Persistence Pays Off for Bret Barnhart Excavating
From the time he was 10 years old, it was a foregone conclusion that Bret Barnhart would own a construction business. The only question was when it would happen.
"My family has a rich history in the industry," said Barnhart. "About 80 years ago my great grandfather started an excavating business that used mules and slips to move dirt. My grandfather, uncle and dad all had construction businesses of their own. I grew up working for my dad, beginning with odd jobs around the shop when I was 10 and then running equipment as I got older. I knew before I graduated high school that this is what I wanted to do for my career."
Barnhart noted that his family doesn't believe in passing businesses from one generation to the next, so he either had to continue working for his father and someday buy him out or go his own way. With a little help, in 2002 at the age of 18, he purchased a backhoe, truck and trailer and established Bret Barnhart Excavating, based in Mounds, Oklahoma.
"I started small, digging by the hour for plumbers, electricians or anyone who would hire me," Barnhart recalled. "My first job was as a sub to my dad's business, digging all the utility trenches for a new retirement facility in Tulsa. Within a year, I was basically sustainable and had a good-sized client list. Many of them referred me to other customers. Eventually, I bought a box blade, then a dozer as I steadily built the business. If a job came up where I didn't have all the equipment needed to get it done, I rented. Whatever it took to make it happen, I was willing to do."
Full Site Packages, Break Out Services
Barnhart's persistence and inclination to look at new opportunities proved fruitful. His family specialized in the oil field and residential sectors. Instead, he decided to focus more on commercial and municipal projects, and today those comprise nearly 75 percent of the firm's work load.
"It was challenging because commercial was new to me, so there was a fairly steep learning curve," Barnhart said. "I was comfortable doing basic site work, but I lacked experience in utility installation, and I really wanted to do that. I reached out to some people for advice and invested in software technology to help in bidding. We grew to the point where we can offer full site packages that include everything from clearing to final grading for commercial, residential and municipal customers."
In addition to earthwork and utilities, Bret Barnhart Excavating provides concrete services such as street patches and construction of turning lanes, curbs and gutters, sidewalks, trickle channels and headwalls. The company usually does concrete work in conjunction with other types of projects, but in the future Barnhart expects to handle comprehensive street projects as a general contractor.
"We are certified by the City of Tulsa to do paving and bridges. I think we will be ready to tackle those larger projects in a couple years," explained Barnhart. "But, we do general some smaller municipal jobs. In the past, we did a lot of utility projects for municipalities where we would take out the old street, tie into an existing line and have a subcontractor come in and pour a patch. Now, we patch ourselves, and we're continuing to build the concrete aspect of the business.
"On 80 to 90 percent of our commercial projects we are a sub, and we tend to work with developers and general contractors with whom we have established long-standing relationships," he added. "They usually ask us for a full site package price, as well as for each individual service. It's our preference to do all we can, but we're more than happy to break out items and do just an earthwork, utility or concrete job."
Bret Barnhart Excavating primarily covers central and northeastern Oklahoma. It ventures farther when required to do so under its nine-year federal contract that includes numerous jobs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"We rebuilt parks in Kansas and completed work at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City," noted Barnhart. "The contract calls for us to do all types of assignments. The Corps has had us lay riprap, rehab dams, run utilities and maintain channels and lakes. At one time, the contract made up a fairly significant portion of our business, but it's now down to around 10 percent and will end in a couple of years."
In total, the company handles roughly 150 jobs per year. Barnhart said those in the $300,000 to $500,000 range are the company's "sweet spot." Approximately 20 employees help complete projects on time and budget, including key individuals such as Superintendents Justin Delcoure, Weston McCaskey and Larry Taylor; Foreman Garrett McCaskey; and Estimator/Project Manager Chris Drenner.
"My name is on the door, but we make business decisions together," Barnhart emphasized. "Those guys are part of a core group that's the foundation of the company. They pour their hearts and souls into it, and I have great respect for them and their opinions."
Increased Production with Intelligent Dozers
Throughout the past few years, Bret Barnhart Excavating invested heavily in technology, including GPS systems for its machinery. The company added two Komatsu Intelligent Machine Control D51i Dozers. Barnhart acquired the equipment with the help of Kirby-Smith Machinery and Territory Manager Peyton Chatham.
"We got the first one roughly three years ago and noticed an increase in production and efficiency right away," said Delcoure, who oversees dirt operations. "The accuracy is spot-on, and we aren't wasting materials due to overcutting. The technology is easy to use - download a file to the machine, and you're ready to roll in just a few minutes. The visibility to the blade is exceptional; they are quiet and fuel-efficient."
Barnhart Excavating added the D51i dozers to a fleet that already consisted of a standard D65 dozer as well as PC160, PC200 and PC270 excavators.
"The first new machine I bought was the PC160 in 2008, and other than routine services and maintenance items, we have done nothing to it," Barnhart said. "That's been the case with each Komatsu machine we added. If we're not moving dirt or putting pipe in the ground, we're not making money. Komatsu's reliability gives us peace-of-mind. We know that they will start and perform every day without costing us a lot of downtime."
The company handles routine maintenance internally, calling on Kirby-Smith Machinery for help as needed. "Peyton, Kirby and Komatsu have all been terrific," affirmed Barnhart. "My relationship with Kirby-Smith goes back to the start of my business and beyond even, as my family has relied on Kirby for a very long time. I continue to count on them for sales and rentals, because I know I can trust Peyton and Kirby to deliver."
Credit to Family
Even though he's built the business himself, Barnhart still shares credit with the previous generations of his family for the company's success.
"I thank them for giving me the values and work ethic needed to build a business like this," Barnhart stated. "I would not be where I am today without them - especially my dad - and what they passed down to me, including a strong emphasis on customer satisfaction."
Barnhart intends to ensure that his business continues to provide that.
"If we can keep the same margins and hire the right people, I'm not afraid to grow," Barnhart said. "I could see us doing larger street projects and even bridgework if that were the case, but if getting bigger means sacrificing quality, then I'm not interested. Steady expansion has been key for us, and I want that to continue."