CEO digs the dredging business

 Courtesy U.S. Army Corp of Engineers via Flickr; This image does not represent Dredge America and is used only for illustration purposes.

Courtesy U.S. Army Corp of Engineers via Flickr; This image does not represent Dredge America and is used only for illustration purposes.

Removing silt from bodies of water takes company crews nationwide and “keeps life interesting.”

BY ROY HARRYMAN

This article originally appeared in The Kansas City Star.

Dredge America’s job is to get to the bottom of things. Literally.
 
The Kansas City firm removes silt from lakes, harbors, rivers, power plant reservoirs and other bodies of water that have become clogged or can no longer be navigated.
The company uses floating (also called hydraulic) dredges to remove the silt but return the water to the basin.
 
“What happens in a lake is it naturally fills up over time, particularly when there is a lot of construction activity,” said Dan McDougal, Dredge America’s president and CEO. “Periodically they need to be cleaned out or they eventually completely fill in.”
 
Since equipment operators can’t see conditions under the water, surveys and GPS data are used to determine the position of the dredge as it cuts away silt.
 
McDougal, who previously worked as an engineer, started his own construction business in 1990 before moving exclusively to dredging in 1994. Since then, Dredge America has worked in 28 states and Puerto Rico, completing about 120 projects. Local jobs include work at Weatherby Lake, the Village of Loch Lloyd and Lakewood Lakes in Lee’s Summit.
 
The company, located near Kansas City International Airport, has 30 employees, with seven in the office and the remainder in the field most of the time.
 
The firm’s revenue for the last fiscal year was about $6 million. McDougal said he expects similar results in the current fiscal year, but anticipates that revenues will grow when the company purchases dredges that can handle multi-year projects. He plans to buy the equipment in the next two years.
 
“I think our growth is going to be a function of some of the larger projects as we get bigger equipment,” he said.
 
Growing – even surviving – in the dredging industry has its share of challenges.
 
“It is more than challenging,” said Ray Pitman, McDougal’s mentor in the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program. “Very few people could do what he’s doing.”
 
For starters, dredging crews may travel great distances to get to a job site. Once there, they work 12-hour shifts, seven days per week for three weeks straight. The machinery runs 24-hours per day. Employees get a week off before starting again.
 
“It’s not for everyone,” said McDougal. “The first thing we tell them is that this is not a job. It’s a lifestyle. It’s for the kind of people who love to travel and wake up doing something different everyday. One day you could be in Wyoming working. The next week you are in South Florida.”
 
The crews also work in challenging conditions. When a hurricane wiped out the area around Fort Pierce, Fla., a few years ago, crews had to live and work out of an RV in a parking lot because surrounding motels and restaurants were temporarily shut down. They’ve also worked in frigid winter temperatures in Wyoming and in just about every condition in between those two extremes.
 
Because of these challenges, Dredge America tries to make life on the road as smooth as possible for the crews. They are often housed in rental homes or condominiums instead of hotel rooms. Employees can stay in constant communication with the head office via cell phones and satellite-linked laptop computers.
 
The business is also capital intensive, with dredges costing between $500,000 and $1.5 million and requiring continual maintenance.
 
“It’s always breaking down so you have to be really good at keeping the equipment running 24 hours a day,” McDougal said.
 
Yet another challenge for dredgers is balancing the use of heavy machinery with environmental considerations. At a recent Florida job, McDougal’s team removed silt from a power plant’s intake channel while avoiding an endangered species of sea turtle. In order to steer clear of $10,000 fines and harm to the turtles, dredgers installed powerful water jets to keep the animals away from dangerous parts of the equipment.
 
Rodger Daniel, president of American Environmental and Construction Services, Inc., in Alpharetta, Ga., has hired Dredge America for several projects. One of them involved dredging at a U.S. Army facility in Georgia that required safeguarding endangered species.
 
“Dan engineered a very successful design so we were able to do the job with the least impact environmentally,” Daniel said. “Georgia has one of the toughest erosion control laws in the country. We were able to satisfy the concerns of the environmentalists in spades and he really did a good project.”
 
McDougal, like his crews, travels extensively. He spends up to 10 days on the road each month checking on and bidding for jobs, meeting clients and purchasing equipment. Business has taken him to places ranging from a Puerto Rican mangrove swamp to sprawling Texas ranches to private lakes in Aspen, Colo.
 
 “It takes you places you would never go … it keeps life interesting,” he said. “You have to be an adventurer to be in this business.”