The right tools, the right markets and a strong work ethic helped Wisconsin-based JK Trenching grow quickly from a part-time venture to a thriving full-time enterprise.
What was meant to be a side job is now full time for brothers Keith and Jeff Newhouse, who operate JK Trenching in Freedom, Wis.
“Business has been excellent,” Keith Newhouse says. “The last couple of years were a little bit slow, but this year  it just seems like someone flipped the switch, and we can’t even keep up. It’s just been crazy this year.”
During the summer, JK Trenching — with a crew of just Jeff, Keith and their dad Vernon — stays busy by providing trenching, vacuum excavation and horizontal drilling.
“All of our jobs have unique challenges,” Newhouse says. “I really can’t think of one job that stands out as much more difficult than others.”
Between electrical and drainage work, the company stays busy all year, though spring and fall are the busiest seasons.
“Those two services are pretty much what we’re into right now,” Newhouse says. “We’re real busy in the spring. We get backlogged and then in the summertime we get caught up on it. Then in the fall the phone rings off the hook again, so we work until it freezes.”
Drainage work is abundant because there are plenty of wet yards and fields after the winter thaw and spring rains. Spring — before planting — is also a good time for farmers to install drainage systems.
“Everyone wants their yards done and fixed right away,” Newhouse says. “In the summertime no one wants to wreck their yards because they’re having parties, the kids are out playing and crops are growing in the fields.”
Most of JK Trenching’s work has been drainage-related, and that has been expanding to more field-tile — an agriculture practice that removes excess water from the soil subsurface by way of buried plastic or clay perforated pipes.
“Six or seven years ago we were all hard pipe, PVC pipe,” Newhouse says. “We used to do a lot of downspout areas when we started the business, but we’ve since diversified. My brother and I were raised on a dairy farm and we’re very familiar with how a drain tile works and how to lay everything out. My dad loves going out and working with drainage and anything related. Ditches, that’s his niche. He actually loves it.”
JK Trenching will not tile an entire farm field. Instead, the company installs 500 to 1,000 feet of tile in a portion of the field. That creates a competitive niche because, according to Newhouse, big trenching companies don’t want to haul semi-loads of heavy equipment and supplies for just 1,000 feet of tile work.
“We try to keep everything we own to the size where we can pull it with a pickup truck,” Newhouse says. “We don’t want to get real big excavators or anything like that because then you start drawing a line with cost.”
Newhouse also likes that he can easily pull in and out of driveways and get around the small neighborhoods, common in northeast Wisconsin.
Newhouse started JK Trenching shortly after 1996 when he graduated from high school. He and his brother lived near a rental yard that rented out small walk-along trenchers. Keith’s brother Jeff saw an opportunity and approached him with the idea to start a service company focused on trench work, but Keith was hesitant.
“After about another six months, someone I knew rented one of the machines and I helped him do the job,” Newhouse says. He was impressed with the machine and how it worked and that changed his mind about starting a trenching business.
Newhouse talked with his brother again and the two decided to put the plan into motion. They went to the Ditch Witch retailer in nearby Kaukauna to look for another compact trencher.
Ditch Witch provided useful advice, telling the brothers that if they were serious about trenching they would want more than small walk-along trenchers in their inventory.
“They said I should go with a bigger machine because of the problems we were going to run into,” Newhouse says. In the end, the two purchased another walk-along — an 1820 Ditch Witch — and they haven’t stopped buying since.
“We landed a contract in 2002 at a large company, and we bought a bunch of equipment to fulfill that contract,” Newhouse says. “That’s where we’ve been ever since, just buying equipment when we need it. We rent equipment when we don’t have it and we never say no to anyone who has a job.”
Added to their fleet of trenchers is a Ditch Witch 3610 tractor trencher. The four-wheel-drive machine, with a trencher on one end and an excavator bucket on the other, makes moving around on farm fields much easier.
“I love the power and the reliability of the machine,” Newhouse says.
Of all the company’s equipment, the 3610 gets the most use. Other machines include a John Deere mini-excavator and VacStar 500 vacuum for excavation.
They use the trailer-mounted VacStar unit with a 500-gallon spoil tank primarily for working around buried utility lines. “If we get to a job and there are five, six, seven lines to cross, we’ll expose them and that saves us time on that job, ” Newhouse says.
Room for growth
While the brothers don’t advertise statewide, they have worked in other parts of the state. They will travel to wherever a customer is willing to pay for them to go.
“I’m hoping that within the next four or five years we can actually get a couple more employees,” Newhouse says. “But the economy has to stay like it is right now in order for that to happen.”
JK Trenching has found that the best advertising comes from word of mouth.
“It took us a long time to get established, but now people are remembering the name,” Newhouse says. “We do a lot of drainage work for residential customers when backyards are wet. If you can fix it and it makes them happy, they’ll spread that around. That’s the best kind of client.”
JK Trenching isn’t there yet, but Newhouse knows what could be the next big opportunity for his company — directional drilling.
Currently JK Trenching only does horizontal drilling with open trenches using a Roto Witch tool from Ditch Witch. The tool, which resembles a small drill, attaches to the end of 10-foot-long pipes that can reach into where the drilling will take place. The pipes and the Roto Witch attach to one of the company’s trenchers and the machine cranks the drill head.
“It’s nondirectional, so basically we just point and shoot,” Newhouse says. “We’ll do 75 to 100 foot runs pretty consistently.”
The tool comes with several attachments including different drill bits for each scenario — sand, compaction, frost and rocks. It also comes with a drill stem guide, connector shafts to connect more pipes to it and pipe-pulling adapters.
Newhouse uses the Roto Witch primarily when working for electrical contractors and needs to get underneath roadways, driveways and sidewalks without tearing them up. He would like to upgrade to a directional drill to be able to change directions during the drill.
“I think we can get more work out of it,” Newhouse says. “The problem with directional drilling is you have to feel comfortable with it. I like open trenches because if you hit tile lines, if you hit sewer lines or anything like that, you see what you hit.”
Despite that one concern, Newhouse knows his company will eventually have to take on directional drilling.
“I do think the wave of the future is going trenchless,” Newhouse says.
Newhouse is surprised at how far his company has come from the early years of doing small jobs for little money.
“We definitely grew, probably a lot faster than I anticipated. I look back at my record books from when we first started, and I’m thinking ‘That’s crazy’ for what I did and what I got paid. We still do those small jobs, but we have so many bigger jobs now too."
One tool JK Trenching uses the most isn’t a trencher, a vacuum or a mini-excavator, however. It’s a Ditch Witch 950R/T locator. Read "Locating Saves Steps and Cost."
Ditch Witch - 800/654-6481 - www.ditchwitch.com
John Deere - 800/503-3373 - www.johndeere.com
VacStar - 319/656-3434 - www.vacstar.com