Rock Road Rolls into 110th Year
The Wisconsin roots of Rock Road Companies Inc., Janesville, run deep—110 years deep, to be exact. The family business was founded by William J. Kennedy and Matthew Kennedy as a railroad grading company in 1913 before expanding into excavation in 1920 and construction in 1926 with the purchase of additional equipment.
After Robert J. Kennedy Sr. returned from World War II and completed college at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater, he joined the business with his father, William. The duo decided it was time to expand the business. These ambitions were well-timed; following the 1956 passage of legislation funding the construction of the U.S. Interstate Highway System, the company expanded its operations into Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa, Kentucky and Tennessee.
In the 1960s, the company broke into the asphalt business with the formation of its subsidiary, Bituminous Materials Inc. In the ensuing decades, the company purchased several asphalt operations and the Rock Road name was born.
Rock Road Now
Today, Rock Road employs approximately 200 people during the construction season and offers asphalt paving, asphalt and aggregate sales, site excavation and grading, utility construction and general contracting throughout Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
Rock Road has nine asphalt plants and multiple pits and quarries, including its Monroe, Beloit, Airport Pit and Rockford facilities; two portable plants, Ultra and Bituma; and its Sun Prairie, Menomonee Falls and Jones Road plants acquired through the 2018 purchase of Wolf Paving.
“Despite the many aspects of our business, we’re known primarily as an asphalt paving and production company,” said Vice President of Marketing Kelsey Kennedy, adding that the company’s bread and butter is heavy highway paving. “We’ve worked really hard to be seen as an expert in that area, hiring very skilled operators and project managers who are equipped to handle the diverse range of paving projects we take on.”
Kennedy said Rock Road is always looking for opportunities to expand its asphalt paving operations. “That’s why we acquired Wolf Paving a few years back,” she said, adding that the acquisition has enabled Rock Road to expand into the eastern region of the state. “Having Wolf Paving as a sister company has allowed us to better serve the residential market. It’s also been beneficial to be able to utilize one another’s resources. Rock Road also had the opportunity to purchase the paving assets of William Charles earlier this year, which is another acquisition we are proud to have completed.”
Some of the projects that most stand out in the company’s history include the reconstruction of Wisconsin’s Highway 140 and widening of Interstate 90 in 2008 and various projects for the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority. In fact, the company was recognized by the Authority as Contractor of the Year in 2003 and again in 2008.
Recent projects that stand out include the mill and overlay of 5.5 miles of Interstate 43 from Clinton to Darien and the reconstruction of 4.5 miles U.S. Highway 12 south of Fort Atkinson.
What made the I-43 project stand out was that it was one of the first Wisconsin DOT projects in the state’s southwestern region to receive a surface course of stone matrix asphalt (SMA). Rock Road won the bid to mill and overlay the four-lane divided highway connecting Illinois to Milwaukee with two lifts of asphalt sourced from its Beloit plant: 2 ¼ inches of 3HT PG58-28S and 1 ¾ inches of 4SMA PG58-28H.
“The results [of that project] were proved in the ride incentives and volumetric results,” said Rock Road Vice President Josh Biddick. “This project received many compliments from project staff and WisDOT.”
One of Rock Road’s recent investments in improving operations was transitioning from a physical control panel to automated plant control systems from MINDS in order to access cloud-based ticketing, attract younger talent to the industry and “see in detail what’s going on at the plant,” said Rock Road Vice President Josh Biddick.
Rock Road’s project on USH 12 was also a success for the company. “The existing roadway [on the project section USH 12] had reached its service life and was not up to safety standards,” Biddick said. “A full reconstruct provided the best, most viable option for the future roadway.”
Rock Road was proud to be involved in every step of the reconstruction, including excavation, base placement, pipe, finishing and paving—all while maintaining access to surrounding communities.
“Although the roadway was closed to through traffic, there were many locals living on the stretch of USH 12,” Biddick said. This presented challenges throughout the duration of the project, requiring significant coordination between Rock Road, locals and emergency services. “Rock Road provided weekly (sometimes daily) updates to the school district, emergency services and locals. This alleviated many complaints and made the project flow smoothly.”
The USH 12 project used 29,000 tons of hot mix asphalt and 162,000 tons of aggregate, with 35% of the base aggregate consisting of crushed asphalt and concrete—eliminating 2,500 truckloads of both fresh material and material disposal. The final pavement design included 16 inches of crushed and stabilized subgrade, 8 inches of 1 ¼-inch crushed aggregate base course, 3 inches of 3MT PG58-28S HMA and 2 ½ inches of 4MT PG58-28S HMA sourced from Rock Road’s Nabor Pit.
“The overall finished product looks and rides above specification,” Biddick said. “Many compliments were received on the pavement and overall look of the project.”
In 1995, Rock Road became the first company in the U.S. to warranty its roadwork.
