Onsite Artist

J.D. Hanna Excavating creates effective systems, on time and on budget, even on sites challenged with the presence of New Hampshire granite.
Onsite Artist

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Doing the best he can in every situation, on every job site and in all of life – that's what drives Jim Hanna, owner of J.D. Hanna Excavating, from one success to another.

Neither technology nor equipment makes Hanna successful. Instead, it's his drive that inspires his employees to achieve great outcomes. Attention to detail and attentiveness to changing markets, new circumstances and emerging technologies are other attributes Hanna nurtures in himself and in others.

Based in Warner, N.H., about 85 miles northwest of Boston, Hanna chooses jobs carefully. "Most jobs are within about 50 miles of Warner, but as fuel prices rise and returns are limited, I find I am more selective," he says. "On the other hand, I will follow a good client." In the past, he has worked jobs in Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Maine.

When working close to home, Hanna rarely installs conventional systems – site conditions prevent it. He has learned to construct mounds, often using alternative media to deal with sites on severe slopes or with rock near the surface.

A hands-on guy

Hanna found no pride in doing paperwork in his post-college jobs, first selling farm equipment, then construction equipment. He successfully managed many salespeople across a multi-state area, but he wanted more direct connection to his accomplishments.

He remembered his teen years – he was 13 when he drove his first piece of big equipment. "I had the fever," he says. "I wanted to go work on a bulldozer, where I could reflect on life while doing something I valued."

After switching from sales to operation, Hanna found his work hours just as long but the work was more rewarding: "Every day I could see progress. I could see the results of my work on the ground and in the ground. It was fulfilling."

Recently, installation jobs in his market have been declining, both in number and scope, but Hanna doesn't mind the slower pace. "It is hard to sustain a medium-size enterprise, and too easy to get big," he says. "Downsizing is hard and, most of all, it is humbling.

"Surprisingly, getting a contract for the excavating work on a really big job can be a letdown, too. Taking on big jobs is the easy way to get big real fast." On those jobs, he often found himself competing with other contractors for access to his work area, staging areas, space for his job site office/truck, and even for his portable restroom. Cooperation went out the window, and if someone on the job underbid and was losing money, civility often went out, too.

Ensuring a profit

Hanna carefully evaluates each job for profitability. Past relationships with customers bring complications. "It is hard to say 'no' to long-term customers, but sometimes, there is no choice," he says. Once he has some history with customers, he can gauge how quickly they pay their bills. For all of these reasons, Hanna prefers smaller-scale jobs for individual homes.

Much of his work is repeat business that flows from long-term relationships. Past customers don't ask for competitive bids – instead, they ask for a price. Avoiding the headache and cost of preparing a bid lets Hanna trim a bit off his price.

"When I had a lot of guys, my goal was to keep them busy, keep the work moving and hopefully, the cash flowing in," says Hanna. "Being hungry for cash flow can influence which jobs you accept."

Those jobs are often challenging. "New Hampshire is mound-minded," says Hanna. In all his years in the business, he has installed only a few basic box-and-rocks systems. The state's regulatory preference for advanced treatment technologies is driven by challenging site conditions, notably the rock that gave New Hampshire its nickname (the Granite State).

As site slope increases, so does the volume of sand needed in mound systems. Instead of pipe-and-aggregate mounds, Hanna sees many mounds made using Enviro-Septic pipes from Presby Environmental – a corrugated, perforated plastic pipe wrapped in geotextile fabric. Some designers specify the Geotextile Sand Filter (GSF) from Eljen Corporation – it resembles a corrugated plastic 3- by 4-foot mattress. Plastic chambers are also used.

"All of these are selected to overcome site limitations," Hanna says. "These choices may be driven by reduced materials costs, as compared to the cost of traditional sand mound materials. Personally, I'd rather install an alternate aggregate wrapped-pipe product in a sand bed than be leveling the bed for chambers. The Eljen product is also quick and easy to install."

Hanna considers 20 years as a reasonable system life expectancy. "Ten years or less is a sign of premature failure, and we see that too often," he says. "It is not the technology that fails." He attributes premature failure to poor installation, inappropriate materials that do not maximize the site's natural attributes, undersized systems and owner misuse.

In New Hampshire, no matter how desirable an effluent filter at a septic tank outlet may be, the installer can simply add one if it isn't in the approved design. And not all designers include filters. This is a regulatory weakness Hanna would like to see addressed.

