Until about four or five years ago, R.J. Smith Construction, Inc. of Richmond was known pretty much exclusively for excavating individual residential home sites if it was known at all. Owner Richard Smith, who was in his mid 20s at the time, had big dreams, but not much more than that.
"I sort of inherited the residential work," he recalled. "My mom and dad had a small chipping and landscaping company. When I started my business, they closed theirs and my dad came to work for my company. We were doing pretty much the same thing."
But Smith knew he wanted to do bigger work and set out on a course to make that happen. In 1997 he landed his first big commercial job doing the excavation and grading for a senior citizens apartment complex for just under a million dollars. Then he didn't do any other major work for two more years.
Slow, "smart" growth
"I've always believed in slow growth and smart growth," he said. "I really wasn't ready to take on a lot of large scale projects at that time. I spent that period learning more about the business and building relationships. We still had the residential work, which we continue to do to this day, but I never wanted to be the guy who got work because he was the cheapest. Since that didn't appeal to me, I knew it was going to take a little longer."
His patience paid off in 1999 when, through one of the relationships he had built, he was offered the chance to do a set of streets in a major subdivision. "After we finished that job, we had a body of work to show to prospective clients," said Smith. "We had the apartment, the streets and we'd been able to expand the residential work, so now people knew we were serious and capable."
Since 1999, R. J. Smith Construction has taken off. Each year the company has managed to double its work load and dollar volume from the previous year. The company now employs about 70 people and Smith expects to do about $15 million in business this year.
Diversification has been one of the keys for R. J. Smith Construction. From its small residential start, the company now also does commercial work and recently started a construction utility division to lay sewer and water pipe. A container division that hauls construction debris has also been added.
"When somebody asks me if we can do something, I don't say 'no' or 'maybe' or 'let me think about it,"' said Smith. "I say 'yes' and ask him when he wants it completed. If I don't know what I'm doing, I'll find people who do. If I have to sub it out to somebody else, I'll do that. But I'll also start recruiting my own people so I can do the work in house the next time. I try to never let an opportunity pass me by."
Because of that attitude, Smith landed a job doing dirt work on a section of Route 288, the bypass going around Richmond. "That was huge for us because it put us in a league with many of the state's well established contracting firms," he said. "We were there for a year and it opened a lot of eyes to what we can do."
The company also secured a large and ongoing earthmoving job for a titanium mine about 45 miles south of Richmond in Stoney Creek, Virginia. “We run there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, removing overburden, building tailing ponds and doing general earthwork," said Smith. “We've moved as much as a million yards for them in three months."
Only as good as your people
Smith relies on a talented and dedicated work force to help him get jobs both big and small done quickly, efficiently and profitably.
"Back in the early days, my wife, Monique, was instrumental in helping us get off the ground," he recalled. "Up until two years ago, she did all the office work and there were more than a few nights that we were up until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning trying to get everything done."
Today, Janet King, who serves as vice president of R.J. Smith Construction, handles office, accounting and personnel issues and oversees the container division. Stacy Hankins does the books. Tom Solomon is chief estimator. "Tom has about 30 years of experience with some of the major construction firms around," said Smith. "He does an outstanding job, as do Janet and Stacy."
Smith also counts on key field personnel like Mark Eanes, Troy Samuel, Mike O'Neal, Dwayne Parkes and Nick Fornarotto to ensure that every job runs smoothly. I also spend the vast majority of my time out in the field," said Smith. I make it a point to visit every jobsite virtually every day. Our goal is not to meet deadlines, but to beat them and to make sure we're always giving our customer what he wants and what he needs."
Growing with Hitachi
Whether it's for the residential work or the large earthmoving jobs, excavators are crucial pieces of equipment for R. J. Smith Construction. Smith started turning to J. W. Burress in Ashland for Hitachi excavators at about the same time his business started to grow.
"I bought a used Hitachi EX150 in 1997 and it worked well for us, so when we needed additional units in 1999, we got two Hitachi EX160s," Smith recalled. "We've basically bought nothing but Hitachis ever since."
Today, R. J. Smith Construction owns eight Hitachi excavators ranging in size from the EX160 up to the new Zaxis 450. 'We've had nothing but great experience with all of our Hitachis," noted Smith. "We like the power. We like the fuel economy. We like the fact that they're extremely reliable. They're great excavators."
Nick Fornarotto has overseen the beginning of a Longwood College student housing project in Farmville The job entailed moving 300,000 yards of dirt and laying 10,000 feet of pipe. "I like this EX330 and all our Hitachi excavators," said Fornarotto. "It's responsive, comfortable and reliable. And Burress really responds well if we do have a problem."
Equally important to Smith is the relationship he has with J. W. Burress in Ashland. "Our salesman, Scott McDougle, is a straight shooter, just like I am," he said. 'There's not any messing around. He gets me what I need at a fair price, and if I have a problem, he's there to help. And when it comes to service, Burress is on top of it."
An example of that service occurred at a huge earthmoving job the company did last year. "An operator on the job called me at 7:30 at night and said one of the excavators was losing power," Smith recalled. 'This was a new customer, and since you never get a second chance to make a good first impression, we definitely wanted to get off on the right foot. I called Scott and he understood the urgency immediately. A Burress technician was on our jobsite that night and had the problem fixed by 2:00 in the morning.
'What I really appreciated was that he called me to update me on the situation at 2:00 and then he called me again the next morning," Smith added. 'That tells me that Burress has people throughout the organization who really care about my business. In our scorebook, Burress beats everybody hands down."
Systems in place
A crucial aspect of the success R. J. Smith has experienced comes from Smith's belief in and ability to create systems. "I have a system in place for every job, and for every day of every job," he said, "I know what my costs are. I know what my people and equipment can do. And I know what they have to do each day for us to stay on or ahead of schedule, and for us to make money."
Smith says while he's pleased with the growth his company has experienced in recent years, he's far from finished. "Not by a long shot are we through expanding," he said. "We're becoming a regional contractor. I hope that we'll be working the entire Mid-Atlantic area within a year or two. And, long term, I see us being nationwide and maybe worldwide.
"My goal is to be a true full service general contractor," he added. "Not only doing the dirt and pipe, but also doing the asphalt paving and concrete work maybe even building the structures ourselves. I want to do schools, hospitals and power plants. I see us getting into design build. I know it sounds presumptuous, but someday I hope to be one of the largest contractors, not just in Richmond or in Virginia, but in the whole country."
Asked why that's important to him, Smith said, "The bigger you are, the more you can do for your employees and for your community. Also, it's just kind of what being an American means to me. It's about being the biggest, baddest, widest, tallest. It's really not about money, because that's just a way to keep score. It's about accomplishment and wanting to be the best."