Is This the Time to Become Your Own Boss?
How four owner-operators arrived at the same place by taking different routes
For those who dream about operating their own business, there is no sure-fire formula for success. But, based on what others have done, there are some common traits that provide a guide to reaching the point where your name is on the truck. These traits include: working hard, recognizing and seizing opportunities, adapting to new ways of working, having a helpful equipment dealer as a mentor, making wise equipment choices and having some luck.
The four successful owner-operators profiled here are at different stages of their careers — from a landscaper in business for more than three decades to a right-of-way contractor beginning his third year. One started in high school; another in college. One took almost no risk; cautiously developing his business over a 10-year-period. Another purchased an existing company. Read their success stories below.
Kevin and Tom Sagona
Still going strong after 32 years
When Tom Sagona started his landscaping company, he was only 19 years old. Though he had limited work experience in this field, he was determined to make it work. Thirty-two years later, he is still going strong and is the proud owner of Sagona Landscaping.
Sagona's hard work have paid off. He educated himself as he moved along and his business began expanding. Today he relies on his experienced staff and a lineup of high-production equipment. "I wasn't interested in going to college, so I figured why not give landscaping a try," Sagona says. "It worked out well."
One of Sagona's teachers at Susan Wagner High School on Staten Island, N.Y., was a landscape architect who first got him interested in landscaping. "He took us into the field and showed us how to do the work. I took a liking to it right away."
Tom Sagona's S330 skid-steer loader easily loads landscaping material into his delivery truck. Sagona's skid-steer lineup ranges from the largest Bobcat model (S330) to the smallest (S70) to best match his needs.
Sagona worked part-time for a landscaping company during his junior year, and started to think about life after high school. By the time he graduated, he was in the lawn maintenance business.
Like the thousands of others who started this way, Sagona's lawn mowing quickly expanded into other areas of landscaping, something that required hard work.
"I got very busy and didn't even have time to worry about whether I made the right career choice," he says. "The business just took off, and before long I added landscape construction services."
At that point Sagona needed compact equipment. He turned to Bobcat, the pioneer skid-steer loader manufacturer, purchasing his first machine in 1983. "Backbreaking work became much easier, allowing me to take on more jobs and hire employees. For more than a quarter of a century I've relied on Bobcat® equipment to expand the business. Bobcat has been a very valuable partner."
Sagona has always been impressed with Bobcat ingenuity and how the company has led the way with industry advancements.
"Since the beginning, I've worked mainly on Staten Island, a borough where almost every jobsite has very limited access," he says. "You really have to pay attention when operating machinery. When I demoed my first Bobcat loader, I was impressed with its visibility. That was — and still is — a very important feature for me. That's one of the reasons Bobcat is an industry leader."
Today Sagona Landscaping owns four skid-steer loaders — an S70, two S205s and an S330 — a T190 compact track loader, a 334 compact excavator and dozens of attachments, including an auger, hydraulic breaker, tiller, backhoe, angle broom, pallet forks, landscape rake, snow blade and scarifier. The equipment was purchased from Garden State Bobcat.
The S70 is perfect for tight areas, and, according to Sagona, an enormous timesaver. "Before I had this bulletproof machine, I had to bring six or seven men to do a backyard job," he says. "Now I can use the S70 with a two-man crew to complete a project in one day that previously took two. Save a day with fewer workers — I'll take that anytime."
"Before I had this bulletproof machine, I had to bring six or seven guys to do a backyard job. Now I can use the S70 with a two-man crew to complete a project in one day that used to take two."
— Tom Sagona
Sagona's largest skid-steer loader, the S330, equipped with the Power Bob-Tach™ attachment mounting system, deluxe instrumentation, two-speed travel and heat and air conditioning, takes on the heavy-duty jobs. "I've never had a machine this good for loading and unloading trucks," he says. "The two-speed feature is phenomenal. People stop and watch us plow snow with the S330 because we can do the job faster than with a pickup and plow. It's the best loader I've owned."
Staten Island soil, according to Sagona, is wet much of the time. That's why the T190 changed the way the company works. "In poor working conditions, it seems like the compact track loader just floats over the ground," Sagona says. "We use it for grading all the time. In fact, we could not do a lot of our work if we did not have the T190."
In three decades Sagona has used his Bobcat equipment to complete thousands of jobs around New York City. Some have been high profile landscaping projects, including the entrance to the Bayonne Bridge, the fourth longest steel arch bridge in the world, and installing 1,000 trees around the 204-acre campus of the College of Staten Island.
Along with wife Kathleen, son Kevin, Larry Tenneriell (32 years as an estimator) and 20 employees, Sagona has built a successful business that is well-positioned for the future.
"We've been around awhile, have a good reputation, stand behind our work and are available with the right kind of equipment to do what needs to be done," he says. "This is what I've always wanted to do."
