Journey Group Diversifies for Growth
The history of the Journey Group, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, dates all the way back to 1910 when the company was known as Sioux Falls Construction.
“For a company to succeed back in the day it had to self-perform all kinds of work,” said Ryan Kerkvliet, Journey Group’s vice president of asphalt paving. When the company launched its asphalt paving division in 1950, that division of the company became the first paving contractor based in Sioux Falls.
In 2014, the company changed its name to Journey Group, which encompases a vertical construction division, Journey Group Construction; a civil construction division, Sioux Falls Civil Constructors; a division based in Spearfish, South Dakota, that performs vertical and civil construction, Ainsworth-Benning Construction; and Black-Top Paving, Journey Group’s asphalt division that also performs grading, asphalt maintenance and concrete work. Despite the name change, Journey Group continues to self-perform a wide variety of work in and around the city of Sioux Falls.
“Not only is our company diversified with the construction sectors we serve, but we’re also diversified in the services each sector provides,” Kerkvliet said. Prior to 2014, Black-Top Paving only performed grading and asphalt paving, but has since expanded to offer pavement maintenance and concrete work in order to meet the demands of the market. The division frequently found itself on jobs that required a small amount of concrete work that often needed to be completed before its crews could do their work.
“Sometimes we struggled to find a concrete contractor willing to come in and do that work,” Kerkvliet said, “especially if the job was small.” And so, Black-Top Paving expanded its services. “That gave us better control over our asphalt jobs, allowing us to get our work done in a timely fashion without having to wait for other contractors.”
The division also discovered similar benefits when it expanded into pavement maintenance. “A lot of the large property managers prefer to deal with just one contractor versus having to find and schedule several contractors,” Kerkvliet said. “Ultimately, expanding into pavement maintenance and concrete work has allowed us to get more asphalt paving work.”
Projects that involve every scope of work that Black-Top Paving offers are near and dear to Kerkvliet, such as a recent project at Sioux Falls Federal Credit Union. Black-Top Paving’s crews placed new concrete curb and gutter and sidewalks, but they also had to address several parking lots on the site, each of which with its own needs. Some of them required removal and replacement, some were overlaid, and others just required crack sealing. “It’s always neat to be on those types of projects,” Kerkvliet said. “Not a lot of companies can self perform that work.”
It’s an illustration of how far the division has come. When Kerkvliet started at Journey Group in 2010, the asphalt division consisted of one crew that performed grading and paving. Today, 62 of Journey Group’s 300 employees are in the asphalt division.
This includes a team of six office staff, including Kerkvliet and five estimators and project managers. Black-Top Paving also has two crews devoted to grading, prep work and milling. “We’d love to have three of those crews, but it’s been hard to find employees,” Kerkvliet said. It also has three concrete crews, one focusing on curb and gutter install, one handset crew, and a box crew for inlets, storm sewers, etc.
Its maintenance crew performs crack sealing, sealcoating and striping and its two asphalt paving crews perform a variety of work ranging from $500 asphalt patches to $8 million state jobs. However, Kerkvliet estimates that around 75% of its paving jobs are asphalt parking lots and city streets.
Journey Group also has close relationships with several large entities in the Sioux Falls area, including Avera Health, South Dakota’s largest private employer, and the University of Sioux Falls. “With Journey as a whole, we’re able to be their go-to, whether they need site work, new building construction, or parking lot maintenance.”
City Grows, Company Grows
At least some of the company’s growth can be attributed to the growth of Sioux Falls. “The market has been outstanding here, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kerkvliet said. “There’s a lot of work to be had out here.”
“South Dakota was pretty progressive in its handling of COVID-19, in terms of keeping people safe while also allowing businesses to remain open so our market could continue to thrive,” Kerkvliet said. “We’ve seen a lot of people and businesses move into our state.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, South Dakota ranked 10th nationwide in terms of population growth between 2020 and 2021. The state also experienced population growth above the U.S. average between 2010 and 2020, the most significant changes of which occurred in South Dakota’s cities. For example, Lincoln County, which contains parts of Sioux Falls, experienced the state’s fastest population growth of 45% between 2010 and 2020.
