Even in markets dominated by low-bid work, it's not always the low-bid contract that gets the job. That's one of the most important things Williams & Willman learned as they have grown their on-road pavement marking business from a fledgling barely-able-to-make-it start-up in 1995 to a leading pavement marking contractor in the western and central Pennsylvania market.
"The only year we had a loss was a year weather was bad and we ended up fighting our competition for jobs and we lowered our price, figuring that we'd make up for it with our volume," says Cliff Williams, vice president/treasurer. "But it didn't work that way. We ran our butts off and our profit was zero. We decided not to work that way again."
Instead, Williams & Willman, Kittanning, PA, decided to take a different approach.
"We decided to do a great job, be reliable, and charge a little more for that," Williams says. "We figured the prime contractors would eventually come to us after they experienced poor reliability and poor quality of low-bid striping and that's what happened."
And in 2005 Williams & Willman experienced their best year, striping 13.2 million lineal feet of Pennsylvania roads. Williams attributes their success to several factors, including employees and a recognition within the market itself.
"Our employees are quality people and we think they have been doing a better job in the field in terms of production," he says. "We have more experienced guys because our retention is better, and we're starting to see the benefits of that."
Mark Willman, president, says that after 10 years the market itself is realizing that the lowest price is not always the best way to make a decision to hire someone for a job. "Reliability and quality workmanship are also important and those things cost money," he says. "The business today exceeds what I thought we'd be 10 years ago."
Focusing on road striping
Mark Willman had been in the pavement marking business since 1978 when he striped 2,500 Xs and Rs at railroad crossings in North Carolina. Williams & Willman got its start when the contractor Mark was working for decided to get out of the line striping business.
"I knew there was going to be a void and figured if there ever was a good time to get into the business it was going to be then," Willman says. "I didn't want to do parking lots because I felt there is more money to be made striping roads. I like the challenge of dealing with the complexities – the scheduling, the driving public, the state, private contractors, and the deadlines – of road striping."
Today Williams & Willman generates all its sales from marking removal and pavement marking on roadway construction and repair. They subcontract from over 30 prime contractors every year and work for dozens of public agencies and other contractors as jobs come up. Almost all (98%) of their work is for Pennsylvania DOT.
Most jobs require waterborne paint, but the company also installs thermoplastic, epoxy, and tape. Less than 5% of their work involves restriping; more than 50% of their work involves temporary markings.
"Sometimes the job calls for striping when they relocate road construction, but more often we stripe different layers of the same section of asphalt. They'll mill the surface, we'll stripe; they'll install a course of hot mix asphalt, we'll stripe; they'll install another wearing course, and we'll stripe," Willman says.
Keeping the fleet updated
"We're always looking for new equipment or new products or to try something new that would help our business and help set us apart from the competition," Willman says. "We want to be the first one to come out and lead the pack."
He says they buy new trucks because "when your trucks are sitting off to the side of the road you're not making any money.
You just can't afford downtime, and the way to avoid downtime is to buy new equipment."
In addition to keeping a relatively new fleet, Williams & Willman tries to stay on the forefront of the technology. Willman says they were the first in the state to use water blasting for marking removal, for example.