Cautious approach pays off
Phil Craig of Lebanon, Ohio, became a full-time owner-operator of compact construction equipment in 1990 after he had spent the previous decade planning this career change. He did all the right things in preparation: built his business working part-time for 10 years, became well-known in the area for dependability and workmanship; invested in the best equipment available and added attachments to make himself more versatile and valuable.
So why did it take him 10 years to leave his day job — managing a pair of farmers' markets — and climb on his skid-steer loader full-time?
"I just wanted to make sure I had everything in place," he says. "There was no hurry — I got every job I went after. There wasn't much competition in those days so I felt no sense of urgency. Plus, I had the income to pay for all my equipment so I could start debt-free."
Phil Craig's S220 and soil conditioner prepare a jousting area at the Renaissance Faire grounds near Dayton, Ohio. His equipment's versatility has helped him land a variety of interesting jobs, like this one.
He began with a Bobcat® 610 skid-steer loader, two buckets and a backhoe, mostly working for farmers around the Dayton area. He also started to receive WorkSaver® magazine, and soon the articles began to make an impact on him.
"I kept reading about all these successful people earning a living with Bobcat equipment," he says. "Well, I had a Bobcat loader and some attachments, and if these guys could do it full-time I figured I could, too."
When Craig's customers wanted him to do more, he decided to go full-time. "They helped me make the decision. I believed I had everything in place to make a living out of this."
Today, 30 years later, Craig knows he went about it the right way.
"I had a wide customer base," he says, "including farmers, contractors, plumbers, electricians, landscapers, homeowners and others. Over the years, as things changed, I was able to adjust because I had Bobcat equipment. It is so versatile that when one type of work dried up, I could look around for other opportunities.
"I kept reading about all these successful people earning a living with Bobcat equipment. Well, I had a Bobcat loader and some attachments, and if these guys could do it full-time I figured I could, too."
— Phil Craig
"For example, when the urban areas of Dayton and Cincinnati began to expand in my direction, farms were turned into housing developments. Sites had to be cleared of trees, so I purchased a stump grinder. Some people told me I would never make any money with that attachment. They were wrong. It got me a lot of work — especially with the high-flow option quickly grinding stumps."
Attachments expand opportunities
When Craig would learn of a new Bobcat attachment, he'd try to figure out how he could use it. Since he owned a small farm with an apple orchard, the dumping hopper drew his interest. He also saw an opportunity for carrying concrete into new industrial buildings. Before long, he owned the attachment.
"I saw an opportunity to do a better job for my concrete customers, so I purchased the vibratory roller," he says. "When I dug out driveways, I could roll them and provide a superior product. That attachment has worked out well."
Craig is now on his fifth Bobcat skid-steer loader, an S220 from Bobcat of Dayton. He and his wife, Alice, both operate the equipment; they have no employees. "We do what we can do," he says. "If we get too busy, we pass work on to others. We don't want to take on more than we can handle."
For his entire career, Craig carefully — and cautiously — evaluated every equipment purchase, especially when it came to attachments. "I always waited until I could convince myself that an attachment would produce enough income, and that I had the money to pay for it. Jobs came and went, the economy was up and down, and others in my business went off and did something else. And I'm still around."
Former Marine finds new career
After four years in the Marine Corps, Duke Kilnoski returned to the Council Bluffs, Iowa, area, not sure what he wanted to do. He decided to try landscaping, starting out with a wheelbarrow, shovel and a borrowed lawn mower.
"I really had no plan," he says. "To be honest, I just kind of went along to see what would happen."
Eventually he was hired to mow grass at a cemetery. That's where he met the person doing the maintenance at that and other cemeteries around western Iowa. When the business came up for sale in September 2004, Kilnoski figured it was time to chart a new direction for himself.
A new M-Series T650 is Duke Kilnoski's latest purchase and well worth the investment. It features the enhanced M-Series cab and optional Roller Suspension™ system for improved ride and less spillage when going from pavement to grass.
"Once I took that opportunity, everything started taking off much quicker than I anticipated," he says. "I owned some equipment — including a Bobcat® 553 skid-steer loader and 337 excavator — a solid business and a mandate to deliver a very high standard of workmanship."
Kilnoski has grown the business some, but, "Preparing gravesites requires me to be on call 365 days a year, so I can't take on too much work," he says. After exploring some different equipment options, he believes he has the best combination of equipment available: a new M-Series Bobcat T650 compact track loader, 335 compact excavator and 2200 utility vehicle. All the machines, along with a 96-inch snow blade, 72-inch snowblower and industrial grapple, were purchased from Bobcat of Omaha.
"The dealership diligently worked with me to put together an equipment package that enables me to produce the results my clients demand," he says. "The nature of this business allows for no margin of error. By partnering with Bobcat of Omaha, I am confident I have the tools to succeed doing this very sensitive type of work."
