S1.E1: Contractor Explains How Technology Literally Built His Fledgling Earthworks Business

Jon Ballmann built his earthworks business from a skid steer in college to what he admits as having achieved his goals in his early 40s. Here’s how customer focus and technology got him there.

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St. Patrick’s Day 2022 was a charmed day to interview the first contractor for our new Contractor’s Site Report series. Videographer Jason Frausto and I drove westbound on Interstate-44 into a setting full moon on a perfectly balanced day; the sun rose at 7 a.m. and set at 7 p.m. An unseasonably warm and sunny day would unfold for our tour of earthmoving projects and interviews with a generous and interesting host.

Jon Ballmann wanted to be in the earthworks business when he was in fifth grade. He knew he wanted to start his own company, become a licensed surveyor and he even knew how much money he wanted to make in his first year. He wrote it all down on Career Day in a small-town grade school on the banks of the Missouri River. In the fifth grade.

Equipment lured him in. His family had some rental property, and a few machines for maintenance. Working with those machines got under his skin. The Valentine's Day after high-school graduation, Ballmann bought a skid steer loader for his high-school sweetheart and started picking up weekend jobs while studying for a civil engineering degree (watch the video to find out how things went with the sweetheart).

It’s interesting that out of the combination of classroom work, DOT internships, working for a contractor and running his own business, one lesson that floats to the top is keeping customers happy. An early landscape project that required some extra work replacing the sod, which had been poisoned by the client’s dogs, is still earning him referrals in the now-bustling construction market west of St. Louis. 

Ballmann’s growth trajectory has been a balance of risk and service. At 24 years old and six years into generating income with his own business, Ballmann bought a brand-new Peterbilt dump truck, Cat crawler loader and trailer. This addition to a couple of skid steer loaders put him $500,000 into debt and equipped him to do a lot of work on a minimal investment. The setup kept him growing through the Great Recession.

The company’s next big milestone was adding machines with grade-control technology. Customers noticed Ballmann wasn’t charging them for staking and his crews got along on site without a lot of surveying.

“I feel like the skies opened,” he says.

Ballmann Earthworks has grown steadily, intentionally slowly, into the $5 million to $8 million-per-year revenue range. Work is all mostly within an hour of the Washington, Mo., shop, handled by 48 pieces of equipment and 28 core employees that Ballmann goes the extra mile to keep happily employed year-round. He appreciates how much of a difference they make to customer service.

“I don’t want to be the largest guy in town, but I do want to provide quality service and craftsmanship that we’re known for,” Ballmann says. “If we grow at 5% to 10% over the next five years, I’m completely happy. And if we have good guys, we’ll push forward as we are.”

In several more Contractor’s Site Report videos, Ballmann shares his experience with hiring skilled hands to drive his growth, enlisting his dealer to help manage equipment costs, using automatic grade control on a skid-steer grader attachment and more. Look for more business-improvement insights straight from contractors in the continuing Contractor’s Site Report series.

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