Sean Coghlan Shares his Non-Traditional Approach to Success in the Construction Industry

Sean Coghlan Shamrock Earthworks CONEXPO-CON/AGG

Everyone has their own reasons for getting into construction the industry. Take Sean Coghlan, for example. He is the owner and operator of Shamrock Earthworks Ltd., located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He formed his company, formerly Shamrock Excavating Ltd, in 2007 at the young age of 25. 

Along with excavating services, Shamrock Earthworks specializes in retaining wall construction – both natural rock and large stackable block, road building, grading, demolition, and septic design and installation.

“I think every kid looks at excavators, loaders, bulldozers, and other equipment and is in awe of them and is curious about them,” he says. “Unlike others in the industry, I did not have a connection to the construction business because my parents were both in the computer field.

“When I finished high school, I didn’t have a desire for more school. Besides, I didn’t know what I would take if I went to a university. I figured I wanted to work outside, like becoming a surveyor. Then I thought, why not run a machine? However, I didn’t want to start running a packer and have to be stuck running a packer for six years and then move up to get into a rock truck and have to run a rock truck for a few years and then move into something else.”

Coghlan decided he wanted to become an excavator operator but did not want to spend the time working his way up to that position. “If I want to be a pilot of an airplane, I’m not going to be a baggage handler and hope a pilot lets me jump in the cockpit after a few years. I decided I was going to do it differently.”

Sean Coghlan Shamrock Earthworks CONEXPO-CON/AGG retaining wallCharting his own course

To accomplish his goal, Coghlan took a very in-depth, three-month course on how to run an excavator. The first half of the day was spent in a site office that doubled as a classroom. The second half of the day was devoted to operating an excavator on a real job. “I learned the theory behind what you are doing on the machine and then went out and practiced it.” 

19 years old at the time, he explains “it was hard to get a seat in an excavator when you have three months of experience, but I was pretty determined. I got a job running an excavator with a landscape company, Alpha Better Landscaping, doing simple excavating jobs like digging tree holes in a Cat 308, basically just getting operating hours.”

At the landscape company, Coghlan got to know that company’s most experienced excavator operator, Gary, “who took me under his wing and became my first mentor in the business. That is where I got exposed to the retaining wall side of the business, which is now a niche market for my company.”

Taking the leap

After a couple of years at the landscape company, Coghlan left to go to work for a larger company operating big machines. “All I did was just load rock trucks all day. I quickly got bored doing that and asked if I could run their Deere 200 – that had 10,000 hours on it – and was the smallest excavator they owned. They were shocked because everybody always wants to run the biggest excavator on site.”

He got to do more detailed and interesting work, like finishing. “This was perfect for me,” he notes.

Coghlan recalls telling the owner of a local landscaping company that was working on the same golf course project he was that he was considering starting his own excavating business one day. At the time, the owner was in his mid-30s. Coghlan was 24. 

The company owner told Coghlan he loved having his own landscaping business. “I asked him: ‘If you had to do it over, what would you do differently?’ He told me the only thing he would change was he would have started his business earlier.

“I thought I might as well take a stab at it while I’m young. I figured if things did not work out, I could easily find a job because construction companies are always looking for equipment operators.” Sean then bought a five-ton excavator and got to work. 

The importance of branding

When Coghlan began his company, the bulk of the work was subcontracting for the landscape company he had worked at previously. At the same time, he began getting work from custom home builders. That is when he decided to change the name of his company from Shamrock Excavating to Shamrock Earthworks.

“Changing the name from excavating to earthworks presents a broader idea of what my company does. When somebody hears the word excavating, they generally think of just digging holes.”  

Coghlan currently has three employees and adds on laborers, depending on the work the company has. His fleet is composed of three excavators, a skid steer, and several trucks and trailers.

Keys to continued success

Of the things that help Shamrock Earthworks stand out from its competition, Coghlan presents three keys to growth and success in the construction industry.

1. Quality of work, especially when it comes to retaining walls. “We take great pride in that. Some of our area’s high-end landscapers use us to do their rock work.”Sean Coghlan Shamrock Earthworks CONEXPO-CON/AGG

2. Always seeking ways to maximize its operational efficiency and keep productivity levels high. “One unique thing is that we often look to Europe to see how construction companies are doing things over there.”

3. Attending industry trade shows. “We go to the big trade shows, which is super helpful. You can see everything all at once, plus there is a lot of crossover. You go to these shows, and you might not even realize that you have a problem in your operations, but then you find a piece of equipment or connect with someone in the industry that solves your business problems.”

Coghlan notes the significant payback in attending CONEXPO-CON/AGG, North America’s largest construction trade show. He has been to the last six shows and will be attending the next one, set for March 14-18, 2023, in Las Vegas, NV.

“That show is huge, amazing, and well worth the time!” All the equipment comes together in one spot. You can do hands-on demonstrations and climb all over the equipment.”  

“Another nice benefit is that in one fell swoop you can see everything and compare technology and equipment; plus decide what companies you want to follow up with after the show.”

Attending CONEXPO-CON/AGG enables attendees “to meet up with people from around the world you have communicated with over social media,” he adds. “You can all get together and visit and that is where new ideas happen. You chat with others, talk about how their businesses are going, what’s working for them, what’s not working, and share ideas on how to improve. These industry peers have a lot of valuable knowledge and experience.

Growing through social media

“The amount of reach that you have as a small company on social platforms is incredible”, he notes. “Without the internet, my small operation in a midsize city in Canada could never have gotten the kind of worldwide reach and connections we now get. Plus, we can interact directly, quickly, and easily with other businesses and equipment manufacturers.”

On growing through social media and in doing business, Coghlan explains “we try to align ourselves with companies that have the same kind of values and commitment to quality that we hold ourselves to.”

Shamrock Earthworks takes advantage of Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube to showcase services, widen awareness of the company, generate business, and connect with others in the industry to exchange information. Follow Sean’s social channels to follow his journey and learn more about how he continues to grow his business!

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