This week, Taylor White interviews Dane Cotten, owner of DC Excavation, about a number of topics including his background, the growth of his company, and the importance of networking in the construction industry. Dane also reviews the family tradition that inspired him to start his own excavation company, his successful use of networking and relationship-building to grow his business, and the importance of these practices in the construction industry. Some major news about Taylor’s live podcast at the upcoming CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2023 is announced here today, and with the show less than a month away, our host strongly encourages listeners to register and participate in it.
Together, Taylor and Dane go on to discuss the benefits and challenges of using distinctive machinery to differentiate companies and attract top talent, explore how investing in machinery and technology demonstrates to potential employees that the company values their work, and how social media can be used to hire workers from all over the world. They also touch on the challenges of retaining talent, building relationships with employees to create a positive work environment, and look at the transition from residential work to commercial work in the construction industry. The importance of building relationships with general contractors, focusing on paperwork and cost tracking, and not abandoning residential work entirely are analyzed as well. Today’s episode is yet another ‘must listen’ filled with valuable insights and advice for professionals in the construction industry, and showcasing the experiences and perspectives of undisputed experts in the field.
- Taylor’s upcoming live podcast at CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2023
- Dane Cotten, his background, and his family's long history in construction
- The origin and growth of DC Excavation
- Investing in machinery and technology
- Some useful tools for finding and hiring new employees
- Balancing growth with maintaining the company culture
- The transition from residential work to commercial work in the construction industry
- Building relationships with general contractors
- The importance of long-term thinking and being adaptable in the industry
Join more than 40,000 industry peers who receive construction industry news and trends each week. Subscribe to CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365.
Taylor White: Hello, everybody. It is me, Taylor White, talking. Just before the podcast starts, I would love to remind everybody that I will be doing a live podcast at the show on Thursday, March 16, from 2:15 to 3:15 in the community zone. And if you're asking yourself who is going to be this amazing guest, it is Dana Wuesthoff, who is actually the show director for CONEXPO-CON/AGG. And she will be sitting down and having a conversation about what it takes to put on a show like CONEXPO. And to be totally honest with you guys, I reached out, and I'm like, “I want to talk to somebody that has such a big hand in making everything happen,” and that is what's going to be going on. And I cannot wait to sit down with Dana and talk about everything CONEXPO, talk about the previous, and even maybe tease something about the future. Obviously, that will be posted on YouTube and everything later on. But stop by the Community Zone, March 16th from 2:15 to 3:15. I will be there. Dana will be there. Live show.
Now let's get into this podcast with DC Excavation Dane, brought to you by our good friends over at Komatsu.
Welcome back, everybody, to the CONEXPO-CON/AGG Podcast brought to you by our amazing friends over at Komatsu. I just got to say the show is less than a month away. I'm going to assume everybody listening has their tickets. And if you don't, please make sure to go register for the show. It's going to be one like no other in beautiful Las Vegas. But I know that the guy that I'm interviewing today will be there. I have the man who– I get sent his machinery, pictures of his machinery constantly all the time, Dane from DC Excavation. Dane, thanks for being on the show, brother.
Dane Cotten: Yeah. Thank you, Taylor. Yeah, it's a mutual deal for sure. I don't know how many tags I get a day of KWC 2000.
Taylor White: Man, isn't it wild? I don't honestly think I have gotten it, and this is not for the sake of conversation. I genuinely get sent your grader and dozer all the time, especially since we put that Komatsu on rental. Like, “is yours going to look like this? Are you going to do this?” I get your machinery all the time in my messages. I'm glad to hear that it is gone the other way as well, too.
Dane Cotten: Oh, definitely. Yeah. The grater, the custom colors, man, they just pop. And I'm sure you've seen that with your customers. Even our customers love it. So it's an awesome thing to be able to have, and we do it for marketing. But honestly, the biggest thing is I like it, so I just do it.
Taylor White: Yeah, that's the thing with me as well, too. But I don't want to skip over. I'm actually glad to have you on the show today too, and kind of just chat with you because I think for the past like two or three years, I've seen you on social media, followed your stuff, seen what you're kind of up to, and I've never really taken the time. And that's, again, why I love this podcast, because I get to sit down with people that I see and get to understand who they are, what they are, and how they got where they are. So I'd love a little bit of background for everyone listening as well as myself. Like, who is Dane? What's DC excavation? How did you get to where you are right now?
