Lynn Watson was an elementary school teacher for five years before making a career switch to construction.
He would come home during the summer to earn some extra cash while helping his father, Foster, at his construction business.
The business, Watson Excavating, began as a side job for Foster.
In 1972, the Army Corps of Engineers contacted him to assist with cleaning out creek beds after a flood ravaged the community of Turbotville, Pennsylvania.
When Foster’s welding job wouldn’t give him the time off work to complete the project, he quit, and Watson Excavating was born.
But as Foster’s business started to grow beyond what he could manage himself, Lynn could also see that a career in teaching could get repetitive and was looking for a more challenging occupation. So, Lynn joined the business full time in 1980, and Foster retired shortly after in 1984.
“I hired one guy, and we started out with just the two of us and three pieces of equipment – a backhoe, an excavator and a bulldozer,” says Lynn. “And over the years, we just kept growing by bits and pieces.”
As the housing market grew in the area, Watson grew with it – and residential site excavation still makes up a good portion of its $3 million to $5 million business today.
But it’s Watson’s diversification that has kept it going, even through the 2008 recession. The company will perform anything from site development to utility work to snow plowing.
“We did work for a local power company, and they would always joke that we’ll do anything they need to be done,” says Lynn. “Sewers, waterlines, electrical, utilities – we won’t shy away from anything unless we think we can’t complete the project.”
Eric Watson, Lynn’s son, was introduced to construction at an early age and was helping as a laborer at 13. He joined the business full time after graduating with a degree in civil engineering in 2009.
“I always took a liking to running machinery,” says Eric, now 37. “All of the other kids were out playing with toys, and I was out operating equipment.”
Eric’s entry into the business has allowed Watson to branch out into commercial construction projects where its roots in residential have helped it shine.
“We’ve found our niche in smaller site development projects that the larger companies tend to avoid,” says Eric. “We excel in that because we’re used to the residential side where you’re working 5 feet from property lines or with multiple other contractors on site. It’s tedious, and it requires more finesse.”
Says one client, “I’ve had the pleasure to work with Watson Excavating on several jobs. When they get the bid, you know it will be done well.”
Watson Excavating was chosen as one of Equipment World‘s 2022 Contractor of the Year finalists.
As the company has continued to grow and evolve, Watson’s commitment to precision and safety has set it apart from the pack, and Lynn’s background in teaching has proven to be a magic bullet for employee development.
Learning every day
Today, Watson has 12 employees. Each has received hands-on training from Lynn, which is his favorite part of the job. He dedicates time to working alongside younger employees to grow their skills and set the tone.
“We’re very particular in our work, and we’ve taught our employees to be, too,” says Lynn. “I’m not out running machines. I’m in the ground with the guys showing them what we expect.”
“We’ve got one guy who is 22. I took him out, and we did jobs together for the first month or two, mostly just him and I, and he has already become quite the operator,” adds Lynn.
Part of that mentorship also includes showing employees a career path.
“Every day we’re trying to train the team. A lot of our operators started out as laborers, and we’re always trying to better those guys,” says Eric. “We’re going to start you out in the ditch so you can understand the progression of the project, but you’re not just going to be a laborer for your duration at our company.”
Clients have come to appreciate this level of detail and consistency as well.
“Once the pipe is in the ground, nobody sees it, and they don’t know until several years later if there are issues,” says Lynn. “That’s one of the keys we stress to our employees and subcontractors; it has to be done right the first time. If there is a glitch, we’ll go back and fix it.”
Beyond in-house skill training, Watson partners with United Rentals for flagger training, trench safety training and OSHA 10-hour training. Daily and weekly toolbox talks reinforce those safety best practices.
“With us being spread out on a variety of sites, it empowers our staff to make that call if they see something that’s not safe,” says Eric.
Know-how with a side of technology
When it comes to equipment, Watson has a fleet of 15 machines, plus pickups and dump trucks. The company buys new equipment and maintains it well, sometimes keeping machines for up to 20 years.
“We know how we want our equipment run by our operators. Even our older machines are not in bad shape,” says Lynn. “Our dealer is always shocked by the life we get out of our tracks.”
Eric adds that while they are looking to add a mechanic, two of their employees, plus he and Lynn, currently perform most of the preventive maintenance on slow days. A full shop and storage garage helps the company keep supplies organized and machines running.
Since getting into commercial work, Watson has installed Trimble GPS on the majority of its machines. That, paired with excellent operator training, has made it a double threat.
“I decided if we were going to stay in the commercial side of things, we were going to have to invest in GPS to save on time,” says Eric. “There are so many elevation changes on a commercial site; it got too tedious to stake out. Not to mention, stakes are like a beacon for everyone else to hit.”
“Being able to see things and do things with your eye, as well as implementing GPS, has helped us stay ahead,” he says.
Maintaining strong relationships
Despite getting into bigger commercial jobs, Lynn and Eric won’t turn down a chance to help their neighbors in need.
“I don’t think I’d ever give up the small neighborhood jobs because that’s what put us in business,” says Lynn. “Those small jobs for homeowners and farmers kept us going through the recession.”
The Watsons also regularly donate their time or talents to schools, churches and charity organizations in the Turbotville area.
Justin Tillotson, territory sales manager for Cleveland Brothers, says, “Watson comes highly recommended from other contractors and vendors. They work hand-in-hand with other contractors, not in competition. I have had a handful of my younger contractors over the years reach out to Lynn and Eric for their expertise. They have always been more than helpful.”
Those long-term relationships will be important as Lynn hands over the reins of the company to Eric, bringing in the third generation of leadership to Watson.
Eric is set to take over the business this year, and while he acknowledges it will come with some challenges, he’s had the best teacher.
Equipment World’s Contractor of the Year program recognizes contractors who display the highest standards of business acumen, equipment management expertise, attention to safety and community involvement. Each year, 12 finalists receive an expense-paid trip to Las Vegas to participate in roundtable discussions and an awards ceremony.
Nominations for the 2023 Contractor of the Year awards are due September 23. For more information, visit https://www.equipmentworld.com/contractor-of-the-year.