Whether it’s a two-lane highway, work along I-70, a college track or a parking lot, if it’s asphalt and it’s in west central Indiana, Wabash Valley Asphalt Company, Terre Haute, Ind., is after it.
Although the company does some light excavation and its own stone work, its true focus is–and has always been–asphalt.
“We were set up to be an asphalt producer and paving contractor and we’ve been doing that for 80 or 90 years now,” Wabash Valley President John Collett said.
Wabash Valley Asphalt’s roots trace all the way back to 1933, when John Kelly and John White founded the company. In the 1960s, the Kelly family bought out John White and in 2001, the company became part of The Heritage Group, which also traces its roots back to the early 1930s.
Collett himself got his start in 1991. After he graduated from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute with a degree in civil engineering, he was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army.
“After I completed my service, I wanted to come back home,” he said. So, he interviewed at Wabash. “I didn’t have any experience in the industry, but I was lucky enough to get hired.”
Wabash, and the asphalt industry in general, worked out well for him. A few years ago, he became the president of Wabash Valley and he will also be the 2018 president of the Asphalt Pavement Association of Indiana.
Traditional Values, Modern Approach
Today, Wabash Valley has two asphalt plants–one in Terre Haute and one in Cloverdale about 30 miles from its other plant along the I-70 corridor–both of which are CMI plants with Dillman drums.
The two plants supply all of Wabash Valley’s crew’s’ needs, as well as supply asphalt to other contractors. About 85 percent of its mix is used by the company’s own crews, which run Cat, Roadtec and Vogele pavers, as well as Cat, Volvo and Hamm rollers.
The Terre Haute plant produces between 200,000 and 300,000 tons of mix annually, while the Cloverdale plant production varies widely based on the volume of INDOT work in the area.
Although Wabash’s current plant in Terre Haute was built in 1997, the company has had plants in the area from the very beginning. The location of its second plant has moved a few times in the company’s history, but it’s been in Cloverdale since 2004.
Wabash Valley, a union employer, has around 60 employees when it’s busy but drops to around 20 during the winter. Its paving season runs from April to November.
“Winter is maintenance and bidding work,” Collett said. “That’s when the mechanics are busy taking care of the equipment and we do most of our INDOT bidding.”
For Wabash, INDOT work accounts for nearly half of all the work the company does. Collett estimates another 20 percent goes toward city and county jobs, and then the remaining portion consists of commercial projects, churches and schools.
“If it’s in our area and it’s an asphalt pavement, we specialize in it,” Collett said. “We are an asphalt paving contractor and that is our wheelhouse.”
In addition to its “all-asphalt, all the time” mentality, the company also sets itself apart with a dedication to training and a no-nonsense, no-surprises approach.
All Asphalt, All the Time
“That’s another reason we focus on paving,” Collett said. “We want our crews to be really, really good at what they do.”
When Wabash Valley shuts down its paving operation in late November or early December, it sends its mechanics to service schools. Paving foremen/superintendents go to schools offered by NAPA or APAI or a supplier school.
“We really take advantage of the fact that our associations and suppliers provide excellent training opportunities,” Collett said. “Every year, we look at what didn’t go so well the previous year and determine where we should focus our training.”
The specific training an employee will receive will depend on their individual needs, so before the season closes and training begins, Collett will sit down with the company leadership and determine what they need help with. That’s one benefit of having additional time during the winter.
“We’re not just bulk training everyone,” Collett said. “We try to train our employees with their individual needs in mind. Not every employee is at the same stage of their career.”
In addition to sending crew members to training opportunities through associations and manufacturers, Wabash Valley also utilizes its own internal resources. “We have some pretty experienced people,” he said. The company has had its own internal rolling and paving schools and brings outside experts to speak directly to its crews.
For example, to learn paver electronics, Wabash Valley called on two of its foremen and one outside expert to teach everyone on its crews how to use the electronics systems.
“That way, we can train all of our crew members on more advanced things in the winter, because you never know when you’re going to lose someone and it’s also good for their own professional development,” Collett said.
When it comes to training, one of Wabash Valley’s greatest partners has been APAI.
“They have sessions on many topics at their annual conference,” Collett said. Wabash usually sends around 10 employees to the conference to learn each December.
No Spec Surprises, No Nonsense
“What also sets us apart is our no-nonsense approach,” Collett said. “We’re quick and efficient and we pay a lot of attention to detail. Most of the time, we quote it, we build it, and that’s just the way it goes. No surprises.”
Although every contractor goes in with a plan, Wabash cuts back on potential surprises by returning to survey the job prior to the start of the job. “We want to go check the lay of the land and make sure the job’s ready to go when we touch the ground,” Collett said.
The employees pay special attention to drainage issues, which tend to be among the most significant surprises.
Despite this revisit, most of Wabash Valley’s bidding work is completed in the winter. Collett estimates that around 90 percent of the time, the company–despite being relatively small–will check out its jobs before even bidding them.
“It’s very rare that we don’t have feet on the ground before we bid something, unless it’s brand new and there’s nothing to look at,” Collett said.
APAI also helps Wabash achieve its goal of no-nonsense and no surprises by keeping the company aware of upcoming spec changes.
“What normally happens as a new spec works its way through INDOT, APAI’s technical committee shares its input along the way and keeps their members informed so there are no surprises,” Collett said. “If I wasn’t involved in APAI, INDOT usually doesn’t talk about changes until they hit the spec book and I’d be trying to bid with a spec that I might not understand. As a member, I know it’s coming, I can plan for it, I can investigate the new specification in regard to economics and ease of production. Essentially, I get advance notice of any changes within the industry.”
For example, when INDOT released new specs regarding asphalt properties and volumetrics, Collett and Wabash were well informed that they needed an updated mineral filler system on its Cloverdale plant.
“Any question about any spec, any new issues, they usually have already done the research, interacted with INDOT about it, and understand the intentions behind the spec,” Collett said. “Even though INDOT has final say, they really stay involved so that they understand everything and know in advance how it’s going to affect all of our jobs.”