Dane Cotten: Yeah, man, I guess in my family's history, my great great grandpa built dams with horses back in the day. So it's kind of been a long-lasting family tradition. It's in the blood. DC Excavation is a first-generation company that I started myself here. We had some stuff going with my dad's family business during the last recession, the big recession in 2008, 2010. And I just kind of washed my hands of everything and decided to go do things on my own. I started this in 2016 after moving to Montana, and we've grown from me, starting with one skid steer. We've got 20 pieces of machinery and 20+ employees in the summer. So it's been a ride.
Honestly, the biggest thing for the ride has just been networking and relationships. And so I've been very fortunate to develop some great relationships. There's people just like you and lots of others that I can look to multiple generation businesses that they're more than happy to share their knowledge just through the Internet. And it's awesome to be able to have that to help a young business owner such as myself succeed.
Taylor White: Yeah, you're spot on with the money there. That is one thing that I do like about at least today's day and age. With businesses, you can reach out to so many people, and it's pretty incredible to people that you can meet along with the journey. But going from maybe– What was the business your father was in?
Dane Cotten: So he was doing similar stuff to what I'm doing now. He would do excavation for houses in Aspen, Colorado. I'm originally from Colorado, Shay Stutsman’s territory, and we would do oil field stuff. There was a big oil field in there. We would do commercial site development, and we just did septic systems and smaller stuff too. So kind of just a broad spectrum. You have to be good at or decent at everything just because you never know what's coming day to day.
Taylor White: Dang, that's pretty neat. So, like, growing up, you were around machinery and everything then?
Dane Cotten: Oh, yeah. So I have pictures of me. We lived in Southern California for a bit there.
Taylor White: Wow, you've been everywhere.
Dane Cotten: We moved a lot, man. We moved a lot. But I had pictures of me in the wheel of a scraper back in the day, like just a big old Terex scraper up in the cab. John Deere scrapers. So, yeah, kind of a long, long, long line of dirt movers.
Taylor White: What was it like going from being in the family business, I guess, because that's something I never got to experience, and then going to starting your own thing? Was it nerve-wracking? Did you have the mindset of, no matter what, I'm going to succeed at this?
Dane Cotten: Yeah. And that was the biggest thing. I didn't have a fallback plan. I didn't have anybody. I didn't have anybody to finance my start. Everything I did was based on some money that I had saved. And so there was no option for failure. There was really no plan B. And a lot of people, I get messages, and I'm sure you do all the time. Well, I'm working this job, but I'm thinking about doing this, and I just don't really know where to go. And it's like, “Look, you can't have a plan B if you want to succeed. Plan A is your only option. You can call an audible along the way.” But plan A, man, it's scary. There's days where you lay awake at night wondering how you're going to pay your people, how you're going to take care of everybody, but there's no other option. You just have to find a way.
Taylor White: Yeah, you nailed it there. And I think one thing that relates, I mean, like I said, I don't have the experience of starting from nothing. One thing I can relate to you on is the sleepless nights. And taking the business from where it was with my father to where we are now required a lot of capital and a lot of money. And thankfully, we have a good relationship with the banks and Cat, like financing machinery through the actual dealerships as well.
But you're spot on. Like, plan A is always the plan. There's no plan B, and you just got to make it work. But you're right. I think what a lot of the times that people see on social media, and that's one thing I want to get into and a little bit in the conversation as well too. It's funny because I get messages, people who are like, "Dude, you live my dream life. I wish someday I could get as big as you and do this." And it's like, I feel like maybe I'm showing the wrong stuff online then because, man, there's no honey pot of money sitting somewhere, generational wealth. My family, including myself, we're all in on this business. So the sleepless nights laying there awake, worrying about payroll, those happen. And that's part of being in business. And I think that's the kind of mindset that you have to have in order to be successful in this business. But it's interesting that's one thing you can kind of add to that.
Do you feel like sometimes social media gets highlighted? Like somebody like, "Wow, they're taking this extra money and painting their machinery." And then sometimes I'm going like, "Maybe I shouldn't have spent the $18,000 to paint my 325 here because I could really use that $20,000 right now."
Dane Cotten: Well, the biggest thing is just take it one day at a time, right? There's a big push to do long-term planning and everything like that. Sure, we all have long-term plans, but people get so caught up on the future they don't live in today. They don't live in the grind right now, and they don't put in what they need to today because they're looking way off in the distance. And that's something that I really try to do, is like, what is our issue right now? What can we handle today? Because we can't handle tomorrow's problems today. We can prepare for them, but we can't handle them, so what can we do today? And I think that's helped.
