Any company that’s celebrating 60 years in business is one we want to learn from. Len Riegler Blacktop Inc. in Florence, KY, is one of those companies that can teach us a lot about how to successfully navigate the tricky waters of growing a business, even through a recession.
“Our grandfather Len and grandmother Mary started the company in 1954,” RJ Riegler, vice president of sales and marketing, says. “At that time, they were paving part time and farming part time.” In the 1970s, their sons, Dan and Ron, took over building the business up from a driveway-based company to a commercial parking lot paving company by the early 90s.
When the recession hit around the turn of the century, Len Riegler Blacktop did not shy away from going after new work and they have plans to expand with the third generation of Riegler’s eager to grow the company.
There are now five owners of Len Riegler Blacktop: President/CEO Dan Riegler, Senior Vice President Ron Riegler and the third generation Michael, Dan, R. J., Ryan, and Christi. The company operates along the “275 Loop” around northern Kentucky and southwest Ohio, taking jobs that pave portions of state highways all the way down to sealcoating a driveway.
“Through this tough recession we have managed to grow the company every year,” RJ says. “It was a great opportunity for us to add some extremely talented people to our team. Many had ran their own businesses or worked for other construction companies. Those new people combined with the great employees we already had really helped us be able to expand into different areas. Over the past six years we have purchased our own manufacturing plant, purchased our own milling machine, and started our own concrete division to be able to better meet the needs of our customers. We have an amazing group of employees that really take great pride in their work and they have been a crucial part of our success over the years.”
As the company grew, the Rieglers realized they were potentially missing out on a good chunk of business. "At that time, we were buying mix off of our competitors," Michael Riegler, general manager/vice president, says. "We realized it was not a very good business plan to rely on your competitors for your material needs."
So in the early 2000s the Rieglers began looking in to what it would take to bring asphalt production in house. "We did our homework for one or two years to make sure the numbers would work," Michael says. "As a family, it took a lot of work and trust and learning as we went. All in all I think the fact that we had family to rely on, made the process a lot easier than if I was trying to do this alone."
And in 2006, they built a CMI asphalt plant and began producing around 150,000 tons of asphalt a year for their paving jobs.
"The biggest challenge was educating ourselves on the most efficient way to run a plant," Michael says. "This is our first plant that we had experience in running. Luckily we hired a good plant manager."
The company hired Colin Carter, with 25 years of experience running asphalt plants in Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida, to help them with the day-to-day operations of asphalt production. Carter, along with a loader and mechanic, oversee the operation of the plant.
"We mainly produce private surface and base mixes for municipalities, developers and property managers," Michael says. "We occasionally will produce state mixes for the interstate as well."
The plant currently sits on seven acres of land and has the option to expand the plant footprint onto an additional 10 acres. With the addition of a Dillman drum, the plant has the ability to run warm mix asphalt (WMA) and can run recycled asphalt shingles (RAS) through as well for certain industrial mixes. "We have plenty of room for additional production if the industry warrants it," Michael says.
Evolving out of necessity
With this huge growth under their belt, additional employees, equipment and jobs, Len Riegler Blacktop had to change the way they worked in order to keep up. “Our biggest challenge is definitely scheduling,” Michael says.
“In the early 90s we only really ran three to four crews, so every day the crew members would come and ask Ron where they were going that day as he ran the scheduling until around 2006.”
Now, the company has 80 employees operating on 11 crews a day doing excavating, milling, paving, concrete, sealcoating and crack sealing.
“We’ve obviously grown a lot since the 90s, and it became too time consuming to tell everyone individually. We had to evolve out of necessity,” Michael says.
“We started to have the foreman’s call everyone at the end of the day, but this was not very efficient either, especially when weather changed our plans. As time moved on, almost all of the employees had email addresses, so it became the easiest way to inform everyone at once.”
With the additions of more crews, it became necessary for Ryan Riegler to take over scheduling the four cracksealing and sealcoating crews.
“We now have project manager/estimator meetings every Friday to help set a two week estimated plan for the new jobs we picked up for the week, updates on all ongoing projects, and the schedule for the following week,” RJ says. “We also have foremen meetings every Monday morning to review the week’s proposed schedule.”
After the Friday meeting, Michael and Ryan will take the schedule home and try to fine tune it over the weekend prior to the foreman meeting on Monday morning. The day-to-day schedule is then adjusted throughout the week to react to weather, general contractor scheduling, equipment issues, trucking, etc.
Michael normally starts working on the daily schedule around 2 p.m. every afternoon.
