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May 2006

Meredith Welch: Female Asphalt Paving Trailblazer

Meredith Welch is used to that look. You know, the look she gets when she steps from her truck to deliver a customer an asphalt paving quote. After 13 years in the asphalt paving industry, Welch has seen many customers do a double take.

"They don't expect a woman … but then I whip out my samples and I go over the couple of different ways in which you can do an installation, and it's at that point, that I wow them with my knowledge," says Welch, owner of Paving Solutions in Holbrook, Mass.

Knowledge about every intricate detail of asphalt paving is something that Welch has gained over the years by experiencing all aspects of the business, from selling to installation. Since day one, Welch believed that arming herself with knowledge would help her succeed in a field dominated by men.

"I had a vested interest in this industry, and I wanted to learn it forwards and backwards," she says. "I never wanted a customer to ask me a question and for me to look and him and say, 'You know what, that's a good question. I'll have to get back to you on it.' I wanted to know the answer.

"So I did my homework. I did what was necessary in order to educate myself, and that meant being in the trenches," Welch adds.

From Teaching Toddlers to Selling Asphalt
Before Welch found herself in the paving industry, she was a preschool teacher who tried to keep peace among 4-year-olds. Then, at age 24, an opportunity arose for her to become a sales representative for an asphalt paving company. Welch says she soon found that she liked several things about her career change, including meeting new people, going to different locations, and working outside. "I had been teaching preschool for five years and it was burning me out, so I went from that into asphalt. It was something different," she says. "There were hardly any women in the field at that time."

After spending several years selling asphalt, Welch wanted to do and learn more. Although her first employer had provided her with opportunities during the decade she was with them, she says she reached the point where she had outgrown her position. While there, she had progressed from selling asphalt to performing every single step of the installation process. So two years ago, Welch decided to start her own asphalt paving business — a career move that would provide her with a new challenge and allow her to utilize all of her experience.

"I had already established all of my connections with asphalt and gravel suppliers. Keep in mind that I had been in the business for more than 10 years," she says. "It's not like I had been in it for a year and said, 'You know what, I’m going to go out on my own. I know it all.'"

In order to know everything there is about asphalt paving, Welch says the learning process involves a lot of trial and error. For example, when she surveys a customer's cracked asphalt driveway, it's her job to determine what's going on underneath the driveway that could be causing the driveway to crack. It could be a myriad of things, from a tree root or concrete to a piece of ledge. "That takes time to learn," Welch says. "It's not something that you can read in a book."

Being able to fix customers' problems inspired Welch to name her company Paving Solutions. "We're in the business of providing solutions, not problems," she says.

Today, Welch employs six seasonal workers who help her complete both residential and commercial asphalt paving jobs from about March to November. Typical work for the company includes new construction driveway installations, driveway renovations, small parking lots, and small roadways. In eastern Massachusetts, Welch says the new construction market has been holding steady. In fact, residential work makes up about 70 percent of Paving Solution’s total jobs. And of that 70 percent, Welch says half is new construction driveway installations and the other half is driveway renovation work. Welch says 95 percent of driveways in the area are asphalt because concrete does not hold up well in New England's ever-changing climate.

Acquiring the Right Equipment
Welch says the biggest challenge in starting her own business was “acquiring the right equipment and quality equipment that’s absolutely necessary to provide an outstanding job to my customers.”

"It's not cheap getting into asphalt. The equipment and being able to maintain it is very, very costly," she says.

In order to make an impression with her customers and do the quality of work she wanted, Welch purchased top-of-the-line equipment. One of her first major purchases was a Bobcat® S300 skid-steer loader with all of the bells and whistles.

Before buying the skid-steer loader, Welch researched whether she wanted to invest in optional selectable joystick controls (SJC), a feature that allows operators to switch between an "ISO" or conventional "H" control pattern based on which is more comfortable for them. Remembering that her previous employer's skid-steer loader only had hand and foot controls, Welch decided that she wanted to provide her operators with the convenience of SJC on the S300. In addition to this feature, Welch says she equipped the machine with air conditioning, keyless start, and the Power Bob-Tach® mounting system.

"If you don't have the right equipment, you're going to work twice as hard. And the name of the game is to work smarter, not harder," she says. "So you bite the bullet and you get the right type of equipment." Besides the Bobcat skid-steer loader, Welch owns a paver, backhoe, trailers, and trucks.

One of the main reasons Welch says she decided on the S300 was because of its 3,000-pound rated operating capacity and reliability. "If you show up on the job and your skid-steer loader doesn't start, you might as well turn around and go back home. Because you can’t spend two hours on a job paying six people to stand there and watch you work on a skid-steer loader," she says.

That's why Welch places emphasis on equipment maintenance. She understands that part of being professional is having reliable equipment that gets work done before deadline. To ensure her equipment receives routine inspections, Welch assigns each crew member a machine and he is responsible for its upkeep.

Welch believes that purchasing the right equipment has helped Paving Solutions grow over the past couple of years because it allows her to provide customers with quality workmanship. "Our main objective when we pull off a job is that the customer is smiling and thanking us for the job we completed," she says.

