Carrying On a Family Construction Tradition

James Peterson Sons Inc.

James Peterson Sons Inc. (JPS) is a fifth-generation, family-owned business based in Medford, Wisconsin that offers a wide variety of construction services. The company includes a utilities division, also headquartered in Medford and Buteyn-Peterson Construction Co. in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The firm continues to be run by the Peterson family. Jim and Jack are third generation, along with their sons, Tim, Scott and Jeff and grandsons Eric and Ryan.
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The Petersons are devoted to both their company and home state. “Ninety-nine percent of our work is in Wisconsin. We do some work in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Occasionally we get a job in Minnesota,” says President Jack Peterson.

JPS’ staggering array of services include road and highway construction, excavation and earth moving, long-reach excavation, sanitary and storm sewer/water main construction, aggregate production, commercial and residential site work, stormwater management and railroad grading and removal. It also installs engineered retaining walls, performs agricultural site development, mobile concrete work, directional drilling, frac sand mining support, public and private lift station construction, landfill construction and maintenance, airport construction and metallic mining support which involves removing iron, zinc and copper from rock ore.

JPS does not plan to add any new services to its repertoire in the near future. The firm has acquired an excellent reputation for its core services and wants to focus on these.

In addition to these services, JPS operates over two-dozen gravel pits throughout Wisconsin, which means the company can crush and produce its own gravel. JPS has roughly two hundred pieces of equipment in its fleet, including backhoes, bulldozers, graders, dump trucks and wheel loaders.

“We have a full-service shop in Medford and one in Sheboygan. Then we have half-a-dozen mechanics that go around to job sites with their service trucks and maintain equipment. Any major repairs, we bring back to our shops or to our vendors,” states Vice President Jeff Peterson.

The company uses GPS (global positioning system) technology for surveying and other purposes. Some of the firm’s bulldozers, graders and excavators are GPS-equipped to enhance grading and digging accuracies. JPS engineers also use three-dimensional computer modelling software for various projects. Such technology “definitely saves time and creates efficiencies in our work,” states Corporate Secretary Tim Peterson.

In 2016, JPS handled an assignment that entailed widening a causeway between two lakes in Chippewa County. Some of the work had to be done in water up to forty feet deep. For this tricky task, JPS utilized an excavator with a seventy-foot reach and a customized GPS system. The operator relied on said system for guidance when visibility was lost during underwater work. The project – like most of JPS’s work – went off without a hitch. The company has started to look at using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) for operations.

Such equipment is a far cry from the company’s low-technology origins in the 1930s when founder James Peterson went into business hauling dirt with a homemade, horse-drawn dray. James Peterson was a logger by profession but wanted to try his hand at road building and other work. His sons, Morgan and George, joined the growing firm, and the company earned a reputation for hard work and fair dealing.

It expanded over the years, and in 1999, JPS bought out the Buteyn Excavating and Grading Company, which was rechristened Buteyn-Peterson Construction. Six years later, JPS purchased Lakeland Enterprises which was transformed into the utility division of James Peterson Sons Inc.

The acquisition of Buteyn Excavating, in particular, broadened the firm’s scope. In addition to the services that James Peterson Sons offers, Buteyn-Peterson Construction also does civil construction work involving wetland creation, wind energy projects, power plants and golf course construction and maintenance.

“A lot of our business is with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. We wanted to diversify into different segments of the industry. We thought those two acquisitions were ideal. We’re always looking for the right opportunity to come along to grow the business,” says Tim Peterson.

The family spirit is still very much alive today at JPS. Jim and Jack Peterson are Morgan Peterson’s sons. Tim Peterson is Jim’s son while Jeff Peterson is Jack’s son. During the week, the Petersons are scattered at various far-flung job-sites. On Friday mornings, the family gathers to hold a conference call with staff.

“Our foremen call in, and we talk to them about their jobs, the equipment they need and their people. Then our superintendents stay on, and we do a little more in-depth discussion with them. Then, the superintendents leave, and the Peterson family hashes everything out. This happens every Friday,” explains Jeff Peterson.

“A lot of us have gone on to post-secondary education. We have various degrees in business, engineering, et cetera. Probably the most important one is with the school of hard knocks,” adds Tim Peterson.

In addition to doing good work, another secret to JPS’s success is the staff it brings on board. If employees “don’t love their jobs, they should go somewhere else. You have to love your job to be involved in our business,” states Jack Peterson. The company has roughly two hundred employees though the number “fluctuates from year-to-year” depending on workload, says Tim Peterson.

Qualities that the company looks for in new hires – and in its suppliers – include “honesty and integrity and good work ethic,” says Jeff Peterson.

Recently, the company worked on a demanding assignment at the Grandfather Falls Hydroelectric Plant in Merrill, Wisconsin. JPS was hired to demolish a 1,300 foot-long wood stave penstock that had been installed in the late 1930s then add new base material plus a steel penstock. A penstock controls the flow of water to hydroelectric turbines. Work has been completed, and the plant is now producing power, says Jack Peterson.

JPS has earned industry kudos for its work. The firm won an Excellence in Construction Award for 2016 from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) at an annual contractor and engineer conference in Madison, Wisconsin. JPS’s award was for Excellence in grading, for its meticulous work on the causeway widening project in Chippewa County. The company has also won a civil engineering achievement award from the American Society of Civil Engineers for a project involving the State Highway 16 Oconomowoc Bypass. JPS’s work at Taylor County Airport earned the firm an Outstanding Airport Construction award from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

JPS is a member of standards organization ISNetworld and is scrupulous about safety and has received many honors for its safety record. The company’s safety director holds regular meetings and inspections and offers different safety-related themes throughout the year. Another JPS official handles quality issues, doing tests and inspections and ensuring all work is done to the firm’s high standards.

There is an emphasis on eco-friendly measures at JPS, from emissions compliance to spill containment, erosion control and efforts to recycle concrete and other construction materials, so the latter does not have to be dumped at a landfill site. Many of these environmental regulations are government mandated, a result of the company working closely with state agencies such as WisDOT. That said, the firm has embraced these standards and is proud of its green image.

Industry involvement is also stressed at JPS. Jim, Tim and Jack Peterson have all served as president of the WTBA at different times. Jim Peterson was chairman of The Road Information Program (TRIP) and chairman of the contractor’s division of the American Road Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) as well. Tim Peterson also served as president of the Wisconsin Earth Movers Association (WEMA).

Vice President Jim Peterson offers two reasons why JPS gets so involved with industry associations. Belonging to such groups allows JPS executives to stay on top of regulatory and industry changes and network with fellow contractors. JPS also works with industry groups to advance the interests of the construction sector as a whole.

Similarly, JPS officials participate in local charitable causes. In January 2017, the company raised nearly $2,000 in partnership with Forward Financial Bank to give to Black River Industries, an organization that works with disabled people. Some of the Petersons are also involved with initiatives that benefit local schools.

Company officials are eager to see if President Trump follows through on plans to improve U.S. infrastructure. An infusion of federal money to fix roads, bridges and highways would be a huge boon to contracting firms with experience in such areas.

If the outcome of any federal infrastructure initiative is uncertain, JPS officials are resolute on other matters. They want to maintain family ownership of the firm and see a bright future.

“I’m totally optimistic for this company. I see a very successful group and am tremendously optimistic,” states Jim Peterson.

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 14, 2019, 8:28 AM EST