It's interesting, I saw this thing on Foreman training and stuff like that, and it's like, you're not just leading a crew, you're their mentor. You're also their therapist; you're also this. And we all have our own demons. We all have our own problems, right? And so, being a well-rounded individual, you have to do that to be in our seat. And I won't claim to be that person. I have my failures like nobody else, but just being willing to stop for a minute. And I don't know if you've listened to him at all, but Gary V. I like listening to Gary V's stuff. And his big thing is empathy. Like, try to understand where people are coming from. If you can understand that, then you can help them. And honestly, it's a huge thing for business. If you can understand where somebody else is coming from, you can help articulate your deal to make it happen. And so relationships, man, everything you're saying about being all in, like having the finance companies, it's all based on relationships and just the people. So, yes, I can echo everything you said, man, like sleepless nights. Should I have spent that money? It's fun to know. I guess it's the masked side, but it's fun to know that there's other people that have the same thoughts and those same struggles.
Taylor White: Yeah, 100%. But I think it just takes actually talking about that and saying, like, oh– There's been so many conversations that I've had with business owners, and they said something, I'm like, "Oh, okay, you think like that sometimes, too?" Okay, that's interesting. But for me, it's kind of like what we were saying. I know that I'll be successful no matter what I do, just based on work ethic and drive. Because you can have all the talent in the world and all these degrees and gone to college and university, and you have all these things in front of your name before your title. But if you don't work hard, I feel like then that just means nothing. You know what I mean? Like, work ethic out ramp’s talent, in my opinion. And that's why I always say, like, “Work harder.” People are like, "Well, work smarter." I'm like, "Well, you could be the smartest person in the world in the room but not have any work ethic and never amount to anything in life." So I think that that's what's really important, too, is having that drive to be a business owner and to be that leader and to want to be in that position.
Dane Cotten: And there are sacrifices associated with it, right? Like, how many family events or fun times with your buds? You can't go out for a rip if you're working, right? And so, honestly, how many times have you missed those events? I don't know about you, but for me, when I was starting up, man, people didn't see I was on the job or sleeping. I would go to church Sunday morning, they'd go right back to work, and it's like, there was no option. You're talking about a guy starting a dirt company with a skid steer. Like, there's no option.
Taylor White: You're 100% right. What was your thought process? I know mine, but what was yours with the black machinery?
Dane Cotten: I saw some a little bit before. I wasn't super busy on social media before CONEXPO in 2017, but I went to CONEXPO in 2017, and I saw the anniversary edition 299 with the chrome decals. It was all blacked out in the Cat booth, and it was awesome. I was just like, "Oh, this is amazing." I went home from the show and ordered one. Obviously, they don't come with chrome decals and all that. That was a special deal. But I went home from the show and ordered a black, I think, it was a 259 was my first machine. And then, shortly after, I ordered a 299 and then another 259. And I tried ordering everything I could. I tried ordering in black. What? We couldn't order in black. We started painting and stuff. I've fallen a little bit behind on the painting. I need to catch back up. But when the machines are out on a job, it's hard to justify pulling them in to paint. The biggest thing is probably just recognition. I enjoy it. It's cool for me, I think it's unique, and I hope my customers have kind of the same mindset. But you can drive by a job site in town and see it, and you're like, "Oh, well, that's one of our jobs. We know that's our job." Is that the same thing that you do, too?
Taylor White: Yeah, 100%. To be 100% honest. I remember I drew it on a whiteboard, like, probably four years ago, and I was like, this is what I want our excavators and dump trucks to look like. And now they all look like that. And I thought, based honestly, purely on, like, “This would be cool.” And I feel like everything else fell into place. And that's how I find a lot of stuff about business and social media. I'm like, Oh, I guess this is why I was doing it.” It was kind of like, “Oh, wow, more people want to run this excavator because it's black and it looks cool, versus the next guy that has a construction company that just has the same one, but it's still yellow. Okay, that's interesting. Well, maybe we should try–” You know what I mean? And then it falls into, okay, well, I guess we do it for multiple different reasons. But it started out, I was like, “Yeah, this would just be cool.”
Dane Cotten: Well, like you said, it definitely attracts talent. When people see that you take care of your gear, number one and that you invest in your gear, number two–
Taylor White: Investing, yeah.
Dane Cotten: –man, there's so many guys that they don't really care. They'll go buy them a bottom bottom-of-the-line that's got 10,000 hours on it and say, “Okay, go dig this foundation.” Well, you and I both have tiltrotators, but they have, like, tilt buckets, even though it's a standard bucket because the bushings are so short. It's hard to do your job when you got two inches of slope in your bucket. So people see that we invest in technology, they see that we invest in these machines, and that alone makes them want to come give it a shot. So it definitely helps with talent acquisition as well.
