This Montana Contractor Succeeds by Expanding into New Markets

Marcia Doyle
Joe Horner Lead
Equipment World

Like many in this business, Joe Horner grew up in construction, with his father also named Joe putting him on a loader when he was 9 years old. “I loved it,” says Horner. “It was the most fun I could ever have, and it’s all I ever wanted to do after that.”

Screen Shot 2021 11 10 At 3 11 50 PmAfter Horner was in the workforce for a while, his father called. “Let’s start a construction firm,” he said. That was the 1988 beginnings of what is now known as MRTE, which stands for Missouri River Trucking and Excavating. Horner’s father retired about 10 years ago.

Starting out with revenues at about a $500,000 a year, MRTE now has between $8 million and $10 million in revenues and does a variety of work, including site excavation, utility installation, demolition and concrete flatwork along with offering their trucks and low boys for hire.

“Up until last year, we doubled our revenues every year for three years in a row,” says Joe’s wife Glenda Horner, who runs MRTE’s business side, including human resources and accounting. Although growth was slower last year, MRTE’s sand and gravel operation revenues went up about 40%.

Material production

Prompted by the fact it was hard to get materials when they needed them, MRTE started a ready-mix concrete business eight years ago and now owns three gravel pits. And three years ago it invested in an asphalt plant.

Now homebuilders and commercial builders in the area rely on MRTE’s ready-mix operation to provide them with materials for flatwork, footings and walls.

Although it had operated rented gravel pits throughout the years, MRTE bought a 320-acre property eight years ago along the Sun River. “It’s a great pit for concrete material because we dig it out of the water and it’s already clean,” Horner says. “We consume about 50% of the material that leaves here, and our customers take the rest.” The pit offers around 10 products, including road mixes, fractured and washed materials. The property also yields fill dirt and topsoil.

Asphalt paving has been part of the firm’s offerings for several years, and the plant was purchased to supply the company with material for its own jobs. “We look for jobs that have asphalt in the bid and pay for it that way,” Horner says.

“The company has displayed steady growth and expansion into other aspects of earthmoving and construction. I believe they are a great model in teaching smaller contractors how to responsibly grow in this industry,” says Don Reed with Tractor and Equipment.

Diverse fleet

Since he hauls equipment for several area equipment dealers, offering a statewide low-boy service, Horner keeps a diverse fleet. “I try to spread the wealth,” he says. “We have a little bit of everything, and we buy equipment from everyone.”

MRTE works primarily within a 150-mile radius of Great Falls, Montana.MRTE works primarily within a 150-mile radius of Great Falls, Montana.Equipment WorldMRTE’s fleet includes a dozen excavators, 10 wheel loaders and seven skid steers. Other machines include graders, rollers, articulated trucks, trailers and a milling machine; aggregates-related units including jaw crushers, impact crushers and screening plants.

During the summer, MRTE has three full-time mechanics. In the winter that increases to five, as a couple of field people come in to get the equipment ready for the next season. “Wes Brewer is our head mechanic, and he’s been with us for almost 20 years,” Horner says.

“Winters are busy for the shop,” Horner explains. “We go through every piece of equipment.” It also helps that there’s not the immediate pressure to get it out the door and back out on the job as there is during the summer.

Expanding footprint

For many years, Horner had an office in his house, located next to the company acreage, along with a shop facility. “Before that I was doing work in my pickup and at home at night on the kitchen table,” he says.

The home office got snug, so Horner built a 2,000-square-foot office building next to MRTE’s shop about 12 years ago. Horner says the company’s 140-acre site just outside of Great Falls offers great advantage. “We have lots of room to grow and expand,” he says. Horner recently installed an equipment washing facility as a shop addition.

Mrte Truck SignEquipment WorldA separate office building may also be in the offing. “There are a lot of distractions in the shop,” Horner says. “In the morning it gets pretty crazy around here.”

In addition to Glenda, Horner is joined in the firm by his son Josh Horner and nephew Grant Hudspeth, both of whom assist with estimating. The family help is welcome since “we have an extremely hard time finding people for all positions, but especially truck drivers,” Horner says.

“I’m usually here before 6 a.m., out in the shop, tidying things up, whatever I’ve got to do before everybody gets here,” Horner says. Along with managing projects and being the head estimator, he also oversees the shop, dispatches the gravel and the low-boy trucks.

“When Joe says he’s going to do something, he’s on top of it and getting it done,” says client James Hoiland with Green-Up. “One concrete pour went bad on a job and even though it was another company’s problem he had his guys go in there and tear it all out. He was going to make it right."

“I’m hard core with my safety and MRTE is very much the same,” Hoiland continues. “There’s no bending of the rules with it.”

To learn more about MRTE, check out the video below: