All Roads Lead to Excellence
Drawing on the latest technology, BC contractor shows what a “new company” can do.
Construction publications are rife with success stories, often depicting one man with a pickup truck and a backhoe (purchased at auction) painstakingly growing his business and, after a decade in service, rising to become one of the area’s preeminent contractors.
This is not that story. This is a story of a partnership group who started a business and, recognizing that GNSS technology could separate them from others like themselves, embraced it and . . . well, became one of the area’s preeminent milling and paving contractors. The difference between the two scenarios is that All Roads Construction, the Surrey, BC-based company started by the individuals mentioned above, gained that position in less than two years. Apparently, GNSS does speed everything up.
"In my previous position, I saw the impact GPS can have on productivity and knew it needed to be a part of who we are."
Not everything about All Roads Construction (ARC) defies the norm. For example, the company was established when Rod Stephens approached his colleague Denis Labelle with a business plan he had discussed with a local construction owner, Bryan Hall. It was the framework of a true partnership in the making that led both into a life-changing decision, according to Labelle, ARC’s operations manager.
“We used to work for a large Vancouver-area company and really didn’t like the corporate feel of it,” he said. “So we decided to go on our own. For the first week after we left, Rod and I met at a local Wendy’s with our computers to lay the groundwork for what needed to be done. That fast-food site became our ‘office’ as we put things together for the new venture. It’s important to note that, when we left the other company, we did so with a clean break — we didn’t want anyone to think that we built this company on someone else’s dime, so to speak. Shortly after startup, we added Greg Regier as chief estimator, so the three of us are the current ARC management team.”
It’s been said that a true sign of good leadership is how well one is respected by those he or she manages. Using that as a gauge, Labelle and Stephens must have been outstanding in their previous positions for, shortly after starting ARC, about a dozen people from their former company joined them in the new venture. Today, two years into the business, they are more than 80 people strong and booking more than $30 million in projects, with specialties that include road paving, site grading, roadway building (with related concrete work), asphalt pavement milling, municipal infrastructure and land development civil construction projects.
Synergy in Surrey
Getting to where they are — as quickly as they have — was helped by a couple of key factors. The first is a cooperative effort with Bryan Hall and Hall Constructors, also a Surrey-based company, that specializes in heavy civil projects. Labelle said their relationship is truly complimentary.
“They are much larger than we are — doing in excess of $150 million of business a year,” he said. “In addition, they have strengths in areas that we do not and vice versa. Hall’s focus is on heavy civil work, deep excavation, shoring for high rises, and so on. They don’t do a lot of grading, concrete or milling — all of our strengths. It is a nice arrangement between two companies that can benefit each other when needed. They were a huge help to us during our startup process, helping us navigate the process for securing financing, bonding, etc. They’re a great group to have in your corner.”
The second factor contributing to All Roads’ success? The fact that Hall Constructors is a huge proponent of GPS: almost all of their fleet of excavators, dozers, etc., are equipped with it. So when All Roads considered making GNSS-equipped machine purchases early on, the two groups were in complete agreement.
“Since we occasionally trade equipment and services back and forth, that helped a lot,” said Labelle. “In my previous position, I saw the impact GPS can have on productivity and knew it needed to be a part of who we are,” he said. “Hall was in complete agreement. In addition, we felt it would be a great way to separate us from the competition — we weren’t wrong.”
Change of Direction
Based on the focus they saw their business taking at the time, All Roads felt its initial foray into the GNSS realm should be via a concrete paver for curb and gutter work. However, a lunch with Mark Piotto, director of sales for Brandt Positioning Technology, changed all that in a positive way.
“At the time, All Roads was still a young company and had just bought their grader,” said Piotto. “As a new paving company you need an advantage and I was confident that Topcon’s Millimeter GPS could provide that by helping them maximize quantities and production. Millimeter GPS on a paver has its own set of benefits for sure, but I felt that efficiently and accurately laying down the gravel on grade just made more sense for them.”
The Millimeter GPS to which Piotto refers is a GNSS-based solution that uses a tripod-mounted Topcon LZ-T5 laser transmitter, placed at an established reference point, to generate a 33 foot high Laser Zone signal. That signal is accessed by a ruggedized sensor on the machine and used to determine elevation, set the necessary depth of the blade, and maintain the required grade.
“Once Mark told me about the benefits and savings we could gain setting our motor grader up with the Topcon solution, I was intrigued enough to suggest that he bring one of their graders out to our job to have me try it out and he agreed.”
"As a new paving company you need an advantage and I was confident that Topcon’s Millimeter GPS could provide that by helping them maximize quantities and production."