Taylor White: Yeah. And I just saw that you were looking to hiring on Instagram, and I guess is that an outlet that you can find a lot of workers in your area on?
Dane Cotten: We get them from all over the country. I hired a guy from Canada. Actually, I got a guy from Regina that we did all the paperwork for, got him in here. The paperwork process is pretty intense to get somebody in here, but we aren't hiring for anywhere out of the states unless somebody has a green card right now. But yeah, man, we drop people from all over the country. We've got people from the east coast. We've got people from the west coast. We've got a guy out of California. It's just through Instagram. They see that you build relationships online, and they're like, “You know what? I want to come work with you guys. This is what I want to be a part of.” Our retention is pretty decent based on that because if they're seeing that they want to be a part of this, it's a lot easier. You and I both know it's a lot easier to keep people and keep people happy if they want to be there.
Taylor White: Yeah, I was going to ask about that. What's your turnover like?
Dane Cotten: It's no secret we struggle with a little bit of that, too. But, like our core group, we're happy to keep guys multiple years. Sometimes they're here for just a season. Sometimes they're here for part of a season. But we've got a crew now that's been here multiple years, and it's great, man. It kind of starts getting that core, and that's also part of the new business struggle. We just started in 2016, man.
Taylor White: Wow.
Dane Cotten: So we're developing systems. We've got 401K, we've got insurance. We've got all that stuff now. And before, that was a big deal breaker for us, not having the 401K, not having the investments, not having the insurance. Because these good guys want insurance. They just simply do. They expect a little different story for you guys in Canada because it's all socialized, right? But that's something down in the states we really struggle with because there's a lot of small businesses that they don't provide any sort of insurance at all.
Taylor White: Yeah, the whole healthcare thing down there, I don't understand, but yeah, I know it's a huge deal.
Dane Cotten: Yeah.
Taylor White: When you say you have a core group of management, what are you running as far as staff? Do you have people inside in an office doing estimating? Is that you? How big is your crew, and what do you run?
Dane Cotten: Yeah, so we just leased a new office this last fall.
Taylor White: Congrats.
Dane Cotten: Thanks, man.
Taylor White: Yeah, so we've got two main PMs. They do estimating and PM work. And then we've got a full-time modeler and take-off guy. So he runs Ag Tech in Trimble Business Center and a little bit of Bluebeam for the simple stuff. But he runs those programs and just does estimates and cranks them out, builds our models for our machines. We're using Trimble work to where we can take it from the computer, ship it straight to the machine, and the guys don't have to plug it in with jump drives anymore. So we essentially have three to five people in the office at all times. And then that leaves us six to 15 guys in the field, just depending on the season and what we have for employees.
Taylor White: Wow. I mean, starting in 2016, that's a big business. What's been your most success? I think growing so quickly? I mean, is it just kind of the construction boom, the last kind of three that helped you explode? Or is there one thing in particular?
Dane Cotten: Yeah, the construction boom has definitely helped our region helps a lot. So I'm in the Bozeman area. We have Big Sky Mountain 45 minutes down the road, so big ski area. We've done some pretty large houses up in Big Sky, lots of over-excavation, restabilization. We've done quite a few commercial developments here in town, so that's been a really big part.
Taylor White: So do you think that turnover is kind of related to that employees have a lot more kinds of options right now as far as going other places because, in construction, everybody's just looking for somebody right now to work? And if so, yes, then do you think that that might change as maybe things slow down because of the way the economy is and there's just a lot of uncertainty, or do you even think that that's going to happen? What's your outlook on that?
Dane Cotten: Yeah, so we're already kind of seeing it here. Things are slowing down on the residential side pretty substantially. I bet you guys have seen it up there. Down here in the States, with our interest rates, I'm guessing yours are chasing our interest rates, but it's making these houses that were barely attainable just completely unattainable now. And so that makes it to where it's harder for these guys to find housing. It's harder for them to really live the American dream of buying a house and investing and doing that. So yeah, I think these guys are able to jump for a dollar an hour here and there. They're not looking long term, but keeping people, if you pay them good from the get-go, that they're not going to look and they're not going to be searching around. There are some very stupid numbers being thrown around right now for simple things that really make no sense. But these people are so desperate to just have guys. They're cutting their own margins just to have people on the ground. And really, at the end of the day, they’re not winning. And it’s not a win for those guys because, at the end of the job, they're going to be like, “Well, we can't really afford to keep you at what you're getting paid, so thanks for your three months of hard work. See you.”
Taylor White: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think that the two biggest things taken away from last year, our season that we saw at the end of the year, our financial end of the year, it was wages and fuel, were the two things that just gone up like crazy. And it sucks because that just gets passed on to the end consumer, right?
