S1.E6: How Jon Ballmann Turned a 5th Grade Dream into an Earthworks Business

Drawn to construction by the heavy equipment, Jon Ballmann’s fascination for earthworks has spread to all aspects of the business and kept his right-sized company growing at just the rate he wants since graduating from high school.

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There are a couple of striking elements of Jon Ballmann’s career path:

1.      He knew he wanted to found an excavation business when he was in the fifth grade.

2.      He not only succeeded, but his business has grown through some of the worst economic times of this generation.

Jon Ballmann is founder and owner of Ballmann Earthworks.

It was the mid-1990s. During career days at St. Vincent’s school in Dutzow, Mo., Jon handed in a remarkably specific “what I want to be when I grow up” paper to his fifth grade teacher.

“I wanted to be a grading and excavation contractor, a licensed surveyor, a civil engineer and make $40,000 per year when I graduated college,” Ballmann says.  

His parents weren’t in construction, but the family owned some rental property and had some older equipment for maintenance. An uncle worked for a basement-digging contractor.

“I was around equipment and figured if I could make this idea a reality, it is what I wanted to do. The equipment suckered me in.”

Ballmann was hired on as a general laborer with a carpenter in the summer of his high-school graduation. The contractor had a skid steer, and Ballmann showed some talent for handling the machine. He also got a taste for the sense of accomplishment working in construction, seeing substantial change in a day’s work.

In the fall he left for the University of Missouri’s engineering school half-way across the state, and in February of the following year (2001) he bought a used skid steer and started picking up odd jobs on the weekends for friends and family.

At school he was learning about civil engineering and on the weekends he studied the kind of attention to detail that wins customer loyalty (don’t miss the dog story that is still gaining him referrals).

Internships with Missouri Department of Transportation during college put him on a job building a new interstate extension.

After graduation, he bought a couple more skid steers. By the time he was 24 years old, he was half a million dollars in debt and had a new track loader, dump truck and trailer. That purchase kept Ballmann Earthworks growing through the Great Recession. In 2012 he added a Cat 320 excavator, a D6N dozer and GPS grade control. (keep listening to this video to hear how the technology attracted customers)

In 22 years, the company has grown very deliberately into the $5 million-$8 million revenue range. And for a guy who traces his career choice back to machinery and marks milestones in terms of equipment purchases, now he spends a lot of time talking about how he keeps his people happy and productive.

His control of growth is largely about maintaining the quality of work for his commercial-construction customer base. And he believes that hinges on the quality of his employees. His caution around growth is motivated by keeping customer loyalty.

“If you grow too fast, you can load up on employees, but they’re not quality employees. We could lose a customer as fast as we gain one. If we lose a $1-million customer, that could be a crucial piece of our business gone in a split second.”

How does more than 20 years in the business stack up to his fifth grade dreams?

He laughs that ambitions could maybe have been bigger, but his dad sometimes runs for parts. Ballmann Earthworks has done business on the family farm of Mrs. Roehrig, his fifth grade teacher. A member of her family is an Earthworks employee.

“One goal was to have one of every kind of machine. We got there, and now we have more than one of the bread-and-butter machines,” Ballmann says. “Now that we have seven dozers, I don’t really have a desire for 14, so the push isn’t as strong.

“If we grow 5%-10% over the next five years, I’m completely happy. And if we have good guys, we’ll try to push forward just as we are.”

He admits that significant change in his ambition could be determined in the future by his young kids at home. If they stay interested, he’ll keep pushing.