Old-School Philosophy Keeps Excavation Company Growing

Michigan’s Dig-It Excavating builds its business by catering to what the customers want and not growing too fast.
Old-School Philosophy Keeps Excavation Company Growing
Dervin Witmer, owner of Dig-It Excavating, at his company headquarters in Cassopolis, Michigan. He is flanked by employees James Sanders, left, and Lucian Witmer, right.

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With its funky, made-for-marketing name and emphasis on modern advertising strategies, diversified services and clean equipment, Dig-It Excavating isn’t a typical excavation company.

But the business, based in Cassopolis, Michigan, isn’t all sizzle and no steak. Those progressive traits are buttressed by owner Dervin Witmer’s old-school beliefs in a strong work ethic and professionalism, as well as providing top-notch customer service.

So far, the new/old formula appears to be working just fine. Since Witmer founded the company in 2005, the company’s gross revenue has increased about 575 percent and its fleet of equipment has grown dramatically — including the addition of a Vactor combination vacuum truck equipped with a hydroexcavation package. Moreover, Dig-It has created additional revenue streams by branching out into complementary services such as hydroexcavation, drain cleaning and septic pumping.

“Our revenue has increased every year since we started,” says Witmer, 39. “I feel like we’re getting established around here as the quality guys.

“About 80 percent of our work comes from excavating and site preparation for small commercial buildings and septic system installations,” he adds. “But we’re also getting more and more repair work, such as fixing incorrect installations of septic and sewer lines. We do a lot of work with local municipalities to keep their infrastructure running.”

The value of offering customers multiple services was demonstrated recently when a water main broke in a nearby town during a weekend. While two of the company’s vacuum trucks kept an upstream lift station pumped out, another crew exposed the break, Witmer notes. “Customers don’t want to deal with multiple contractors to solve their problem,” he says.

BUSINESS EDUCATION

Witmer learned the ropes of running a business early from his father, Dave, who still owns and operates Witmer Motor Service, an electric-motor repair company in Pennsylvania, where Witmer grew up. Witmer started working for his father after he graduated from high school; as such, he’s been around machinery for most of his life.

“Looking back, working alongside my dad taught me how to run a business — things like how to deal with people, provide good customer service and cover the costs of doing business and still make a profit,” he says. “You could say I earned a business degree by working with him. He also taught me the value of a strong work ethic and the enjoyment of finding solutions to customers’ problems.”

During that time, Witmer and his father also developed a small residential subdivision, which exposed him to — and fueled his enthusiasm for — excavation equipment. After working for his father for nine years, Witmer moved to Michigan and worked for a friend’s construction company, framing out houses. After another year or so, he pursued his dream by buying a heavy-duty pickup truck and renting excavating equipment for projects, a move that eventually led him to establish Dig-It. “I always intended to get into excavating,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed operating equipment, so I wanted to get into that line of work.”

The company’s marketing-friendly name was born during a discussion on the front porch of Witmer’s home with his brother-in-law, Ben Bredeweg, a graphic artist, and an uncle, Dave Hofstra. “Since we had just moved from Pennsylvania, I had no name recognition, so I didn’t want to use my last name,” Witmer recalls. “As we were kicking around ideas, my uncle suggested ‘Dig-It’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s it — something short and catchy that people will remember easily.’”

Witmer’s first chunk of business stemmed from a local project to convert about 1,500 homes from septic systems to municipal sewer service. He rented a mini-excavator and knocked on doors, offering sewer hook-up and septic tank abandonment services. In turn, that prompted him to buy a used vacuum truck to pump out septic tanks before filling them with sand.

GROWING FLEET OF EQUIPMENT

When that project ran its course, Witmer started advertising his excavating services. But he also kept an eye out for complementary services that meshed well with excavating.

“Back during the economic downturn in 2008 and 2009, I saw too many companies that specialized in one thing — say, just digging basements for home construction — go belly up,” he says, explaining his motives for diversification. “Along with safeguarding against economic downturns, we also needed diversity in order to stay busy and grow the business.

