Your Business: Doing Business With the Public Sector

May 1, 2009

Erosion control specialists are finding that despite a sagging economy, there is still plenty of work to be found in the public sector. Some of the driving factors include municipalities that want to avoid fines for having improper erosion control procedures and an aging infrastructure that is requiring a great deal of rehabilitation work, such as road work.

Issues for those who routinely work in the public sector include getting the experience needed to qualify for the work, knowing how to handle delicate negotiations with property owners who may not like the intrusion that occurs during a project, and keeping abreast of regulations.

On the other hand, erosion control specialists will find economies of scale through investing in equipment that can be used on a multitude of municipal projects as many government agencies do not have the resources to purchase specialized equipment or the need for its ongoing use.

Most of the work that erosion control specialists are finding available in the public sector is focused on highway projects. But there also are opportunities in construction site inspection, best management practice (BMP) maintenance, vegetation management, landscape work, and long-term projects in stream and wetland restoration.

Municipalities have no interest in buying equipment that they’ll hardly use, points out Carol Davis, president of the Briar Group in Edgewood, WA. The company is a hydroseeding contractor that provides services using the hydraulic planting method throughout western Washington.

“We will mobilize to other areas if it’s financially beneficial; we have done projects in Alaska, Oregon, and California,” says Davis.

Her company has six employees. Public sector work comprises of about 30% of the services.

In Morris, MN, Vicky Dosdall, president of Lawn & Driveway Service, finds that the nation’s aging infrastructure is already providing plenty of opportunities for erosion control work for her company.

Dosdall’s company provides services in turf establishment and erosion control within a 100-mile radius of Morris. She has four full-time employees and some part-time employees as jobs require.

“In a lot of these small towns, there’s always that type of work,” Dosdall says. “There are a lot of grants for rural development, such as through [the US Department of] Housing and Urban Development, so the money is out there.

“The problem is that a lot of these older towns don’t have the new PVC pipe. Some of it is still the old cast iron. It gets to the point where it has to be replaced because of the cost to repair it all the time. It seems to me that within an hour of Morris, there’s always major street work in five towns around here.”

Her company performs boulevard restoration work after a new road is constructed or re-graded. The company also serves as a subcontractor on Department of Transportation (DOT) projects for all government levels.

“It’s very seldom cities do any of their own restoration work other than a little patch job here and there,” she says.

Steve Bush, CPESC, owns Bush Turf in Milan, IL. His company provides a gamut of erosion control services for the municipal, industrial, and commercial sectors. Among the company’s services: conducting inspections; reporting; drawing up stormwater pollution prevention plans (SWPPPs); installing silt fencing, inlet protection, and erosion control blankets and fabrics; applying bonded fiber matrix; and seeding.

The company serves Midwestern states, including Iowa and Illinois. The number of employees varies with the work.

“Most cities are starting to hire erosion control inspectors and engineers because on their staff they lack the industry knowledge and the equipment,” says Bush. “That’s where we have been able to help out, because we try to keep all of the most current seeding and erosion control equipment. We attend all of the conferences. We keep up on all of the materials and equipment, and it works out well for them and for us.”

Although some state projects are being put on hold or not being done due to the economy, local municipal work is steady, despite the tight budgets, notes Bush.

“They’ve had all of the flooding and storms and hard winter,” he says. “The erosion control is a constant thing that needs to be taken care of. If they don’t do it, they run the risk of being fined or penalized by the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] for stormwater discharge problems.”

Still, some cities attempt to cut corners.

“The biggest problem with erosion control is that we’re usually the ones they don’t want to spend the money on,” says Bush. “I see it happening a lot-they cut silt fence or particular erosion control items to save money. Often, they’ll get caught or have a failure and end up paying fines and fees.

“We’ve seen a few local contractors get penalized pretty substantially by the EPA because they thought they could get by without erosion control, and then they were audited.”

Bush says that in the past few years, he has seen municipalities come on board with the fact that there are clearly defined laws with fines as consequences of violation.

“They’re willing to do what’s needed, because they’re really adamant about making sure that they’re covered,” Bush says.

Erosion control specialists who engage in a large amount of public sector work find that they have to broaden their service region to continually generate revenues; this often means working across city, county, and state lines.

It also means dealing with regulations that may not be uniform from one entity to another. One of the most time-consuming parts of working for the public sector is keeping track of those different regulations.

