By Debbie McClung, Two Rivers Marketing
In his early 20s, Graeme Robertson walked away from equipment contracting. A natural in the seat of a machine, he went searching for a steadier paycheque and found it as a carpenter.
That is, until injuries from a snowmobile accident left him unable to climb ladders. Only a minor setback in the big picture of life, but Robertson had to figure out how to pivot his career — again.
“My doctor said, ‘you’re probably better off just opening your own business,’” Robertson recalls.
It was the nudge he needed to launch Dugald-based GJR Contracting in 2011 — one of his most profitable decisions yet.
Robertson was determined to go it alone with a pair of Bobcat machines. He had a vision for a nimble and productive company year-round, and he vowed to avoid the issues that often come with supervising employees.
“I never wanted to manage anyone,” Robertson said. “I’m pretty picky about the way the jobs get done, and I might as well just be doing the work myself if I have to watch over somebody all the time. I look for ways to keep the business moving forward with what I can do for customers myself, making sure they’re happy when I’m done.”
Carving out a successful sole proprietorship in the Winnipeg market meant outsmarting the competition with a streamlined approach and a simple, effective business strategy; start small, stay lean and make your dealership and equipment your business partners.
Starting the business with the purchase of an M-Series E35 compact excavator from Bobcat of Central Manitoba, Robertson went to work performing residential demolition and landscaping projects, along with commercial site prep. He filled in equipment gaps by renting extra machines and attachments that could perform niche tasks within those core services, such as breaking concrete, digging post holes and trenching for retaining walls, drains and electrical conduit. He closed the dreaded winter gap by building a commercial snow removal business.
Since 2011 Robertson’s built a strong network of five key customers. His life has evolved, too. He married his fiancée, Marcy, and they soon settled into a house on five acres in Dugald, a bedroom community outside Winnipeg. Overnight, the scope of his equipment needs grew to include personal property maintenance. When Robertson started thinking about an upgrade to the E35, his biggest consideration was how the machine had come to define the business.
“Everybody knows me for that piece of equipment, and they know where I can go with it and what I can do with it, so I wanted to stay in that same size class,” he said.
While browsing the Bobcat Company Facebook page in spring 2017, he saw the introduction of the new R-Series excavators and called his sales specialist Jason Ramsey for leasing details and machine specs.
Machine size matters to Robertson for several reasons, starting with his frame.
“I’m six-foot-five,” Robertson said. “My R-Series E35 has more legroom and better visibility than my previous E35. Those are the two major things I like the most about it.”
Bobcat increased the excavator’s glass surface by 15 per cent, allowing Robertson to have better visibility to his attachments and worksites, which is critical in all of his applications.
“I can basically see every tip of my tracks from my seat,” he adds. “It makes a big difference when you’re going into tight locations.”
Narrow jobsites often present mobility challenges, but his R-Series excavator’s zero-turn radius exceeded expectations.
“I can set my track right up to houses, and I know I have 200 degrees of turning radius,” Robertson said.
Taking on tough demolition with Bobcat
Robertson leverages all of those advantages to meet the tough demands of his residential demolition sites — where he levels a single-story home or garage nearly every week.
On one recent jobsite, he was hired to remove an old, single-car garage located behind a home in a confined neighbourhood. The job required him to operate in a short driveway and alley. The E35’s hydraulic clamp took massive bites out of the roof and walls and easily grabbed the garage door and large irregular chunks of debris for fast cleanup.
With the garage torn down, Robertson replaced the bucket with his hydraulic breaker to fracture the garage’s concrete floor, as well as an adjacent patio and decorative fountain.
“I can completely disassemble a building with my clamp, and my breaker is so strong that I can bust the concrete out from underneath it,” Robertson said. “I can load it all up in a bin, leaving the site looking like nothing was ever there.”
Robertson’s confidence has increased when transferring heavy debris to containers, thanks to the added stability of his excavator’s integrated counterweight.
“This machine has 15 per cent more lift-over-side capacity than my previous E35,” he said.
Robertson also traded his T650 compact track loader for the newer generation M2-Series T650. He keeps it just as busy on the acreage as he does on customer sites, using it for projects like levelling his driveway, mowing, tilling a large garden, moving firewood and prepping the site of a new 9 by 9 metre shop. He considers the automatic ride control on the M2-Series as one of the best upgrades.
“Manitoba’s a swamp with a lot of soft ground, and my 18-inch tracks float over the surface instead of sinking,” Robertson said.
Leveraging support and tech
GJR Contracting has preserved its sole proprietor focus with a small yet diverse fleet of equipment, purchasing alternatives and support from a dealership that keeps him informed of technologies to streamline his work.
When weighing his options for upgrading to the E35 and T650, Robertson welcomed leasing as an option since he’d recently invested in land and a new home.
“The lease is a lot more feasible for the business and is a full write-off for me,” Robertson said. “It’s crazy not to lease. It was a massive drop in my payment.”
For equipment and attachment needs for specific jobs, renting from Bobcat of Central Manitoba provides an efficient solution to supplement his machines. Renting a 418 excavator and an MT55 mini track loader helped Robertson to install a landscaping lighting system with more than 120 fixtures.
“I’ll rent any piece of equipment I don’t have, because I can get it very quickly and easily to fill that void for equipment I’m not running every day,” Robertson said.
With the steady volume of excavating and grading jobs Robertson performs, it made sense for the dealership to introduce him to the Bobcat depth check system. Integrated into his R-Series E35, Robertson can accurately dig foundations or utility trenches without relying on a crew member to give him visual cues.
“I can see my depth on the display in front of me and keep my eyes on the job,” Robertson said.
The technology adds accuracy and autonomy to Robertson’s projects and puts an end to years of having to ask other contractors to stand in his trenches or using a laser or a yardstick to manually measure his grade.
“Having diverse equipment can be like having an extra person around,” Robertson said.