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March 14-18, 2023

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Ep. 131: Next Generation of the Construction Workforce is Here (with Al the Little Operator)

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12/5/2022

CONEXPO-CON/AGG Podcast Episode 131

Taylor White is joined by Alexandra Smith, aka Al the Little Operator, who runs equipment, installs septic systems, and shares Taylor’s love of wastewater treatment. Alexandra kicks off the episode by discussing what her job involves as a newly self-employed worker, her ambitions to learn septic design, and her background growing up in the construction industry. She and Taylor also get into some of the specifics of septic systems and the importance of standing your ground and maintaining your integrity rather than taking shortcuts just to maximize profit.

Next, Taylor asks Alexandra where she sees herself going in the industry, and she explains that she has a decision to make in the future about returning and taking over the family business. However, she says that her main priority is to stay in the field without getting sucked into the six-days-a-week, twelve-hours-a-day pressure that many industry workers fall prey to. She also wants to use her social media presence to encourage healthier lifestyles and a return to focusing on what’s important in life, inside and outside the job. Alexandra then discusses what it’s like for women in construction, how she tries to let girls know there’s space for normal girls in the industry, and how she avoids scrutiny as a woman by keeping her content focused on her work. She also shares some of the equipment she loves to work with (and some she doesn’t!) and how a shared love of equipment is a huge part of her relationship with her dad. And finally, Alexandra tells us what she’ll be speaking about at CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2023 before closing the episode by emphasizing that while it’s important for her to advocate for women in the industry, she also wants to make life better for everybody in construction by encouraging new ways of conducting and organizing business, so people have more freedom.

Topics:

  • Alexandra’s background
  • The specifics of septics
  • Dealing with difficult homeowners              
  • Ensuring perfection and maintaining integrity
  • Setting up for a better future
  • Being a woman in construction and on social media
  • Alexandra’s favorite equipment
  • What Alexandra will be speaking about at CONEXPO-CON/AGG
  • Advocating for everybody in the industry

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Episode transcript: 

Taylor White: Welcome back, everybody, to the CONEXPO-CON/AGG podcast, that I am super happy to announce that is now brought to you by our good friends over at Komatsu. Not only are they the sponsor of our podcast, but they will be at the show with some pretty amazing stuff that I know you will not want to miss. 

But today, I have a guest that I have been following online for a few years now, and we share the exact same love for wastewater treatment and yellow machinery - Alexandra Smith, or as most of you know her as, Al The Little Operator. 

Al, thanks for being here. 

Alexandra Smith: Well, thank you for having me, Taylor. I'm so excited to be here. 

Taylor White: I'm glad to have you on. And for people that don't know, I first found you on Instagram. Actually, I think it was from hashtag tagging; I think it was like septics or something like that. And I remember going like, "Holy crap. There's a woman out there that actually shares the exact same love for wastewater treatment, such as myself." I mean, first of all, finding a woman in the construction industry is like, "Wow, awesome." And then, finding it even more down niche into what we do as far as septics, which I want to get into, was super cool.

So, yeah. That was one of the reasons why I first found you out. 

Alexandra Smith: I honestly didn't know that. That's actually too funny. It's something so simple that I don't really think about often, like using the hashtags. Like you said, the hashtag septic system, it's something silly, like, you don't think about that you put, and I mean, look, we managed to find each other online and, you know, end up talking on a platform like this about what we do. So, It's incredible how that works. 

Taylor White: So, share with us a little bit about-- I mean, I don't want to skip over all the other stuff. You know, I want to know, I guess, I'm genuinely curious too, and that's why I love having people on the podcast because I get to find out more because we've never gotten to chat before.

Basically, like, who are you, and what do you do? 

Alexandra Smith: I mean, I'm Al The Little Operator, obviously. I run equipment and install septic systems, and I'm learning to design them next, which is kind of my next step. I'm self-employed right now. I was working for the family business full-time, but I'm kind of ready to take on more on my own. So, I kind of work for a couple of contractors in the area who, you know, don't specialize in septic systems. They'll do the site work, and I'll come in, and I'll put the field in and do all the connections and things like that. So, that's how I'm kind of getting my foot in the door because, this industry, working in septic systems in particular, it's a lot of word-of-mouth recommendation. 

So, I don't want to step on any toes, and at the same time, I want to learn as much as I can from everyone who's been doing this for such a long time. So, this is kind of the best way I found to go about it for me. So, right now, that's what I'm doing. You know, I still work for the family business. I do septic systems with them and residential house lots. But I'm really pushing myself in terms of focusing on getting my name out there for people who need septic systems, for companies that can't find help, whether it's too expensive to keep them full-time and keep them busy, or they're just a one-man crew, and they just needed help for one day. 

Taylor White: That's actually really interesting. So, you're from New Hampshire, correct? 

Alexandra Smith: Yes. 

Taylor White: So, here in Ontario, if we want to design, it's a course. I forget how many hours of a course that you have to take, and you have to pass, and then obviously, you can do them. Whether or not you're good at them is another thing. So, what's the process like there in order to be able to be a designer? 

Alexandra Smith: For New Hampshire, you have to take just like a basic test. I don't want to say it's a basic test, but you know, everyone has a requirement, a certification, or whatever. For my septic installer's license, I had to go in and take a test, which was easier, shorter, and obviously, like different material. But the septic designer's course-- there is no course, actually. They used to have a course in the state, they don't do that anymore. But now, the test is like six hours long; you have to design four septic systems for like the first half of the test, and then it's all like short answer stuff. 

And, you know, it sounds like, "Oh, it's pretty straightforward," but I don't have a background in CAD drafting, you know, that's not my forte. So, it's a whole new field for me to learn. And it's a hard test; I've taken it twice now, and I've failed. And I'm not someone who goes and tries something, and I don't try my best. I mean, I've been working and doing this for two years in the field. It's not the field's work that I struggle with; it's learning all the weird ins and outs of septic design. 

So, for you, if you're doing-- I notice you guys do more commercial septics. I don't do those. And they test me on commercial septics, and they have a whole different rule book.

Taylor White: Different calculations for flow.

Alexandra Smith: Different calculations for flow, and that's a lot of what I've been struggling with. But you have to teach yourself out of the handbook, and then you have to find somebody, if you're lucky, you know, to take you under their wing and show you how to do it. 

