Making a comeback
Grading contractors in Florida see their business improving as the economy rebounds from the Great Recession
Many would agree that one of the places hardest hit by the Great Recession was Florida, particularly in the homebuilding sector. Today two Florida-based excavating and grading companies — K&L Grading and MJ Land Development — are back on track as homebuilding recovers, and they’ve recently added new Bobcat® T590 compact track loaders to help keep up with their growing business.
K&L Grading — Brian Lennon
From left to right: Brian Lennon, president; Dylan Lennon, operator; and Josh Chaudoin, operator.
Brian Lennon, owner of K&L Grading, Oviedo, Fla., knows all too well how the Great Recession impacted his grading business when homebuilding slowed dramatically in central Florida. Lennon started his company 14 years ago, specializing in grading for new residential construction. His first compact equipment purchase was a Bobcat 753 skid-steer loader, a machine that Lennon still owns today. “It’s a good machine, and it was my first, so I kept it,” he says.
During the homebuilding peak of the previous decade, Lennon said he employed about 30 individuals. When homebuilding slowed during the recession — starting in 2007, the longest recessionary period since the Great Depression of the 1930s — Lennon was forced to cut back on staff, but today he says his business is on the rebound and he has 19 employees. He says things are turning around in central Florida, and housing start statistics certainly support his feedback.
“I’m very blessed that we’ve been working,” he says. “Prior to the recession, it was my goal to be debt-free. That’s what helped me survive — getting my equipment paid for. And now we’ve been extremely busy for the last eight months, very steady, working six days a week. There are a lot of things taking off, and we’re getting opportunities to bid on new jobs, so it’s going well.”
Lennon’s T590 performs exceptionally well in Florida’s soft and sandy soil conditions, improving his overall productivity.
Bobcat loaders cut final grades
Long before the final grading occurs, Lennon and his crews operate heavy equipment to clear a site for development, making way for a new residential subdivision to be built. When site development is complete and ready for the grading, they call upon Lennon again, except this time it’s a team of Bobcat compact track loaders that get the assignment. Lennon owns four compact track loaders, from the T140 to the M-Series T650, using low-profile buckets to prepare the soil before the landscape contractor does his installation.
Due to the sandy soil conditions in central Florida, Lennon says the compact track loaders perform very well, quickly completing final grades.
“I bought the very first Bobcat compact track loader model, the 864, and it sped up my process immediately,” he says. “When the guys are in the sugar sand, when they’re turning and pushing, the tracks perform very well. It’s much less stressful for the operator; he just turns and rolls his dirt. The loader cuts right through it when it’s turning.”
Bobcat introduced its first model 864 compact track loader in 1999. Fourteen years later the company has eight different models to suit customer needs, in terms of size and performance.
Lennon’s newest compact track loader is a T590 purchased from Bobcat of Orlando. The 66-horsepower T590 fits nicely between Lennon’s T140 and T650, and he recognizes improvements to the machine’s performance, visibility and comfort.
“The guys like the new T590 because of the cab-forward design,” he explains. “They like the part where they can see the cutting edge on the bucket, where they can see better and are doing a better job.
“One of the features that I really like for the T590 and T650 is keyless start. I can set the codes and program them for different operators, so I know how many hours each employee has used the machine, and operators can’t get into another employee’s machine without his permission.”
Bobcat M-Series loaders with the keyless start option come with a new 4.6-inch LED screen with full-color capability for increased readability and easy operator interaction.
Multiple sizes are right-sized
Having a wide size range of Bobcat loaders helps Lennon and his operators handle special projects. For example, his T140, at just 55 inches wide, is adept for completing grading projects in small yards.
“In a lot of the residential grading that we do, we have 5 feet or less to cut the swale along the property line next to an existing house,” he says. “The T140 works really well for that. If I couldn’t fit the Bobcat loader in there, the guys would have to do it by hand, and it’s a lot of work to rake those areas.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Lennon’s 74.3-horsepower T650 is the ideal size and has plenty of power for excavating and grading for building pads. “The T650 is a good size for building monolithic pads, a pad that’s slab on grade, because of its ability to help with the cutouts to the garage or front or rear patio.”
Switch to vertical-lift-path loaders
Three of Lennon’s most recent purchases have been vertical-lift-path Bobcat compact track loaders, which Lennon says are well-suited for his truck-loading needs and provide more reach at maximum lift height.
“I changed from the straight [radius path] boom available on a T180 to the vertical-lift-path configuration when I purchased my first T190,” he says, “and they definitely have more lifting capacity and reach.
“I think Bobcat loaders are one of the best on the market. They were the first skid-steer loader and I think they are better-built for longevity, more durable than other brands that I have demonstrated. My bottom line, I just think Bobcat builds better machines. They have a good understanding of what it takes to make a durable product, especially the compact track loader’s solid-mounted undercarriage.
“I guess you can say we’re definitely a Bobcat company; all of my skid-steers are Bobcat [loaders]. I’ve always had a good relationship with Bobcat of Orlando — for sales, parts, service and rental. That’s a big plus in this business, to keep up with my workload and my schedule.”
