Customers in Action

VanMeter Contracting


February 06, 2015

Komatsu excavators - “quicker, better balanced and more stable”

VanMeter Contracting

Mark VanMeter started VanMeter Contracting in 1991 after having spent about a dozen years running a heavy-highway division for another company.

“I did the estimating, the bidding, ran the crews and worked the jobs,” VanMeter recalled. “I did everything, just like I would have if it had been my own company. After a while, I decided I wanted to work for myself – 100 percent responsible for my own success or failure – so I started VanMeter Contracting. In the beginning it was just me. Then a few of the guys I had worked with decided to join me. I basically had nothing. I just started bidding jobs, got some work and grew from there.”

Today, Bowling Green, Ky.,-based VanMeter Contracting is one of the leading bridge builders in the region. With up to 70 employees and six bridge crews during the summer months, the company excavates foundations, sets beams and does concrete work – almost all aspects of a bridge job except for tying the reinforcing steel, which it subs out.

VanMeter Contracting works within about a 150-mile radius of Bowling Green but tries to stay as close to home as possible. Currently, the company is building two bridges on Interstate 65 and a total of seven bridges for Kentucky Transpark, an industrial park in Warren County near Bowling Green.

“Typically we’re a sub – probably at least 90 percent of the time,” said VanMeter. “That’s because we do fairly good-size jobs where the bridge portion may only be 30 percent of the total project cost, so we’re often bidding to a general contractor. Those big, busy, challenging jobs – jobs that some companies don’t want to do – are the ones where we feel we’re at our best.”

Help clients make money

VanMeter Contracting’s motto and guiding principle is: help our client make money.

“The thought is, if a customer is making money, then I’m making money – everybody wins,” said VanMeter. “How do we do it? We try to stay out of the general contractor’s way by working fast. We also try to be helpful and do more than the bare minimum. Say the slopes need to be shaped up. That’s usually their portion of the work, but we’ll often do it because we’re there, and it keeps things moving along.

“We are also problem-solvers,” he added. “I might see something that’s going to be an issue down the line – not just for me but for the general contractor as well. I’ll point it out, we’ll get together and discuss it and try to eliminate the issue before it becomes a problem. Bottom line, I treat the entire job like it’s my own, and I watch out for them the same way that I would for myself. I try to give great service so they’ll want us back on their next job.”

To help him “help his clients make money,” VanMeter relies on a trusted team of longtime employees including Office Manager Joe Cornwell; Field Manager Chris Galusha; Bridge Superintendent Leon Hornback; and his sons, Safety Director Matt VanMeter and Job Facilitator Chase VanMeter. But make no mistake, Mark is a true owner/operator. If you want to find him, you need to look on a job in the cab of an excavator.

“That’s where I spend almost all of my days. For example, here at the Kentucky Transpark job, I’ve dug every hole myself. I enjoy operating, and after all these years, I’m relatively good at it. I think by being on the job, in-person every day, it keeps things moving forward a little faster than they otherwise might. It also makes us more cost-effective. I’m going to get paid no matter what, so if I operate, I’m basically free to the job.”

Improved productivity with Komatsu excavators

VanMeter Contracting

When VanMeter operates, he’s almost always in one of the four Komatsu hydraulic excavators his company has purchased from Brandeis Machinery & Supply, through Sales Rep Gene Snowden III.

“I bought my first Komatsu, a PC450LC-8, about three years ago,” VanMeter noted. “I’d been using other brands and wasn’t totally satisfied with them. I had noticed that many of the largest and best general contractors I’d been around were primarily using Komatsu, so I decided to give it a try. I bought that first PC450 and was very pleased with it, so I bought a second one.”

The PC450 weighs almost 100,000 pounds, which is quite a bit larger than the previous excavators VanMeter ran.

“We were getting larger jobs where the bridges were bigger, the foundations were deeper, the beams were longer and the lifts were heavier,” VanMeter explained. “In addition to digging, we use our excavators for lifting and unloading – kind of like a crane. We can use it to pour concrete, set steel and do other lifts. Sometimes we use it for everything and don’t even have to bring in a crane.

“In this area, we almost always battle underground rock, so a bigger machine with more weight and horsepower handles that better,” he added. “What’s more, we put an auxiliary hydraulic kit on our second PC450 so we could run a shear and a ram, which allowed us to begin doing our own demolition work. Prior to that, we subbed out demolition. Whenever possible, we prefer doing work with our own men and our own equipment, because it allows us to better control the project schedule, work quality and cost.”

VanMeter’s most recent Komatsu purchases were two PC360LC-10s.

“The PC360 is about an 80,000-pound machine, and it can do almost everything the PC450 can do,” said VanMeter. “Obviously, it’s not as big, but the PC360 handles most aspects of a job with ease, and it’s fast. I run it in economy mode almost 100 percent of the time, so it’s also very fuel-efficient.

“Compared to my previous excavators, the Komatsus I own are bigger, and they’re also quicker, better balanced and more stable. The balance and stability are important to me because I’ve been known to take excavators to the edge sometimes. I want and need top machine performance, and I get it from Komatsu excavators.”

Brandeis support

While quality equipment is mandatory for VanMeter, being able to trust and count on his equipment distributor for support is equally important.

“I want a relationship with my distributor where, if I call them for help, I know they’re going to respond right away,” he explained. “If there’s an issue, I want them standing beside me. I also want a salesman who’s a straight-shooter and not a smoke-blower. I’m old-school – I’m loyal if you treat me right, but I’m gone if you don’t. I’ve been very pleased with the support I’ve gotten from Gene and Brandeis.

“For example, Gene sends me a monthly KOMTRAX report that lets me see exactly how my Komatsu machines are working. One of the things I look at is idle time. Komatsu helped show me how excessive idle time costs me money – not just in greater fuel consumption, but also in resale value due to higher hours being run up on the machine. So, I put a three-minute rule into effect. If you’re going to idle three minutes or more, shut the machine off. With the KOMTRAX report, I can check on my operators and make sure they’re doing that.”

2015 looks promising

As he looks to the future, VanMeter is cautiously optimistic about what lies ahead for VanMeter Contracting.

“When I started the company more than 20 years ago, I just wanted to work and make a living. I never thought we’d be as big as we are today. And right now, we have more work on the books than we’ve ever had heading into a new year, so 2015 looks very promising. Of course, to continue to grow, we depend on the economy, both private and public. We’re hopeful that Congress approves a long-term highway bill and other economic development measures. If so, I think we can keep growing.

“My goal, everyday, is to find ways to do our work faster, easier, cheaper and safer. Continual improvement is necessary in this business. If you’re standing still, you’re probably being passed by somebody. At VanMeter Contracting, when it comes to bridge building, we don’t want to be passed – we want to do the passing. “