Iowa’s C.D.B. Underground Utility Becomes One-Stop Business

Iowa contractor grows alongside the telecommunications boom with a turnkey approach to fiber optic cable installation.
Iowa’s C.D.B. Underground Utility Becomes One-Stop Business
David Wilken splices fiber optic cable for a residential installation.

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Growth wasn’t the goal when C.D.B. Utility Contractors got started in 2002. Yet 15 years later, the company is 40 employees strong during the busy summer months and is heavily focused on the continually burgeoning telecommunications market in a service area that stretches throughout the state and into western Illinois.

“The thought was just to stay steady, stay around home. Nothing like what we are now,” says Andy Pollmiller, general manager.

What changed? The Davenport, Iowa-based C.D.B. teamed up with a local electric company in 2005 on a contract with Muscatine Power and Water that was the largest C.D.B. had taken on at that time. More work was added to that contract over the subsequent years, then the telecommunications industry took off and there was a great need for new fiber optic cable installations. C.D.B. simply allowed its growth to coincide with the growth of the telecommunications industry, says Pollmiller.

“You do what you can handle,” he says. “Don’t try to overstep your bounds and take on too much. Our growth has been fairly slow except for a couple years that we really had to ramp it up. We’ve just tried to keep it manageable.”

GETTING STARTED

With the backing of his now father-in-law Gene Coppinger, Pollmiller started C.D.B. Utility Contractors in 2002. He was the sole full-time employee working in the field, and to find jobs he used contacts he’d developed working in the construction industry for many years.

“We were doing a few things for the city of Bettendorf (just outside Davenport) and little electrical companies around town,” says Pollmiller. “For about a year we just kind of stayed local and it was primarily me and one drill, a Vermeer 7X11A. Some people would help here and there, but mostly it was just me in the field. We focused on mainly repair work, with a little bit of new installations sprinkled in there. Our work has always been about 90 percent telecommunications. That’s where all my contacts were from.”

Eventually, through some of those previous contacts of Pollmiller’s, C.D.B. started venturing toward the Cedar Rapids area. Then in 2005, the opportunity arose with Muscatine Power and Water. C.D.B. directionally bored for new installations of electrical and telecommunications pipe.

“By that time we had about six employees and two directional drills,” Pollmiller says. “We did that contract from 2005 to 2008. The contract kept growing and we grew along with it. We built a building. Then 2008 to 2009 was a really big growth year.”

C.D.B. landed a large fiber optics job in Cedar Rapids and grew to about 15 employees and added another drill rig. Around that time is also when the telecommunications boom really started ramping up. “There was a lot of work running fiber to cell towers. We got hooked up with a company out of Des Moines, and I can’t tell you how many cell towers we’ve run fiber to for them. That really sparked growth,” says Pollmiller.

Now C.D.B. has eight drill rigs, two trenching crews and three fiber optic splicing crews, and nearly all of that growth is due to the telecommunications industry.

“In the summertime we’re running anywhere from 35 to 40 employees and then we’ll drop down a little bit in the winter and rehire in the spring,” says Chad Coppinger, director of operations.

GROWING PAINS

C.D.B.’s growth has not been without its challenges. For example, a larger size has meant more regulations to follow.

“Regulations have not backed us into a corner, but they’ve definitely made things harder than when we were just two to five employees,” Coppinger says. “We’ve had to increase staff to manage everything from employee handbooks to different insurance needs to safety training. It’s just a lot to keep up with, and we’ve had to go out and make a point to drum up new work and increase our sales to accommodate our increase in staff, whereas a lot of other businesses don’t if they’re not looking to grow.”

Other challenges have included keeping a larger equipment fleet consistently up and running, and a good supply of entry-level laborers to draw from. That’s where having more staff on board has helped. In 2013, C.D.B. hired a full-time equipment manager to handle all maintenance needs in-house.

“We went from having to take all our equipment somewhere to be maintained to being able to have more of an in-house approach and get that equipment back up and running faster,” Coppinger says. “That reduces downtime and helps our employees be able to continue to produce for us. Things can be prevented, but parts also wear out, so we’ve been fortunate to have a maintenance shop and the equipment manager along with his helper, who can streamline our equipment issues and keep things running. In this industry, there is always something to fix and maintain.”

Around the same 2013 timeframe, C.D.B. also started hiring staff to take on more of the administrative side of the company. That included a staffing director who has helped C.D.B. combat labor force challenges it faces.

“We struggle finding that young, just-out-of-high-school laborer,” Coppinger says. “We have a lot of labor-intensive work, and it’s a challenge hiring people who can and want to work that entry-level laborer position. Our staffing director helps us with all that labor turnover. It’s been a real asset to have someone who has a pool of employees to regularly go to and see who is labor-ready. We didn’t have that before. It was a lot of word-of-mouth. Not to say that didn’t work, but now we’re able to produce labor-ready employees a lot faster.”