Because Bush Turf works in different counties and states, the company must keep up to date on the various regulations of each one. To help do so, the company maintains a book that contains each state’s and county’s erosion control and seeding specifications and requirements.

“We’re on the border, and there are different regulations for silt fence in Iowa and silt fence in Illinois,” Bush says. “We have to have dual products for a lot of things because each state has different specifications. It is a challenge.”

Richard Weaver, a vice president with Coastal Site Contractors in Bunnell, FL, says that he keeps track of regulations by attending workshops, reading trade journals, and educating himself in any way possible. He attends conferences, including those hosted by the Florida Stormwater Association, to network with people from the state’s department of transportation and water management districts, as well as with engineers throughout the state.

Still others find that by working as a subcontractor, all they need to do is follow the specifications in the bid, which outline the regulations.

Keeping track of regulations isn’t difficult for Davis because they are built into the specs, she says.

Because Dosdall’s work encompasses more than one county, different regulations are involved. But keeping track of them also is not an issue for her company.

“The majority of these government agencies follow the Minnesota department of transportation specifications, and, as long as they cite that in their specifications, it makes it real simple for me, because I do a lot of work with them,” she says.

Other companies endeavor to keep on top of developing regulations as an opportunity to partner with public entities in helping them adhere to new guidelines. Bush does so on an ongoing basis, and shares his knowledge with municipal officials, architects, and engineers.

“We help them fit into those new guidelines,” he says.

Erosion control specialists are finding that economies of scale are possible in doing one type of work for multiple government entities that might not have the in-house expertise or may be jettisoning the personnel who once did that type of work.

“The economies of scale are huge,” says Bush. “We own large hydroseeding machines and large straw blowers, which makes us much more efficient and allows us to be more profitable than a small contractor with small equipment, or than a city that buys a small straw blower or small hydroseeding machine. They just can’t do the jobs as efficiently as we can. It’s more cost effective to hire us to do it.”

In bringing equipment into an operation, one option is to lease. But many erosion control specialists say that they prefer to buy the equipment.

That’s the case with Bush.

He chooses to purchase equipment rather than rent it. Sometimes he’ll buy used equipment.

“When we get a large contract to do a specific job, we have purchased pieces of equipment. Once you own the equipment, the challenge is to continue to use it by finding purposes and revenues for that machine,” he says.

Dosdall’s company buys all of its equipment. She says she readily recoups the return on the investment because the equipment is always in use.

Having top-of-the-line equipment also helps to secure contracts. Davis’s company provides services using two Kenworth trucks mounted with Finn T-330 HydroSeeders.

Although owning good equipment can be an advantage, it is possible in many cases to get access to equipment a city may already have in-house so that the erosion control company can avoid purchasing and transporting more materials.

Davis says that the biggest advantage in doing public sector work is being able to use the municipal water supply. “You don’t have to jump through hoops. They just automatically say, “˜No problem,'” she notes.

Dosdall finds that because she works as a subcontractor, safety equipment is provided.

Davis says that the general contractor or government entity instructs her company on what needs to be done before workers arrive on the job site. There have been occasions where her workers had to show up to a project wearing special protective clothing on hazardous jobs.

“We don’t want to have any problems when we get there,” she says. “We’re pretty well brought up to speed on what’s necessary, and then we just implement those factors into our work.”

Bush Turf has its own inventory of safety equipment and places a high premium on safety practices. Each year, the company holds a mandatory OSHA training class for all of its employees.

“We’re very safety conscious,” Bush says. “We work with our insurance company to make sure we have all of the proper clothing, traffic control devices, and hardhats. We really strive for safety. That is critical. A lot of people who get started in this industry don’t take that seriously, but we take it very seriously.”

Those safety measures help Bush Turf secure more contracts.

“We work for certain utility companies because of our safety program. Contractors without a good safety record can’t work for them,” says Bush.

One of the realities of public sector work is that it takes experience to establish a reputation that one’s company is reliable.

Weaver says he got started in a company that did demonstration projects, the success of which caught the attention of the Florida department of transportation. Eight years ago, the company he worked for at the time did a demonstration project to show that it could control erosion and grow grass on a roadside less expensively, and with better long-term results, by using methods other than sodding. The company blew compost injected with grass seed and grew grass on roadside projects. It also used netting injected with compost and mulch to grow grass and create permanent berms.

By the end of 2001, the company was doing a million dollars in work for the state DOT and water management district projects, he says.

His present company continues to do state DOT work.

In addition to demonstration projects, Weaver also gained experience by affiliating himself with the Florida Stormwater Association.

