Patience and Persistence Pay for U.S. Paving and Stone
If you walk up to Yeager Asphalt’s paving crew for a chat, you might be talking to the company’s CEO without even knowing it. Even after 40 years, 70 employees, and the addition of an asphalt plant, CEO Mark Yeager still runs the Leeboy 8515 paver on most of the company’s jobs in and around Carrollton Township, Michigan.
“With an asphalt plant and a company of this size, that’s unheard of,” Yeager said. “But being on the crew is where I want to be and what I want to be doing.”
After all, it’s where he got his start.
A Teenager, a Truck and a Barrel of Sealer
Yeager grew up familiar with the asphalt industry. He began sealcoating driveways the summer before his senior year of high school with nothing more than a pickup truck and a 55-gallon barrel of sealer in 1978.
By the following year, he’d starting offering asphalt paving, first by hand, then with a Layton pull paver the following year, and then with a used Leeboy paver he bought in 1981.
These early years were a time of industriousness and investment.
During the Michigan winters, Yeager would head to Clearwater, Florida, and sealcoat there. He continued to live with his parents and save every penny to reinvest in his business. It was a strategy that paid off.
“By the mid-80s, I was starting to make really good money and I’d wanted to buy a Lamborghini,” Yeager said, but he instead invested the money in a sealer plant. Year after year, he continued to invest in the future of Yeager Asphalt while quietly laboring alongside the paving crew.
“All of our employees have great respect for Mark, because he’s always there, right alongside them on the job,” said Brad Lewinski, Yeager Asphalt’s vice president and a part owner of U.S. Paving and Stone–the company under which their asphalt plant operates. “If someone came up to the crew and asked for the owner, Mark himself would say he’s just the paver operator and point them in my direction.”
“I love going out on the crew and people don’t know who I am,” Yeager said. “Brad will pull up on the job and the customer won’t believe him when he tells them that I’m the CEO. I don’t want to be at the forefront, I want to be behind the scenes.”
That’s what makes their dynamic tick. As Lewinski puts it, he’s the “political” side of the business, while Yeager is the “tactical” side of the business. “Mark makes the wheels turn,” Lewinski said. “He’s out on the paver, he’s out grading, he’s making sure that what I and my sales guys have promised actually happens.”
At Yeager Asphalt, just as the CEO can run the paver, a mechanic can become vice president.
In 2002, Lewinski started working for Yeager Asphalt as a mechanic after answering an ad in the local paper. Now, he’s the vice president of the company and a partial owner in the new asphalt plant.
After three years as a mechanic, Lewinski saw an opportunity to try something new when the company’s estimator had left for another job. “Mark took me under his wing,” Lewinski said, and soon he was doing all of the estimating and sales. “I was doing it a bit differently than a lot of people in our industry did things back then. Instead of just dropping off a bid in the mailbox, I’d call and make appointments to listen to what they wanted rather than tell them what they needed.”
That strategy worked. Three years later, the company added another sales person, promoting Nick McGuire from within. Then, six years ago, John Manti, had come into Yeager’s office to sell them something and left with a job. And two years ago, they hired George Menard.
In the span of two decades, gross revenue expanded from $2 million to $13 million, Lewinski had transitioned from mechanic to vice president, and Yeager could cut back on his own sales activities and return to what he loved most: riding alongside his crew atop an asphalt paver.
Today, Yeager Asphalt has four sealer crews, one striping crew, a patching crew, two prep crews and one paving crew. Most of its work is paving and maintaining parking lots, but they also continue to pave and maintain private roads and driveways.
“If you work hard and focus on good customer service, it’s not rocket science,” Lewinski said. “Every single customer deserves our attention and respect. It doesn’t matter if we’re paving for a $5,000 mobile home or a million-dollar house, it’s that person’s castle and they both deserve respect and attention.”