Proof is in the Payback
The project All Roads was tackling at the time called for grading a massive 56,000 m2 parking lot that CP Rail was leasing to Ford Canada to offload and store new vehicles. Labelle said that the general contractor doing preliminary grading for the project, was still coming in 5cm high utilizing conventional 2D GPS.
Using the Millimeter GPS, however, got us to within 3 mm,” said Labelle. “So, over that 56,000 m2, it ended up reducing the volume of gravel by about 6,000 tonnes — a savings of about $80,000. We were blown away, to say the least. The system paid for itself just on that one project.”
Labelle added that the parking lot had a decent amount of curves and swales to it, which, done using a conventional process or using a surveyor, would have been very pointed, with harsh corners rather than the rounded curves in the plan. Using the touch screen in the machine, the operator knew exactly where the swales were in relation to his machine position, so creating them was a breeze.
“Once we paved the lot, we found that our asphalt mixes were within a few tons of what specs called for, so it helped minimize waste on that end as well,” said Labelle. “After two days using Millimeter GPS, I kept Brandt’s grader, and sent our Cat 120M in to get it set up with the same system — I was that convinced.”
A post-script to that story bears mentioning. Because the project was winter work — a scarcity in itself, let alone one which calls for 8,000 tonnes of asphalt in January — All Roads essentially bid it with a minimal of markup. “When we were done, however, we blew our margins out of the water,” said Labelle. “For me, despite that being the only job I’d done using the millimeter solution, I was sold. I knew everything had to be done that way moving forward.”
All About the Prep
With the Millimeter solution for grading proven out in a big way, Labelle was anxious to see if they could achieve similar results on the paving side of the business. They took delivery of a GOMACO Commander III slipform paver in early 2019 and then, again working with Brandt, outfitted the unit with its own Millimeter GPS.
“It bears mentioning that we did some up-front work which included having our in-house survey team coordinate with the Brandt, Topcon and GOMACO people to ensure we had the proper files,” said Labelle. “We’ve learned that doing so is key; for this operation, it is all about the surveying and programming elements of the system. And, because this was an entirely new undertaking for us, we sent the operator to GOMACO’s school to gain familiarity with the paver. Finally, we did a couple trial runs before taking it to a job. We created a surface file for our yard and ran the machine without any concrete to make sure it was following the line and working as promised, and it was.”
All Roads took its GOMACO unit “live” on a municipal roadway project for Miller Capilano Highway Services in nearby Coquitlam, BC. According to Labelle, the results were impressive: savings in both time and materials and an excellent product at job’s end.
“While not having to deal with stringline is, of course, the overriding benefit, it goes much further than that,” he said. “Its ability to do very tight radii is truly impressive. I have a couple of 40-year veteran concrete guys who were willing to bet their paychecks that we couldn’t pull off some of the things we have. It’s been an eye-opener for all of us.”
Fast forward to the present and GNSS has become the de facto solution for almost all their curb and gutter work. On a recent project done as a subcontractor for Tybo Contracting, Ltd., All Roads brought both elements of its Millimeter GPS arsenal to bear — with impressive results.
“This was a time-sensitive reconstruction of 6 km of municipal roadway that we did in two separate pours,” he said. “Tybo is very tech savvy, so they were using GPS in the grading facet of the job and we worked off the file they created. They bulked in their gravel using GPS on the first section and when we came in with the millimeter-grade solution, we were able to improve upon the accuracies so much that we piled up 400 tonnes of gravel which they then used on the second phase.”
Labelle’s team had a target production rate of 400-500 linear meters per day and either met or exceeded that, despite some unavoidable challenges.
“Weather was a definite hindrance,” he said. “At the time that project was under way, we had so much rain that we would check the hourly forecasts to spot a small break where we could go out and do anything. Both Topcon and Brandt were great right from the start and were key in making sure we would be successful with the solution — that was huge for us.”
According to Brian Lingobardo, Topcon’s business manager for concrete paving, the 3D paving solution was precisely what the company needed, given its relatively new position doing that type of work.
“The curb market is highly competitive, meaning clients demand high productivity and a quality product,” he said. “The Millimeter GPS solution for their curb and gutter work will provide All Roads with an effective tool to provide that and more.”
Despite several capital investments in a short time frame, Labelle says All Roads is far from done expanding its operation.
“We have our sights set on getting into airport work at some point,” he said. “I can see the benefit of having millimeter-grade control on both the milling and paving facets of those jobs. For us, it’s a no-brainer — this technology is the future.”