Terra Contracting Uses Powerful Principles to Propel Growth
Terra Contracting, recently acquired by industry giant Great Lakes Dredge & Dock, uses six principles—integrity, safety, customer focus, intensity, training and teamwork—to deliver high quality projects that exceed customer expectations.
KALAMAZOO, MI – March 20, 2013 – “One of the toughest decisions I have ever made was to leave the family business and start my own company,” says Steve Taplin, President of Terra Contracting. But Taplin cherished the business lessons his father taught him, emphasizing the importance of hard work, integrity and honesty. These principles helped grow Terra Contracting from a small, family-owned company to the multi-million dollar corporation recently acquired by Great Lakes Dredge & Dock for $20 million.
Headquartered in Kalamazoo, MI, Terra Contracting is a leading environmental remediation firm that employs approximately 200 engineering, operations and administrative staff and serves customers in more than 30 states in the environmental, infrastructure, energy, industrial, transportation, wastewater and construction sectors. Terra’s services include the removal and remediation of contaminated sediment, soil and groundwater, superfund site clean-ups, hazardous waste removal and brownfield site restoration, facility and equipment decontamination and decommissioning, tank cleaning, hazardous materials abatement, emergency response services, and municipal utility, sewer and wastewater infrastructure maintenance, inspection and refurbishment.
Taplin remembers what his dad, Al Taplin, always told him: “Be honest! Do every job the right way. Be passionate about what you do and take care of your customers.” Taplin also remembers learning teamwork from his parents. “While my dad did the work in the field, my mom was at home, taking phone calls from customers, keeping the books straight, and managing the home. It was definitely a team effort. They built the business together.” Even though his parents’ company, A&B Sewer Cleaning, focused on residential sewer and drain services rather than environmental services, these guiding principles bridged the generations and the industries.
“The six principles are still the heart and soul of Terra Contracting today,” Taplin emphasizes. “If you work at Terra, one thing you can be sure of is that you will often be reminded of them – hopefully at least once a day, if not more. These six principles by which we make all of our important decisions are no accident. They weren’t made up in some dark, smoke-filled room. We didn’t find them in some trendy management book. We inherited these principles and we gladly accepted them because they had been tried and tested in the field to prove their worth.”
Taplin began work in the family business at the age of 13, helping his dad and brothers build septic tanks and clean out sewer and drain lines. “It was tough, hard work, and dad set the bar really high,” explains Taplin. “I had never worked anywhere else. I took a lot of pride in the work we did as a family. My dad was very supportive of my decision to create Terra. He had seen it coming and he encouraged me to do what I wanted to do.”
One of the first things Taplin did at Terra Contracting was to establish the six principles he had grown up with in his father’s company. “That was, and is, the baseline for all of our decisions,” he explains. “It impacts every phase of our operations, from hiring team members to doing the work on site. It all begins with integrity. When we hire someone, we explain our dedication to the six principles during the interview process. When you make a mistake and hire someone who does not believe in the principles, it shows up pretty fast in how they work and deal with team members and customers.”
Another trait that helped catapult Terra Contracting to success was Taplin’s “can-do” attitude. He was never afraid to take on a big project. “One day we were having lunch, and we got a call from Enbridge (a multi-national oil pipeline operator). The caller wanted to know if we did spill response. We replied ‘yes’—and then he asked us to bring everything we had to work on a large oil spill on the Kalamazoo River. I was on the site in less than 40 minutes,” explained Taplin. That phone call turned into a $35 million project for Terra, and Enbridge remains a Terra Contracting client today.
While Terra was winning contracts and growing, it was not without challenges. “We work in a very capital intensive industry. It costs a lot of money to purchase the equipment we need. The main barrier we faced in winning larger contracts was not our desire or capabilities, but our ability to secure the required bonding,” said Taplin. “We had proven we could do very large, complex jobs, and do them very well. That is one reason we wanted to become part of Great Lakes Dredge & Dock. They offered the financial and physical resources that will enable us to win those large projects that will take us to the next level.”
While much of the work Terra does involves moving or removing thousands of cubic yards of contaminated earth or thousands of gallons of contaminants, technology is still important. “I remember working for my dad’s company, and we had financial issues and job status reporting issues. We never really knew how we had done financially until the end of the quarter and bonuses were calculated. I knew we couldn’t manage Terra without technology to manage the process better,” says Taplin.
“Today, at Terra we use technology to manage everything. From the operations of our digging and pumping equipment to the exact status of every project, we use technology every day, all day. It guides our GPS-enabled equipment and tracks the status of each project. A lot of our employees were old-school engineers. They had to adapt and learn. That is where the ‘Training’ principle comes into play. If I deploy new technology and fail to train my employees, we both fail. If you do a good job training, and explaining the benefits technology will deliver, employees will use it and embrace it.”
As Terra has grown, environmental remediation remains its focus. In 2011, the company completed 108 remediation projects, and in 2012 the work accounted for revenues of $40.0 million or 77% of company sales. However, Terra has also expanded its services, which now include abatement services, municipal and industrial environmental services, brownfield site restoration, hydro evacuation, wetlands construction, landfill capping and maintenance, lagoon cleanups and closures as well as abandoned site cleanup and restoration.
2012 was a pivotal year for Terra Contracting. “We were growing and everything was going well, but I knew if we wanted to reach that next level, we needed to partner with another company. John Sloan, Vice Chairman of Allegiance Capital contacted me in late 2011. Allegiance is the firm we hired to advise us during the sales process. I had talked to several investment bankers, but John was different. He fit into our six principles. I trusted him. He and his colleague, Jim Derks, were passionate about understanding our business. They trained us on the sales process and they were dedicated to us as a customer,” Taplin comments.
