Looking back, Tom Stroud clearly remembers the first client for his newly launched excavation business. He was driving through the tiny village of Clarksville in Clinton County and saw a project under way.
“A company was installing a sewer system, and I stopped by, introduced myself, and asked if they were looking for anyone,” Stroud said. “We progressed slowly and built our name – first through phone calls, faxes, and knocking on doors, which led to projects, and that led to word-of-mouth referrals.”
Fast forward to the present day. Stroud’s Excavation in Wilmington is celebrating the beginning of its third decade in business. The Christian-based company held a party to celebrate the milestone and remember its employees, including a few who are no longer living.
It is a Christian-based company, which Stroud attributes to the company’s resilience and success.
“Without my faith, and the support of my wife and family, this business wouldn’t be where it is, still doing well 20 years in,” said Stroud, who married Shelly. “Quality employees are also essential. There is camaraderie here cultivated by a family atmosphere. When you work with guys who care about each other, they tend to stay.”
Stroud is quick to admit he didn’t know if the business would last beyond that first year. Raised on a farm in Spring Valley, he learned the concept of hard work, and then he entered the excavation trade with Don Thompson in 1987 when he was a high school senior. Stroud ascended to a supervisory role, and in 2001, he was confronted with a pivotal choice when Thompson’s business closed.
“I had job offers for supervisory positions, but it was tough raising a family working seven days a week for 12 to 14 hours a day,” Stroud said. “We agreed to start a business, and if it doesn’t work, we will try something else. We had just had a new home built and were days away from moving in, borrowed $50,000, bought a dump truck and Bobcat, and went to work looking for clients.”
In the early days of Stroud’s Excavation, the company completed jobs of all sizes, and often the entire family pitched in.
“You need the encouragement and support of your spouse – first, to take a risk of going into business, and second, to recognize the long hours,” Stroud said. “Shelly is an important part of the company’s success, and all of our children have worked for the business, including one of our first jobs, seeding and strawing for Beezer Homes in the Sterling Green subdivision in Xenia.”
Stroud has learned multiple lessons as a business owner over the years.
Estimating is important because if you don’t learn that you will lose a lot of money quickly. That was the hardest part for me,” Stroud said. “I went from being in field full time to working in the field and being the guy in the office learning how to estimate jobs.
“Math was never a strong suit. You don’t think you will need it, but every trade uses math,” he added. “I lost 10,000 on one early project because I didn’t understand calculating cubic yards. You learn math quickly when a mistake costs money.”
When many excavation companies shuttered during economic hardship in 2008, Stroud’s Excavation survived, and the company has no debt on its equipment – another key lesson, Stroud says.
Stroud’s Excavation is a full-service excavation company mostly specializing in commercial projects that require land clearing, grading, concrete pours, septic and sewer lines, parking lot construction, driveways and turn lane construction, and utility site improvements among other services.
“We pretty much do everything except the building,” Stroud said.
Dunkin Donuts, Popeye’s Chicken, and Shell gas stations are among the better-known clients.
At a time when many high school graduates are reluctant to incur significant debt attending a four-year college to get a degree they might not use professionally, Stroud builds his team by training young adults and teaching them the excavation business, just as Thompson did for him.
“It’s smart to learn a trade if you do not know you want to be a doctor, an attorney, an accountant or any other profession that requires a degree,” Stroud said. We get people who learn a trade after college because they find they are not interested in what they went to college for, or they can’t find an ideal job.
“We have a gentleman’s agreement where you commit to three years with the company, and I will teach you the trade,” Stroud added. “Over the years, most of those guys have stayed the entire three years, and some for even longer.”
Stroud still works the Bobcat, manages projects in the field and handles office responsibilities – a jack of all trades, as every small business owner understands.
“When I think about that first year when we started the company, it was scary because we didn’t know what would happen, but it was also exciting because we were inspired and hungry to make it a success,” Stroud said. “We are on firm footing as a business 20 years later, but we are still inspired and hungry because we are a family-oriented company with a sense of purpose every day.”