Josh Burkholder grew up on his family farm and times were tough. Searching for ways to bring in family income, he started mowing lawns and then turned to construction. It’s a move that came out of necessity and he now says it “grew beyond anything I ever imagined.”
This growth shouldn’t be a surprise when you look at his background. “My dad always drilled customer service into us,” Burkholder says. “We’re here to serve the customer. That’s where our bread and butter come from.”
Along the way, several people have given his company a hand up, Burkholder says.
There was the small community bank that loaned him the money for his first piece of equipment: a zero-turn lawnmower. “We still use them, “ Burkholder says, “even though we’ve outgrown them to some extent.”
He also credits an engineering team with a local mining company with seeing Oak Hill’s potential in doing the mine’s reclamation work. In 2010, the mining company hired Oak Hill to move 170,000 yards of dirt, a job that they bid at around $500,000. “That was monstrous for us at the time,” Burkholder says.
“They really went out on a limb for us,” Burkholder adds. “They were instrumental in taking us from a couple of boys with a dozer to a company that could actually compete and perform major jobs.”
Oak Hill used a combination of owned and rented excavators, dozers and articulated trucks along with tractors and pull-behind scrapers to complete that first mining job. “A lot of the earthmoving involved short moves so we could do things efficiently,” Burkholder says.
Family is a central theme at the company, part of the Burkholder’s deep Mennonite faith. Burkholder’s brother Jon manages the fleet, shop operations and projects. “He’s a lot more detail oriented,” Burkholder says. “It’s a good partnership. There’s a lot give and take, and it’s worked out really well.”
The family also had a narrow escape. While visiting an accounting firm in Pennsylvania, their plane crashed on takeoff. Burkholder, Jon and their dad Eugene all sustained serious injuries.
“We essentially flew into the side of a hill,” Burkholder says. “It’s a miracle we survived because the plane was structurally destroyed even though there was not a lot of visual damage.”
The accident happened in late 2015. “In 2016, our company basically ran on autopilot after coming off a good year,” Burkholder says. “I would go into the office and look at the stacks of paper, and I just couldn’t concentrate.”
The company rebounded in 2017 after another large mining project came through, but that also marked the last year that mining reclamation projects were the company’s primary income source.
Three years ago, Oak Hill was almost 100% devoted to coal mine reclamation jobs. Those projects are now down to 30% of the company’s work as it has expanded into landfill cell construction and U.S. Army Corps of Engineer work. Corps work has stretched Oak Hill beyond it’s normal 150-mile geographical footprint; it’s now performing levee work on the Texas-Louisiana border, something Burkholder sees the company doing only on a limited basis.
Oak Hill crews are currently working a job alongside the Ohio River that involves both earthmoving and marine construction. “When bidding it, there was a question of which approach you would take – working from the land or from the water,” Burkholder explains. “We saw very little work that we couldn’t do from land, and it’s been an awesome contract.”
Oak Hill bid the project with crawler carriers but found that its tractors and 21-yard pull-behind scrapers were a better fit for the soft underfoot conditions. “The difference was in the volume of dirt they could move, but we’re still pulling one instead of two. There’s a lot of rolling resistance.”
Oak Hill’s annual revenues are now in the $14 million to $15 million range. “I see a huge variable in the bottom line if we can go from there to $18 million, because we have the infrastructure in place,” Burkholder says. “A lot of the overhead costs are taken care of.”
With growth in mind, Burkholder is considering adding a salesperson and a controller. “We’re trying to get better prepared for the long haul,” he says. “I’m trying to transition out of thinking I have to do everything to training other people so that I’m not so tied down with the nitty-gritty.”
The “long haul,” as Burkholder puts it, is also present as he sees the children – now still quite young – grow up in his family.
“Those who are going to survive in this industry are going to stay in the harness and figure out ways to adapt and get it done,” he says.
“We have finite resources and a finite amount of people. Good technicians are hard to find, so I now look at what investment can we make that makes us flow better and be more profitable each season.”
For example, this year Oak Hill had tractors and pull-behind scrapers available for jobs, but no artics, which prompted him to rent six trucks for a job near St. Louis. “But it’s going to be painful for me to write that rental check,” he admits. “I like to own the equipment we’re using.”
The company built its current office and shop in 2017. “I can’t imagine what we’d do without that shop and its overhead crane,” Burkholder says. “We do a high percentage of our own work.” The company also has an equipment division that manages buying and selling used fleet and trucking services.
“When you're getting the operator from them, you're actually getting an operator and not just getting somebody that is sitting in a seat,” says client Chris Russell with Hamilton County Coal. “They are great communicators and that makes a big difference.”
“Josh and Jon are people of their word,” says Kevin Gore with client JennMar Services. “I couldn’t have higher praise for anybody that I work with.”
For an overview of Oak Hill Contractors' operations, check out this video: