Randolph's Asphalt Maintenance is probably the only contractor in the country that went from a 1-year-old business to a 14-year-old business in one year. Talk about growing pains!
The Pittsburgh-based contractor, co-owned by Renee Randolph and Michele Phillips, provides sealcoating and general pavement maintenance services to customers throughout the Pittsburgh metropolitan area.
"Basically we'll do anything that's too small for a paver," Phillips says.
She says business is split evenly between patching and repair (including cracksealing) and striping and sealcoating, with 75% of sales generated from commercial work, a huge shift from their start when 85% of sales were generated from residential driveways.
"We do very little driveway work now," Phillips says. "We've gotten picky, and we're even pickier with fuel costs and other costs increasing."
She says the company has enough commercial work and housing developments now, and they use driveways to fill in between commercial jobs.
But that's not how they started.
Initially the two women, who knew each other from years prior, bumped into each other at a softball game. While catching up on old times the two shared what they each did for a living. Renee, with a CDL license under her belt, drove a truck for a dry cement plant, and Phillips worked at a disposable diaper manufacturer.
Randolph mentioned she wanted to start a sealcoating company, and she soon approached Phillips with the offer of being part of her start-up. Knowing Randolph had been a foreman at a local paving company, Phillips found the offer appealing and accepted. Together they took a look at the Pittsburgh market, decided that because of high demand and low start-up costs sealcoating was the work they wanted, and they went to market as Randolph's Asphalt Sealcoating. They exhausted every means they had, including cashing in Phillips' 401(k), maxing out credit cards, even selling Randolph's 1986 Monte Carlo SS and her 1996 Honda Shadow to get up and running.
Equipment was the first order of business. They learned of sealcoating units made by Taylor Manufacturing, Green, NY, and headed north to visit with owner Matt Taylor, who offered his time, knowledge, "and belief in us that he gave before we ever poured one gallon. He is our mentor," Randolph says.
They outfitted an old flatbed truck with a Taylor 55-gal. skid-mounted non-agitated sprayer, bought 5-gal. buckets of sealer from a local hardware store, dumped them into the 55-gal. spray unit, and sprayed it on. Phillips kept her job at the factory, working four days on and four days off, and Randolph and Phillips struggled through the first year sealcoating driveways.
"Our first year we were a part-time company, and we felt there was a lack of response from the market at least partly because of that," Phillips says. "So we decided we had to get bigger and we went to SealMaster looking to buy some used equipment."
Getting bigger, fast
They learned from SealMaster that the 13-year-old Mitchell Asphalt Maintenance was going out of business so they contacted owner Loretta Mitchell about the business and the equipment. Understandably Mitchell wanted to sell her entire company - equipment, tools, and customer list - but initially Randolph's agreed to buy only some tools and equipment.
"It's hard to place a value on a list of names and phone numbers," Phillips says.
But with the help of Mitchell they figured out a way to determine its value. Mitchell hadn't been out of business very long so she still had strong ties to her clients. Missing the sales and marketing, Mitchell approached Randolph's a year later, and Randolph's Asphalt Sealcoating hired Mitchell to do estimating in addition to sales and marketing for the new company. They agreed that for any Mitchell customer that agreed to have Randolph's service their driveway, Mitchell would receive a percentage.
"We asked her why she wanted to work with us and she said 'Because of the way you care about your customers.' She was impressed by the way we actually got down on our hands and knees and trim with that fat paint brush - now we use a kitchen broom - but the thought is the same."
From then on, after broadening the name to Randolph's Asphalt Maintenance, the business took off.
"We went from a one-year-old business to a 14-year-old business just by hiring Loretta," Randolph says. "Once we did that we basically had two people pulling the load of a 14-year-old company. We went from $5,700 gross to $168,000 our second season and from a customer base of 30 to 700, of which we did work for 350. It was a very tough but exciting year."
Last year the company tripled its customer base and more than doubled its sales - with only eight people on the job - and as of January 2007 they had enough work on the books to carry them through June.
Not surprisingly, Mitchell has turned out to be a great asset and valued employee. Phillips and Randolph credit her with keeping the pipeline filled with jobs to do. "Loretta has got it down," Phillips says. "Sales is rough, and Loretta has a way of building confidence and a way of getting them to have faith in us."
Phillips and Randolph are known in the market as "the girls," and they say they complement each other as business partners. Randolph, who worked as a flagger on a union paving crew and eventually rose to paving foreman, brought that field and technical experience to the company. Phillips, who worked in a plant on an assembly line, brought manufacturing assembly line processes and organization to the company.
"On an assembly line there's a beginning part of the job and end part of the job," Phillips says. "It's the same in construction. It's a process and you need some organization to get from the beginning to the end as smoothly and efficiently and as profitably as possible."
The two like to work on the same job together, like they did when the company started, but they can't do that very often.
"There's too much experience between the two of us to have us both on the same job," Randolph says.