Taylor White: Yeah. Now, that's super interesting. I'm the exact same way- I failed my septic course. It's the exact same. I could install septics all day long, but the actual theory part of it, I just never was a school person. Even in high school, I was not a good student; I did not get good grades, but I was better at like wood shop, or auto shop, and stuff like that. That's a really interesting take. I mean, like, where did the love for that-- obviously, did it start with the family business then - Donald Herbert Septic & Site? Like, did it start with that, and then you're like, "What is it about wastewater?" I mean, it's really interesting for me. Like, because you don't find too many people that are interested in it as much as me, or you are. 

Alexandra Smith: So, for me, there's a couple of things at play; it's my dad's involvement in my life and getting me into equipment at a young age, so it became an aspect of, like, my daily life. And then from there, he would bring me on septic jobs in particular, not just the house lots. Also, I'm naturally a more environmentally friendly person, so I've always liked the idea that septic systems are better for the environment as opposed to sewage, which is like a thing that a lot of people don't really think about or talk about. When they see that I'm doing septic systems, either they assume they have one, or they assume they don't, and they don't even understand what it is and how it works. So, for me, that was super important. 

And then, knowing the ins and outs of the business for so many years. Like, I liked the process. I like knowing that this is what I've got to do in and out. I enjoy the labor and the machine work combination, that I'm not doing the same thing, that there's new challenges. Same rules, but not the same rules, depending on if you have waivers. Like, there's just so much; I love it. 

Taylor White: Yeah, because each one is different, right? I mean, you could go to one lot, and the well is closer, or this one has to be tighter to the house-- but it's really neat that you want to kind of be that go-to person that maybe a company that doesn't have somebody on payroll to do septics, reach out to, as like a consulting, and you actually do it for them, and you charge your fee for that. Like, that's really neat. Is there a need? Like, do you see a need down there for people like that, that maybe get, you know, site work, like, new homes, and it's like, "Oh, hey, we want to do the septic, but we don't have the know-how to," and then that's where you come in. 

Alexandra Smith: Yeah. That's actually happening a lot lately. Especially with people who are just getting into the business; they don't have all the certifications or experience. So, I was looking at a septic system this morning. So, the lot itself, it's really small; it's right on Lake Winnipesaukee, which is a really big lake in my area. And from the street, down to the waterfront, is maybe 75 feet, and in that 75 feet, there's about 15 feet of elevation change. And then there's the well, right in the middle, and the field is in the well radius. So, it's going to be a really fun one. I can't wait to work with the inspectors on this. 

Taylor White: Yeah, totally. When you're doing that sort of stuff, is there a go-to system that-- I know you do a lot of the Enviro-Septics - shout out them - but is that like your go-to or your favorite? Because here, generally, like an example that you're saying, when you're on a lake property, there's a lot of the times where the engineers will actually tell you, or the conservation authority will be like, "You have to put this type of system here or this type of system here." Then you get into really expensive treatment use and stuff, which is, again, that's what we like doing as well, right? Because it's big high-ticket items and they're not easy. That's what I like about them. So, is there kind of like a go-to for you, or is it kind of the same process down there? 

Alexandra Smith: So, based on preference, I prefer to install a stone and pipe system.

Taylor White: Good answer. 

Alexandra Smith: Yes. The process, and-- I mean, I know the longevity. But Enviros are really up and coming in our area; they don't like the Eljens anymore.

Taylor White: Which is so weird. 

Alexandra Smith: I know. It's funny because I think they're actually made in Connecticut, which is the state below where I live. I live in Massachusetts, work in New Hampshire. But also, to your point on if they prefer certain types of systems going in, New Hampshire does like the Enviros; they like anything that's going to clean the effluent. And then Massachusetts is very particular. So, I don't work in Mass for that reason. 

Mass, it's not a state license; it's a town-by-town license. You have to know the Mass laws of septics, and you have to know the town's specific laws on septics. You have to go, take their test, pay that fee for each town you want to work in, which is why I just stick with New Hampshire - it's all licensed for the entire state. The laws are pretty much the same, except for certain towns, you have certain requirements. We don't require bed bottom inspections in every single septic. I don't know if that's a thing for you guys up there. 

Taylor White: Yeah, we always had to get underside inspections, sub base. 

Alexandra Smith: I believe in it. I believe that you should, but it's not required for every town. 

Taylor White: Wow. Yeah. So, we have three, and I think maybe over our conversation on Instagram, one time I was telling you this, like-- because I'm always curious about inspections because for us, that's what can hold us up in a lot of time. And it's just lining up those, is what makes you more productive. But we have a sub-base once everything is installed and then once it's top-soiled and finished. And you cannot get completion until it's top-soiled, and you get a final. So, what are the inspections like where you are? 

Alexandra Smith: Yeah. So, we have one inspection. That's pretty much it. Depending on like certain towns, they'll want to like witness the test pit be dug and like the park test. That's like one weird thing that happens sometimes but not often. Normally, they take the word of the septic designer in their log of the pit and everything like that. And then, they want to see inspection when I have the pipe in, sand right to the top, vent in, all connections made. That's the inspection they want to see. 

Taylor White: That's our second. But I mean, sometimes that can be our first. The only time we don't have to get a sub-base, which is, normally, you know, they're checking to make sure we actually scarified the ground, making sure we have our clay seal in, or whatever, just checking our underside. The only time we don't have to do that is if it's like pure sand, and they know that it's pure sand. Then it's like, "Okay, take a picture, carry on to actually building the bed." 

So, they don't come and check final to make sure you didn't cheap out on-- you know, ultimately, I like the inspections. And a lot of my guys, I tell them this; I'm like, Get used to it because our inspectors are very diligent up here. Like, if you're a centimeter out, they will fail your bed. Which is a good thing because our slippage, you know, is super small, and it makes the guys do everything exactly, and it keeps other contractors honest as well too. 

That would be the only thing I would say; I guess not having a final is like, because people could be like, "You know, we have to have like minimum four inches of topsoil, but no more than however so many inches." You know, you could kind of like go there, but it's crazy to hear the differences in the amount of inspections and the way that you guys do it versus us, and we're really not that much further away. 

Alexandra Smith: Yeah. And I guess my other question for you, too, would be about; you said like they're really diligent on where the bed is and such. For me, it's really like that on waterfront properties, like for that one that I was talking about that I looked at this morning. I told the contractor we should really have the engineer come and lay out the bed and lay out the tank, so there's no issues there whatsoever. But what is it like for you guys in terms of separation from water table? What is your distance? And does the frost play a role for you guys? Because you guys are so up North, and it's so cold. 

