Jay Keller grew up in the construction business. He worked with his father and brother in the family’s general contracting firm, Keller Brothers, Inc., for seven years, where he led the company’s concrete efforts. Keller recalls feeling a “wave of excitement” when the concrete truck showed up on the jobsite, and he discovered early in his career the energy a concrete construction site generates.
In 2003, Keller pursued a lifelong dream to be a business owner and established Canyon Contracting, Mount Airy, Md. Today the company is a full-service concrete subcontracting firm specializing in commercial construction projects in the government, private and public sectors.
Keller’s experience as a GC gives him an insider perspective into what makes a good subcontractor. “I’ve been the customer — the GC. I know what a good sub looks and feels like,” Keller says. “I tried to emulate that with my business.”
By applying experiences from his general contracting days, Keller created a concrete subcontracting firm that caters to the wants and needs of its GC customers. That, along with his belief in encouraging creative thought from his employees and utilizing time-saving technology devices in the field, allowed Keller to take his company from a small start-up to an $18 million concrete construction company in just 10 years.
A fast start
Smart acquisitions and a business model that focuses on making construction easy for its customers helped Canyon realize strong growth in its early years. From its first year in business to its second, sales had already grown into the multi-millions of dollars. The company more than doubled its revenue in 2005 when it bought out a small yet established concrete construction company that had been operating in the area since the 1960s. That acquisition brought with it new contacts and relationships, a backlog of work, market share, and name recognition. Canyon also retained the company’s 20 employees and its former owner. “Having the former owner on staff was beneficial in the sense that he introduced us to his customers and helped us maintain those relationships, which we still have today,” Keller says.
In 2006, Canyon made another acquisition with a small concrete pumping firm, which gave it scheduling flexibility on jobs. Since then the company has continued on its growth trend. “Our willingness and eagerness to grow and take measured risks was, and continues to be, our greatest strength,” Keller adds.
During his years at Keller Brother, Keller recognized that a good subcontractor understands the needs of its customers; for a general contractor that means having a sub that can take care of everything. Keller built his company to do just that. “We do things other subs might not do — grading parking lots, mass backfill and change order work generally associated with other trades. When we can make the GC’s life easier, it makes it a better job for them and for us,” he explains.
Canyon is also doing more work on the front end of projects, working with its GC partners to manage budgets and offering input on how to build. In the growing school construction market, Canyon will even take on the role of construction manager.
Canyon seeks out jobs with large scopes and aggressive schedules. The company carved a niche in its area through taking on these challenging projects, and its employees have the knowledge and training to execute them. But Keller says the one thing that sets Canyon apart from its competition is its adaptability — its willingness to construct whatever the customer wants: “When a customer comes to us about building something, the answer is always ‘Yes! Now what’s the question?’ It’s never ‘We don’t do that.’”
Strengthening internal operations
When the D.C. area finally started to feel the pressure of the nationwide recession in 2010, Canyon was prepared. Keller and his management team saw margins tighten and the backload of its usual work shrink. The company switched its focus to federal building and military projects and as a result was minimally affected by the decline in private sector construction.