“Komatsu kept performing, the machines were reliable and we have had great success”
Chuck Schmillen is the type of person who likes to make things happen. When he and his wife had their first son in 1977, Chuck decided it was time to stop “just getting by” financially. So, he moved to Marcus, Iowa, and started an underground utility installation company. True to form, he immediately started contacting potential customers, instead of waiting for them to come to him.
“Rural water was just getting started in northwest Iowa, so I figured I could install rural water lines,” recalled Chuck, who is CEO of Schmillen Construction, Inc. “I got an SBA loan, bought a trencher and a backhoe and pulled them with my 1962 Ford. I drove around the countryside and when I got to a driveway, I pulled in and asked if they wanted me to install their water line.
“I got paid by the foot, so I only pulled into the longer lanes and skipped the short ones,” he joked. “That’s how we got on our feet. We eventually started to make money and grow.”
Underground installation remained Schmillen Construction’s focus until the early 90s. The company’s first major expansion came in 1993 when it added concrete crushing and recycling to its list of services.
“At that time, there was a lot of competition for underground jobs, so we knew we needed to offer something different,” recalled Chuck. “Then Jim Robinson, who worked here for 33 years, said we should buy a cement crusher. He noticed there wasn’t a lot of competition in that area, and it would give us something to do in the winter.”
Just like before, Chuck didn’t wait around until customers called him. He knew that several towns had been building piles of concrete from small projects, but had no easy way of getting rid of them.
“I wrote down every city within an hour from here and started going to their city council meetings,” shared Chuck. “I offered to crush their piles and turn the concrete into a product that could be reused. They were happy to have us do that, and we continue to crush for a lot of those towns today.
“Whenever an opportunity comes up for us to grow or do something new, we jump in full force,” said Chuck. “It’s made us pretty diversified, and it keeps us fresh. A majority of our work comes from crushing, but we still rely on underground and field tiling as well.”
No messing around
Chuck’s unrelenting pursuit of success is a trait that’s become synonymous with Schmillen Construction throughout the last 40 years. It’s a virtue all of his employees share – including his sons, President Matt and Vice President Steve. “When we show up to a site, we come in fully equipped to get it done as quickly and efficiently as possible,” explained Matt. “We take pride in planning and executing.”
“Everyone here is dedicated to doing a job in the best way possible,” noted Steve. “I always think about how I could be more efficient. That’s all because of Dad. He’s really ingrained that in everyone.”
This mindset allows the company to thrive on projects of all sizes. On the recent Interstate 29 renovation, Schmillen Construction removed and crushed nearly 50,000 tons of concrete on a nine-mile section in 10 days.
“We put a lot of thought into how to do a project and how we will set up the jobsite,” said Matt. “With the I-29 work, I’d get into the excavator at 6:00 a.m., and I wouldn’t get out until 7:00 p.m. I tore it out, we hauled it to the crusher and loaded it in. We may have brought a lot more machines than another company would have, but every machine was working all day long. There was no wasted time or movement. We don’t mess around; that’s what people like about us.”
The same attention to detail is also applied to smaller jobs, like tiling fields. The company typically shows up with enough equipment and material to complete several assignments for different customers all in one day.
“Sometimes the farmers look at us like we’re crazy when we roll up with a huge fleet,” said Steve. “All that equipment isn’t just for one job. When we leave the shop, our schedule is full. So, we put everything we have into getting those jobs done. The first may just be 85 feet, but when we’re done, we may go to one that’s 8,000 feet. The faster we are, the more profitable we are.”
Having machines that can keep up with Schmillen Construction’s brisk pace is crucial to its success. That’s why it turns to Road Machinery Supplies Co., and Sales Rep Bill Frueh.
“I decided to go with a Komatsu piece of equipment pretty early on and had good results,” remembered Chuck. “Throughout the years, Komatsu kept performing, the machines were reliable and we have had great success. If I need a machine, parts or service, I just make one call to Bill. He knows how to take care of us, and it is nice to know I can rely on him. It’s a great relationship – so much so that we put their logo on our billboard.”
Today, the company’s fleet includes 12 Komatsu excavators, four wheel loaders, four dozers and two articulated haul trucks. Whatever the machine, Schmillen trusts the Komatsu name.
“The Komatsus start every morning, work all day and we don’t worry about breakdowns,” declared Matt. “My favorite is the PC350LC-8 excavator. We have 6,500 hours on it, and it’s still going strong.”
“The results we get with the intelligent Machine Control excavators are outstanding,” said Matt. “I straightened a creek channel within a tenth of an inch almost 60-feet per hour faster than I could with a standard excavator. It saved me two days.”
“I did a residential basement this summer with the PC360LCi and the builder handed me the plans when I got there,” recalled Steve. “He had the ‘zero’ point labeled, so I got my reading from it, set the depth on the monitor in the cab and went to work. It was great.
“We’ve also uploaded plans for waterway cleanup projects,” he continued. “I just went to the site and started working. Everything was in the machine, and it wouldn’t let me get off script. This technology is still new to us, but we can already see the benefits.”
RMS also adds value to the Schmillen’s Komatsu equipment.
“Downtime is a killer for us,” said Matt. “We need equipment that we can rely on. Bill and everyone at RMS understand that. We buy new machines, but if anything does happen, they are on top of it and get us back on track.”
The company also turns to RMS for its crushing equipment, which includes KPI-JCI GT205S and JCI 6203 screen plants.
Great people, bright future
The future is bright for Schmillen Construction, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this summer. Chuck works a couple of days a week, while Matt and Steve have taken over the day-to-day operations. It’s a transition that Chuck is comfortable making.
“It seems like my office is moving closer to the door, and the fishing trips keep taking longer,” he laughed. “Matt and Steve do a great job, and I think this is the best group of employees we’ve ever had. It’s a good mix of young kids and experienced people who really take pride in this place and mentoring the next generation.”
The third generation is already being cultivated.
“I have four boys who are always on the machines, and Steve has a pair of daughters who love equipment just as much as they do,” said Matt. “It’s neat to see the transition and be in the position that Dad was in. Hopefully, we have as much success as he did and can continue the tradition.”