Taylor White: Well, we'll have enough cover normally, so the frost doesn't play a role, but obviously, they always tell you, like, don't drive anything over top of it to drive the frost down into the actual bed.

But yeah, sometimes there's not like four or five feet of cover, obviously, over your bed. So, never really anything about the frost, but like groundwater, yeah; that is, we have to have a minimum of, I believe it's 60 or 90 centimeters. People listening to this-- again, I have a guy, Brad, who does all of our numbers and logistics and everything, and he looks over all that stuff.

So, again, I failed the course twice. I can install them, but to get to know all the exact numbers and to like talk about them, I don't know. I know that we have-- I want to say, maybe 60 is crazy. Anyways, but no, frost, it's funny you say that. Frost isn't because we do have really inclement weather. Something like our force mains, do you call them that? 

Alexandra Smith: Mm-hmm. 

Taylor White: You have like a pump, yeah. So, like, we'll obviously make sure that we have a slope so that the water always slopes back into the tank. But sometimes, they'll make us insulate that with a 2-inch SM just over top of it. But yeah, I guess the different weather would come into effect on some stuff. I feel like where we are, in the city of Ottawa, it's crazy because an average septic bed for us is like about $30,000 to $35,000 Canadian. And then, if you go one town over to this other place called Renfrew, which is like in the more rural, you could get away with $15,000 all day long.

So, like, our materials are permitting, our inspections are so much in the city of Ottawa, I like it because they're high ticket. But as the end consumer, as a client, when I need a septic at my house, it's like, "Holy crap." Like, a lot of the times in our industry, the homeowners will come out, and they'll be like, "I'm giving you guys $40,000, and you're just covering it up." Like, that's the hardest part for them, where if they pay a landscaper $40,000, they're probably going to have a nice little interlock patio to look at, or something to enjoy, where we're just burying $40,000 worth of work, and they're left with a hump with topsoil. So, it's kind of like, "Oh, what the heck?"

Do you ever run into that when people are like, "Oh my God, this is so difficult to wrap my head around?" 

Alexandra Smith: Yeah, no. Pretty much every day. I had a homeowner tell me the other day, he goes, "Did I really just spend $5,000 on sand?" I’m like, “Yeah, you did. You had to. It's not a choice.” And then he is looking at his backyard, he's like, "I really didn't want to have this much of a yard to mow." And I'm like, "You know, I can't help you here. You have a three-bedroom house, and you want to put another additional bedroom on it. So, I got to upsize the field." I mean, things that people don't think about. And I mean, in terms of pricing, I have the same issue, but it's kind of state-to-state.

So, when I did do some work in Massachusetts, the price of a septic is double the price. New Hampshire is around the same ballpark that you guys are at in your town, but Massachusetts, it's crazy. And you won't get your septic planned; you could send that in and not get it approved for eight weeks. In New Hampshire, you get like a week turnaround for approval from the state. It's awesome. 

Taylor White: Wow. That's really good. Yeah, we're about six weeks. 

Alexandra Smith: Wow. 

Taylor White: Yeah. So, and again, that comes down to scheduling and lining stuff up so that whenever you finally do get to it, like that's why we run like two at a time. Because we'll have one that's kind of like ready for inspection as far as like pipe and everything laid. And then, if we're waiting for that, we'll move out, scoot to the other one, dig it out, and then when that one's inspected, flip back to the other one. So, it kind of works out like that. 

And a lot of people that are just getting into septics in our industry, they always ask me like, "How the hell do you guys make money at this? Because I have a 15-ton excavator sitting there for two days." And, yeah, it's a niche conversation, but I like having it with you because everything I'm saying, and I know you'll acknowledge it, it's a fast-paced, technical industry. 

Alexandra Smith: Yep. And I like how you said, like, your machine is sitting there for a couple of days, and guys are like, "How do you make money off of that?" And that's kind of where I like that I don't own any equipment yet because I have my five contractors. I call the next guy and say, "You know, is yours ready? I'll come and put that in today," or, "You guys have two ready for me, I'll come, and I'll put both of those in, you know." And I price them as I go based on size, but I'm not sure what your field sizes are like, anyways. 

But I'm typically doing anywhere from like two to five-bedroom homes. But I do have a really big one for an inn coming up that'll be the biggest one I've ever done. I'm very excited. 

Taylor White: Nice. So, when you do these, I mean, feel free to say no, or don't answer, but the business side of it then? So, are you purely going on as a consultant, and "Hey, I'm licensed to do this." Or are you buying the pipe, buying the material, or renting a piece of machinery to do it, or getting the machinery there? Where do you fit in in that? 

Alexandra Smith: So, when I do a septic that I am pretty much subcontracting myself out for, I don't do any of the dirt work; I work with the contractor. They do all of the materials, so, I just show up with my tools, I throw their pipe in, and connect that all the right way, and I read the plans. And I lay out all the pipe, and you know, they'll offer for me to run their equipment if I want to, to backfill their field, or they'll typically be there, and they'll backfill it themselves, and I just rake it clean.

Taylor White: Whenever you say that it's just-- again, because being in septics, you know, like, do you ever run into it, where it's like, "Guys, this is just a mess. This is so messy." Like, the quality control, how do you do that? Because with us, like, I saw an Instagram video from you, and like you guys were like leaf-blowing off the-- No, I've seen a lot of other contractors would be like, "Oh my God, really?"

But it's like, no; septics are very like quality, like clean, precise, your bed's dug out perfectly square, your sand layer is perfect. Do you run into that? And all the time, and you're like, "Hey guys, this has to be perfect." 

Alexandra Smith: So, that's why I kind of vetted my contractors. There's one contractor that I did stop working for, for reasons similar to that. But the guys that I worked for know the type of work that I do, and that's why they call me because they do see the attention to detail like you're talking about. A lot of them are really good dirt diggers; I'm not going to lie. I've had really good luck. Like I said, only one contractor, I've had to say, "You know, I can't do this anymore." But at least I wasn't the one responsible for the work. I wasn't pulling the permits, but it's just like, I don't like working like that. You know, I don't like to run equipment hard. I don't like sinking my tires and to mud up to the wheel wells. Like, that's not how I ever operate. And for someone to ever try to make me work a way that I'm not accustomed to, or that, you know, makes me feel like it's putting my integrity on the line, I stay away from that. That's not me. I don't care what the money is. 