“Very few customers don’t deal with me personally at some point in the process,” Lewinski said, adding that he racks up about 5,000 minutes on the phone with customers each month. “I’m communicating with them, going over the scope of the work, letting them know when vehicles will be showing up and what the timeline is. If there’s a problem, I want them to know who to call. Every single customer gets my personal cell phone number.”
Applying these principles, Lewinski said, also often turns some of the worst jobs into the company’s best advertisements. For example, on one job, the crew put on too much crack sealer on one of the hottest summer days on record.
“It got tracked into the business, it got on cars, it was just a mess,” Lewinski recalls. Not only did the crew fix their mistake, but Lewinski also waived the customer’s bill. “We’ve made our money back on that job in referrals alone.”
Doing right by its customers and community was also integral to Yeager Asphalt’s expansion into asphalt production.
Patience Pays Off
Yeager and Lewinski had wanted to buy an asphalt plant since before the 2008 economic recession. But, just as it wasn’t the right time for Yeager to buy a Lamborghini in the mid-80s, it wasn’t the time to invest in an asphalt plant.
“I could tell where things were going,” Yeager said. “I knew no one would be able to afford asphalt, but that people would want to save their investment.”
So they bought the best sealer equipment available and got ready to weather the storm.
“Sure enough, the asphalt market went down to nothing and I flourished while a lot of other companies went out of business,” Yeager said. “People would be trying to sell a doctor on resurfacing or tearing out his lot whereas I would offer to come in and patch and seal it. I’d be honest with him and say that, yes, it does need to be resurfaced or replaced, but that we could do this now and he could resurface when economic times get better. I had a couple of the best years ever.”
It turned out there were other factors that made it wise to wait for the right time to invest in an asphalt plant.
For twenty years, Yeager had his eye on the perfect property for an asphalt plant.
The 50-acre parcel of land was only a couple blocks from the Yeager Asphalt office and right across the street from Yeager’s sealer plant. It was close to the expressway, which made it convenient for customers and expanded its operating distance. And, it was located on the Saginaw River so aggregates could be shipped by boat rather than trucked in.
However, 20 years ago, the title on the property stated that there could be no stone piles on the property. Plus, the asking price was too high and the land was contaminated.
But, over time, each of those negatives turned out to be in Yeager’s favor.
“Other people had wanted to buy that property in the past, but that clause about stone piles kept them from buying it,” Yeager said. He kept an eye on the property and when the termination date of that clause came up, Yeager quickly purchased the property.
“After we signed the purchase agreement, other asphalt companies called the realtor and said, ‘I hope you know Yeager isn’t allowed to have stone piles on that property,’ and the realtor let them know that the clause was up a few months ago,” Yeager said. “It was perfect timing.”
Additionally, the parcel’s status as a contaminated property also turned out to be a benefit to the company during the permitting process in that they qualified for tax exemptions for having purchased contaminated grounds and creating jobs.
“Years ago, people steered away from contaminated properties because the DEQ used to require you to clean the property up before developing on it,” Lewinski said. “But that lead to a lot of vacant properties that were too expensive to develop on due to the environmental cleanup involved.”
However, that’s no longer the case. Instead, prior to any of the assembly, U.S. Paving and Stone hired an environmental company to do a phase one and phase two analysis of the grounds to determine their level of contamination. Then, U.S. Paving and Stone just had to ensure that they would contain the contamination and not contribute to any further contamination.
“We discharge directly into the Saginaw River, so we put a lot of precautions in place to ensure not a single drop of contaminated water from our site enters the river,” Lewinski said, mentioning that the ground had been paved over to cover the contaminated soil and multiple catch basins were installed, among other precautions. “If you put all due care measures in place, you’ll be good to go.”
When they first began the permitting process for the asphalt plant, Lewinski recalls the sentiment among the community.
“There was a lot of distrust because other companies in the area had made promises that never came to fruition,” he said. But, he took the time to get to know the planning commission and answer questions from the community during and after meetings.
“I promised them they wouldn’t smell anything nasty or see anything unsightly,” Lewinski said. “I promised we were going to make it look good and comply with every regulation. I told them I was a man of my word.”