Dane Cotten: 100%. And our machines, machines have gone up a lot too. I mean, you're 325, you have, I bet if you buy that machine now, you're going to spend another $50,000, $75,000 over what you bought it for last year. We're seeing it. There's cumulative through the year. There's twelve to 20% on the machine, so over two years' time, that's 40% to 50% more for the same machine that you had two years ago. And for what? You can't charge that much more for it. So it's going to make it harder for guys like you and I. There just has to be a leveling effect. It's going to be through hyperinflation.
Taylor White: Yeah. No, I agree. It is. You're right. We see the same thing. The thing with where I am in Ottawa, this is where our government is. So it's kind of always had this weird kind of protected economy because it's a lot of government workers, so they're not really losing their jobs. And although the interest rates are high, we're still seeing that people are still building houses this year, but not as crazy as it was last year. So to say that it's going to be a bit of a slower year, I'd say it's probably a bit of an understatement, but yet commercial stuff, it seems really busy. Are you heavy into the commercial work as well too?
Dane Cotten: Yeah. So we're definitely getting a lot more into the commercial side of things. I'm not really doing a whole lot more residential. We'll do large stuff. We've got a 14,000-square-foot house going right now. But, yeah, the commercial work has really been rocking, so we're definitely focusing on commercials.
Taylor White: Nice. That's good. Yeah, that's kind of one thing that we've been getting into more and more over the years, and now we've made some– Again, like, you kind of referred back at the beginning of the podcast is relationships, and make relationships with these GCs that are building these commercial projects. And I feel like commercials, for us, have really allowed us to expand our growth and our revenue and get the opportunity to utilize some bigger machinery, some GPS, and stuff like that. I guess if you had kind of somebody asking you like, “Okay, we do a lot of residential, but I want to start maybe getting some bigger machinery and getting into doing some commercial site servicing. What's the best way for me to do that?”
Dane Cotten: That's a tough one. I'm going to default to you have to do what works for you. You have to know your market. But the biggest thing is there's just no option for failure. Just full steam ahead. You know, a lot of the transition between residential and commercial, the biggest change for me that I've seen is the pay schedule. So the residential pay schedule, we would turn invoices in, and a lot of times, within 15 to 20 days, we'd have a check, which was money.
Taylor White: I love that.
Dane Cotten: But the commercial stuff, man, we've got jobs open right now that they haven't paid since November. And so it's like this is February? Yeah, you get 5% retainage. I don't know what you guys do there. Montana State only allows 5%.
Taylor White: We're 10% holdbacks.
Dane Cotten: Yeah, but it's like at the end of the job, that chunk is nice, but it sure is nice through the duration of the job, too, right? So the biggest thing is just have that cash in the bank because you're going to need that cash to make it through. So I think paperwork, too. Paperwork, man, that's where having the two PMs really comes in. Those guys are rock stars when it comes to paperwork. I mean, they're just boom, boom, boom. Everything is recorded. We have cost tracking. We have all that stuff. And it's like, if you don't do that on these commercial projects, they will eat you alive.
Taylor White: Yeah, you're right. And for me, it's actually like just getting– So my operations manager, he is starting to do a lot more of our invoicing. And for me, I'm just on them about invoicing, for me is super important. Just invoice. As soon as we're done with the project, invoice it because our cash flow is nothing. If we're waiting 15 days to invoice a residential septic, which I know the client will pay in ten or less days, that just pushes it an extra 25 days because we didn't get to it for 15. And I would agree with what you were kind of saying about residential and commercial. Residentials, they pay nice. So that's why we kind of run a residential crew, and then we have a commercial crew, and our residential crew basically cash flows the business in order to be able to do the commercial stuff. It's nice when the commercial projects, those big checks come in, and finally get paid for them after sometimes 120 days. But that's where residential is nice. So that was a really key point. If you're looking to grow, don't just say, “Okay, we're not doing residential anymore. We're just going to do commercials,” because chances are you're going to need some cash to keep yourself going.
Dane Cotten: Yeah. And it's okay to be selective. I mean, I think everybody should be selective in the projects they take because it doesn't make sense for my crews to go out and dig a small house. It just doesn't make sense. We have way too much overhead. It just doesn't make sense. But it also doesn't make sense for guys that are geared and suited just for that to go out and put in a bunch of undergrounds and do all this because they don't have what it takes to do that. So it's just– I guess the big thing is to know your lane and stick in it and own that lane. And if you want to change lanes, be prepared to change lanes. Like when we're going through drivers that they always teach you the steps of changing the lane. And I'm probably going to screw it all up here, but you turn your blinker on, you look, and then you double-check, and then you can go. There are certain steps associated with moving, and as long as people follow those steps, there's been tons of contractors that have started as nothing, and now they're huge.
