Building Highways to the Future

Ed Bell Construction Company

The influence of the Ed Bell Construction Company extends far beyond the highways of North Texas, and serves as a model for the future of highway construction. Recently, we enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation with Phillippe Falkner, who describes his role of Business Services Specialist at Ed Bell Construction Company (EBCC) “as a catch-all role to handle technology, special projects, continuous improvement, fleet management, software, and workforce development. I’m kind of a Jack-of-all-trades, and my job never gets monotonous, because two days are never the same.”

But before looking at the company’s stellar safety record, the future of highway construction, and the role I Build America plays in workforce development in the heavy civil construction industry, we took a detour into the past to learn how EBCC began in 1963. That, Falkner told us, was the year Founder Ed Bell, who had worked for his father’s construction company, struck out on his own with a $20,000 loan from the Republic National Bank of Dallas.

The result was a company that, despite humble beginnings doing alley and small street repairs in Dallas, has become a leader in north Texas. Today, EBCC is owned by Edwin (Win) Bell Jr., son of the founder, and has in excess of $100 million worth of contracts in progress. That is a floating average, Falkner explained, as work in progress can vary between $80 and $200 million.

Over the last twenty years, it has constructed more than 200 projects worth over $1 billion for the Texas Department of Transportation alone, and this is not its only customer, although it is the largest one.

It is recognized both for its comprehensive heavy civil construction capabilities, which include concrete paving, bridge building, subgrade stabilization, and constructing retaining walls, and for the outstanding customer service it provides.

Texas, especially north Texas, is synonymous with a booming economy, and Falkner says that means many new companies are moving in and a need to build out the infrastructure. “They are looking for contractors they can count on to do quality, safe work, to get things done, and to maintain good public relations. We’ve taken more of a customer service focus with our customers rather than being just a contractor coming in to build something and then leaving,” he says.

“The approach we take is not to just fulfill the baseline of the contract. Our approach is to find out what the owner’s goals and desires are for their projects. We were doing design-build long before it became popular. We ask what are you trying to accomplish that you thought couldn’t get done? Then we might tackle that in an unorthodox or out-of-the-box manner. We talk about their challenges and problems because their problems will be ours. I’m a great believer that we are all on the boat together, so we try to find out their concerns and make them ours,” explains Falkner.

“I know that’s not the attitude a lot of new contractors have. They want to build something, then move on to the next project, but we take an open arms stance to being part of the contracting community here, rather than just being another guy building a road.”

Falkner says that prior to 2012, EBCC’s safety record was average. “But we weren’t satisfied with average, so in 2012 we revamped our entire safety program. I was moving into an operations manager role at the time and we brought in a new safety manager and did a lot of research.” What the research revealed is that while most companies establish a safety budget, many treat safety as a box they can tick off in a list of all the things they have to deal with.

The difference between EBCC, with approximately 325 employees at its largest, and larger companies, with many times that number of employees, “is that it gives us the opportunity to know our people, some of whom have been here thirty or thirty-five years. I know our people who work in the field for us; I know their names and many of their families and their backgrounds, and that impacted us, so we started thinking that the appropriate approach is to have everyone involved in safety. Now we train from the bottom up and get everyone to take ownership, although getting everyone to buy into a safety culture was not a smooth road in the beginning.”

However, perseverance paid off. Since 2014, EBCC has consistently placed at the Annual Construction Safety Excellence Awards (CSEA) event which honors the nation’s safest construction companies at the annual Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) national convention. In 2015, EBCC placed third; in 2016 it placed second; in 2018 and again in 2019, it took top honors with first-place wins in its division. On March 9, 2020, EBCC celebrated one thousand days (two and a half years) with no lost-time injuries, undoubtedly leading the way to yet another award.

“I tell our guys that we just go and pick up the safety awards, but they don’t belong to the company. Those awards belong to you,” adds Falkner.

“I’ve been very fortunate in the seventeen years I’ve been here because any technology that can make us safer, more productive, improve our quality, and our timeliness is available,” Falkner says, reflecting on EBCC’s approach. “One of the sister companies operated by Win involves software apps and programming, so I’m one of the few guys in my position with a heavy civil construction company who has access to a software development team. We have built our own software, and we’ve partnered with other companies to integrate their apps, so we are definitely on the forefront of technology. We went completely paperless in the field in 2012, and that was unheard of at the time, but we developed an application for our iPads, and it has been a great success for us.”

