PC360s are the stars of the fleet
When Gene Lowder started at his father’s construction company in 1977, dirty hands and a sweaty shirt constituted a hard day’s work. Today, as the President of Charles D. Lowder, Inc., he analyzes spreadsheets of idling statistics and talks about drones and unmanned dozers on jobsites. While many things have changed at the company in nearly 40 years, the value of a hard day’s work has not.
“My dad thought that I didn’t work,” recalled Lowder. “I was always interested in thinking about and contemplating strategy. I was working with my mind. If you need me to jump in a dozer and move dirt, I’m not your guy; but I can go to a jobsite and identify how it can run more efficiently. Eventually, my dad saw the value in what I was doing.”
Lowder’s ability to evaluate the market helped his company through some hard times and prepared it for future success. He began running the day-to-day operations in 1995 and completed the buyout of the other shareholders on September 10, 2001. The following day, the twin towers collapsed, bringing the U.S. economy to a halt. Lowder had to examine the business. “We had a lot of debt, and the economy after 9/11 really hurt us,” recalled Lowder. “We struggled for a few years. If I had an extra $500, I applied it to what we owed. Finally, by 2007 we were debt-free.”
This approach paid off when the economy crashed again in 2008. With cash on hand and no debt, Lowder, Inc. was well-positioned to weather the downturn. A decision to pursue projects for institutions, such as healthcare facilities, was also fruitful.
“Right as the economy was crashing in 2008, we got a job building the Novant Health Kernersville Medical Center,” noted Lowder. “It was a sizable project that kept us busy through the recession, and allowed us to keep our bonding capacity.”
Between the hospital project and other smaller jobs, Lowder made it through the downturn without laying off any employees or incurring additional debt. In addition, the economic times allowed him to hire key individuals who are still with him today. So, when the economy began growing in 2012, Lowder, Inc. was poised to take advantage of it.
“We came out of the gate hard and landed some big work,” said Lowder. “When the phone started ringing again in 2012 and 2013, we were in the catbird’s seat. Today, we’re doing very well because of the company’s financial position before the recession.”
Lowder, Inc. has continued to earn large projects like Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro and Davie County Hospital in Advance. It is currently converting an old railroad easement into a walkway/greenway area on the Rails-to-Trails project for the City of Winston-Salem; performing a complete site package for a Wal-Mart Supercenter in King; and developing a site for the new Oak Grove High School in Davidson County.
Commitment to technology
Lowder turned teeth on excavator buckets to save money when he started working at the company. He puts in a full day’s work, and appreciates the same honest work ethic from his employees. While the 58-year-old construction veteran is inherently old-school, he also has an affinity for the latest advances in the industry. Lowder, Inc. was one of the first in the region to use GPS technology, and the company remains an industry leader in its use today.
“In 2006, we looked to become more efficient,” Lowder recalled. “Instead of buying new equipment, we invested in GPS technology. It was the best decision we’ve made.”
The additional technology paid immediate dividends, and Lowder has applied advances in other areas to make his company more efficient. Lowder, Inc. recently installed new accounting software to help identify how and where money is spent.
“There was immediate value added when we implemented the system,” explained Controller Roger Mayhew. “Our previous accounting system was pretty much a bucket of dollars, now we have a detailed account of what the machines actually cost us. It’s been great for our head mechanic to have this information so he can see if there is repetition of maintenance and frequency of activity.”
Komatsu’s remote machine-monitoring system, KOMTRAX, has also been very useful.
“KOMTRAX gives us a monthly report on fuel consumption and idle time,” said Field Operations Manager Jason Carter. “We have made a big push to reduce idle time with specific goals for machines based on their applications. The data has helped our operators buy into the effort.”
The goal of the technology has been to increase efficiency; something Lowder believes has helped the company to flourish.
“Our plan is to stay ahead of the curve with technology,” shared Lowder. “It’s certainly not going away; it will become more important. Companies that don’t invest in technology will be left behind.”
Komatsu equipment from Linder
Lowder, Inc. has a fleet that includes 10 Komatsu excavators (two PC210s, a PC270, two PC290s, a PC300 and four PC360s), a WA200 wheel loader and two HM300-5 articulated trucks. Like so many other decisions that helped the company thrive, choosing to purchase Komatsu equipment from Linder Industrial Machinery Company and Sales Rep Conrad Graham also stemmed from the recession.
“Conrad always checked in on us, even when we didn’t have any Komatsu equipment; he put in the time to build a relationship,” revealed Lowder. “It was March 2008, and he asked what I needed. I said I was thinking about getting a PC270 and a PC300. The next morning, they were in our yard. I’m glad I didn’t ask for a giraffe! So, in the middle of a recession, when the world stopped turning, I bought excavators. It was a great deal and the beginning of a solid partnership.”
Lowder, Inc. uses Komatsu excavators primarily for grading and trench work. It also had them equipped with aftermarket GPS systems. The PC360s are the stars of the fleet.
“Each crew has a PC360 assigned to it because the machine can perform the smaller jobs that a PC210 can do, as well as handle our deeper pipe work, and it has the power to move double trench boxes,” said Lowder. “On a typical site we have many machines, so we try to match them to the best application, but a PC360 is a very versatile machine.”
Lowder’s Tier 4 equipment also came with Komatsu CARE, with Linder providing complimentary service for the first three years or 2,000 hours.
“We have four full-time people in our garage, so having Linder handle the maintenance on the Komatsu machines allows these employees to focus on the rest of the fleet,” explained Lowder. “Linder does a terrific job scheduling and performing the maintenance.”
The Komatsu equipment has been a sound investment for Lowder, Inc.
“Komatsu makes great equipment,” Lowder shared. “The excavators are strong, fuel-efficient, and we’ve had zero downtime with them.”
Preparing for the future
Applying knowledge from lessons learned has helped Lowder get his company to its current place in the industry. He is confident that his business will continue to thrive, but knows that it will inevitably face new obstacles.
“I think we are positioned to remain successful in the future,” observed Lowder. “Right now we have 90 employees, and this seems to be a number that works well for us. I think we can continue to get better at what we do, and that will allow us to gain more work.”
Lowder says the company could easily grow, but for that to happen he needs to find qualified workers, an issue facing the industry as a whole. To address the labor shortage, Lowder is taking matters into his own hands.
“We have some of the best people in the industry working here, but it’s becoming more difficult to find qualified help,” Lowder noted. “One of the things we plan to do is expand our current office. We will have training videos and simulators for our employees. We have also discussed building a demo area behind the shop where employees can operate machinery. We know that in order to have the workforce we need, we must educate incoming and current employees and improve their skill sets.”
Whatever the future holds, Lowder expects to be a part of it.
“I plan on taking a back seat at some point, but I don’t think I can handle retirement, psychologically,” said Lowder. “I really like this work, and I am committed to my employees. I have 90 families who depend on this company. I’m working for them as much as they are working for me.”