So they have devised a division of labor that makes best use of each person's skills. Phillips schedules the work and crews, maps job layouts, and handles invoicing, more often before she sets out to labor with her crew. Randolph, who admits she's "not as easy going" as Phillips, handles hiring, employee management, laboring and operating her own crew as well.
"Most of the finished product is on my shoulders," Randolph says.
And it's that finished product that has helped make a name for "the girls."
"Word just got around"
Phillips and Randolph say the company does market itself, relying on a one-line ad in the Yellow Pages, a "digital brochure" on a CD, and A-frame signs placed on every job they do. Being known in the market as "the girls" doesn't hurt either. But Phillips adds that being women by itself is not an advantage or a disadvantage in the business.
"If you're aggressive and sure about yourself, and you know what you're talking about, they forget about it in five minutes of conversation," Phillips says. "When someone sees our sign he or she doesn't know we're a women-owned business. At that point they just see the finished job."
She and Randolph say the key elements of their marketing efforts are job quality and presenting a professional image to the market.
"Just because it's a dirty business doesn't mean you have to look dirty," Randolph says.
So the contractor's trucks are all painted the same color - royal blue and white - and the crew wears royal blue shirts with a matching hat or sun visor.
"A lot of people think it's pointless to try to keep the trucks clean, but it's not pointless," Randolph says. "Because if you care about your trucks and your appearance you're bound to care about your work. It gives the customers a sense of confidence, and it shows our professionalism. But there's no better advertising than your work."
And Randolph's Asphalt Maintenance takes great pains to make sure that finished job represents the company well. Phillips says it's the "extra little things" they do that has helped them maintain a firm grip on their customers. Randolph says they don't push the mix design, they don't push the weather, and they pay close attention to details on every job. Most patches are saw cut, and seaming them with hot crackfiller is included in every bid.
"We'll do the job without sealing the cracks if they insist, but we don't recommend it, and we try to make that clear to them, that they will benefit if we seal the cracks," Randolph says.
And when they say "seal the cracks" that's what they mean.
"We take the time to do each and every single crack that needs attention," Phillips says. "Our guys don't like it. In fact, we have been known to pick out cracks that they miss and make them fix them. But we always tell the guys that if we don't do the little things well we're not going to have the big things to do.
"We're one of the few sealcoaters left in the area that applies the first coat of sealer by hand, either with a broom or a squeegee," Phillips says. "It does slow us down, but we feel it results in a better job. Applying the base coat of sealer by hand, pushing it by hand, enables us to better fill in the stress cracks and the pores in the asphalt. It provides a good base for the wear coat on top. We can't get in and out as fast, but it results in a better job."
And that has generated strong word-of-mouth advertising for the contractor.
"People really do our marketing for us; word gets around," Randolph says. "Pittsburgh is not a very big city, and people were amazed that we could do what we said we could, and word just got around."
"Much of our success is in the details of the work we do, and that's something we could not do by ourselves," Phillips says. "Our employees give 100%, and they believe in themselves and in the company, and that's essential to our success.
"Because we're not out there on the job on every job we've got to rely on our employees carrying our message through, and they do. We've gotten calls from customers stating how impressed they are about our employees and their work ethic and their quality."
"Each crew runs like a well-oiled machine," Randolph says.
Like most contractors, Randolph's Asphalt Maintenance struggles each year to find quality employees.
"It's hard to find employees because no one wants to be physical anymore," Randolph says.
"But once we find someone who's good at her job we try to keep her (or him). We don't yell at them, we don't swear at them, and when we need to correct something we'll just pull them aside and say 'I know you didn't mean to do it that way or you didn't realize what you were doing, but we need to have it done this way' and that's usually pretty effective. We tell employees they can have their own techniques and we don't care as long as the finished job is right."
Phillips says that about half their employees return every year, and new hires are trained on the job.
"We train every minute of the day," Phillips says. "We do have to be micro-managers with them to some degree at first, but I'd say that 99% of our employees are diamonds in the rough."
Randolph and Phillips say they try to tune in to the characteristics and personality of each employee, then work off that to teach them about the job.
"We find out what works for each person and try to focus on that and work with that," Randolph says. "We try to give them opportunities because everybody wants to shine, everybody wants to do well. So we try to find out what motivates them so they can have the opportunity to do well. Then we make sure to let them know when they've done a good job. We all need to hear that."
She says that regularly they end the day with an informal dinner or opportunity to unwind after work.
"We try to create a relaxing situation at the end of the day, and it helps during the day on the job," Phillips says.
The women agree that finding quality people to work the jobs is the only thing holding Randolph's Asphalt Maintenance from growing even more.
"If we could find people to take over and still maintain the quality, we would grow and add paving," Randolph says. "But we don't want to take anything away from our bread and butter, our sealcoating.
"We could be three or four times the size we are now, but we want to make sure to maintain the popularity and reputation we have," Phillips says. "We could be bigger, but it's more important to maintain our reputation, which we've worked hard to develop."