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Perfection to the Finish

New grading solution dramatically transforms Gulf Coast contractor’s operation.

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When John “Bubba” Shearer established Backwoods Land Services some 18 years ago, it bore little resemblance to the company he heads up today. At that time, he specialized in land clearing projects and work for septic system installations with a bit of site grading — mostly for single family homes — added in. Eventually, the need for site work grew, to a point where it became the primary focus of Backwoods’ efforts. As that emphasis has changed, so too has Shearer’s manner for providing fast and accurate grade to his clients. That evolution recently found him at a development outside of Ft. Myers, Florida, using a compact track loader armed with a 3D grade solution which he cites as easily being twice as quick and efficient as anything he’s used in the past. Obviously, the only thing backwoodsy about Shearer is his company moniker.

Floridal Arrangement

The project currently at the forefront of Backwoods’ efforts is a residential development in North Ft. Myers, Fla. called Bayshore Ranch. There, as in 90% of their project work, Backwoods is acting as a finish-grade subcontractor to Lee Mar Construction. According to Shearer, it is an arrangement that suits them very well.

 

“My relationship with Lee Mar goes back more than a decade now,” he said. “They are an excellent organization to work with and have a solid reputation throughout this area. Even though I have my own company and a great deal of autonomy, this arrangement means I don’t have to seek out work, I don't have to bid jobs, I don't have to chase money, I just have to provide the results they need for finished grade. It’s worked out great for both of us. Our work at Bayshore Ranch — and another adjacent development that offered a different set of challenges — are perfect examples of that.”

 

The Bayshore project is situated on 110 acres and will be the future site of some 122 homesites. “This area, like most of Florida, is just exploding with growth, so developments like these are literally everywhere” said Shearer. “Out here, in addition to general site grading, creating swales for drainage, etc., we are also tasked with finishing grade for the roads. In the past, that would have been a time-consuming effort involving a motor grader and a whole lot of manual grade checking. That’s all changed now.”

Evolution on a Small Scale

Though Shearer prefers to keep the size of his company minimal — payroll is currently at four, including himself — the amount and size of the work he is now tackling belies that small size. They do so largely by maximizing the functionality of even their compact equipment.

“Our small machines — specifically our John Deere 333G compact track loaders — do the bulk of the grading work on projects like the one at Bayshore,” he said. “One of those machines is dedicated to doing manual grading work and the other, has a Level Best box blade with a grading system that, until recently, was running a 2D grading system. That previous solution, which utilized a laser to determine elevation and slope, replaced manual string and tape for our grading work and served us well for a lot of years.”

He added that the 2D solution, added only a couple years ago, took them to the next level, bettering existing grading times by more than 25%. It also improved accuracy and onsite efficiency, letting them to tackle more — and larger — projects. At the same time, it allowed them to imagine the possibilities that a 3D system might provide. That imagining was realized with the recent addition of an MC-Mobile solution which brought true 3D functionality to Shearer’s operation.

“When we were first considering the move to 3D, the sales rep from Lengemann, our Topcon dealer, assured us we’d see a nice uptick in speed, accuracy and quality — and we’ve seen all of that.”

— John “Bubba” Shearer

Another Dimension in Grading

Contractors like Shearer have long wished for a 3D grading solution that could bring large-machine 3D results to their compact fleet — and do so without having to cobble together a solution or pay a large-scale machine price. Shearer will quickly attest that MC-Mobile is the answer they’ve waited for.

“When we were first considering the move to 3D, the sales rep from Lengemann, our Topcon dealer, assured us we’d see a nice uptick in speed, accuracy and quality — and we’ve seen all of that,” he said. “Because Lee Mar provides us with everything we need in terms of layout, we haven’t even begun to tap much of the potential that MC-Mobile offers — but there’s no doubt we will at some point in the future. Right now though, it's making me do things with small equipment I couldn't do before — or, at the very least, making it far easier to do them.”

An actual ranch when purchased, Bayshore’s developers are trying to maintain that ranch-like feel through the incorporation of big swales, roads without curbs, culverts in the driveways, etc. That open approach really allowed Shearer and his CTL to excel. “What we’ve been able to accomplish has been impressive,” he said. “The older solution was productive, but we’d set up and then have to re-set every time anything changed. Not so with the LN-150 robot — essentially the ‘brains’ of the 3D solution for us. It’s easy to set up and doesn’t need to be touched again. We are beating the already decent grading time we had with the 2D system by 50%.”

He added that, because they were new to the 3D solution, the support they received from Lengemann was key to allowing them to hit the ground running with it. “I work directly with one of their people and I can call him at any hour, and he'll work hard to solve whatever problem we have. I don't have three of those systems, I only have one, and if it's down I'm in trouble — I might have forgotten how to work without it. It's that nice.”

Productivity Was Swale

Productive as the 3D solution was at Bayshore, Shearer said it paled in comparison to work he’d just completed for Lee Mar at an adjacent development called Stonehill.  

 

“At Stonehill, the area being developed was literally surrounded by existing homes,” he said. “Prior to Lee Mar getting onsite, water from those existing homesites drained across the new development which is lower in elevation than the rest. So, the engineers designed a surface that was really different — and definitely challenging. It called for us to sculpt a swale around the outside of our site to catch our water, and a berm to keep it from going off into any neighboring property. Then we dug a second swale to which water from those houses could drain and get carried to the lakes onsite.”

 

He added that, without MC-Mobile and the 3D solution on their CTL, that slope-intensive design would have been a nightmare. Instead, it bordered on just another job. “I had people out here look at what we were doing and say: ‘I didn’t know that was possible with that machine.’ The Topcon system didn’t just make it possible, it made it easy.”

“I had people out here look at what we were doing and say: ‘I didn’t know that was possible with that machine.’ The Topcon system didn’t just make it possible, it made it easy.”

— John “Bubba” Shearer

Role Reversal

Oddly enough, when making the decision whether or not to make the move to the 3D solution, Shearer met with some resistance — from his 24-year-old son, John. He said the younger Shearer was generally a believer in doing things “old-school” . . .  until he wasn’t.

“He learned from me, which is old-school, in itself,” joked Shearer. “Because I've always relied on string and a tape measure, he was against dropping that in favor of the new approach. But on the Stonehill job, we had to build a road to get trucks back to our work area and relied on the Topcon solution. He not only saw that the precision was amazing, we did in 2 1/2 hours what would have taken us a full day. He was won over.”

In addition to John, Jr., Backwoods’ payroll includes two others: grade checker Marcos Benito Vargas, and Shearer’s daughter, Hailee. “Hailee has worked for us for about five years now,” he said. “I guess watching me do this for most of her life made her want to do it as well. But, in those five years, she’s become a damned good operator — I’m proud to have them both on board.”

Able to Compare

Having previously tried other machine control solutions for his compact equipment, Shearer is in a better position than most to compare things like performance, ease of use, etc., between those and his current solution.

“In addition to the obvious benefits like the ability to tackle complex grades and slopes like we had at Stonehill, the MC-Mobile solution is faster than anything I’ve used in the past,” he said. “I've used some older systems and just found them not just hard to use but slow. The precision might be there but, when changes to grade need to happen, you have to literally be crawling. With this solution, we can actually travel at a pretty good clip and still maintain solid grade while adjustments are being made. There’s no room for slow grading on today’s jobsites.”

He added that, despite their diminutive size as a contractor, their current 3D system will probably not be their last. “I will probably outfit one more CTL with the Topcon 3D solution and use the 2D for some of our rodeo arena jobs or other flat work we do. But these last couple projects have shown me the difference a 3D solution can make — there’s no going back now.”

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