Taylor White: Yeah. No, that's very important, especially in our industry. I mean, everything has to be so neat and tidy, and yeah, we are the same. That's why everyone's like, Oh, you keep your-- like our residential machinery anyways, it's like, "How is everything so neat and perfect and clean and stuff?" And it's like because that's just how we run as a business. Like, when you're on septics, you put the sand layer in, and you're not climbing back on top of that sand layer with clay and mud all in your tracks because that's insane, and you're just not going to do that. So, hearing you say that, it's, yeah, super important, which obviously-

Alexandra Smith: Yeah. No, it's better to have the extra sand and to keep your tracks clean, and, you know, eat that load of sand and the cost, as opposed to putting anything that you've done at risk. And, like you said, blowing out the septic field. I mean, you know, you can't have organics in your field. And it's a silly thing, but then it's not so silly when you're pulling out a septic 20 years later, and the pipes are wrapped in roots and crap, and you're like, "how?" This is why it failed. I mean, you have trees too close to fields. And I'm dealing with that with designers now; I'm like, "Why did you put a benchmark in a tree 10 feet away from where the field is going to be? You know, the roots go that far. My God." 

Taylor White: That's funny. Yeah. No, there's a lot of stuff in the industry. I mean, and that's what separates good contractors from bad contractors. Like an example, we were just on a job, and the weather ended up, you know, turning crappy, and it was like access to get to the house was-- and it was a big residential, the largest residential we've ever done. And you know, this client, she was an awesome, awesome lady. And in order for us to get to the septic, we had to go over this field, and it was just sloppy mud because there was rain. So, we just built the road. We built the road out of 4-inch, and we brought 5 loads of 4-inch in; she's like, "Oh my God, how much is this going to cost us?" We're like, "Hey, don't worry about it. We're going to get it done. We're going to do the septic, and there's no extra cost to you. This is us to do our job; this is how we work." 

And that girl then recommended us to three other people that she knows, who all have bigger systems as well too. And I'm like, "That's how a successful contractor operates." You know, where other guys would've been like, "Well, this is going to be a hefty extra, you know, it's not my fault that it's raining." Where us, it's like, "Okay. No, we'll work with you because that's the type of contractor that we are." 

Alexandra Smith: Yeah, 1,000%. And I mean, you can also kind of anticipate that when you go to look at the job and be like, "Oh, I'm going to have difficult access. Like this is probably going to make, you know, for an extra day of work," type of thing. But yeah, not tacking it on as an extra in that sense, where it's, you know, inclement weather, like you said. But sometimes we'll just completely, you know, skip the day and not fight the weather because it doesn't make sense. You have to be neat. 

Taylor White: Yeah. It costs you more to actually show up. 

Alexandra Smith: Yeah. I'm not having pipe delivered in the rain and then putting it on mud before I put it in the field. I'd rather have the field dug too, have the truck show up, and I'll take the pipe right off the truck, into the bed, and it stays clean.

I hate fighting like spiderwebs and dirt, and oh, I'm a perfectionist when it comes to septic systems. That's why I like the work, though. 

Taylor White: Yeah. Well, that's what's going to make you super successful. So, if you had a business plan, if you do have a business plan-- I'm not a theory guy, so everyone is like, "What's your business plan," like in meetings. And I'm like, "Oh, my ROI, blah, blah blah." I don't freaking know. Where do you see yourself going with this? Like, where do you want to take it? 

Alexandra Smith: Honestly, that's a really good question because I'm stuck between building what I'm building for myself now with septics, installing, designing, and probably I'll do small residential house lots. But obviously, my dad has built this business, and his nephew does work for him as well, and me and him have talked about if we would take it on together type of thing or whatnot. He hasn't expressed a strong interest in doing it, even though he's working for the family business right now. So, I don't really know what's going to happen with Donald Herbert Septic. I know with me, I'm going to stay in this field because it keeps me happy and active, and I love everything it does for my lifestyle.

So, even if I only, hopefully, one day I'm maybe like 55, 60 years old like my dad, but I'm not working so hard. I may be just installing six septics in a year, but I'm doing enough to just keep myself going, keep myself happy, busy, and I've hopefully put myself in a good enough financial situation to do that.

But I just want to, honestly, install septic systems, kind of take it easy, and I don't want to work like all these guys do - six days a week, 12-hour days. I get that there's a hustle and that there's money to make and all that kind of stuff, but what happened to doing work because it makes you happy and being okay with making plenty but not overkilling? That's kind of where I'm at. There's way too much stress. Like, you guys are all super stressed out in this field, and then not for nothing. You guys don't eat very great in this field. So then, people are wondering why people are dropping- 

Taylor White: You're talking to me.

Alexandra Smith: I'm talking to all of you. All the steaks and stuff-- listen, I love a good steak, just like the next person, but we need to take care of ourselves as operators and people in this field, and our work doesn't allow for it because of the scheduling. So, I just want people to work and be happy and to remember that that's why we do it. It's not just about the money, and the hustle, and how things look. Because I love a shiny piece of equipment as much as the next guy, I really do, trust me. Probably more than the next guy. 

You know, you've never seen me around equipment. Oh my God. But point being like, I kind of use social media to try to get people to focus back in on what's important, and what makes it fun, and what brings people to it in the first place, you know. 

Taylor White: That's super smart. It sounds like you kind of know exactly what you want out of life even. It's kind of inspiring to hear that, to be honest with you, and you're even making me question everything. But I just feel like there's two things to-- I think it's good to be reminded of the way that you're talking, but I also feel like sometimes, some people, such as myself, I just don't know any other way. Like, my wife, if she could hear me talking, you know, she would be like, "Listen to what she's saying, please." But for me, I seem to thrive off the chaos, off the stress, off, you know, like, "Oh, we need cash flow. This month is bad. Let's go. We need a hammer out this, hammer out that."

And I think my problem is; this is a good, like therapy session almost, is, I have a hard time finding that happy medium. I want the same thing like you're talking about when I'm 55. I want that when I'm 40. I mean, that's why I think I'm working like I am now, so that, you know when my daughter is 10, or 15, or 20, I can kind of chill and relax, and it's like, "Okay, what do you want to do? Okay, well let's go do that, you know," and I have more time. But I feel like there's different personalities for different ways, but what you're saying is super refreshing to hear. And it sounds like you kind of know exactly what you want out of it.