Although some skepticism remained, the plant was approved and U.S. Paving and Stone kept its word.
The company spent around $200,000 beautifying the property.
“We wanted it to have that curb appeal,” Lewinski said. So, they added trees, flowers, bushes and landscaped walls. “I employ a man every day at the plant who does nothing but clean the plant and the grounds.”
“Now, when the community sees our property, they realize how much of an improvement it is over what it was like before,” Lewinski said. “Our whole community is behind us.”
“When you create jobs and improve a distressed property, those are good things,” Lewinski said. “Our crews have a positive impact on our community. They eat at local restaurants for lunch, they stop by the hardware store in town on their way home, there’s a trickle down effect for the businesses in Carrollton Township.”
Although the community grew to support the plant eventually, the permitting process still wasn’t easy.
“It was two years before we could put a shovel to the ground,” Lewinski said. They had to resolve issues with soil erosion, air permits and the property’s location on a floodplain. By the end of it all, Lewinski knew everyone in the DEQ office on a first-name basis.
“We’ve become a showcase for the DEQ,” Lewinski said. “They bring their people to our yard and say, ‘This is how you’re supposed to do it.’”
Since the property has an international dock–it’s located along the Saginaw River less than 20 miles from Lake Huron–they also had to work with Homeland Security and the U.S. Coast Guard.
“That in and of itself was quite an ordeal,” Lewinski said. “It was difficult and certainly a learning process and awfully time consuming.”
But, the process paid off. Now they can receive aggregates by commercial vessel rather than by trucking the material in, which Yeager said is a huge cost savings.
“Already the value of the plant is four or five times what it cost us because of all the things we had to go through to get it up and running,” Yeager said, adding that they’ve already been contacted by companies wanting to buy them out.
In fact, U.S. Paving and Stone is already looking to expand south of Saginaw County.
When the time came, U.S. Paving and Stone purchased a brand new ALmix plant with a maximum capacity of 200 tons per hour.
“I’d gone to a couple other plant manufacturers who didn’t take me seriously,” Yeager said. “It felt like when you pull into a car dealership and the sales guy assumes you can’t afford this car or that car. But ALmix and Mike [Shurtz, the owner of ALmix] treated me like I was serious–which I was–from the very beginning.”
According to Shurtz, Yeager and Lewinski initially leaned upon the advice of an ALmix plant owner in Michigan before deciding to contact ALmix directly. “As a contractor mostly tied to the private work sector, mix appearance was of supreme importance to them,” Shurtz added. “That lead them to the decision to go with the longer mixing times associated with Duo Drum technology.”
“I knew this would be the first asphalt plant we’d purchase,” Lewinski said, “so we got all the bells and whistles.”
Those bells and whistles meant not skimping on cold feed, RAP and RAS bins. The company has six cold feed bins, two RAP bins, and one RAS bin, with a screen associated with each bin rather than one screen for virgin materials and one for RAP. “This allows sizing the screen cloth to the aggregate in the particular bin,” Shurtz said. “This is particularly important in the thinner lifts often associated with private work.” Additionally, all-weather hoods protect the RAP/RAS bins such that mix design percentages are not limited by sudden rainfall.
For example, even though U.S. Paving and Stone doesn’t run warm mix through the plant, they do inject their mix with water via a static blender prior to entering the mixing drum–like they would a warm mix–but they run it at hot mix temperatures.
They also do all of their own crushing and screening of RAP on demand.
“Most asphalt plants crush everything they need for the season in the spring,” Yeager said. “We think it’s better to do it as we need it so it doesn’t harden over the summer.”
Going the extra mile on their mix design is vital for U.S. Paving and Stone.
“A lot of companies were buying from big conglomerates and they were happy with their material,” Lewinski said. To compete, U.S. Paving and Stone hired an award-winning engineer to create their mix designs.