“I consider myself a visionary guy,” he continues. “If I see an opportunity that complements what we already do, I’m on it. My only concern is that we have to be careful to not get into too many things to the point where we can’t do them well. That’s the dance that we do.”

To service its customers, Dig-It now owns a 2015 Caterpillar 308E2 CR trackhoe; a 2015 CAT 299D track loader; a dump truck that’s built on a 2015 Kenworth T880 chassis with a 26-cubic-yard dump body made by J&J Truck Bodies and Trailers; and another dump truck built on a 2005 International 7600 chassis with an 18-cubic-yard box made by Rowe Truck Equipment.

The company also owns a Vactor 2100 combination sewer vac truck with a hydroexcavation package, built on a 1997 GMC truck chassis. It features a 5-cubic-yard debris tank, two 600-gallon water tanks, a water jetter (40 gpm/2,500 psi), a 2,100 cfm blower and a 400-foot hose reel. For pumping out septic tanks, the company invested in a 2002 International 7400 truck outfitted by Imperial Industries with a 3,200-gallon steel tank and a 357 cfm vacuum pump manufactured by National Vacuum Equipment.

Rounding out the fleet is a 2015 Kenworth vacuum truck with a 4,700-gallon tank built by Curry Supply Company, equipped with an NVE 4310 blower; a 2010 Ford F-450, equipped with a Cobra 3300 service crane (lifting capacity of 11,500 pounds) made by Maxilift/Next Hydraulics and a Knapheide Manufacturing box body; and a 2010 Ford Transit Connect that carries SeeSnake pipeline inspection cameras and locating equipment made by RIDGID. Other tools include a Crust Buster septic sludge agitator; a soil-decompacting, drainfield rejuvenation machine made by EarthBuster; a wheeled hot-water jetter made by Easy Kleen Pressure Systems; and a Root Rat root-cutting nozzle.

Investing in a wide range of equipment has played a large role in the company’s growth. Not only does it enable the company to garner more work from customers that prefer a one-stop-shop approach to hiring contractors, it also allows Witmer to gain market share by providing them with more cost-effective solutions to problems than competitors can offer.

A good example is the pipeline inspection cameras. The cameras not only opened up a new revenue stream via septic system inspections, they also allow technicians to pinpoint the exact cause of problems, which might well be much less expensive than a complete system replacement that other contractors might propose because they can’t see what’s wrong inside the system. “We might be able to replace a 30-foot section of pipe, for instance — do a pinpoint repair as opposed to a complete system replacement,” Witmer says.

Witmer is a firm believer in investing in advanced technology that can improve productivity and profitability. “New technology allows us to be strategic about solving problems,” he says.

“We want to be known as a knowledgeable and strategic company, and new technology allows us to be that kind of company.”

PROFESSIONALISM MATTERS

With more than a half-dozen local competitors, Witmer feels it’s important to differentiate his company. To achieve that, he emphasizes professionalism, which is reflected in things such as uniformed workers; a robust, informative website; clean, well-maintained equipment; and top-notch customer service, which includes educating them and always taking time to answer all their questions.

“We get quite a few calls from customers who appreciate that our employees took time to explain what they were doing,” Witmer says. “I know I would appreciate it if I hired someone and they came to the house and acted professionally. You just feel like you’re getting a better value for the money and a better finished product. I can’t quantify how much more business our approach gets us — all I know is that it bothers me to present a poor image.”

Witmer points out that his 17-year-old son, Lucian, details all the equipment — right down to polishing the wheels and waxing the trucks. “The cleaner we keep them, the easier they are to keep clean,” he notes.

One of the most important things in site preparation and excavation work is meeting deadlines. That can be a challenge with just four employees and ever-increasing workloads, so Witmer says he strategically uses subcontractors when it makes sense. For example, some projects require more materials — things such as large quantities of sand or gravel — than he can cost-effectively haul with his two dump trucks. That’s when he calls a local trucking company that can do the job more efficiently, which saves customers money and helps the company finish jobs on time.

