Customers in Action

TJ Construction

THIS NORTHWESTERN-ALABAMA COMPANY SPECIALIZES IN GAS MAIN CONSTRUCTION IN A MULTI-STATE TERRITORY

May 23, 2016

Komatsu PC88 - “a real versatile and productive machine”

TJ Construction

Tommy Childers and his wife, Lisa, started TJ Construction in Arkansas in 1994, before moving to Florence, a town in the far northwest corner of Alabama, six years later. Upon leaving Arkansas, Florence wasn’t originally their planned destination – but it turned out to be where they called home.

“We were subbing for some contractors in Tennessee, so that’s where we were headed,” Tommy Childers recalled. “On the way there, we did a job in northern Alabama. We got to know some people in the construction business here and hit it off pretty well.

“We’re willing to travel for work, and from Florence, we’re only a couple of hours to both Nashville and Birmingham. That makes it a pretty good location for the work we do. Plus, we liked it here, so we decided to stay. Our daughter, Bridget, grew up here; she graduated from the University of North Alabama and now is a registered nurse. Over the years, this has become home.”

TJ Construction specializes in gas work – primarily laying pipeline for utilities.

“We’ll work anywhere within about 300 miles of Florence,” said Childers. “If there’s a job that fits our company – we’re interested in doing it.”

Childers notes there’s plenty of competition in gas main construction. He says what sets TJ Construction apart is its people, their experience and the quality of their work.

“We have a lot of top-notch employees. They’re talented, and they care about doing a good job for our customers. We tell everybody, ‘We may not be the cheapest, but we guarantee our work.’ The reason we’re able to do that is because of our people. Due to our reputation, there are three or four engineers in Mississippi and another half-dozen or so in Alabama that request us to bid on all of their jobs. Sometimes they select us despite the fact that there may be lower bids. I estimate that as much as 98 percent of our jobs are ones we were personally invited to bid on.”

In addition to having top field personnel, Childers tries to keep company overhead low so he can bid competitively. He relies on his wife, Lisa, and Office Manager Suzanne Miller to help him do that.

“Lisa and Suzanne handle office work, including payroll, workers’ comp, insurance and bookkeeping,” said Childers. “They even help me with material takeoffs and estimating. We all try to pull together and do multiple jobs, which helps us run lean. It’s a true team effort between the office and the field that allows us to do what we do.”

Big job in Athens, Tennessee

Total employment at TJ Construction today is about 30 people. Just before the Great Recession, the company employed approximately 75 people.

“I tried to hang on to all my employees and equipment during that rough stretch, thinking and hoping that things would turn around sooner rather than later,” said Childers. “Frankly, I probably held on too long. In 2011, we regrouped, scaled back, and traded in some old pieces for new equipment. Since then, everything has been looking up. The last four or five years have been some of our best years ever.”

TJ Construction’s big job right now involves laying 23 miles of eight-inch plastic gas pipe for the Athens Utility Board in Tennessee. Athens is about 250 miles from Florence, which is near the upper end of the travel distance that Childers prefers.

“It’s farther away, but it’s a good job for us,” said Childers. “We started in November and have until the end of July to complete the work. We’re running ahead of schedule, which is great. We’re trying to average 7,500 feet of pipe per week. Some weeks, we’ve finished as much as 10,000 feet, but of course, other weeks – when conditions are tougher or wet weather slows us down – we’ve completed far less than that. Overall, it’s going really well.

“We have a majority of our field crew, about 20 people, working on the project,” he added. “That’s not unusual for us. We put whatever resources are required into every job in order to complete it on time and on budget. Will Munsey is supervising the work in Athens and doing an excellent job of ramrodding it through. Like many of our lead people, he’s been with us for a number of years.”

The biggest challenge with the Athens job is that it’s a very tight space in which to work.

“The roads are so narrow; in some areas, you have to find the right spot just to be able to get by a vehicle that’s coming toward you,” said Childers. “The right-of-way is also very tight. There are places where there’s only eight or nine feet between the edge of the pavement and the farmer’s fence.”

Komatsu PC88s are “ideal”

TJ Construction

Tight-space work like that is a specialty of TJ Construction, which owns four Komatsu compact excavators (a PC45, a PC55 and two PC88s); a tight-tail-swing Komatsu PC138; a PC200 equipped with a Tramac hammer; and a small Komatsu D31 dozer. The company also rents equipment as needed. With the Athens job in full swing, it has an additional three PC88s and another PC55 on rent from Tractor & Equipment Company and Decatur Sales Rep Dwight Swaim.

“Our compact Komatsu excavators are ideal for the Athens job,” said Childers. “With the offset boom on those small machines, we’re able to work effectively in that type of space. We’ve found on jobs like this, our PC88s are much more beneficial than a backhoe. We’re able to clear right-of-way, dig the trench, lay the pipe and clean up, too. It’s a real versatile and productive machine. Plus, we have a full, 360-degree spin with our excavators, so we rarely have to reset our position.

“Because of those advantages, we’ve reduced the number of backhoes we own from eight to four, and added more Komatsu compact excavators,” Childers noted. “The excavators are a little smaller than most backhoes (a Komatsu PC88 is about 19,000-pounds, 65.5-horsepower and can handle up to a 1.0-cubic-yard bucket), but we’ve found that on many jobs, they’re more productive for us.”

Childers has been buying Komatsu machines since about 1999.

“My first Komatsu was a PC200,” he recalled. “We put 9,000 hours on it, much of that with a hammer, and never did anything to it but change the oil. I’d had other brands of excavators that needed new undercarriages at half that many hours. That machine made me a believer in Komatsu. I’ve tried cheaper equipment, but figured out pretty quickly that’s not a good long-term strategy. Maintenance and repairs tend to be higher and resale value is a lot less. Whatever you save on the front end by buying a lesser brand, you lose on the back end, and then some.

“Of course, you still have to maintain your machines, and we try to do a good job on maintenance,” he added. “We bring every piece into the shop once a year and go over it head-to-toe. We’ve found that a strong maintenance program helps us keep repairs to a minimum.”

Great relationship with TEC

As big a fan of Komatsu equipment as he is, Childers is equally high on the support he gets from Tractor & Equipment Company.

“Hands down, TEC personnel are among the best people I’ve ever met in this business. I have only good things to say about Dwight. Some people you have to call two or three times just to make contact. Not Dwight. He answers or gets back to me right away and takes care of any issues promptly. Same with the service department in Decatur. Branch Manager Donnie Burgreen and Service Manager Tim Kohlenberg have always been there for us, and PSSR Ricky Mathis does a good job keeping us stocked with parts.

“We’ve never had a problem that Tractor & Equipment Company couldn’t fix for us, and I’ve never had dealings with anybody at TEC who didn’t do their absolute best to help us,” he added. “As a result, we have a great relationship. Once we started with TEC, there’s never been a reason for us to go anywhere else.”

A dream come true

When Childers started his company more than 20 years ago, it was just him and Lisa. When he moved to Alabama, he estimates he had about five employees.

“To have the company I have today is a dream come true,” he says. “I always wanted to grow, but you never really know what’s going to happen. I spent the first 10 years putting everything back into the business – taking care of my people and building the company. When we were at 75 employees and doing a large volume of work, the bottom-line profit wasn’t much more than it is today, and there were a lot more headaches at that size.

“I’m very pleased with how we were able to reinvent ourselves into the company we are today,” he added. “We do quality work at a fair price and always do what we say we’re going to do. As a result, I think we have an excellent reputation, which is important to me. As long as we keep that, and maintain a strong work ethic, I’m optimistic about what lies ahead for TJ Construction.”