There's a guy here, Dennis Washington. He owns Washington Companies. He owns stuff all over the world. He owns the Komatsu dealer here. He owns copper mines here. He owns, like, all sorts of stuff. He started with a bulldozer back in the ‘60s.
Taylor White: Wow.
Dane Cotten: So, like, one guy can create billions. I was in Cabo, and there's this massive yacht out there. It's got a helicopter. It's got all this, “Oh–” It's one at Dennis Washington's, two massive yachts that he's got. Just parked there, and it's like, “Okay, so one guy can do it, one guy can. That is the dream.” Does everybody do it? Absolutely not. Can anybody do it? Sure. You put the work ethic, you keep at it, and a lot of it is time and chance, like having the right opportunity. I'm not going to lie. That's a huge thing. You've got to have the opportunity to succeed. But if you aren't willing to put in the work to do it, it's just not going to happen. But the transition, like you're talking about, sorry to get so far off here, but the transition, yes. If you want to do it and you hurt so bad that you want to grow and there's no other option to you, by all means, do it. Just make sure you protect yourself along the way.
Dane Cotten: Yeah, it's exactly kind of what we ran into as well too. But I like your point about opportunity. And for me, my opportunity was growing up in a family where my father had a successful construction business, three guys working for him, an excavator, and a dump truck. And you're 100% right, and that's kind of the only– You ignore everybody online that just wants to rip on you, but that's my favorite thing. If I get face to face with somebody and say, “Okay, I had this opportunity in front of me.” And I bet you a lot of people would mess up the opportunity to take a company from A and bring it to B and continue to run that business kind of successfully and build out a team and all this stuff. So you're right. Opportunity is nothing without actually putting in the work for it as well too.
Dane Cotten: Right. So I just saw something that you had posted about as a kid growing up, watching the snow plows, plowing the airport. Now you have the contract to do it. So what happened there?
Taylor White: That honestly was exactly what you said. It's a relationship. I think if one people could take away from this podcast, it would be the word relationship. But I grew up my entire life driving past our local airport, CYRP being like, “One day, I'd love to see Ken White Construction plowing that.” And dad would always be like, “Oh, geez. Imagine that day.” My dad has created businesses, and he's very successful, but he never had that, I guess, the mindset of going bigger where that's kind of my vision, and maybe that's my privilege of being like, “We're going to go here.” But he was more conservative because it was like, “Well, I've been through some bad bridging times.” So then we ended up doing a bunch of work for the people that own the airport. And then, the tender came out for a quote list, there came out the tender for to plow it, and we submitted a price. Price was good, and we geared up with some machinery. And I put the crew together, and now we plow an airport. And it's purely based on a relationship, but also putting in the time for it because it's not something where they're plowing the yard, or they're plowing our storage. We have guys who have done that for a while. For me, it's a lot of like, “Okay, well, I'm the one getting up at 03:00 a.m. Meeting all the guys out there, making sure it's ready to go.” So I think it's important too to not understand that it takes a lot of work to actually continue on and make something successful of plowing an airport.
Dane Cottent: Well, the opportunity is just the first step of that. The follow-through has to come, and a lot of times, the ball gets dropped in the follow-through. And we've had jobs that I have not been proud of, man. In our growing, we've had some that just make me cringe the same, but you can't expect every job to go perfectly, and we always do what we can to make it right. And I've paid to do jobs. We relayed sewer on a job three times this year. And like, I'm not proud to say that, but I'm proud to say that we got it done and that we did it right. And sure, we didn't make any money on it, but we learned a lot. We definitely learned a lot, and it's done properly. And so at the end of the day, part of this growing and not having that collective knowledge, we're a young company, man. Not having that collective knowledge from these old guys, we've got it now. But it cost us.
Taylor White: That's super impressive that you admit that. And to be honest with you, that would make me trust you more in the hands of having a big project for me because that says a lot about the type of man that you are. You're like, “Hey, no. We messed up, and we're going to fix this. We're going to do it right. Because at the end of the day, I'm a man, and I have my word, and without my word, I'm nothing.”
Dane Cotten: Well, I learned early on it never pays to just not fully disclose, “Hey, we're having XYZ for problems. We're looking for solutions.” And then just the biggest thing is keep the GCs and keep them in constant contact and just say, “Hey, this is where we're at.” Keep them apprised of the situation. And a lot of times, they're like, “Wow, your guys' communication is crazy. We've never had this. We've had people try to fleece us before.: And it's like, “What do I gain by fleecing them?” Because at the end of the day, my name is on that project. DCX is all over that project. We can't not do it.