“The projects of which we’re most proud are those that really show our strengths in heavy highway asphalt paving,” Kennedy said. “Over the years, we’ve become known for our infrastructure expertise. It’s incredibly moving to be trusted to build the infrastructure that connects community to community, state to state.”
In fact, it was that sense of community that brought Kennedy back to Wisconsin from Chicago after college. “I think what called me back is the sense of community we have here,” she said. “I always had that feeling within my family, but whether or not a person is a Kennedy, we’re a family at Rock Road.”
Kennedy has now worked at Rock Road for 10 years, and is among the company’s fifth generation of Kennedys. “It’s exciting to be a part of helping the communities we serve grow from the ground up,” she said.
“There aren’t a lot of women in the construction industry, but this is beginning to change,” Kennedy said. Wendy Bloedow is one of the company’s newest paving foremen and one of the first woman paving foremen in the State of Wisconsin. “She has done an exceptional job encouraging women new to our industry. Whether a woman works in the office or on the crew, it’s important to know that these are great jobs and that they can make a good living in this industry.”
In 2013, in honor of Rock Road’s 100-year anniversary, the Kennedy family established the Kennedy Family Foundation. The foundation supports nonprofit charitable organizations in Rock County and its surrounding areas, ranging from religious, scientific and educational programs that “contribute to the betterment of our society and local community.” Each year, the foundation supports more than 100 different programs, including the Boys & Girls Club of Janesville, Rock County Youth Sports Programs, Janesville Performing Arts Center, Walworth County 4-H and Rock County First Responder Community Initiatives, among many others.
“I think it’s only natural that when you’re in the business of building infrastructure that connects communities that a sense of community would be one of our core values,” Kennedy said. “We don’t just want to build our community, we don’t just want to be a part of our community. We want to serve it.”
One project that was a particularly good fit for the Foundation and Rock Road was developing a transportation system and fundraising to help children without means to get themselves to the Boys & Girls Club in Janesville. “We continue to support them year after year as one of their Be Great sponsors,” Kennedy said.
Leading the Industry
Not only has Rock Road been a longstanding member of its community, but the company has also been an enduring supporter of the asphalt industry in Wisconsin and nationwide.
Throughout the past few decades, Rock Road has racked up numerous state awards, including the 2001 Secretary’s Award from the WisDOT, WisDOT’s 2003 Outstanding Airport Construction Award, WisDOT’s 2004 Outstanding Construction Project Award, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Hot Mix Leadership Award in 2004 and 2017.
Rock Road has also supported the national asphalt industry. In 1988, Robert J. Kennedy Sr. received the Distinguished Service Award from the National Asphalt Pavement Association. In 2005, Rock Road received the NAPA Community Involvement Award.
Rock Road has also played a critical role in the Wisconsin Asphalt Pavement Association. When the Association was incorporated as the Wisconsin Bituminous Paving Association in December 1948 with the mission of promoting HMA pavement in the state and liaising between the private sector and government, L.M. Hayes, of the original Rock Road that was later purchased by the Kennedys, was among its founding members.
After the initiation of the Interstate Highway System under President Eisenhower in 1956, WBPA was reorganized to position the Wisconsin asphalt industry to take an active role in new highway construction in the state, with Mike Hayes as president from 1956 until 1963.
Even after WBPA changed its name to the Wisconsin Asphalt Pavement Association in 1965, Road Road continued to be a big part of the association. Robert Kennedy Sr. served as president from 1990 to 1991. Steve Kennedy served as president from 1995 to 1997, 2004 to 2005 and in 2015. In 2024, Rock Road’s president, Jacob Mrugacz, will serve as WAPA president—an honor of which Rock Road is very proud.
“Rock Road feels lucky to be involved in WAPA and share innovative technologies with our competitors for the good of the quality of the HMA product,” said Rock Road Vice President Steve Kennedy
In 2023, WAPA celebrates 75 years of serving the asphalt industry of Wisconsin. WAPA’s Annual Conference and Business Meeting will be held Nov. 28 and 29 at the Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells.
Start with Safety
In 2010, Rock Road and its director of risk management, Ryan Spies, received the National Safety Council’s Rising Star of Safety Award. “Safety has always been and will always be our top priority,” Kennedy said. “Some recent safety initiatives include the implementation of a two-day safety training session before each season begins and mandatory toolbox talks at the start of every shift to discuss challenges that might arise during the shift and how to safely overcome them.
One of Spies’ top initiatives recently has been a comprehensive program to mitigate injuries from working in the heat, in response to the extreme heat of recent summers and OSHA’s Outdoor and Indoor Heat National Emphasis Program. “Heat continues to be a hazard with our paving division working outdoors in the summer,” Spies said. The program involves continuous training, starting at Rock Road’s spring safety meeting, on the causes, symptoms, treatment and prevention methods for heat related illness. “During the season we identify forecasted episodes of extreme heat and respond through adjusted scheduling and using all resources available to support the employees working in the heat.” Since implementation of this approach, Rock Road has had no serious heat related illness events.