Alexandra Smith: Well, just like to put it in perspective for you as someone who grew up with the dad in the field, you know, the daughter at the dinner table watching her dad get up to answer the phone calls all the time because he's so committed to providing what he can for his daughter. That's great, and I admire my dad, but I wish he had been more present for certain things, and I would love to see him a little less stressed out, even though, like you said, he thrives on the chaos; it's all he knows, it's his everyday life, you know. But also, I'm looking at it as, Okay. I want to work hard. I take pride in what I do. I have integrity, I've done all these things, but also like work-life balance and making me happy. 

And also, I'm a woman in the field, so I kind of just have like this different perspective of, like, I watched my dad, I watched how it impacted his relationship with my mother, with me, and then also how it impacts work, because now I'm going to work with him, and watching how he views the whole world of this industry. Like, how it runs, how you have to be there at a certain time because your trucks are showing up, or you have an inspector coming that day, and you need this done by this day so you can get paid by this date.

I completely get the whole thing. For me, I don't think that the next generation is taking to the old-school way of doing things, and that obviously, I'm a product of that, and I'm finding a way to make the industry work for me. And for me, it's pricing things out the right way that I'm not going to kill myself, that I'm not, you know, like kill my body, because my body is already aching. Not overprice it for my customers, you know, make sure that they're getting what they're paying for and stuff, but making sure I'm happy in my day-to-day life where I don't feel like I'm just working to no end. 

Taylor White: Yeah. No, everything you're saying, I'm just in awe. You're super smart. I mean, you're making me question-- whenever you're talking about your dad being at the dinner table and answering the phone, I mean, I say this all the time to my wife, and I know this podcast is about you, but I like chiming out on my own because you're making me think.

But there's a lot of times, like I always say to my wife, "I'm not a good father." And I think that making that; I'm very self-aware in that sense. But the only reason I do what I do is for my family. Like I know my daughter is going to be fully set up, and, you know, any future kin, or family members, or whatever, are going to be good. Everything will be set up perfectly. 

But maybe that's just a coping mechanism I'm using to actually just keep doing what I'm doing because I am the same - like your dad. You know, like I'm in here when they're eating dinner, or you know, like all last week I was at business meetings, or events all at night, trying to just improve and keep chasing the almighty kind of dollar.

I love it. I love what I do, but I think you're right. There is more value in kind of being more present because it does take a toll on your body. You know, a year ago, today was a first day I actually had A-fibrillation. And, you know, that was caused due to stress, and yeah, you're just really making me think here, which is really important. 

Alexandra Smith: I know. We probably didn't intend for it to go down this route, but for me, this is why I do what I do, though. Like, I like the freedom I have over what I do, and who I work for, and what I'm associated with, and that's all important to me. And setting myself up for a better future. You know, I'm still young, I don't have kids yet, and I want to be able to work and have kids. And as a woman in this field, I can't be pregnant in equipment. So, I'm lucky where it's like I've learned septic designing, so like that's going to be a way that I'll cope with that when that part of my life happens. And maybe, you know, I'll be lucky, and CAT will be a little further along with CAT Command Technology. Maybe, I could work from outside the cab, you know. 

But yeah, we'll see what happens. I'm just trying to make sure that I'm set up where I could do better than my dad. You know, he did great, and I admire him, and I completely see all the sacrifices that he had to make, now that, especially, I'm in the industry. You don't really appreciate or understand it until you're in the industry. But I just want to make it better. 

Taylor White: Yeah. And I think you are.

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You touched on being a woman in the industry, and I just had a fun fact here that in the US, 10.9-- which you probably already know is, 10.9% of construction workers are female, and like 90% are male. Maybe I have that wrong. Maybe you could correct me, but that's what I read on the old Google. 

Alexandra Smith: Yes. 

Taylor White: And for me, when I wrote this down, I had it in my head because I know some women in the industry in my area, that when you talk about women in construction and they're like, "I don't want a highlight, I'm just doing my job." And then, some women are like, "No, I want to be an advocate for it, and I want to talk about it, and I want to show why it's good, or the pros and the cons, and like draw more women into the industry." So, are you an advocate for "I want to speak about women in construction and why I'm here doing it"? 

Alexandra Smith: Yes, definitely. So that was also a lot of the reason why I started my social media page, was because I didn't see anybody else like me doing what I was doing. And, you know, I wanted to connect with other women that were, hoping that there was other women out there that were. But more on that, yeah, so I wanted to connect with other women in the industry.

I want other women to see that it doesn't matter how small you may be-- any human, actually, how small you may be, because I've probably heard this every week, my entire career, that I'm physically not built for this, being 5 feet tall, and being, you know, a smaller woman. And I mean, I get it. I'm not trying to say that I'm going to out labor that big Jack dude on the other side of the site; I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that I can do the job efficiently, effectively and get it done and that no one else should shy away from the work, especially if it brings you joy. And like I said, the benefits, like, I mean, I don't have to go to the gym, that's really nice. I can just go to work, and the labor work keeps me fit and healthy, and, you know, it keeps my brain going. 

Like, I'm someone who needs to-- not something to focus on. Like you said, you're very go, go, go. So, for me, being in equipment is that go, go, go. It's thinking, "Okay, what's around me? What's behind me? How deep do I got to dig down? You know, where's my next move? How do I work in and out of the site?" That is the type of thinking that I really enjoy. And I think that there's a lot of people who think the same way, and they haven't found something stimulating enough for them to do or the right fit for them. And I think that we have this idea of who we're supposed to be and that instead of being afraid to try new things because they might not seem like, to other people, the ideal thing that you're supposed to do, you know, that we should try to do them. 

I mean, I went to college to be a politician. My mother worked for the federal government, and she was very big into politics. And my father is in the construction industry, and they're polar opposites. I mean, their whole lives are polar opposites. So, for me, I've kind of been in the middle, back and forth, my whole life, and I found that this was the fit for me. 

Taylor White: Yeah. I totally agree. I think that I'm with you on that. I think that it is good for women in construction to actually speak about it rather than take the oppose of like, "Oh, I'm not out to prove anything. I don't care," you know. But it's like, well, maybe you could say that if it was 90% women and 10% male, you know what I mean?