A Typical Day
When Welch is asked what a normal day is like, she just laughs and responds, "There's such a thing as a normal day?"

Well, on a typical day, Welch awakes at about 5:45 a.m. and heads downstairs for a cup or two of coffee. "I'm not a morning person," she admits. An hour later she meets her crew at the yard where they do a circle check of all of the equipment and make sure they have everything they'll need for the day.

Once they arrive at the residential jobsite for a driveway renovation, Welch talks with the homeowner and goes over the layout of the job with her foreman, while the other crew members begin unloading the equipment. They begin the job by setting lines and using the S300 skid-steer loader with a tooth bucket attachment to rip out the old driveway. Welch then easily switches from the tooth bucket to the smooth-edge bucket without leaving the loader's enclosed cab by using the Power Bob-Tach mounting system.

"The tooth bucket is what we use to rip out an old driveway, a stump, or maybe to remove large rocks that the guys can't move by hand. So it really gets the majority of the use," she says. "Then we switch to the flat bucket to set our rough grade for our processed gravel."

Even though Welch owns a dedicated backhoe, she says she doesn't use it on most jobs because unlike the S300, it’s not as versatile and can't get into tight areas. "My skid-steer loader is compact and it maneuvers very nicely on homeowners' properties," she says.

After they tear out the driveway, Welch talks with the customer again — this time asking him or her to come outside to approve the layout. Then, the Paving Solutions crew continues by ordering the asphalt mix, grading the area, and readying it for paving. Once the crew has paved the driveway, cleaned the jobsite, and packed up their equipment, Welch has a final meeting with the customer where she distributes an informational brochure on new driveway maintenance. She also tells customers to call her personally if they have any questions.

If it seems as though Welch is hands-on with her company, that's because she is.

Besides all of her ownership responsibilities such as balancing the books and bidding jobs, Welch also runs the right side of the paver, sets the grade and pitches, decides the mix count, and orders the asphalt mix. But she’s quick to tell you that she wouldn’t have it any other way.

"I’m very involved. It's always been that way," she says. "In my opinion, if you want to be good at your job, know it. Don't just stand there and be a finger pointer."

Building Good Customer Relations
If there's one thing that gets Welch fired up, it's when she doesn't receive good customer service. That's why she takes pride in treating people the way she would want to be treated. While it sounds like a simple concept that is preached by other contractors, Welch says she places actions behind her words.

"Customer relations is 90 percent of the battle out here," Welch says. "You want a customer to trust and have faith in you."

Welch has built her company on the universal language of honesty. If she tells a customer she and her crew will show up to work on Friday, then they show up on Friday. If she tells a customer he's getting 2 inches of one kind of asphalt and 1 1/2 inch of another asphalt, then that's the mix he's going to get. "I'm an honest person and that's how I operate," she says. "Do I have some competitors who send their homeowners into the house? Absolutely. I don't want that. I want my customers out there with me so that I can answer any question they might have while we’re doing the process."

When Welch first arrives at a residential home to provide a customer work quote, she drafts a proposal that includes the customer’s wants, needs, and concerns. Then when it comes time for her crews to start work on the first day of the job, she's always present to assure the customer that the proposal they agreed upon will be followed to the letter. "To have me show up on the jobs, gives customers a sigh of relief. They don’t need to come out and ask my foreman, 'Did she tell you this? Did she tell you that?'" she says. "In my opinion, I'm the one that gave you the quote; I'm the one that made the promises; I'm the one that needs to be there."

One of the biggest mistakes an asphalt contractor can make is to treat customers as if they're dumb, Welch says. While some contractors just don't want to take the time to explain their paving process, she says there are others who want to keep customers in the dark so they can take advantage of them. "Customers want to be educated. They want to know what's going to happen on their property," she says. "For a lot of people, $2,000 is a lot of money. For that amount of money, they want to understand what they're getting."

Succeeding as a Woman
There’s no question that Welch has a passion for her field and her company. The 5-foot-6-inch, 110-pound woman may not be who most people picture when they think of an asphalt contractor, but Welch’s passion has helped her succeed in the male-dominated industry.

Once tree buds begin to sprout, Welch yearns for the smell of asphalt on a hot summer day. "People say I'm crazy because they think it smells disgusting. But I'm like, 'No it doesn't,'" she says. "It gets in your blood. You want to be out there. You want to be sweating. You want to be working with the guys.

"I take a tremendous amount of pride in my work. I"ll be driving down the street with a friend and I'll point and say, 'I did that. I did that,'" Welch adds.

In addition to her wealth of knowledge and experience, Welch also credits her ability to identify with both male and female prospective customers as the reason why she secures asphalt paving jobs. "I'm very personable with my customers," she says. "Do I know how to cook; do I enjoy baking; do I enjoy arts and crafts? Absolutely. But I also enjoy hunting, fishing, and hopping on the back of my motorcycle. I'm very versatile."

And as times continue to change and more single women become homebuyers, Welch finds herself meeting with more women when arriving to quote work. "More often than not, I obtain the contract because we're women and we identify with each other. I know what they want," she says.

Just as the number of women homeowners keeps increasing, Welch says she hopes she's paving the way for more women asphalt contractors.