Says Pollmiller of the staffing increase from the days when he was the sole full-time employee: “It’s worked out very well with how many projects we have going on. I was doing a lot of running around before and wearing many different hats. Now a lot of my former duties have been dispersed throughout the company.”

RETAINING EMPLOYEES

Outside the challenge of finding new employees for entry-level laborer positions, C.D.B. has been very successful at managing its workforce and keeping turnover low.

“Andy has been really good at keeping employees happy and going that extra mile,” says Coppinger. “We’ve had some guys around eight, 10 years. All our main crew leaders and foremen have been here long periods of time and they’re taken care of really well. We offer a lot of nice benefit packages for them. That’s a lesson we’ve learned: You focus on keeping your employees happy and you’ll reap rewards out of that.”

One key to having a lot of longtime employees has been C.D.B.’s focus on working locally. While the company’s service area has expanded somewhat as it’s grown, much of its work is still focused around the Quad Cities area. For example, C.D.B. has maintained a contract since 2009 with a local power company servicing Davenport. It’s largely maintenance work with some new installations.

“That’s been a big help. We’ve been able to keep our local customers in order to provide a place for our employees to be local,” Coppinger says. “That’s not always the case in our industry. There’s a lot of travel. But the relationships we have with local customers have allowed our employees to be home and have a good family life. It’s hard being out of town, and that’s not to say we won’t ever be out of town, but we’ve done a good job keeping local customers as a big part of our customer base. It’s a big key to our success I would say.”

Another key to employee retention, says Pollmiller, is ensuring workers have state-of-the-art equipment to use. C.D.B. uses a lot of Vermeer equipment and constantly keeps an eye out for upgrade opportunities depending on what customers’ particular needs are. Vermeer helps with this.

“They do a great job of working with us and letting us know what new equipment they have coming out that could help us do installations a little faster and more efficient,” Pollmiller says.

C.D.B. also makes sure employees have proper training on that equipment. Vermeer helps with this as well, says Pollmiller.

“Generally, how we like to see it go is a person is hired as a laborer and then slowly gets worked in as an operator, whether it’s on a mini-excavator or directional drill. Vermeer has been great at offering directional drilling schools for our employees. We basically hire people who are green and see how it works out. Out of all our employees we only have one who came from another company. The rest have all been trained in-house.”

THE LAST MILE

The telecommunications boom that has led to much of C.D.B.’s growth the last 15 years isn’t over yet. Recent years have been focused on fiber-to-home projects, also known as “The Last Mile.” Pollmiller says future goals aren’t any more complicated than staying steady and taking the work as it comes, and continuing to keep a strong local customer base for the benefit of employees.

“I think we’re going to be in this fiber-to-homes phase for a while,” Pollmiller says. “The goals are just to keep moving forward, keep our guys local as much as we can, and keep our customers satisfied.”


Turnkey approach leads to repeat customers

Among C.D.B. Utility Contractors’ service offerings is fiber blowing. Once the conduit is installed, compressed air is used to guide the fiber optic cable in rather than a typical pulling method. It’s an example of the turnkey approach the Davenport, Iowa-based company thinks is the best approach to servicing its customers.

“We try to provide our customers a one-stop shop,” says Andy Pollmiller, general manager. “We’ll do everything to get the product installed — placing the conduit, installing the fiber, splicing the fiber, testing.”

Adds director of operations Chad Coppinger: “That’s what sets us apart from a lot of the companies that are our size — that we can handle all of those facets of the work so a customer doesn’t have to contract with several different companies. They can come to us and we can turnkey the whole project.”

With regards to the fiber blowing, that isn’t a service C.D.B. provides on its own. Rather, it’s a complementary service the company added around 2012 to aid all its other services, since blowing provides a more efficient way of installing fiber that is also less stressful on the cable.

“Typically we don’t go out and blow fiber for anyone. We are blowing fiber for customers after we install the conduit,” Pollmiller says.

Because of the stresses put on the cable during pulling to reduce friction with the conduit, less footage can be handled at a time than with blowing, where air is able to aid the friction reduction.

Says Pollmiller, “You should be able to blow anywhere from 3,500 to 5,500 feet of cable at a time whereas when you’re pulling it, you’re doing 1,000 to 1,500 feet. You’re constantly winding the cable up, spinning it back off, moving equipment, going to the next spot, and winding the cable up again and spinning it off. With blowing you’re able to skip through about three of those cycles. You’re also handling the cable a lot less and putting less stress on the fiber, which in turn makes your customer happy.”

A turnkey approach was a goal from the start for C.D.B. Pollmiller says it just took some time to add all the necessary services. Fiber splicing is another one that the company once subbed out before taking it on itself in the last few years. Having that available has attracted new customers, says Pollmiller.

“To be able to provide a turnkey service was always the goal,” he says. “We felt it was the best way to meet customers’ needs. And obviously if you do a good job, they’re not going to hesitate to call you for a second job, or a third or a fourth.”



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