Al Harris believes in owning equipment. It's the bedrock of his 20-year-old sealcoating business, enabling his small crew to out-produce contractors with larger crews, and it's the basis of his approach to his entire pavement maintenance operation.
"We invest in equipment totally for efficiency," Harris says. "It's the key to winning many of the jobs we go after, and it's the key to being efficient. If you have the equipment you're not limited as to what you can do, so when I tell a customer we can do something, we can do it."
By owning enough equipment, and the right combination of equipment, North Suburban Asphalt Maintenance, Wheeling, IL, is able to allocate the best mix of equipment to each job, resulting in the most efficient use of equipment and labor - and greater profit. In fact, largely because of the way he uses equipment, a typical day for his small crew will involve routing and cracksealing up to 8,000 linear feet of cracks and cleaning and applying two coats of sealer on up to 250,000 sq. ft. of parking lot.
"That's about the norm," Harris says. "It's definitely more at times, but we can comfortably do 250,000 sq. ft. in a day, no problem."
Commercial work focus
Growth of North Suburban Asphalt Maintenance follows a pattern that likely looks familiar to many pavement maintenance contractors: Out of the trunk of his car Harris sealcoated driveways part time starting in 1988. In 1997 his father, Howard, joined as part of the crew and Harris added small commercial jobs, often subcontracted. Then he bought his first 1,000-gal. spray machine.
"That," he says, "was the real beginning of North Suburban Asphalt Maintenance. Ever since then the business has doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled in sales from one year to the next, and 2008 was our biggest year yet, maintenance-wise."
Harris says North Suburban Asphalt tackled what he termed "probably the biggest parking lot sealcoating job in Illinois in 2008" for Harper College as a subcontractor. In addition to cracksealing more than 15,000 linear feet of cracks over 14 parking lots, his crew sealcoated 2.6 million sq. ft. of pavement in two phases, including all ring and connecting roads throughout the college complex.
"That job had some tough parameters because they wanted two coats but they wanted at least eight hours between the coats," Harris says. "So we worked in parking lots on opposite sides, doing two one day, switching to the other side the next day, and then back to put the second coat on the first lots on day three."
In 1999 Harris hired three workers, and halfway through that season his brother, Lon, joined the crew. North Suburban ran that way until 2003 when Lon left. Rick Kaczmarski soon joined, and he is now the superintendent on the jobsite responsible for running the yard, ordering material, and directing all operations in the field, freeing up Harris to focus on sales and customer service.
Today, more than 20 years after Harris first put squeegee to driveway, North Suburban Asphalt Maintenance rarely does any residential work (with one important exception, see sidebar), devoting all its efforts to sealcoating private commercial, industrial, or multi-family residential properties or public properties such as schools and colleges.
"This area we're in is very good for commercial work. There are a lot of strip centers and shopping centers and all sorts of larger properties around here," Harris says.
Harris says the percentage of public versus private work is usually close to 50-50 but in 2008 about 75% of the work was public work. Harris says 75% of his work involves sealcoating, cracksealing, and small patching; 20% is larger patching; and the remaining 5% is other miscellaneous work including snow removal, which he got into just recently.
Today only 15% of North Suburban's work is as a subcontractor, and most of that from a couple of large-scale paving contractors who don't want to get involved in the pavement maintenance business.