“By early afternoon, we know the jobs that we are planning on working on tomorrow after reviewing with the project managers and foremans,” Michael says. “I hope to have it complete around 5 to 6. It takes a lot of time to think out each job, how many crew members, what equipment they need, how many trucks, and how we are moving each piece.”
The jobs for the following day are listed on top to give the crew the information they needs a far as the customer, project, job numbers, safety requirements, whether the job has a prevailing wage, along with what type and amount of materials are on each job. This area also gives the plant all the information on what they need to run.
“There is an area we set for the truck boss right under that,” Michael says. “This lists the number of trucks and the loadout and start times of each truck. We try to space out the loadout times to be cost efficient.”
At that time, basically each foreman is set up with their crew. Michael gets feedback from the foreman every afternoon so he can adjust the amount of trucks or change equipment or personnel accordingly. Michael sends the schedule out via email to everyone each evening. Each foreman has a smartphone so they can access the schedule as soon as it comes out. The crew then checks their e-mail each night to see what crew they are assigned to and what the crew start time is for the next day.
“The most important thing is the equipment and trucks for each crew is spelled out,” Michael says. “That way they know exactly what machine to take in the morning and how we are moving it. The larger equipment moves are listed below that for our low-boy drivers.
“In the past, the crews struggled to leave the office before 8 a.m. Now, trucks are leaving around 6:45 a.m. every day. We have less problems with moving equipment around.”
Being as diverse as they are the company is also faced with various types of customers to schedule around. “Some customers want to schedule work out two weeks ahead of time, where other customers, like new construction, never know when they’re going to be ready for you, but when they are ready, they want you there tomorrow,” RJ says. "We have to try to keep everyone happy.”
“This scheduling method helps keep everyone moving efficiently,” Michael says.
And equipment working. The company has been evolving the spreadsheet throughout the last few years and have added an area that prioritizes the maintenance repairs. The crew can respond via email to let Michael know of any equipment repairs needed. With over 100 pieces of equipment in their fleet, this piece has become a huge help to Michael. He’s able to prioritize equipment repairs on the schedule to give the mechanic garage direction for the day.
Leading the pack
In addition to the intense scheduling method, Len Riegler Blacktop has developed their own estimating and job tracking program that’s made it easier for employees to access job information from anywhere.
“We looked at various types of software out there when we were in the market for it a few years ago,” RJ says. “We ultimately decided in order to fit our mold, we really needed to go ahead and have someone design something specifically for us.”
“I think we utilize technology better than any of our competition to improve our communication and business,” Michael adds. “We have removed a lot of wasted or inefficient time on a daily basis which translates into very big cost savings and profitability over a period of a year.
“Having the foremen clocking the trucks in and out in real time on their smartphones, instead of physically signing them out, then rounding the time up to the closest 15-minute interval like we used to do, saves us an estimated 10 minutes per truck per day with our current trucking fleet.”
“It’s been a huge advantage to track our jobs in real time with this software,” RJ echoes. “Costs are entered every day by Christi Riegler, and we’re able to see how we’re doing on any given project. We're able to do reports at the end of the year to see what facets of our company we’re doing the best at and what we need to improve on.”
Christi is also able to use the program to help the behind the scenes processes of a project. The program allows her to initiate job setup, track costs, complete billing and also follow up on projects.
Not only does software keep them competitive, their people are helping them grow the business as well.
“One of the owners, Dan Riegler, is a civil engineer and he’s helped us get into the design build market as well,” RJ says. “We can take something from the design process, to the construction of it, all the way to the maintenance after the fact.”
“Out of all of our competition, we’re the only ones who can design a project, get it through planning and zoning and build from the ground up,” Michael adds.
The company takes the winter downtime as an opportunity to train their crews to help them stay competitive as well. “When you grow as much as we’ve grown over the last few years, one of the challenges you face is keeping up with the quality of the work,” Michael says. “We spend a lot of time and effort on employee training for quality purposes, as well as training of the foreman on their management skills.”
“As far as moving forward, we are trying to bring all of our technology together to make us even more efficient,” Michael says. “With all of the foreman’s having smartphones, they can access our estimating and project management program on the cloud anytime they need information on jobs. They currently use the phones for clocking employees and trucks in and out and documenting changes in work with pictures or videos. I think soon we will have all job information, (materials, labor, change orders, pictures, etc.) sent to the program in real time.”
“Our sales have grown tremendously during one of the toughest eras in history for construction companies,” RJ finishes. “It is a true testament to the guidance provided from the previous generations and the hard work put forth by everyone in our company.
“We now have every aspect of the business in place that we want to have, now it’s a matter of trying to have that slow controlled growth, fine tune things yearly and master the level that we’re at right now.”