Battling weather

Site challenges aside, the climate in New Hampshire prevents year-round work, and the winter slowdown can disrupt employer-employee relationships. Hanna and his only full-time employee, Matt Gerald, have found a nice balance that meets each party's needs. Gerald finds work in the
winter sports industry to fill his income gap, and that helps Hanna avoid paying increased unemployment compensation rates.

"Matt typifies the attributes of a preferred employee," says Hanna. "He is an equipment operator and laborer, but what set him apart was his initiative to get his own State of New Hampshire installer's license before coming to work for me."

With roots in the excavation business, J.D. Hanna Excavating has a diversified equipment roster that is up to any job. The list includes a Cat 120B excavator, a Cat 257B tracked skid-steer, a Cat 416CIT backhoe, a Cat 446B backhoe, a 1993 Autocar 10-wheel dump truck, a CMI Load King 20-ton tilt-bed truck, two Ford F350 pickups, and one Ford F250, all with utility or rack bodies.

Rather than hire other installation technicians, Hanna subcontracts work to others in the business. In turn, when they need excavation services, they subcontract to him. Recently, he added a permanent, part-time bookkeeper/office manager, Debra Haywood, to the team.

Focused on installation

General excavation is a major part of the business: Services range from basements to utility lines to site clearing and road building. If there is earth to be moved, a hole to be emptied or infrastructure to bury, Hanna is primed for action.

Onsite installation as a share of the work has ranged from 15 to 60 percent. At present, with the housing business still slow, it's about 20 percent, evenly split between new systems and replacements. He has resisted the temptation to diversify into septic tank pumping.

Hanna finds that pumping tanks creates two potential customer reactions: "If pumping solves a problem, you are a hero; if you find a problem, you are no longer appreciated. Some customers who get bad news see a scam and question the pumper's conclusions and integrity."

Still, because he needs to offer pumping services, he has built strategic relationships with selected pumpers. By taking advantage of their on-the-ground reconnaissance and by sharing pumping leads with them, he makes sure all parties have the best of their respective worlds, while customers have issue-focused resources available. "Designers design. Installers install. Pumpers do autopsies," says Hanna. "It is that simple."

Pride in craftsmanship

Also simple – though not necessarily easy – is keeping a good reputation. "Every day we work hard to keep our reputation strong," says Hanna. Artists sign their work, and Hanna relates that signature to the appearance of his job sites. "Our job site is our canvas – it is how people remember us, and how we leave it is our signature."

Customer relationships are also carefully crafted. Fair pricing often gets him the job, but continual communication builds the relationship. In his geography, ledge rock can always be uncovered, sometimes unexpectedly. To protect both parties, his contracts include a rock clause to address the added work and time on site that it entails. "As soon as we find rock, I am on the phone to the customer," says Hanna. "They learn what we encountered, what if any options they have, and the associated costs. It's better to surprise someone with an informative call than with an unexpectedly high yet quite legitimate bill."

Leadership brings out the best in his employees. It also nurtures a desire for employees to refine their skills and go the extra mile. In his leadership role, Hanna develops good workers into craftsmen, partly by mentoring and partly by his employees watching his interactions with all he encounters. His message is clear: "Do your best every day."

In exchange for excellence, he pays generously and pays overtime computed daily. "If you work more than eight hours, you get overtime pay," he says. Employee relationships are not one-way affairs: "I find and hire the best help I can afford, and do all I can to learn from them. People make the difference, and that difference builds my reputation. Everybody wins."

Hanna is rightfully proud about two rare achievements for a small business: He has had no bad debt in 15 years and no litigation in 26 years.

Critical choice

Recessions create a lot of tension in the competitive onsite market place. "Unfortunately, recessions do not eliminate less-skilled installers, and the rise of the one-day heavy equipment rental market may actually help preserve them," Hanna says. "There are always people willing to do substandard work, even if sometimes they don't recognize their work as such."

When system options are limited, installer selection is perhaps the most important choice the landowner must make. "We do what we said we would do," says Hanna. "We do it for the price we said we'd do it. We do it in the time we said we'd do it."

Hanna Excavating tries to do this on every job site, leaving behind only a well crafted canvas that he and his employees are proud to point to and claim as their own.


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