Isabella Corporation Stays Productive By Adding Multiple Divisions
If the "Great Recession" has taught us anything, it is that, in order to keep things going, companies have had to get very creative. For Isabella Corporation, the downturn not only prompted the company to adopt austerity measures, but also ushered in a focus on using technology to its fullest. Today, with the help of Topcon's 3D-MC machine control system, the utility and site work specialist has wrapped up work on a new, state-of-the-art RV park in its hometown of Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. Doing so allowed them to minimize staking at every juncture while also meeting some demanding time and performance-based challenges.
Owned and operated by the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, the Soaring Eagle Casino is a sprawling complex that offers everything from gaming, to a highly rated hotel with an on-site spa, to top-flight entertainment, to an executive golf course, and more. Recognizing the facility for the tourist magnet it is, the tribe recently added a nearby water park and hotel, which prompted the need for RV facilities. According to Fred Zalud, Isabella's Vice President and Project Manager, the tribe is no stranger to growth, or to being a player in the local economy.
"We've been working with the Chippewa Tribe in this area for some time now, having the good fortune to have done several of their larger projects," he says. "They've been a major contributor to local economic growth, not just through the various projects they undertake, but also through the role they play in helping maintain the local infrastructure, as well as from disbursements they make from casino profits. There's no denying how important they've been to this area."
One of those projects to which Zalud refers, was the Soaring Eagle Hideaway RV Park, a 67-spot facility, each one of which offers a concrete parking pad as well as full water, sewer and its own fire pit. When Isabella got onsite, the first plan of attack was to subcontract out the clearing effort to a local firm.
"The location was heavily wooded so we contacted Landmark, a local clearing specialist who got things ready for us to come in," says Zalud. "With that taken care of, we had to strip off roughly 1-foot of topsoil as well as assorted stumps and roots left from the clearing. Then, because of the high water table here, we had to build it all up for slope and drainage, so we brought in more than 70,000 cubic yards of sand from one of the local area pits."
The site design called for creation of a trail or walking path around the perimeter of the park. With that in place, Zalud and his crew set about creating a pair of retention ponds. Unfortunately, the only place available to place all the topsoil that had been stripped was in the newly excavated ponds.
"In the early stages of the project, there was a huge mountain of sand in the center and black dirt piles everywhere," says Zalud. "We spent three weeks just shuffling sand around the site getting it to where it was needed, then attacked the piles of black dirt. Utility leads to each of the 67 spots were completed before winter set. We constructed the mainline road that dissects the site to allow easy access for the concrete trucks to pour the pads, and did all the sewer onsite."
A proponent of GPS since about 2005, Isabella was already familiar with the benefits that technology could bring to the utility installation part of the business. However, they recently worked with GeoShack, their Topcon dealer, to add machine control to both a dozer and motor grader. The move, says Zalud, paid off immediately on the RV park job.
"Because we had such an abundance of topsoil onsite from the clearing portion of the job, once we had our elevations determined, we decided to put down 6-inches of topsoilrather than the usual 3 or 4 inchesto match the 6-inch thick parking slabs," he says. "In the past that would have been a real ordeal with hundreds of stakes everywhere on site. With the 3D-MC system on our John Deere 650J, we just trimmed at half-foot below grade then let the machine control do the rest. It was fast, it was easy and it was always accurate."
He adds that it is tough to quantify how much of a time or dollar advantage machine control offers them, but he knows that it is significant. He says that on any job similar to the Soaring Eagle project, roughly 70 to 80 percent of his time would be spent planning, staking and grading.
"Instead, machine control allows me to sit on that dozer and just go," says Zalud. "Everything I used to do in the cab of my pickupcalculations, rough layouts, and so onis all right there in the file. This job was all sand and topsoil, but when we have a project in which we have to do grade control for building a clay grade, a sand grade, gravel and so on, it's easy to see how much of an advantage machine control offers."
Pulling the Trigger
Zalud will be the first to admit that they have been fortunate to have worked on as many tribal projects as they have, but is equally adamant that there is a certain amount of additional pressure attached to winning that work.
"Part of the challenge of working for the tribe, and one that I think we do well, is the need to respond quickly. When they decide to move forward with a job you have to be ready to respond and make it happen immediately," he says.
By way of an example, he cites a wastewater treatment plant they recently helped build that entailed a good deal of deep excavation to accommodate treatment storage tanks, lagoon work, pipe installation and more.
"They pulled the trigger on that job in Januaryhardly the best time or working conditions in Michigan," he says. "It was up to us to figure out how we were going to make it all happen, but we did. We knew that, with the business climate being the way it is, if we didn't get the job done, one of our competitors would."
Expanding Their Offerings
One of the ways in which they are able to ensure that quick turnaround is by minimizing reliance upon subcontractors. Isabella today runs a dirt division, a full-time pipe installation crew, does directional drilling, runs a sand and gravel operation with three pits and has its own concrete trucks and crews.
"We are all about continually improving and making ourselves more attractive to the customer," says Zalud. "Every time we open up a new division it helps us do that. In the same way, having technology like the Topcon HiPer Lite GPS base and the machine control on our dozer and motor grader makes us that much better as a company. We even bought a second HiPer Lite to allow us to split off into separate crews and run two sites at once. There was a bit of a learning curve, particularly for me as one of the more senior personnel, but GeoShack has been excellent in their support of us. Anytime we have any questions or issues that need addressing they are just a phone call away."
"At many points when the economy went down and there were a dozen area contractors fighting for work, we had to decide: are we going to sell or will we keep on working?" he says. "But we are blessed with good people and knew the answer to that. So we adjusted our prices and, thankfully, stayed busy. In that same time frame, however, half of our competitors went under. Now, with things getting better, we have a nice one-two punch, with great people and outstanding technologyand we saw it all come together in this job."