Kilnoski uses the 335 to open the gravesites. He trucks the dirt to a remote location and dumps it. Once the funeral is concluded, he carries the dirt back with the T650 and backfills the burial vault.
"With the two track machines, potential turf damage is reduced by at least 50 percent," he says. "That's extremely important; so, too, is being careful around a variety of obstacles, including tombstones, decorations and trees. The 335 has excellent maneuverability. The vertical-lift-path T650, with its cab-forward design and larger windows and door, offers unmatched visibility. The maneuverability and visibility features of these machines are huge."
He also likes the comfort of the M-Series loader. "The Roller Suspension™ system and suspension seat allow me to spend hours in the machine without getting tired," Kilnoski says. "It's a great machine."
"The Roller Suspension system and suspension seat allow me to spend hours in the machine without getting tired. It's a great machine."
— Duke Kilnoski
The T650 is also used for snow removal and picking up downed tree limbs, while the 2200 hauls small loads of dirt and sprays weeds, among other tasks.
Would-be site contractor changes direction
Andrew Plante decided he wanted to be his own boss when he was 10. And since he always liked earth-moving equipment, he plotted a course that would eventually allow him to start his own construction company. He went to college and graduated early with a degree in business management focused on entrepreneurship and real estate development, all while working 2½ years for a respected Boston-area site contractor. He was headed in the right direction until a couple of bumps in the road slowed him down temporarily.
"Thanks to Bobcat — with both good financing options and excellent products — and some very good luck, everything worked out OK," says the 23-year-old owner of A.R. Plante Industries, LLC, South Easton, Mass.
Andrew Plante's Bobcat T320 compact track loader and grapple attachment easily lift and carry hard-to-handle objects on land-clearing projects.
During his senior year at Boston University's undergraduate School of Management, Plante put together a business plan and created A.R. Plante Industries LLC, to provide site work and related services. But he quickly discovered there were too many people competing for too few projects.
"If I waited for dirt work, I would not have a business today," he says. "It was a bad time to enter that field. So I did a lot of research and discovered that right-of-way work was an interesting little niche. Although it is controlled for the most part by some large national companies that have contracts with the utilities, I figured that if I could get my foot through a little crack in the door, it could lead to a good source of potential work. Regardless of the economy, regardless of the weather, these projects need to get done."
While some equipment manufacturers and dealers did not want to do business with the newcomer, Plante found a willing partner in Bobcat of Boston.
"The key was the rent-to-purchase plan they offered," he says. "It was a three-month rental agreement that I actually turned into a purchase after one month. I got very lucky."
Plante sent an e-mail to a major right-of-way contractor. He was surprised when the company called, saying they had an opening for one subcontractor. Initially they needed help to clean up after an ice storm, promising him three months worth of work.
"To get right-of-way work I purchased an entire package of the best equipment available," he recalls.
"Having this Bobcat equipment is the main reason I was able to secure my first big contract," he says. "They hired me because I had a large, reliable compact track loader and several attachments so I could do a variety of jobs. They were very pleased with my choice of Bobcat products."
During the past two years, Plante has cleared right-of-ways throughout the New England states. His projects include several selective clearing projects for private landowners, storm-response-related clearing for municipalities and FAA-mandated brush clearing for a municipal airport.
"In planning for my own company, I never considered doing this type of work at all," Plante says, "It was a matter of necessity to keep the business going when the site work dried up."
He believes that anyone with Bobcat equipment has a head start when considering new opportunities.
"Bobcat products are so versatile, and with the dozens of available attachments, you can go in so many different directions," he says. "You have to be willing to get out of your comfort zone. What you did in the past you may not be doing in the future. That was my approach; I planned to do dirt work with my loader, but when that did not work out, I put on another attachment and went in a different direction. Bobcat equipment is definitely a key component in this strategy."
Visit Andrew Plante's website to view pictures from his projects.
"You have to be willing to get out of your comfort zone. What you did in the past you may not be doing in the future."
— Andrew Plante
If you've had a similar experience with starting your own company with Bobcat equipment, e-mail us at WorkSaver@bobcat.com. Read another BYOB success story here, or read about versatile Bobcat machines and attachments on the Be Your Own Boss page.
Forestry Application Kit — A Must-Have
The Bobcat forestry application kit must be installed on a loader in order to operate the forestry cutter attachment. Its purpose is to protect the operator and the machine in potentially harsh operating conditions. The exclusive forestry door — with ¾-inch laminated polycarbonate — protects you from flying debris and objects. Some additional benefits include:
- ISO 3449 Level II Falling Object Protective Structure (FOPS)
- Debris guards for muffler, lights and hydraulic components
- Fire extinguisher
Read more about the kit components on the forestry cutter page.