“I knew there would be tremendous scrutiny from our competitors, so we really put ourselves through a battery of testing before opening to the market,” Lewinski said. “We tested not only to meet specifications, but also to appeal to the laborer. We want the guy putting a shovel in our mix, the guy spreading it, to think, ‘This is good mix.’ I want them to tell the foreman to get mix from us.”
“Our RAP percentage is low–like 15 to 20 percent–because we want our mix to be easier to work with,” Yeager said. “To me, the cost savings aren’t enough compared to how much easier the job is going to be for our crew. Doing high RAP isn’t such a big deal on road work, but private jobs require so much more handwork, around islands and curbs and on handicap ramps. I don’t want to make our job harder.”
The amount of RAP the company uses in its mix depends on the job. For Michigan DOT jobs, the cap is set to 20 percent. On private work, they usually run 15 to 20 percent RAP, Yeager said.
“I hate saying this because everyone says it and it’s become a cliche–whenever I read others saying that I think, ‘Ok, whatever’–but our mix really is the best,” Yeager said. “I have customers who’ve laid asphalt a long time who say the same thing about our mix. It’s easy to work with.”
Another thing that sets them apart from the competition are their relationships.
Lewinski’s son, Trevor, is the plant operator. He started working at the company at the age of 16 and rose through the ranks of the sealer division before becoming U.S. Paving and Stone’s plant operator.
“Trevor talks to all the truck drivers coming through on the CB,” Lewinski said. “He’s developing relationships with all of them. ‘Hey Tom, how are you doing today? How much do you need?’–that sort of thing–not just ‘Get over in this line.’ It’s a personal touch.”
They’re also willing to meet the unique needs of their customers because they know what their customers are going through
“With big box suppliers, if we wanted to pave on a Saturday they’d have a 300-ton minimum,” Lewinski said. “Or, they wouldn’t want to fire up the plant at night. Or, we’d be fighting to get the mix designs we needed on a particular day.”
Now, that’s not an issue–for Yeager’s crews and the crews of U.S. Paving and Stone’s customers.
“We know how frustrating that can be, so we try to be very accomodating to our customers,” Lewinski said. “They aren’t a number when they buy from us. If they need 200 tons on a Sunday, we can say, ‘No problem, Bob. What time do you want to pull?’”
Leap of Faith, Look to the Future
“Buying the asphalt plant was a big leap of faith for us,” Lewinski said. “There are thousands upon thousands of paving companies, but the asphalt plant world is small.”
In fact, Lewinski recalls, some companies in the area tried to discourage them from making such a large purchase. But, with good timing and hard work, that leap of faith was the right call.
In 2016, U.S. Paving and Stone manufactured around 40,000 tons of asphalt and last year, they manufactured 65,000 tons.
“I foresee producing 75,000 tons of asphalt this year and 100,000 tons of asphalt next year,” Yeager said. “We aren’t in a big metropolitan area. I think our market could support around 100,000 tons.”
According to Lewinski, the plant has never lost money. “It’s been profitable since day one.” And, with the ALmix plant they chose, they also have room to grow. The plant could support between 100,000 and 120,000 tons per year at maximum capacity.
“We don’t want to be a grow a monster company,” Lewinski said. “There comes a point where you get so big that you lose focus on how you got to where you are. We never want to get to that point.”
Despite its growth, Yeager Asphalt and U.S. Paving and Stone continue to be family businesses. In addition to Trevor Lewinski running the plant, Brad Lewinski’s wife, Sherry, is the office manager and Yeager’s wife, Shannon, is the company’s CFO.
“I’ve also got twin sons who are now 12 years old,” Yeager said. “Maybe they’ll want to get into the business. That would be the ultimate dream. Maybe they’ll want to pave roads or open three more plants, but I’m leaving that up to them. It’s there if they want it.”
When asked what’s next for the company, Lewinski said it’s difficult to say.
“Whatever God puts in front of us,” he said. “Whatever challenge or opportunity that might be, we will always do right by our customers, our employees and our community.”