This post is the third in a four-part series about creating a new entrepreneurship program, the Missouri Women’s Business Center, while simultaneously helping entrepreneurs...
The Dirt Crew, as it’s lovingly called by some of its members, probably started on a “cold, wet, rainy day,” about five years ago, Bartley Stevenson says. “In the dirt business, we finally get a break when the weather gets bad.”
Getting a construction site ready for building is a dirty job, literally, but somebody’s gotta do it. The industry is bustling, and in Columbia, a cross-generational group of contractors and subcontractors (and sometimes their spouses) have, during the past five years, built up a strong network. They’re known to occasionally work together on projects, and they often compete for jobs, but always in good humor. They have no official affiliation — they just enjoy each other’s company, conversation, and, at times, equipment.
Stevenson, owner of Milam Excavating Corporation, a residential and commercial excavation company, is a Dirt Crew member, as is fellow excavator Seth Paul, owner of Seth Paul Excavating. “[The Dirt Crew is] a group of business owners directly tied to the construction industry in Columbia who like to periodically get together for social gatherings,” Paul says. “I don’t remember exactly how and when it took shape, but we have always had a good work relationship.”
The group tried to have each couple, or “member,” plan one event a month, but “as usual, life got in the way, and everyone was so busy that it just morphed into about six times a year as a large group,” Paul says.
Excavation companies like Paul’s and Stevenson’s move the dirt and rocks on a site in order to prep the area for building, which naturally links them to other subcontracting and construction businesses. Stevenson — who believes that the key to success is to “keep your customers close and your competition closer” — says that the group will often meet up for lunch or happy hour and “work on solving the world’s problems.”
Stevenson’s wife, Candace, helps keep everyone connected by sending emails or texts to round up members of the Crew for social gatherings. The Crew’s members come out of the woodwork (or, rather, dirtwork) of all areas of the subcontracting and construction businesses to share ideas and resources. They work in areas like excavating, precast concrete pouring, rock supply, dirt and mulch supply, tree removal, and equipment sale and rental.
Some of the members get together every third Thursday of the month for dinner at local restaurants, gather at fellow members’ homes, or golf at Old Hawthorne; others attend larger events, such as the annual “Beer, Boat, and Bowling.” For that particular event, about 60 local construction-related business owners, some with guests or significant others, rent out the seventh floor of Isle of Capri Hotel and Casino in Boonville and are shuttled to the bowling alley for an evening of beers and bowling.
Twig and Bondi Wood, owners of American Cleaning Systems, have been getting together with the Crew informally for the past five years and formally for the past two. Their business leases and sells industrial and commercial pressure washers, generators, and heaters for the construction business to have on site.
“My husband and many other small business owners in the industry are not super tech-savvy, so the face-to-face get-togethers are good to catch up about what’s going on,” Bondi says.
Bondi also credits the group for sharing leads on potential industry developments. “Many times, people will share info on pieces of property coming up for sale that are being developed, or someone needs a pond built, or this or that,” she says. “We also talk about ordinances, licensing, fees, zoning, city council happenings, and anything else industry-related that would have an impact on us.”
The network of small business owners brought together by the Crew now expands beyond those in dirt-related industries. One Crew member’s significant other owns a tanning salon, and another owns a women’s clothing boutique.
Mel Smarr plays an instrumental role in stirring up the crew for social gatherings, Bondi says. Smarr started Remsel Excavation over 30 years ago; he and his wife, Charlotte Smarr, own several family-operated businesses in addition to Remsel, including Ri-Mor Topsoil, Ri-Mor Mulch, Clel Roll-off Containers, and Sky-Hi Storage.
“My husband is very social and loves to entertain, so he acts as a thread to connect all the smaller groups,” Charlotte says. “He gets on the horn and calls up everybody.”
Owning a broad network of related business puts Mel in a perfect position to facilitate the group; Ri-Mor Mulch provides mulch and landscaping products like rock to contractors, and Remsel Corp predominantly does commercial dirt work. Ri-Mor has provided the dirt for some of Milam’s jobs, and the companies also share their additional trucks on hauling jobs. Ri-Mor has also provided topsoil for jobs through City of Columbia, where Paul’s company did the dirt work.
“I was surprised how young Bartley [Stevenson] was when I met him in person,” Charlotte says. “We became friends, because for years we had been talking on the phone at work all the time. Most of the Dirt Crew I had talked to on the phone, scheduling dump truck loads of topsoil. Later, we met and started going out to dinner or just hanging out.”
“The comedian in me wants to say that I take all the leftover jobs that [fellow Crew members] don’t want,” Paul jokes. “Fortunately, the Columbia economy provides more than enough work for everyone.”
According to Paul, although the various businesses sometimes happen to work in competition, they more often find themselves working in concert.
“We can help each other out with resources,” says Paul. “We all get more done by helping each other, even if we are competing with each other . . . When you have a problem, you can call someone in the same boat you’re in and get advice. I can vent about issues and find solutions to common problems.”
Charlotte says the Crew actually views themselves more as co-workers than as competitors. “We’re all business owners who have worked hard and survived through tough economies,” she says. “By working together, we provide different strengths and utilize our equipment more efficiently and timely through subcontracting among ourselves. It allows us to compete with the bigger companies on the larger jobs.”
Stevenson agrees that the camaraderie has its benefits, particularly when it comes to monetary investments. The industry can have high overhead costs and be endlessly stressful, especially for small contractors and subcontractors. By working together instead of working against one another, Crew members can all be more successful — they can share help, equipment, and ideas to improve each member’s business.
“Also referrals, referrals, referrals!” says Stevenson. “If we can’t do something because of skill set, schedule, equipment availability, etc., we can refer someone who is capable and competent.”
Charlotte Smarr says the Dirt Crew’s collaboration also bolsters the local economy as a whole. By buying wholesale and by providing locally produced products, instead of shipping in from elsewhere, the property owner saves money.
“The companies that make up the Crew have a vital role not only in the commercial and residential real estate market, but also in the broader Columbia community,” Paul says. “The projects we do are fairly large in size, so we buy materials and supplies, pipe, fuel, concrete, etc. from Columbia businesses. And we employ local people who can then give back to our community.”
If you’re going to do dirty work, it’s nice to bring some friends to work with you.
Seth Paul Excavating
Milam Excavating Corporation (Milam Contracting)
Ri-Mor Topsoil, Ri-Mor Mulch, Remsel Excavation, Clel Roll-off Containers, and Sky-Hi Storage
American Cleaning Systems
Arthur Ratliff Tree and Stump Removal