Dosdall points out that erosion control is a competitive business and a company has to endeavor to pay the dues to create a good reputation. “You have to be the low bidder to get the job,” says Dosdall. “There are occasions where I get the work when I am not the low bidder, but not often. There are a couple of key issues when you are a contractor. You have to do quality work, be on time, and be one who follows the specifications.

“I have a lot of competitors who I have not a clue how they remain in business because of the workmanship,” she says. “They’re just not productive and don’t follow up. I think a lot of it is lack of inspection, and it’s frustrating, because I feel we do quality work. I’ve got good people-they work hard and they are conscientious.”

Davis agrees that building a reputation requires demonstrating competency and following through on projects.

“I’ve been doing public sector work for many years, and my reputation is there,” Davis says. “You get established by the seat of your pants-you make some mistakes, bid projects lower than what you should, and then maybe get them and learn.”

Bush’s company got its start in 1992 doing seeding and erosion control. “We started out in residential and worked up. Now, we do mainly large municipal projects or work for the private sector on large commercial projects,” he says.

Bush says his company has been successful because it has prided itself on quality work and service, returning to correct problems when necessary.

“We don’t advertise,” he says. “Most of our work comes through word of mouth.”

Additionally, the company has a turf specialist on staff, which is helpful, Bush says.

While working for the public sector can have its benefits, working with the public itself has its challenges.

“When we are doing boulevard restoration work, a contractor might come in and rip off the blacktop and take the old concrete curb and sidewalk out. They put sewer and water pipes in and put in new concrete or blacktop,” says Dosdall.

“The homeowners are typically angry, because it is going to cost them money and it is an inconvenience. For sure, if you open up the street, it is going to rain and it’s muddy and people can’t get to their mailboxes or garbage site, school buses can’t get through-there’s all that level of frustration.”

Dosdall tries to minimize homeowners’ frustrations by ensuring that her part in the job is done correctly and that the work will continue to look good even after her company is done.

“I always try to get to the pre-construction meeting so the engineer and the contractor know that when they replace the topsoil, they put in good topsoil. That’s the key to success,” says Dosdall. “It’s like building a house-you have to have a good foundation or that house isn’t going to stand. There’s got to be good soil in order to make good grass grow-that’s the bottom line.”

Dosdall makes it a point to talk with inspectors to determine whether the soil has been approved.

When her company’s portion of the work is done, a homeowner fact sheet is delivered to each residence near the site, providing information on the type of seed, fertilizer, and process used, and how to care for the landscaping when the property owners take over after her company’s 30-day maintenance period. The fact sheet includes her company’s phone number and encourages calls for questions.

“Very seldom do I ever get a call back,” says Dosdall. “But we water it and maintain it. They know we are conscientious. Also, when we get done in somebody’s front yard, we sweep the sidewalk and driveway and clean up after ourselves. All of those things are very key.”

Davis agrees that working with the public can be challenging.

“In working for municipalities, a lot of times we’re going through people’s yards and they don’t understand why we’re putting a drainage swale or structure there,” she says. “We get some pretty irate people. All you can do is explain the benefits and the reason for the work and hope they understand.”

By establishing a blueprint for success, and sticking to it, erosion control specialists are finding government sector work a suitable way to generate income in a shaky economy.

But those in the industry caution that the competition is ramping up.

Weaver recently attended Florida governor Charlie Crist’s “Governor’s Accelerate Florida” program, through which Crist is trying to stimulate the state’s economy by accelerating certain state-funded programs, including roadwork. Weaver has met with contractors who are bidding on a lot of work.

“There’s still a lot of money out there, and a lot of bids. People are going into niches and areas they haven’t done before, and wouldn’t do now if they were busy. Many contractors are fighting each other to get a job. The economy is definitely affecting a lot of things,” he says.

It’s that much more crucial for erosion control specialists to help their municipal clients meet their goals by establishing a partnership with them, even when they are not actively involved in projects.

Davis’s company demonstrates partnership with municipalities by advising them about products and services to help them achieve desired goals. Her company recently advised a municipality on the best product to use on a severe slop erosion control project.

“They appreciate our expertise and just go with it,” she says.

“I think doing work for the public sector is beneficial to all parties,” she adds. “I don’t find it to be difficult at all. It’s a matter of knowing what you’re supposed to do and going in prepared to do it properly.”
About the Author

Carol Brzozowski

Carol Brzozowski specializes in topics related to resource management and technology.