“We want the top-of-the-line brand, and in our estimation, that’s Komatsu”
Two years ago, Austin, Texas, was named the fastest growing big city in the nation. At the time, its population was a little more than 900,000. Today, it is rapidly approaching 1 million, creating a massive need for additional housing and new infrastructure.
“The boom has been great for us,” said Liberty Civil Construction, LLC President Mike Ehrhardt. “We are primarily a single-family, residential-subdivision civil contractor, and the majority of our jobs are for major homebuilders who are constructing new housing developments. We also work with smaller independent builders and developers and are involved with some small commercial projects.”
Liberty Civil Construction offers site packages that include mass excavation, utility installation and street construction. The company’s specialty is installing water, sewer and storm pipe and associated structures. It often acts as a general contractor on residential subdivision work.
“Ninety-nine percent of what we do is from grade down,” explained Vice President Heath Haney. “In addition to utilities, we also build subgrade for streets. When we are the general contractor, we sub mass earthwork and paving to preferred contractors who we have developed good relationships with and know that we can trust to meet our schedule.”
‘Fast and furious’
Ehrhardt and Haney began scheduling customers about a year ago when they teamed up to form Liberty Civil Construction. Together, they own 50 percent of the company and manage day-to-day operations. Financial partners, Jerry and Jason Merck, own the other half and are also Vice Presidents. Based in Cedar Park, it covers a territory that ranges north to south from Temple to New Braunfels and east to west from Manor to Marble Falls.
“We focus primary on utility infrastructure because we both have a solid background in that area,” Haney explained. “We each have more than 20 years of experience. Mike and I met at our last employer and hit it off. We were looking for something different and wanted to go out on our own.”
Ehrhardt described Liberty Civil Construction’s first few months as “fast and furious.” The company began bidding projects at his kitchen table and landed a couple right away.
“We moved into an office in August 2016 and actually turned our first bit of dirt in October, so there was some time spent putting things in place before we could even begin,” recalled Ehrhardt. “We literally had contracts and staff before we had equipment to run.”
Once it got started, Liberty Civil Construction took off quickly. By the first of February it had completed three projects, another eight were underway and the firm was up to almost 100 employees. The company currently runs seven utility crews.
“Mike and I had contacts at companies we knew from our previous employment,” shared Haney. “They were willing to give us a chance. That helped us get a good start, but we also made a lot of phone calls to other developers and potential customers to let them know we were viable and available.”
And, ready to meet any challenge. Liberty Civil Construction’s first project involved putting in nearly 2,000 feet of utility lines for a five-acre, 17-lot development, known as Cypress Mill, in Cedar Park.
“Some of the hardest rock in central Texas is right there, so we spent a good deal of time hammering, ripping, milling and trenching to get pipe in the ground,” noted Ehrhardt. “It was also unique in that the utilities were extremely shallow, and because of that it called for using ductile iron for the wastewater instead of PVC. Some of the storm piping was Class 4 RCP instead of Class 3. Very unique.”
Not long after completing Cypress Mill, Liberty Civil Construction started a $4 million contract in Round Rock known as Glen Ellyn. The 55-acre, 200-lot development saw crews install more than 20,000 feet of water, sewer and storm piping as well as build the road subgrade. It hired out the mass excavation and paving.
“We would like to have eight to 10 active projects going at any time, with ones that involve 10,000 to 15,000 feet of pipe being the ideal size,” said Haney. “We believe we can handle that and continue to provide exceptional service, which is foremost in our minds.”
Komatsu equipment and WPI the right combination
With work lined up and staff coming on board, Ehrhardt and Haney turned their attention to acquiring equipment. They contacted WPI’s Austin branch about Komatsu machinery and with the help of Territory Manager Sean Casey built a fleet of Dash-11 PC170, PC210, PC360 and PC490 excavators, as well as WA320-8 wheel loaders.
“I ran Komatsu equipment extensively with other companies, so I knew it offered the combination of quality, reliability and low-ownership costs that we were looking for,” explained Haney. “We work with a variety of pipe sizes and trench depths, so a range of machines is essential. We consider the PC360s as our main digging machines, and the next sizes down are used for backfill and other smaller tasks. The PC490 handles deeper digs and the larger, heavier pipe we occasionally use. Excavators are our bread-and-butter machines because we use them for trenching, lifting and lowering pipe, backfilling and more; so we want the top-of-the-line brand, and in our estimation, that’s Komatsu.”
Liberty Civil Construction backfills, moves pipe and loads materials with the 34,000-pound-plus loaders equipped with buckets and forks. “They are the second-most essential machines on a job,” reported Ehrhardt. “The WA320s are the perfect size for our operations. They carry the right amount of gravel we need for backfill and, in most places with limited space, they are maneuverable enough to still get perpendicular to a ditch.”
The Liberty Civil Construction owners say their buying decision came down to more than just the brand name on the machines. They also sought outstanding dealer support.
“Being relatively new and the size we are, having a shop with mechanics is not an option. If there is an issue, we want someone who will respond quickly and take care of it,” shared Haney. “We conveyed our needs to Sean and WPI. They assured us of prompt response times, and they have been true to their word. All the machines are Tier 4, so WPI takes care of the routine services through Komatsu CARE for the first 2,000 hours or three years. That’s a fantastic program that saves us time and money and gives us peace-of-mind that the machines are maintained properly and on-time. WPI tracks our machines’ hours through KOMTRAX, which we also use to look at idle time, production and other critical information.”
Right at their targets
When Ehrhardt and Haney decided to go into business for themselves, they talked about how big Liberty Civil Construction should be. Ideally, they wanted to have 100 to 125 employees and be large enough for multiple, comprehensive projects while maintaining quality customer service. In the year since the firm opened, they have almost reached the staff number and already achieved the other targets.
“Our goal is not to be the biggest, but the best at what we do,” said Ehrhardt. “We can be selective about what we bid and who we work with. With the housing market as hot as it is, we could expand four or five times over right now, but we would rather take a measured, controlled-growth approach going forward.”
They are open to expanding Liberty Civil Construction’s commercial project list. “We see the housing market continuing to blossom for at least a couple more years. However, even if it slows down, commercial will continue to be hot for quite a while to catch up to the need that housing creates,” said Haney. “Residential will likely always be our majority category, but we are certainly open to bumping up commercial and multi-family to roughly 25 percent. Whatever the percentages are, we have the capabilities to handle what we choose to do.”