kentucky, Mark hires subs to help him complete it in a timely manner.

“Cayman Ridge was a large dirt-work job that required trucks to move material,” Mark

explained. “Since we don’t have those, it made more sense to sub out the work rather than acquire more equipment and personnel. We’ve lost three very good, veteran employees over the last two years. It’s difficult to find good, quality help, so instead of replacing them, we’ve decided to do more with less.”

Guaranteed uptime

Mark’s minimalist workforce philosophy also extends to his equipment. When R.A. Alexander & Sons downsized, it got rid of almost all of its old machines and turned to fewer, but newer, leased and rental units from Brandeis Machinery & Supply in Evansville and Sales Rep Brandon Russell.

“We didn’t need the large pieces anymore, plus, I wanted newer equipment and the improved uptime that would come with it,” Mark explained. “It’s hard to get a job done when equipment isn’t running. With our old stuff, we never knew when it was going to go down, so we had a full-time mechanic. When we turned to newer equipment, we let Brandeis take care of our maintenance and repairs. With the combination of Brandeis’ support and the newer equipment, our uptime and productivity has soared.”

Komatsu’s new leasing program, which is designed to make machine acquisition more affordable, fit nicely with Mark’s new approach to equipment.

“We used to rent a lot of equipment,” said Mark. “Once we got three months or more into the rental, we figured we were just throwing money away unless we bought it. Now, with the lease program, the cost is less than renting, and we’re always up and running. My thought process is that by leasing or renting from Brandeis – and we still rent when we need an extra machine for the short term – I can budget for that machine payment. There is no budgeting for a breakdown because you never know what the repair is going to cost or how long you’re going to be out of commission.”

The Komatsu difference

R.A. Alexander & Sons

R.A. Alexander & Sons currently has a Komatsu D51PXi-22 dozer and rents a PC490LC excavator from Brandeis.

“Before we started working with Brandeis, we were die-hards for another brand,” Mark noted. “When Brandon came to me with the lease program for a Komatsu PC160, I decided to try it out. I quickly discovered it was the best excavator I’d ever operated. We’ve kept it for a year and a half and plan on turning it in for a PC170.

“When we needed a small dozer, we demo’d all the top brands, and we agreed that the Komatsu D39 was the best of the bunch – and it wasn’t close,” he added. “It was quiet, comfortable, and the visibility was amazing.” About a year ago, Mark decided he needed a larger dozer and wanted to move up to the Komatsu D51, but at that time, he didn’t want Komatsu’s intelligent Machine Control (iMC).

“Komatsu was converting all of its D51s to iMC, and I didn’t think I was ready for that,” said Mark. “Brandon had me try a D61 rental with an aftermarket GPS system on it, so I could get my feet wet with machine control. After having it for two days, I knew GPS grading was something I should have done years ago. That’s when I started seriously considering the D51PXi.

“We’ve found that on the right job, it really speeds things up,” he added. “As veteran operators, all three of us have learned that we have to trust the system and let it take control to get the full benefit of it. When we do that, we find the GPS is almost always more efficient than any of us would have been on our own. My ‘oldschool’ dad absolutely loves it. There’s no doubt that the D51PXi will make money for us. With it, we can complete contract jobs much faster than we could with a conventional dozer.”

Steady growth

R.A. Alexander & Sons has experienced fairly steady growth in dollar volume, despite being a small company. Mark says 2015 was the busiest year since he’s been the owner.

“The homebuilding market in this region is very strong, and I could probably grow the company if I wanted to, but getting bigger doesn’t interest me a lot. Obviously, it would enable us to do more work and presumably make more money. However, it would also almost certainly bring more headaches – specifically the need to keep bringing in more and more work, which would probably require us to travel more.

“The bottom line is that I’m pretty satisfied with where we are right now,” Mark concluded. “I can pay my bills and live comfortably at our present size. I have a wife and two sons, and I enjoy being able to have a home life. One of my sons has shown an interest in the business – much like I did at his age. He’s 16 now, so he may be ready to move in about the time my dad is wanting to slow down. If that happens, R.A. Alexander & Sons would become a fourth-generation family business, and that would make me pretty proud.”