“You need to figure out who can do things better and cheaper, then develop relationships with local subcontractors who can do those things,” he suggests. “You can’t be too focused on doing everything yourself. We’d rather focus on the things that we do well, then incorporate other subcontractors to do the things they do well. Together, we can do a job efficiently and in a timely fashion.”

The company invested in a used vacuum truck with hydroexcavating capability about three years ago when Witmer realized that hydroexcavating was a safer way to expose underground utilities. Moreover, as more customers were requiring hydroexcavation instead of conventional excavation, it complemented the company’s existing core services, and it added to the company’s list of services. A used truck made sense financially because it provided a less-expensive way to enter a new and unknown market.

But the unit’s vacuuming capability has proven valuable, too. Witmer says the company has used it to vacuum out everything from debris in lift stations to built-up sand in a gravel-pit transfer station to excess rubber chips in over-filled railroad cars. “It’s a very versatile machine,” he says. “We keep finding new ways to use it.”

PLANNING FOR SLOW GROWTH

Five years ago, Witmer’s goal was to enter the hydroexcavating market and hire one full-time employee. With those goals met, he is now aiming to buy another hydroexcavating truck within the next five years — this time a new one with a larger, 15-cubic-yard debris tank — and build a dedicated hydroexcavating crew.

“I prefer slow but steady growth,” he says, explaining his business philosophy. “I think growing the hydroexcavating end of the business definitely is doable because more and more customers are requiring it. The demand is going to be there. The hard part is just finding those opportunities and clients and meeting their needs.”

In the long run, Witmer says he would love to see one or more of his four sons get more involved in the business; his 15-year-old daughter, Olivia, already handles paying bills. But no matter what happens, he hopes to always maintain the same principles his father taught him so many years ago and never forget what drew him to the business in first place: helping customers solve problems.

“It’s fun to go to a job site and listen to customers’ ideas and problems and then try to figure out the best solution to find and repair the problem and get them back on the road to functioning again,” he says. “It’s what we do best.”


Mini-excavator yields big productivity gains

When asked to name the most productive machine in Dig-It Excavating’s fleet, owner Dervin Witmer doesn’t hesitate for a second: It’s the Caterpillar 308E2 CR mini-excavator.
“It’s large enough to handle repair work and septic installations and small enough that we can get in and out of small job sites without tearing up a lot of property to get there,” says Witmer, who founded Dig-It in Cassopolis, Michigan, in 2005.

Witmer looked at several different mini-excavators before choosing the Caterpillar unit, which features a 36-inch bucket with 1.5-cubic-yard capacity, a 65 hp Caterpillar diesel engine, a bucket rotation of 180 degrees, a compact turning radius, ground pressure of 5.26 psi, rubber-covered steel tracks, a 553-pound optional counterweight, and a maximum digging depth of about 13 1/2 feet.

“In its size class, the 308E2 is one of heaviest machines with the longest stick (arm) and the farthest reach, so for a smaller machine, it provides good performance when digging,” Witmer points out. “The longer stick gives us more reach, a deeper digging depth and a higher off-loading capacity, and we don’t have to move the machine around as much while working.”

The machine is also equipped with a hydraulic progressive link “thumb” attachment that can pick up things more securely and easily than a bucket can, he says. “With the thumb, the operator can actually pinch awkward-shaped pieces that don’t fit in the bucket,” he explains. “It’s a really handy attachment that saves us a lot of time, and time
is money.”

Witmer also opted for rubber pads that get screwed onto the machine’s two metal tracks to minimize damage to roads, driveways and other surfaces. Moreover, he says the machine is very easy to operate, with user-friendly dual-joystick controls, plus heating and air conditioning that keeps operators comfortable.

Another benefit is the unit’s reliability, coupled with great support from a local Caterpillar dealer. “We make my money being productive, not fixing machines that keep breaking,” says Witmer, who notes that he trades in machines every five years to keep up with the latest technology and avoid costly repairs that can occur as machines get older. Newer equipment also gives him the added benefit of being able to develop more accurate budgets because he doesn’t have to factor in unexpected large repair expenditures. “It gives us a consistent cost factor — we can count on certain expenses,” he says.



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