Going paperless is just one aspect of technology at EBCC. The company is starting to use augmented reality solutions to help visualize projects through imaging and has had an active drone program for the past four years. There are now multiple drones in operation, with three pilots, including Falkner, who uses them for scanning and quantification as well as daily tracking, quality and safety monitoring, and estimating. “We’re not just taking pictures, and we are definitely pushing the boundaries for the use of drones in the construction market,” he says.

“Our owner,” he continues, “is taking an early innovative view with autonomous vehicles, and was one of the first in a Tesla driving itself.” EBCC has started researching how autonomous vehicles could be used to increase productivity, for example, to deliver aggregate to the job site, and how workers can be kept safe. Now the company is starting to explore how to invest in development.

“Autonomous vehicles are a polarizing topic, politically speaking. Lots of folks don’t want them, so it hasn’t moved along as fast as some of us had hoped. But it’s starting to get less resistance now, so I think in the next five years, I’ll have some sort of autonomous material hauler on one of my job sites.”

Even though the technology is now available to build more superhighways and do it more efficiently, superhighways may not be the way of the future. Already, people are questioning if we need as many roads as we have now, Falkner says.

“There’s a big push that started on the west coast and the northeast and is starting to flow down here. Everyone is becoming more environmentally conscious, and a lot of the population in large metropolitan areas – DC, New York, Chicago, and LA – want to move away from long commutes, choosing instead to work from home. Besides that, with the growth we have in those areas, we can’t build enough roads to keep up with the population, so we’re definitely changing the way we think about transportation. We will never do away with all the big trucks and highways, but in some metropolitan areas, including Dallas, it’s becoming a movement that it’s not practical to keep building more roads,” shares Falkner.

“Our governor, Greg Abbott, recently made a statement that he thinks the next twenty years will be the last of the big highway build-outs in Texas. He believes transportation will change, and we will have to look at more sustainable methods to keep people moving, whether that’s high-speed trains and light rail or an Uber Elevate (an Uber helicopter) or getting people to live in more condensed downtown areas where there are safe biking and pedestrian trails.”

Even though EBCC built its reputation on building big highways, and some of that will continue, Falkner says civil construction companies will have to change focus to building more functional forms of public transportation and adapt their skill sets and equipment. “You don’t want to take resources and cast them into the abyss,” he says, “so you have to look at how do you take this slip form paver designed to do one-hundred-foot-wide interstates and have it do bike trails?”

Like everyone in the construction industry, Falkner is concerned about workforce development. “The economy has grown at a record pace over the last ten years, but the number of people who want to come into our industry is going down. There’s been a big push with the young folks that college is the only answer and that blue-collar jobs indicate personal failure. Many of them want technology, and a lot of what we do is now automated, but a shovel still has to go into a hole, and we have a generation disinclined to do that.”

He recounts how a colleague was visiting a school where he saw a poster in the guidance counselor’s office depicting a disheveled-looking construction worker, his belly hanging over his tool belt, with the caption ‘You don’t want to end up like this guy, do you?’ It painted a horrible picture of construction work.

“So my friend asked the counselor, ‘How much do you make a year?” Taken aback, she answered, “$50,000.” And he replied, ‘Everyone in my company who looks like that makes $80,000 to $100,000 a year.’ And he walked out.”

That negative image of heavy civil construction work needs to be changed and is one reason EBCC became a founding member of I Build America, a national movement focused on building pride in the construction industry by educating the public about its value.

“Building bridges and high rises is considered a cool job,” says Falkner, “and kids want to do cool things, but building a road in rural Texas is cool too because it’s needed. It’s not just the big bridges and overpasses, but the tens of thousands of farm-to-market asphalt roads and the miles of sewer, water, and communications systems that are needed. I Build America is presenting the important role those jobs play in our economy and making them attractive, and we are thrilled to partner with them,” he says.

“No one gets to the job sites where high rises are being constructed unless they have a road to drive on. We are the sector that keeps everything going. We can’t afford to have our industry fail, because we keep the country moving. All of the other construction happens because of us. The economic success of this country happens because we are able to get around. What we do in our industry is important and what we do has a dramatic impact.”

Silver (and Steel) Linings

The construction industry has managed to overcome some massive hurdles in 2020. Despite a range of challenges, from orders to halt work during the shutdown to navigating new health and safety requirements to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the industry kept going. As the year draws to a close, it is time to celebrate some of its notable success stories.

December 3, 2020, 11:32 AM EST