Like, we have to bring women into the industry, and I don't even think it's like trying to like convert women. Again, this is a guy talking about it, obviously, but I think of it how I relate it, is my daughter. I have a daughter. And, you know, when she comes into the shop with the guys, I'm like, "Here's your future boss, boys," you know. And I think it's good because I want her to have positive influences and be able to go to Al The Little Operator on Instagram and be like, "Man, this woman is so sick." Like, she's in construction, she's happy. Look at her. And this is amazing, and it's a positive influence in the industry. 

So, I really stick behind what you're doing because you're not going about it in the phase of like, "I'm better than everybody else, and I can out beat this, and I can out beat that." You're just like, "Hey, I can do it, and so can a lot of other women." And that's how I relate it - is to my daughter. And I think that it would be good for her to have somebody such as yourself being like, "Hey, this is what I do, and you can do it too." 

Alexandra Smith: Well, thank you. Because for me, being in the industry, the biggest thing for me to maintain on social media was my integrity, my professionalism, who I really am, and to not put out there that I'm some person that I'm not. So, I'm not always posting myself up on Instagram because it's not about me; it's about the work. And, you know, I get that it's important to show women like, "I'm a woman, and I'm on site." But it's like, when is it also too much? You know, it's like a whole balancing act of being a woman in construction, seriously. Because then, you're now wondering, "Do I look okay?" And also like, "Why am I worrying if I look okay?" Because it's like, I'm here to do work. But also, what's going to get people's attention online? It's a true balancing act. 

And, you know, I'm not the type of person where I'm a tomboy, but I'm not really girly, either. I'm kind of all these things, and I'm trying to balance them into one person and to make sure that I can put out a good example and an accurate representation of who I am and just let girls know they can just be a normal girl in the construction industry. Like, you don't have to be this super-hot model, or you don't have to be the complete opposite - you don't have to be one of the tomboys who's really rough around the edges. Like, you can be anything and be in this industry. You just need to work hard and know you are stuff. I can't stress it enough. You have to know what you're doing; you have to have the experience to back it up or the willingness to learn. You can't just go out there and just want to be a woman on the site either; that doesn't work, either. It's not authentic. 

Taylor White: Hopefully, when my daughter is old enough, we will listen to this podcast, and she can hear you speak. That's very, very moving. 

And when you said it's difficult, like you were saying, in like finding the balancing act, I feel like it's almost like, because you guys are kind of put on a pedestal, as well too. Because if this was a different industry, this is the blue-collar industry. And I'm sure you know exactly what I mean by that - the guys are a little more rough and tough, you know, site talk, you've heard site talk, the way it is, which it needs to change, obviously.

And I feel like because of that, you're put on a pedestal like, "Oh, what's this girl doing? Why does she think that she should show this and show that?" How do you work around that? Like, "Yeah, maybe some days I do want to post a picture of me in a nice dress, or me in a nice outfit, I'm hanging out with my friends, but then, the next day, I got my gloves on, and I'm slinging pipe in a septic system, and I'm covered in dirt."

You know, how do you balance like showing that? And are you always like, "Okay, I don't want to show too much of this or show too much of that." And, like you said, showing the work, how do you balance that, I guess? Because I feel like you're put on like a pedestal almost, where it's like not fair, but it's the truth. 

Alexandra Smith: Yeah. I mean, there's only so many women who are in trades and on social media, so there is definitely more attention. And for me, I've tried to keep it professional on my page. That's my professional page. But I've checked in with my followers over the years, "Hey, do you guys want me to separate my personal life from my professional life?" And they're like, "No. We like seeing little bits and pieces of it," you know, things like that. 

So, I do like it, and my followers like it. And lucky for me, I've managed to meet a lot of my followers, whether they're real-life friends, or through the industry, or whatnot. So, they've sat down and had conversations with me, like me and you are doing now, and once they hear me talk and realize that, like you said, site talk; like, I could be like one of the guys, it's just like talking to one of the guys on site, they end up recognizing that this is who I am, and they feel more comfortable with me. There's not a lot of, you know, me outside of work per se. There is, on my story, to keep people posted, but I'm not doing it on my grids, my page, to, you know-- I don't need any validation from that. Like, yes, I cleaned up nice one day. That's great. Awesome. 

But it's about the work, and that's really what I care about. It's about the work. It's hard to even get a picture of me in a piece of equipment on site because I'm the one taking the pictures. 

Taylor White: I think that that's really important, and I think that a woman in the industry should be allowed. I mean, if she is in the industry, and she majority wanted to post, you know, lifestyle pictures, or lifestyle stuff, she should be able to do that too, 100%. But it's like what you're saying is, you know, it's important to not just show that because then, like you said, those might get scrutinized more because it's easier for the blue-collar dudes to be like, "Well, all you're doing is taking pictures." Like, where you're like, "Hey, look at me doing this work." You could probably install a septic 10 times better than I could, you know. 

And that's, I think, where like the proof is in the pudding kind of thing, where you're like, "Look at me doing this, rather than just like talking about it or showing a picture of me doing something." You know what I mean? 

Alexandra Smith: Yes. That's why I've tried to change my content, and I've been trying to branch out my content more. So, trying to put the phone down and get video of me installing the field, and things like that, just to show like, I am the one doing the work also. But again, it's typically me alone on a site or me and my dad on a site. And I'm just getting him to get used to being on camera. So, that's also work in progress; it's just, you know, the old-school ways. 

But anyways, point being, yeah, it's a lot about how you go about it - being a woman in construction, and how you present yourself online, and being aware of everything, and all of your followers, and how anyone can take it, and just maintaining your integrity. 

Taylor White: Well, hopefully, 10, 20 years, there's more women doing what you're doing because of what you're doing right now. And I fully believe that there will be because, like I said like, this isn't just for the podcast. I would love my daughter to listen to this one day, and if she chooses to get into construction, then she does. If she wants to do something else, she can as well too. Well, not that she has a choice, but I work in the family business. No, but hopefully, you know, like there is more because of what you're doing right now. 

But when you talk about the machinery, and you doing it, and, you know, getting in the excavator, or doing that, and I know that in your family business, you guys have lots of CAT.

