Reader Profile: Mike Willhite

A grading contractor typically does his work and is gone before anyone sees him, notes Mike Willhite, owner of Willhite Grading & Excavation, a boutique company catering to high-end properties in California’s Montecito and Santa Barbara region. Willhite, a subcontractor for general contractors and engineering firms, believes in being more hands-on.

“There’s a lot more custom-type work and field changes that goes on,” he says. “I cater to that contractor so he has someone reliable on the job from the first to last stage.” Willhite’s work encompasses underground utilities, grading and excavation, overexcavation, and recompaction. Half of his time is spent breaking through Montecito’s large boulders. He primarily works solo, though he hires help on some jobs.

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Willhite notes a degradation of pride in the industry, with wages falling off by half. “When I was younger, a 320 excavator operator could make $30 an hour,” he says. “Now some companies are advertising for $15 an hour. There’s all this cheap labor coming in and running a 44,000-pound piece of equipment. There’s no background checking or hours checking.” That makes it hard for guys like him, Willhite notes. He takes care of the equipment, which he leases. “If something catastrophic happens on that machine, it could kill someone,” he says. “Some other guys beat the crap out of machines.”

Willhite once worked for a company that spent more labor time fixing machines than working them. “These machines have gotten a lot easier to run,” he points out. “But that doesn’t mean because you know how to make them move that you can efficiently process material.”

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What he does day to day…
Willhite’s days are spent working or looking for his next project through networking with local movers and shakers or promoting his company through LinkedIn and Facebook. On the job as a one-man operation, he runs the projects as well as dealing with the paperwork involved in release of liens and billing; a bookkeeper assists in those matters.

What led him to this line of work…
As a youth, Willhite, who describes his upbringing as somewhat underprivileged, befriended children from large ranching families, many of whom were adept at earthmoving activities. One such friend already was an operator in high school. Willhite revered him as a role model. “His family took me under their wing, teaching me a lot,” he says. “I labored for them for a long time. That’s where I found my passion for the work, but it was a long road before I considered myself an operator.” He faced challenges in high school that led to a falling out with his mentor family. His friend told him he’d never make it as an operator. He transformed those stinging words into fuel to pursue and excel at earthmoving. But not before joining the US Coast Guard, where he served in Kodiak, AK, on the Bering Sea for two years.

What he likes about his work…
“I love heavy equipment-I love it so much,” says Willhite. “It’s every kid’s dream. What other job do you get to go out there and play with Tonka toys for the rest of your life? If you talk to any kid, they always want to stop and look at a tractor. That doesn’t ever really go away for someone who loves it. Every time I get on a new job, it’s always different. The more dangerous it is, the more exciting, the more technical it is. It’s always about challenging your skills as an operator. I just love that. It’s just a really cool job.”

His biggest challenge…
Banks are not loaning money, and land is pricey, Willhite notes. Therefore, he leases because it relieves him of storage and maintenance concerns. Willhite favors Caterpillar’s leasing programs. “A lot of grading contractors buy equipment and try to force that piece of machinery on a job that’s not right for it because they own it. I know exactly what machines I need for a job. I can call Caterpillar, and they will deliver everything I need. It’s all brand new, all Tier 4. It doesn’t break down, but if there are any problems, they have a mechanic out there within the next hour or two.” GX_bug_web

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