Taylor White: Yeah, it's that short-sighted thinking, though, right, that we were talking about. It's a short-sighted thinking of like, “I could screw over this GC, and I could maybe make an extra $120,000, $150,000 on this project. I'm not going to tell them that that kind of went sideways.” But instead, you need to think long-term and go, “Well, this GC is probably going to have two or three more projects like this next year. Might be a slower year. I'm going to build this relationship with them, so I know I get those.” And just continue on, right? But people think short-sighted, and money overcomes them, and they go, “I could make some quick money right now.”
Dane Cotten: Yup.
Taylor White: And that's something that everybody has to get past. Sometimes a relationship is worth more than the $10,000 in profit you're going to make that week. A relationship will always win in the long run because what happens if things completely come to halt and this guy is the only guy that has a job, but you screwed him over? It's not going to go well. It's not going to go well.
Dane Cotten: No, you're 100% right. And it's funny because last year we did a project for a commercial builder. When we estimated, we priced it. I told the guys, I'm like, “Boys, I want this job. I want this relationship with them. So this is not going to be a high-profit job, if any profit. I want this job.” And it was a tough decision because it was fairly large, we ended up executing the job. We did well on it. There were a few extras on it that we were able to make a little bit of more money on. But it wasn't a high ticket, high profit, but we built a relationship with them, and we got two more projects, double the size of the last one sent to us last month to review for pricing. So there's a lot of value in that.
Taylor White: I wanted to touch on technology with you because I know that you are a fan of technology. You talked about Trimble, you talked about tilt rotators, and I know that you're an engcon guy, which to me, honestly, the tilt rotators, every single one of them does the same thing. It's just everyone has their own selection. Why engcon? And you know what, let's listen, let's not go there. Let's talk about why invest in the technology in a tilt rotator or GPS. Why is that important to you as a business owner?
Dane Cotten: Well, it's really opened the door for stuff we can do. But I think the biggest thing that tilt rotators add to us is efficiencies. And they have to be used in a manner where they're needed to really get those efficiencies because we've had some in the past, and we have some now. Some guys that like to just play with the tilt rotator, and I'm sure you've dealt with that too. But used in the right application, there's just so much you don't have to do by hand now because of tilt rotators. So the first and foremost, that's what really sells. My first experience with the tilt rotator, I bought two engcons. I had a 323 Cat, 310 Cat, and I was just like, “Yeah, full bore, let's do it. I'm buying two. We're going to go into this.” I had GPS on both machines. My first day, I got them, they delivered the machines, and I'm up running it. I'm like, “What did I do?” Because I couldn't friggin run it, man.
Taylor White: It's like learning all over again.
Dane Cotten: Yeah, it's terrible. Anyways, the next day, things went a lot better. That was a sleepless night. There definitely was a sleepless night.
Taylor White: Did I make the right decision?
Dane Cotten: Yes. I spent how much on these things, but after a week, I just started seeing huge gains, like, “Wow, I can go and do this now because I'm starting to get the hang of it.” So that was a big thing for us. You pair the technology with it. I don't know if you've done any stream bank stuff or cut in major slopes or anything. I guess I don't really know what the terrain is there in Ontario. But for us, when we put a 3D model in with Trimble, we have Auto Tilt, which is huge because you can tank it, and it'll roll your bucket. It'll just curl it while you're dragging in it.
Taylor White: Wow.
Dane Cotten: So it'll actually tilt to meet the curvature of the earth. And so if you're rolling a slope from, say, a four to one to a two to one to make it steeper, it'll just automatically match that, and it makes a perfect buttery smooth cut. And so the technology really pairs great with the engcon because it makes your job as an operator and the fatigue that you feel at the end of the day so much less because you can just trust the machine. And then, when you're done with that cut, you can go back through and just spot-check it with your bucket. You can look at your design elevation, see exactly where your bucket is at, and then you're done. But that goes back to the model. So it's only as good as the model is. So that goes into why we have our own in-house modeler because there are certain things we do on our models that other people don't.
And so the technology bubble, it's an infinity bubble, right? It can just go. I had the opportunity to go to CES, and just looking at the technology of CES this year, man–
Taylor White: That looks so cool.