In addition to compact track loaders, Lennon owns two Bobcat skid-steer loaders, an S160 and S185, which he uses with angle brooms to keep dirt and construction debris off streets. Additionally, he will attach an industrial grapple to pick up trash on his jobsites, providing a clean environment for builders and their customers.
MJ Land Development — John Watson, Mark Gibbons and Jeff Maclean
From left to right: Mark Gibbons, John Watson and Jeff Maclean.
There has been resurgence in homebuilding in south Florida, particularly in the Fort Lauderdale area, where excavating and grading specialists scramble to keep up with new housing developments. John Watson — vice president of MJ Land Development and business partners with Mark Gibbons and Jeff Maclean — says it appears that the economy has turned a corner and residential developers are building again.
Watson, Gibbons and Maclean started working together in 1987, sharing their expertise in construction management. Watson says the demand for excavating and grading work performed with Bobcat compact equipment increased dramatically, and the regions where the business partners worked were far apart. Each started his own company — MJ Land Development, Excel Equipment and Magnum Land Development — working in different counties in south Florida, on both the west and east coasts. Together the companies employ 75 individuals, including a group of experienced compact equipment operators.
Demand for new home developments has Watson and his partners pressed for workers, looking for more skilled operators to keep up with the many projects on their plate. Watson says one of the builders he works for sold more than 100 homes in one weekend. “Everyone is going full blast right now,” he says.
A Bobcat E42 owned by MJ Land Development is operated at a new residential construction site in south Florida.
Cornerstone of success
Bobcat compact equipment is a mainstay for all three entities, as far as site development for homebuilders: clearing land, creating building pads and grading around the new home sites. Keeping the sites free of trash and debris is also important to developers who are trying to attract new buyers.
“We have multiple jobs now that the economy has picked up, and we have new housing developments starting all over the place. We use our Bobcat loaders with a grapple attachment and bucket to load debris and move dirt, rather than moving heavy equipment, which saves us a lot of money. We sweep the communities where we work, too. Builders want the sites swept on a daily basis to make the areas look presentable,” Watson says.
Having a diverse group of compact machines and attachments allows Watson and his operators to keep up with customers’ demands — from an ultra-compact Bobcat 463 loader (just 36 inches wide with bucket) to the larger M-Series T590 and T630 compact track loaders. He keeps a mix of both skid-steer loaders and compact track loaders of varying sizes to best match the jobsite conditions and soil types. Smaller loaders are utilized for construction projects that have limited access. “When we’re working next to a finished house, pouring concrete instead of renting a pump, digging footings in tight areas, working on small additions or backfilling pools in hard-to-get-to areas, the smaller machines are much more convenient,” Watson says.
As Bobcat developed and expanded its line of compact track loaders, Watson added the machines to his equipment mix for improved performance and productivity when working in sandy soil. “We work in counties where the soils are very loose, and compact track loaders make more sense. In soft soil conditions, the Bobcat compact track loaders are three times faster when grading. The tracked undercarriages on our Bobcat loaders have held up well,” he says.
30+ years … one brand
Bobcat has been a familiar brand name for Watson for more than 30 years when he says his company had some of the first Bobcat loaders in south Florida.
“I saw the value they brought to the table, as far as maneuverability, accessing confined areas and completing small jobs,” Watson says. “My first machine was a 743, then a 751, and upgrading from there to today’s machines.”
Replacing manual labor with compact equipment has proved to be beneficial for business owners like Watson, who make their living in the dirt. “In the old days, the guys dug the footings by hand,” he explains. “We switched from manual labor to Bobcat loaders to improve our productivity. A task that previously took a crew of workers a couple of hours to complete can be done in 30 minutes or less with a Bobcat loader and an attachment. Bobcat loaders are so versatile and can be used in any application we perform. For example, we can complete some bigger work, like loading a dump truck, without needing a larger front-end loader.”
A new cab-forward design on M-Series loaders puts operators closer to the work area and improves their productivity. Operators have a better view of the cutting edge of the bucket, which allows them to be more precise. Watson and his operators pair a smooth-edge Bobcat bucket with their loaders for grading. “The improved visibility makes our operators more efficient in our applications,” Watson says. “We’ll operate a Bobcat compact track loader and go between all of the pipes and grade the foundation to prepare for concrete. It’s on the money when grading. Operators appreciate the bigger M-Series cab, too.”
Unmatched dealer support
As one might expect, local dealers who carry other brands routinely try to get Watson to buy their product. “Everyone gives us equipment to use to try and get our business,” Watson says, “but as far as we’re concerned, between the reliability and quality of the machines and our operator preferences, we decided to continue buying Bobcat compact equipment.”
Watson and his business partners purchased their equipment from Bobcat of Palm Beach, which has two locations along the east coast of Florida. “The support we receive from our local dealer is unbelievable. Not only do they care about selling machines, they care about the product, always asking how they can do something better. You can buy equipment anywhere and get promises, or you can buy Bobcat equipment that holds up with a dealer there to support you with any issues. That’s why my relationship with Bobcat of Palm Beach has worked so well,” he says.
Watson recognizes the efforts of his employees as contributing to long-term success. “Without the guys, the field superintendents and the operators, it wouldn’t be possible. Everyone plays an integral part in the company, and that’s how we’ve been successful and able to get through the recession,” he concludes.