Kerkvliet is originally from South Dakota, and returned to the state after living in Colorado for several years to be closer to his family and his wife’s family. “Although Sioux Falls is South Dakota’s most populous city, it still isn’t a big city,” Kerkvliet said, adding that it’s easy to take a quick weekend trip back to the farm where he grew up to hunt and spend time on the lake with family and friends. “And it still has a hometown feel.”
Additionally, Journey Group expects to benefit from Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) funding in the coming years. Kerkvliet anticipates the company’s bridge division will see the greatest impact from IIJA, but that the asphalt paving division will also benefit. “We do bid for DOT jobs,” he said. “And if we don’t get it, we’re usually able to pick up additional work in the market that our competitors busy doing DOT work aren’t able to take on.”
In fact, Kerkvliet said, with the strength of the Sioux Falls market, the limiting factor for growth is often finding skilled employees. “Every company here is struggling with that. When we have good people, the work is there for us.”
In order to attract quality employees, Journey Group offered walk-in interviews every Monday evening throughout March 2022. They also invested in radio and billboard advertising, an employee referral bonus program, and increased wages during the last two years. “We want to pay at the top of the market and are trying to set the bar high here at Black-Top Paving,” Kerkvliet said.
Another aspect that Kerkvliet believes sets Black-Top Paving apart is its workplace culture. “It’s hard enough doing this work, dealing with 90-degree heat, traffic, and the traveling public honking at you, so we try to make our work environment as good as we can,” he said. “We have a high standard for our leaders to treat people the way they’d like to be treated and give feedback constructively.”
Kerkvliet also tries to make himself visible and accessible to Black-Top’s employees, often showing up to foremen and crew meetings in the morning or heading out into the field during the day. “Our project managers and superintendents aren’t above going out and helping shovel if need be,” Kerkvliet said. “Illustrating that this is a team and we’re all in this together starts from the top.”
Engaging the whole crew in the plan for the day is another way to demonstrate the division’s commitment to teamwork. Kerkvliet has seen work cultures where a foreman gives one instruction, the employee completes the task, and waits for the next instruction. “That’s not our way. We put a lot of effort into communicating the plan for each project and give employees a chance to offer input, address safety concerns, and get involved in the process.”
To maximize employee engagement and retain quality employees, Journey Group implemented career pathing last year.
“We started with our asphalt paving crews, laying out every position and what is required for each role, the tasks performed by that position, and how to move up to the next position,” Kerkvliet said. For example, if an employee starts as a laborer, they have a clear path of what they need to do to move up to a skid steer operator or roller operator, on up to the paver operator and screed operator, and into management roles. “If you don’t communicate what’s next, there’s nothing to look forward to. We want to show they have something to work toward.”
Already, this strategy has helped a couple laborers from the 2021 paving season progress more quickly. “One of our laborers did so well he moved up to a screed operator,” Kerkvliet said. “Not everyone will be able to move through the positions that quickly, but this individual has been very successful. The people who are interested in improving, who want to continue to train, are the types of people who could be foremen for us down the road.”
At least in the Sioux Falls market, that will be key to the continued growth of Black-Top Paving. “If we didn’t have the team we have, we couldn’t grow,” Kerkvliet said. “The quality of the work they put in is a reflection of work to come.”
Black-Top Paving’s asphalt crews run two Caterpillar pavers, a newer AP1055 paver and an AP655F purchased this year. “We like Caterpillar equipment because it’s good, but also because we want to be consistent across our crews so if a paver operator is gone we can bring in someone from another crew to help without them having to relearn a new paver,” Kerkvliet said. The company has the same strategy for its Cat skid steers, Hamm rollers, John Deere loaders, and Cat graders. They’ve also begun using GPS on their grading equipment. “That’s really increased our production rate, especially on fine grading,” Kerkvliet said. The pavers they’ve recently purchased are also GPS-compatible, and Kerkvliet anticipates using those capabilities in the future.