Dane Cotten: It was cool. The market that we would be interested in is quite small there, but it's growing like crazy. John May, the CEO of John Deere, did the keynote. He and Jamie Hyneman and a couple of others did it. And honestly, it was huge. It was really huge to be there. I went on my own accord. It was one of those things that I didn't have anybody take me. I decided I was going to go. And we've got a partner in our John Deere dealer here that's really big in technology, and he helped me out some. But just what the tech forward-thinking of John Deere is like, I love it. Everything is going to technology, and we're seeing that across the board with manufacturers. But there's this big idea that everything is going the tech way. I'm sure you get it on your comments sections of people saying, “Oh, well, you're taking away jobs from so and so and so on.” But it's like there's nobody to fill those jobs, so I'm not taking a job away from them if they don't fill those jobs. So as business owners, we have to find ways to get the work done without those people to fill those jobs. And we can sort of bridge that gap with technology and tilt rotators help and everything along the way.
Taylor White: Yeah, it's pretty interesting. I mean, those two go hand in hand. Would you say like a tilt rotator and a GPS?
Dane Cotten: Yeah, 100%. I had the chance to go to Sweden, and they've been using tilt rotators in Sweden for 20 years, longer than 20 years, 30 years. We saw an older Volvo excavator. It looked pretty nice. Had 14,000 hours on it. Tilt rotator has been on it since new, never been rebuilt. The thing looked amazing. They run machines differently than we do, though. Most of their machines aren't idled up all the way, and it's just a slow, measured pace. And they're easier on the machines. They're digging in solid rock, and they hold up great, but it's just the operator that's pushing buttons. But this technology is sustainable, right? If it can be around for 30 years and keep working just fine, I think we're golden.
Taylor White: Yeah. I think for me, it was honestly so much like just the attachments that you can put on to them, whether it be grapples or grade beams, rollers, packers, I mean, anything, you name it. It's just crazy, the stuff that you can put onto it. And it's kind of like whenever we saw it, I'm like, “Well, this is something I wish I had, you know, five years ago, this would be really cool. I'd be so farther ahead.”
Dane Cotten: Yeah. We host those engcon demo days. We usually do two a year. And I didn't think that in little old Montana– We barely have a million people in the state, I didn't think that there would be a new crowd every time, but there is. We have a new crowd, and there are the same few guys that show up to everyone, which is awesome, but there's almost a new crowd every time. People are just getting interested in them, just seeing the benefits. And we've had a couple of guys show up to them and be like, “Man, I cannot believe I didn't have one of these years ago because it has been a life changer.” You can reduce your workload on your labor, or you can even go without labor. You can eliminate machines. Like, they're awesome. Definitely awesome.
Taylor White: Well, that's one thing that I'm definitely looking forward to seeing at this year's CONEXPO as well, too, the technology and honestly, just meeting everybody as well too is going to be a good time. But are you going to be there in a couple of weeks?
Dane Cotten: Oh, of course.
Taylor White: It’s coming up in March, a couple of weeks from now. So it’s a couple of weeks, we could say.
Dane Cotten: Perfect, yup, I'll be there. I'm going to be splitting some time between the engcon booth and the John Deere booth. I'm actually - this is kind of news - but I'm going to have a machine at the show. So you'll be able to swing by and run a machine at the engcon booth that says DC Excavation on it.
Taylor White: Oh, I’m going to be running that thing so hard.
Dane Cotten: I'm pretty sure a lot of people will go, “Yeah, I'm going to have some fun in this one.” But it's a really cool thing because you can show up. You've never had any experience on a tilt rotator, you can hop in the seat. I'll be there as well. I know a lot of the engcon guys will be around. A lot of the engcon influencers will be around. So, yeah, I encourage everybody to swing by and check that out. So, I'll be jumping between there and John Deere, maybe pop over to Trimble and AG Tech some and check those guys out. But yeah, I'm with you, man. We have the machines. I want to see the technology now. We have a lot of the technology on our machines. What can we add to our machines and our office to make us more efficient? That's a huge thing for me to see at CONEXPO as well. So, I'm definitely pumped about that.
Taylor White: Sweet, man. Well, I mean, Dane, let's carry on this conversation at CONEXPO in a couple of weeks. And I appreciate you coming on and getting through it. Yeah, we'll see you at CONEXPO.
Dane Cotten: Yeah, sounds great, man. It'll be nice to finally meet you in person.
Taylor White: I agree. Likewise.
Dane Cotten: We can go check out those black machines.
Taylor White: We can go look at the black machine. Thank you, everybody, for listening to this episode of the CONEXPO-CON/AGG Podcast brought to you by our good friends over at Komatsu. We'll catch you at the show in a couple of weeks. Take care.
Dane Cotten: Sounds great. Thank you, guys.
Dane Cotten: Thank you.