Equipment World Contractor of the Year, 2012
Better Roads Staff
Steve Cosper got his love of construction as a teenager working summer jobs. But it was his keen appreciation for financial management and an aggressive use of digital technology that helped his company survive the recession.
Dusting off bluetops for a highway contractor in the hot Alabama sun may not seem like the kind of job that would motivate a teenager to pursue a career in construction, but Steve Cosper loved every minute of it. “I enjoyed construction so much it changed my path in life,” he says.
His enthusiasm for construction motivated Cosper to get a civil engineering degree and then a job with the paving giant APAC where he rose through the ranks for 15 years, eventually becoming a division vice president.
But Steve had a strong desire to be his own boss and run his own paving company. So in 1999 he launched Granite Contracting with help from an investment partner. Today Granite Contracting is a turnkey site development company with nearly 80 employees, two asphalt plants and more than 100 pieces of equipment.
Beating the recession
In 2008 and 2009 when the U.S. economy sank into recession and job prospects were cut by more than half, Cosper’s ideas and practices were put to the test. North Carolina, with its big banking sector, took a heavy beating. What kept Granite Contracting afloat during these lean times was financial management – Cosper knowing his costs and working with his controller Ryan Haynes, office manager Torrie Thompson and project managers to make smart decisions.
“There are a lot of folks who are great construction guys, but they don’t pay enough attention to the business aspects,” Cosper says. “They don’t know what drives their profitability and they don’t put processes in place to monitor that. We know our costs down to the penny. If you asked me how much stone we ran from a particular quarry from 2 to 4 p.m. on June 22 of 1999, I could tell you. We carry it out to the third decimal place. It’s easy to make sure everybody is there at 6:30 in the morning. But it’s tough to have the processes in place so that you can understand your yields and manage the material flow and all the conveying expenses. Business is risky enough without leaving holes in the plan.”
Cosper also gives credit to his foremen and crews. “They are the face the customer sees every day and the biggest reason we get a second chance with an owner. They make it happen every day in adverse weather and challenging conditions in a safe professional manner.”
Part of his business acumen comes from coursework Cosper took towards a MBA degree. Due to transfers and the demands of job and family, he didn’t complete the degree, but he learned enough to put in place cost controls and cost analysis systems in his own company.
“The accounting side is just half the picture,” Cosper says. “You learn to take financial information and use it in your estimates so that you are a better predictor of costs. You have to turn that into useful information to take to the bidding table.”
Another smart move Cosper made when setting up his company was to solicit an equity partner, J.T. Russell and Sons, from Albemarle, North Carolina. “That was a big help,” Cosper says. “On day one, rather than try to raise $4 million in the equity markets, we had access to bonding and capital and their asphalt plant,” he says. “It took five years off the curve when we were getting started.”