Alexandra Smith:. I was talking to my dad about it the other day. We were just making jokes about company vehicles and company equipment and things like that, and I said something along the lines of, you know, something about him being my dad. I was like, "If you want to get rid of me and not be my dad, then it's going to cost you a 305." And he laughed. He laughed so hard. Cause he's not my biological father, you know? And he's always like, "Oh, you know, you're so lucky to have me." I'm like, "You're lucky to have me. I'm free labor." Like, I was free labor for years. But we always just make jokes about things like that, and yeah, we love our equipment. We drive around to the dealerships and spend our Saturday mornings going to look at new equipment and give our salesmen a hard time, you know.

That's like a lot of our relationship, you know. I couldn't imagine my life not running equipment and not working with my dad. It's great. I'm really lucky. 

Taylor White: So, then, I guess where my brain goes, you know, for me, I remember I was in the family business, there was a point where I wanted to expand like we have, and I was like, "Okay, dad, either we're doing this, and this is what I want to do, or I'm going to go out and do it on my own."

And he was like, "All right, let's see what you can do in the next kind of six months with everything here." And we ended up in, like, social media, I started doing that, and it kind of snowballed into more work, which snowballed into getting more people, and more machinery, and it kind of went from there, right?

So, how come you don't build the family business and do that and that route, I guess? 

Alexandra Smith: It kind of goes down to how I kind of want to live my life. I don't want all those problems, the headache of the employees, and neither does my father, which is why we've kept it small. I'm sure we could expand if you want to, but then you end up, you know, someone's in a piece of equipment, something gets banged up, and you don't know who did it.

And it just seems like more problems happen with the bigger you get. So, we don't like that. We like to keep it small and easy. Another contractor I do a lot of my work for, because, like it's typically, I'll do a lot of stuff with Donald Herbert Septic, and then the other one is LaPierre Septic. And he's a one-man show, but his father is in the septic pumping industry and outhouses and things like that. So, he taught himself how to install septics, but he got in the field from his father. But I work with him a lot one-on-one, and he does total opposite - he does stone and pipes, my dad does Enviros. Like, they're the same, but they're different, so I learn a lot from the both of them. But he's set up how I want to be set up - he's got two excavators, a loader, he does his own trucking, which I won't even do that, and he just does a septic every week or two, and he keeps going nine months of the year and goes to Florida for the winter. And that's how I want to be set up - more relaxed, you know? 

Taylor White: Yeah, I agree. There's something to be said about that. That is nice. I mean, I haven't been on a vacation in a long time, and I know that, like going forward, that is-- well, now with kids and stuff like that too, it's super important. So, it makes total sense. You kind of were like, "Hey, this is what I want to do, and I know what I want to do, and we're going to kind of dive down and do this." So, I really respect that. 

As far as CONEXPO, to change it a speed, I know that you're going this year, right? 

Alexandra Smith: I am. I'll actually be speaking. 

Taylor White: Nice. So, what are you going to be speaking about? What are kind of some things that you'll be doing there? A brief overview. Don't give away all the secrets. 

Alexandra Smith: Of course, of course. So, a little bit like of my backstory, my dad had always told me, growing up, that there was this event called CONEXPO and that he wanted to take me one day. And finally, after being in the industry, I heard about it online, and I was like, "Oh, it's that CONEXPO you were talking about. We should go." And my dad doesn't like to fly. So, it wasn't about it. That was 2020, so that was my first visit out there. 

And I remember sitting at the tech talk, looking up at the stage, seeing Aaron Witt, Jimmy Starbuck, Missy Scherber, and going, "I'm going to be up there one day." And now, I can't believe I'm going to be up there. It's like a full-circle moment for me that I really didn't think would happen this quickly. 

Taylor White: Yeah, that's really impressive. I mean, to be able to sit there and be like-- and then in the short span of three years now, actually, and be like, "I'm going and doing this." I mean, your friends and family must be super proud. 

Alexandra Smith: Yeah. I mean, my dad's never going to give me the credit for social media, you know? From the day I started, it's a waste of time if it's not making you money, right? Well, look at me now, dad. I'm talking to Taylor on the CONEXPO podcast. And it's funny because I told my dad I was doing this interview with you, and he was like, "Oh, I've watched him on YouTube." He's like, "he's kind of like the reckless one of the industry." And I was like, "Yeah, that's why I'm going to get along with him. He's very much so like me," you know, we like to kick it up and change things up a bit. 

Taylor White: Yeah. I mean, you got to stir the pot. I feel like everyone can get so stuck in, I don't know, it's fun to show yourself and be authentic. And, like, I'm not a person who takes life too seriously, ever. And that's why I think some people are like-- we're just renovating our office, and everyone who walks through, it's like, "So, where's yours?" And I'm like, "I don't have an office in here." Like right now, I'm at my house, and I'm not an office guy.

Like, I'm in a fortunate enough position where I was able to hire out, you know, like project manager and an estimator. But my role is totally like the, you know, business development, and like Instagram, and social media, and just like showing the business, being the face, and yeah, I like that, that he said that. That's nice. Like, the reckless one. I like that that suits me perfectly. 

Alexandra Smith: I think so, too. 

Taylor White: Yeah. So, I wanted to talk a little bit about the Crew collab. Is that something you're still a part of? Is that something that's still ongoing? 

Alexandra Smith: Yes. So, Crew is actually going to be a partner, I believe. I don't know if that's the correct terminology, but we're going to have a booth up at the CONEXPO, which is super exciting. Yeah, because we started that out of us all pretty much meeting after CONEXPO from being online. It was originally, you know, a woman in construction movement. And then we expanded from there to men and more than just, you know, equipment world. Now we're welding, and plumbing, and electricians, and, you know, we're really just trying to get the rest of the world as excited about blue-collar as we are, especially with how much help we're going to need in the coming years, and also how much we all enjoy it. 

I mean, look at us all getting together and having a great time all the time. I mean, it's a really awesome industry to be a part of. But yeah, so Crew just like started out like that as a grassroots type of construction industry movement, and now, you know, we're going to have a booth at CONEXPO, and I think Crew is actually the one hosting the panels that I'm going to be speaking on.

I'm going to be speaking on the how to build your personal brand panel with a couple of other people that I'm super excited to have on there. I don't really want to put their names out there yet, because I don't know if it's official or not yet, but super excited. 

Yeah, Crew is doing great, we're doing classroom talks, which we just do like these phone calls with students, and a lot of us are on the job site. I have one, I think, next week, and we just tell them about what we're doing, and they like seeing us on site. They like seeing familiar younger faces; especially, they really take to that. It's not just a job description they're hearing about. 

