Komatsu excavators allow productivity in tight spaces
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Southern Constructors’ incorporation. A year after it opened, Richard Huskey joined the Knoxville-based company, which was originally founded as Piks Contracting by Marv House.
“While I was in college, I had a part-time job working with Marv before he started Piks. When I graduated, he offered me a position, but I decided not to take it,” said Huskey. “I told him to call me later when he needed more help, and he did after a couple of years. By that time, Marv had established Southern Constructors as one of the area’s top general contractors.”
When Huskey came aboard, the business had approximately 25 employees doing roughly $4 million in work annually. Today, the numbers are almost 85 people and $26 million. Huskey, who began his career as an engineer, became the President of Southern Constructors in 1995 after he and a partner bought the company from House.
The current management team includes Vice Presidents Todd Butler and Clark Cooper as well as Secretary/Treasurer Sue Caldwell, all of whom became part-owners when they and Huskey collectively purchased House and his partner’s interest in 2008. All have worked in the company for 20 years or longer.
“A significant portion of our team has a solid background in construction,” said Caldwell, who has been with the firm for nearly three decades. “The company has grown by leaps and bounds since I started here. Throughout the years, we have added several engineers, and for that reason, we transitioned to more structural types of work, such as bridges. Our experience gives us the ability to self-perform nearly all aspects of both new construction and repairs.”
Examples of this were repairs to a bridge and dam at Standing Stone State Park near Livingston, Tenn. Southern Constructors completed them about three years ago. The project totaled close to $600,000, and Huskey said that jobs of this size are fairly routine for the company. “It was at the smaller end of our scale, but we do many of those types of projects,” he noted.
In addition to specializing in bridges, Southern Constructors performs work for wastewater and water-treatment plants; medical, recreational and educational facilities; commercial buildings; pump stations; and greenways. The firm typically has 12 to 15 projects going at a time and primarily works within an hour’s drive of Knoxville.
“As with bridges, our services on other types of work are comprehensive, allowing us to provide turnkey projects as a prime contractor,” said Butler, who has been with the company for 20 years. “Very little is subbed out, which lets us better manage the schedule.”
That control helps Southern Constructors complete projects, such as the Cumberland Avenue Streetscapes and Utility Relocation in Knoxville, on time and on budget. Under two separate contracts that totaled close to $22 million, the company removed and replaced the existing four-lane roadway with a new two-lane street, as well as a median and a turning lane. Crews started in early 2015 with pavement removal, and through the course of two and a half years, they performed all excavation and concrete work for the street and sidewalks as well as installation of storm sewer.
“Although it was previously four lanes, the old road was fairly narrow,” explained Huskey. “From the start, it was imperative to accommodate businesses to allow them to stay open during construction, so we phased the work to minimize disruptions as much as possible. Additionally, we scheduled around existing signal systems, enabling cars and pedestrians to pass through safely. It had challenges, but those didn’t deter us. In fact, we really like projects that many others are not interested in. We believe we can build things that others won’t or can’t.”
One of Southern Constructors’ largest efforts to date was the $12 million renovation and addition to the steam plant on the University of Tennessee campus, which converted the plant from a coal-fired to natural-gas facility. Completed two years ago, it called for enlarging the existing building and attaching a new fuel facility to it, switching out boilers and associated mechanical components and upgrading the electrical system. The company also demolished the plant’s coal-handling equipment and shed, as well as ash-handling equipment and a 300-foot-tall brick stack.
“We did all the structural work and subbed out the masonry, boilers and pipe installation,” shared Huskey. “Similar to Cumberland Avenue, we staged it to minimize impact. The boilers were replaced one at a time so the university maintained the ability to heat the campus. Other major switches occurred during the summer when heating wasn’t necessary.”
More Komatsu equipment
Approximately five years ago, Southern Constructors’ management made a concerted effort to grow the business. It increased staff and expanded the size of the company’s equipment fleet, which now includes six Komatsu excavators ranging in size from a tight-tail-swing PC50MR to a 50,000-pound-plus PC220LC. Power Equipment Company Sales Rep Aaron Kiser helped the business with these recent purchases.
“Our work varies in size and scope, so we need a variety of machines to match our needs,” said Huskey. “We especially like the tight-tail-swing excavators, in particular the PC228s, which we use for setting barrier rail and other tasks. They are great for bridges because they are not too heavy and can get into tight spaces without hitting obstructions. Without a large counterweight, you can set up in a lane of traffic and work while keeping the other lane open.
“To break up old pavement, we use the PC220 and a PC200 equipped with a hoe ram,” he continued. “Once it’s removed, we put buckets on the machines to dig footings or excavate. Additionally, they set manholes, structures and barrier rails, so we get versatility from the larger Komatsu excavators, too.”
Southern Constructors uses a Komatsu D65 dozer to maintain a dumpsite where it keeps excess dirt and a D39 for finish dozing on projects. “Both are good machines,” shared Huskey. “In particular, the D39 is great. It has a small footprint and a six-way blade, so we can be very productive in tight spaces as well as in open areas.”
Power Equipment covers scheduled services on newer Tier 4 machines through Komatsu CARE. Southern Constructors handles maintenance on its older equipment, calling on Power Equipment as needed.
“We have a longstanding relationship that goes back at least 20 years,” said Huskey. “Power Equipment is a good resource for service, repair and equipment. Aaron drops in consistently to check on us, see where our machines are and if we have any upcoming needs. We appreciate that.”
Gas tax increase will fuel growth
Tennessee recently passed an increase to the state’s gas tax in order to boost infrastructure investment. This means there will be more of the type of projects that Southern Constructors specializes in – road, bridge, water/wastewater and others – put out for bid.
“Nearly everything we do has state funding behind it, so that is beneficial for us,” said Cooper, who has been at the company for 21 years. “We decided a long time ago to put our efforts and resources into governmental projects and commercial work with a governmental component. We have looked at other types, but we like to stick with what we know best.”