Leading its Industry for Nearly 60 Years
Northwest Excavating is an excavation and utilities contractor that works on underground power communications through its underground division. It also has a rental component that includes operating as a subcontractor with earthmoving equipment. We spoke to Vice President Robbie Groff to learn more.
The City of Los Angeles is abuzz with activity. A lot of construction, roadwork and utilities projects are underway, and there is a huge demand for skilled labour. Northwest Excavating, of Northridge, California, provides civil construction with some of the most productive machinery, equipment and employees for any project.
The origins of Northwest Excavating go way back to 1959 when Bob Groff began what was then known as Northwest Compaction. His company started with a few rudimentary items such as a hydraulic hammer and two backhoes, but it has grown to employ eighty people who do a host of work in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas.
Bob retired a few months ago at the age of seventy-six, after a very successful career that spanned fifty-nine years. He has passed the mantle on to his son, Robbie Groff. “I am a former professional race car driver and partook in the Indianapolis 500, 24 Hours at Daytona and the Baha 1000. I raced professionally for ten years and raced competitively since I was seven. My dad never raced himself, but this was his version of Little League Baseball for us,” says Robbie.
Robbie’s father was always very mechanical and liked fast cars. He drove a 1957 Chevy in his youth and loved to drag race. Bob’s other son was also involved in Indy Racing and the Daytona 500, racing for AJ Foyt and Bobby Rahal.
Robbie has been with Northwest Excavating for the past twenty years, under his dad’s training. He officially took over in March 2018, after learning every facet of the business. He is well prepared. “It was a peaceful transition of power and a changing of the guard. My goal, going forward, is to take what I’ve been given, make it a little more efficient and build the best product for our customers,” says Robbie.
California has adopted environmental regulations called Tier 4 Final, and Northwest Excavating must make sure that all its equipment above 51 horsepower meets the most current emissions standards for engines and gear such as backhoes. This also helps the company to get work in places such as Los Angeles harbour, airport or Los Angeles Metro Rail projects.
“We are required to have Tier 4 backhoes for work like this and on the road. It affects our crew trucks and everything vehicle we have. We must adhere to our state’s regulations. The investment is debilitating, but at the end of the day, we have a better fleet of equipment, which we need anyways, and I’m all for making the world a better place,” says Robbie.
This is just one aspect of what the company is doing to keep pace with technology. Another involves the use of the Trimble GPS System to position equipment and give accurate cut, fill or angles on a grading project.
The government has not provided incentives to upgrade equipment. If you want to do business in California, you are on your own, although there may be some tax relief in the future. Companies must meet emissions standards, and adapting has been a slow process.
“They have been kind enough to extend full compliance to fifteen to twenty years, but the regulations came into effect over ten years ago, so people are scrambling now. We are slowly evolving the fleet and should be ready for the government-established deadline,” says Robbie.
One of the other issues Northwest faces has to do with working in the city of Los Angeles on right-of-ways on the street. Traffic and development can be a hindrance, and it takes a long time to get through the permitting process and receive the approved materials from the city.
It is a challenge, but as Robbie informs me, he has managers who all rise to the occasion. They perform well, taking on extra work and the work that is needed before even breaking ground on jobs. “They have all adapted every day, as that is required to work in the city of Los Angeles, and this city is our biggest client. We are the only company that does underground power directly for the Department of Water and Power (DWP),” says Robbie.
This industry has been very competitive since the recession, but luckily, there has been so much work over the last couple of years that competition has lessened somewhat. Even as a union company, Northwest must compete against non-union entities, especially in the communications world. The non-union competition can be one-third less expensive, so Northwest must depend on its reputation for superior service and results.
“Non-union companies have improved their level of service over the years and can build jobs quickly. When there is not a lot of work, it is a challenge to compete against these companies. I try to stick with jobs that are prevailing wage, state-funded jobs or union-only gigs,” says Robbie. Those union jobs are rare, but they play to the strengths of Northwest, such as its ability to complete larger street power projects.
Northwest started in the sixties doing excavating work for housing tracts, where the crew cut their teeth and learned the skills needed. Eventually, the company was able to move into public works projects and jobs in the public right-of-way on streets as well as larger civil jobs.
“We did ten-mile underground transmission work for the Department of Water and Power on the west side of LA, from Santa Monica to LA International. This job provided us with many challenges, but our crew was up to the task,” says Robbie. Another difficult project entailed working for Skanska, a massive project development and construction group in downtown Los Angeles. It was a subway project called the Regional Connector Transit Project.
It has always been difficult to find good operators and foremen for the underground crews. There is a great deal of building going on now in Los Angeles County, especially in the city, and it is harder to find laborers, and the real veterans are in demand. “It will force us to do things a little differently going forward in order to attract the best people possible because they are very busy out there presently,” says Robbie.
Much care goes into the company’s work. “Everything comes from the top down. My dad had that drive and passion to make the company as efficient as he could, building the best infrastructure possible.” This included top-of-the-line equipment and some of the most sought-after operators.
“Along with the fleet of trucks, we have support vehicles and crew trucks. To acquire the best operators, you need top-notch equipment, and my dad ensured that was the case. He was a very conscientious person and was always on top of things, demanding that it was done right. This is where the care comes from and the culture that my dad built, which I support,” says Robbie.