And you can't get every high school to turnover into a trade school because if I had it my way, every high school would be a trade school. We all need basic life skills to fall back on. You know, I can always fall back on carpentry. I was originally in carpentry. They didn't have equipment operating in high school, and if they did, it was diesel tech, and they got rid of diesel tech halfway through my experience, which isn't fair. And also, look at how it's hurting the industry now that we're phasing it out of high schools. 

Taylor White: That's a big issue. Everything you're doing, I mean, you share such a love for the industry. I think everything that you're a part of speaks to kind of who you are. And like to summarize that, I mean, the part that got me a lot is, like being a woman in construction. I mean, you have such a love for the industry that I think is so infectious, and I think that a lot of people, male and female, need to listen to you because there's a lot of takeaways just from you talking; that I have on this, that made me think a lot too. 

So, I think if someone was listening to this, like our listeners, don't think that this is like a woman in construction only, you know. It's like, you're a person in construction, and that, obviously, is an advocate for women in construction, but everything you're saying resonates so much with me as well. And it's like, I think that that's super infectious on what you're doing. 

Alexandra Smith: Well, thank you. I appreciate it. It's for me; like I said, I'm not like an enemy that wants to come in and change the industry because I love what the industry is. I mean, even the site talk gets me sometimes; it has me cracking up. I enjoy the fresh breath of air that I get from, you know, male conversation, talking about football, and casinos, and all that kind of stuff. Cool stuff, you know. 

Taylor White: Is that what we talk about? 

Alexandra Smith: I mean, are you not doing parlay bets every week on football? I mean, you are Canadian, so probably not. 

Taylor White: If my wife is listening, no, but yes. 

Alexandra Smith: Exactly. There we go. So, you know, point being, I have some interests that aren't typically female interests, so I do get along with males better in that aspect. 

But the point being is I love this industry, and I love what it is, and I want to see the guys that have been in it and have, you know, struggled and like come out on top, and built all this for themselves, like, Bravo. Congratulations. Like, it's amazing. But also, can we make it a little bit easier for the next guys, please? Because, like, you guys didn't deserve to go through all that. You guys deserve to get paid more. You guys don't deserve the bad knees, and the bad ankles, and the bad backs from no air ride seats and sitting on ridiculous slopes all day. You know, that stuff kills me. So, can we just make it easier for everybody? 

Taylor White: Yeah. We need more of that because I think being an advocate, it's really important to actually being able to - because I feel like there are some people, both male and female, on both sides of it, that are advocates for the industry, that maybe lack the actual "in the industry." You know what I mean? Which is good. We need more advocates in the industry, and I'm not shunning away those people, but it's important to have people like you as well, that are like, "I'm actually in it. I eat, sleep, breathe it. I grew up in a family that did it." And I think that that's why you are so successful at what you do because you have all those characteristics. 

Alexandra Smith: Well, thank you. Yeah. No, I guess I just try to take in everything I've observed over the years in the field as someone who is a worker and as the daughter of, you know, a contractor. And just trying to see if there's any give and take we can do on both sides, for, you know, personal life and professional life, and trying to make sure that dad's there for our graduation, but also that dad can provide, you know. 

So, for me, a lot of where my passion comes is, you know, from where I grew up, and my environment, and my dad, you know, I want to make him proud. I want to make his life easier. And men that do what he does, I want their lives to be easier. I want them to be more understood, and I want them to have help and to feel genuinely heard and seen. 

I mean, and it happens to me in the most random places that I have conversations like I'm having with you, where, you know, we're having a podcast interview right now, and that's great. But like we actually have an actual connection on what we're talking about in both of our life experiences because we have similar upbringings. And it happens to me when I go out in public all the time. I manage to pick out any equipment operator in a room and end up striking up a conversation with them, and the wife always comes over to me, "He needs to be home more." And I'm like, "Sweetheart, you're 100% right. He does. But if he comes home six o'clock at night, and you know, dinner was ready, and it's not warm anymore, and you're upset because he wasn't there when dinner was ready, I said, put it in the oven for him and heat it up because he will appreciate it 10 folds still. Just because he wasn't able to be there at that hour for you, you know, doesn't mean that he's not there. But you both need to compromise in the middle." I get the struggle on both ends. I really do. 

Taylor White: I'm excited for people to hear the extended conversation of this in March at CONEXPO because, I mean, even if you weren't planning on talking like this, just grab that mic and just go, please, because you're going to get the whole room fired up. I mean, that's awesome. 

Alexandra Smith: That's what I was nervous about. My mouth can tend to get me in trouble a little bit. Like you said, though, you know, we're always kind of like the reckless ones in the industry, and kind of, you know-- what is the term that they use? Something about kicking the beehive, I remember, was one that we used for Crew.

So, yeah. I mean, I typically enjoy doing that kind of conversation. And I like to make people think and not do things the same way that we've always done them. Because, you know, that's a problem. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the way we've been doing things all these years. There's definitely some value to these tried-and-true methods. But yeah, we definitely got to try some new ways of conducting business and expectations for workers and try to find ways that maybe we can organize business so people have more freedom, and it still runs effectively if that makes sense. So, that's kind of what I'm trying to do on my own. 

Taylor White: Totally, totally. Where can people come and reach you? Like, Instagram: Al, The Little Operator? 

Alexandra Smith: It's Instagram, @thelittleoperator, and I'm on LinkedIn as well. 

Taylor White: And LinkedIn, what's the name on LinkedIn? 

Alexandra Smith: Alexandra Smith. It's just my regular name. 

Taylor White: Perfect. And actually, yeah. You have a link tree on your Instagram that people can go to and find a bunch of other stuff that you've done as well too. I saw some micro episode there too. 

Alexandra Smith: Oh yeah, that was great. The micro episode, the Earthmovers Media podcast episode.

Taylor White: You got a lot going on. 

Alexandra Smith: Some good stuff. So, just stay tuned. I guess you guys can check it all out. Global Operator Challenge stuff, check that out. 

Taylor White: Nice. Well, we can continue it all in March. I really appreciate you coming on this conversation. It was one of my favorite by far, so thank you for coming on out. 

Alexandra Smith: Well, thank you for having me. 

Taylor White: Thank you, everybody, for listening to the CONEXPO-CON/AGG podcast that is brought to you by our good friends over at Komatsu. We'll catch you on the next one. 

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