“Great Lakes, the buyer Allegiance brought to us, was also a great fit,” Taplin continues. “Our philosophies were the same—get the job done right! They have never failed to complete a marine job in 122 years, and Terra has never started a job in 23 years that we have not finished. They are primarily a dredging contractor, with very little experience in environmental remediation. They have the equipment and the financial backing needed to win major contracts. They can take Terra to the next level, and we can help them break into markets they could not reach. It is a win-win for everyone.”
Great Lakes CEO Jon Berger stated, “The Terra acquisition fits our strategic vision to gain a stronger foothold in the environmental remediation market. Terra will broaden our demolition segment with additional services and expertise as well as expand our footprint in the Midwest. Terra reinforces our efforts to develop relationships with larger industrial and governmental clients. Additionally, our rivers and lakes operations can leverage Terra’s environmental remediation focus to accelerate its participation in the environmental dredging market.”
The sale to Great Lakes Dredge & Dock has not dampened Taplin’s enthusiasm for building the business. “With the decommissioning of coal fired power plants and new environmental cleanup sites being identified almost daily, I see a very bright future for Terra. We expect to generate approximately $65 million in revenue this year and add even more projects to the backlog. This is a great opportunity for the team and the new company we have created together!”
The only challenge Taplin cited about selling Terra Contracting was personally letting go. “One day, after the sale, my son and I were driving through Kalamazoo. He saw some equipment and asked if it was mine. It was only then that I realized it was no longer mine,” Taplin recalls. “Equipment is almost personal. You own it. However, if you want to move on to the next level you have to let go. We have a great team at Terra! We could never have achieved the success we achieved without the team we developed. You have to realize that it is best for the company and for everyone if you put personal feelings aside and take that next step. ”
Selling a business can present challenges. “As you go through the process, you have to disconnect from it personally and realize it is a business transaction. It is not personal. You have to look at it objectively, and put yourself in the position of the buyer to understand why they are asking some of the questions. Allegiance Capital did a good job of preparing us for the questions and assisting us in the process. That made it all easier.”
What advice would Taplin give to anyone starting a business today? “You need to be passionate about what you choose to do and remember something my dad told me. He said, ‘You always give first and take last.’ You have to set your sights beyond tomorrow and what is in it for you. You have to be prepared to make sacrifices. You have to be the first one to take a pay cut and the last one to be repaid. I never ever cut my worker’s pay. I had to cut the pay of salaried workers a few times, but I always made it up to them as soon as possible and I was always the last to be paid.”
If you drive by a Terra Contracting job site a few years after the work is completed, you probably won’t see anything out of the ordinary: a field full of beautiful wild flowers, a river flowing with clear cool water, or possibly a new commercial development. That is exactly the way Al Taplin would have wanted it. As Steve explains, “Every time my dad finished pouring a septic tank, he would place his initials on the wet concrete. He knew the tank would be buried, and that nobody would ever see his work. But he taught us that we should be proud enough of your work to put your name on it—even if you are the only one who sees it. I think my dad would be very proud of what Terra does today.”
About Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Corporation
Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Corporation is the largest provider of dredging services in the United States and the only U.S. dredging company with significant international operations. The Company is also one of the largest U.S. providers of commercial and industrial demolition services primarily in the Northeast. The Company owns a 50% interest in a marine sand mining operation in New Jersey that supplies sand and aggregate for road and building construction and a 50% interest in an environmental service operation with the ability to remediate soil and dredged sediment treatment. Great Lakes employs over 150 degreed engineers, most specializing in civil and mechanical engineering, which contributes to its 122-year history of never failing to complete a marine project. Great Lakes has a disciplined training program for engineers that ensures experienced-based performance as they advance through Company operations. Great Lakes also owns and operates the largest and most diverse fleet in the industry, comprised of over 200 specialized vessels.
About Terra Contracting, LLC
Headquartered in Kalamazoo, MI, Terra employs approximately 200 engineering, operations and administrative staff and serves customers in more than 30 states in the environmental, infrastructure, energy, industrial, transportation, wastewater and construction sectors. Terra’s services include the removal and remediation of contaminated sediment, soil and groundwater, superfund site clean-ups, hazardous waste removal and brownfield site restoration, facility and equipment decontamination and decommissioning, tank cleaning, hazardous materials abatement, emergency response services, and municipal utility, sewer and wastewater infrastructure maintenance, inspection and refurbishment. For more information go to: www.terracontracting.net.
About Allegiance Capital Corporation
Allegiance Capital Corporation is an investment bank specializing in financing and selling businesses in the lower middle market. Allegiance Capital Corporation was recently named to American City Business Journal’s distinguished list of Who’s Who in Energy 2012, in addition to being named third on the list of 2011 Largest Investment Banking Firms in North Texas (Dallas Business Journal). Allegiance Capital Corporation has won multiple awards recognizing the value it delivers to clients. Examples include: 2009 Dealmaker of the Year (Dallas Business Journal), 2008 Boutique Investment Bank of the Year (M&A Advisor), and 2006 Investment Bank of the Year (Dallas Business Journal). Subscribe to the Capital Ideas blog by visiting: www.allcapcorp.com/blog. Follow Allegiance Capital Corporation on LinkedIn and Twitter: @ALLCAP.
Allegiance Capital Corporation