In the highly competitive realm of new home construction, Berkey Home Builders, Inc. sets itself apart by focusing on quality over quantity. In completing 35 to 40 finished homes per year, the central Iowa-based contractor subcontracts less work and handles up to 50 percent of the home building process itself.
“We perform a lot of the work in-house, which is definitely unique for new home construction,” said president Eric Berkey, who founded the company in 2002 after starting out as a framing carpenter.
That work includes site preparation—which involves digging the basement and grading the yard—to pouring all flat work, hauling all building materials in and out, sometimes framing the house, trimming the details, and completing the final punch list.
“With the number of employees that we have and the amount of work that we do in-house, we really focus on the quality and consistency of our product,” Berkey said. “And our customers get to see the same people day in and day out when they come and go. Whether they are visiting our office or going out and looking at their new home under construction, they get a feeling of confidence when they see the same people time and time again.”
If the testimonials that pour in from satisfied customers are any indication, Berkey’s approach is working well.
“You hear horror stories from people about their experiences in building their homes,” said new homeowners Tim and Jennifer Fox. “They say their home was completed two months after it was supposed to be, or their home ended up costing more than the agreed-upon pricing.
“Our experience was just the opposite with Berkey Home Builders—our home closed on the agreed-upon date, and was exactly the price Eric told us. Even when we added a few extras, like the fireplace in the basement or the covered deck, Eric honored the price and it never changed. The entire building process was as easy as promised, and we absolutely love our new home.”
Over the years, Berkey has added two divisions. Concrete Professionals evolved from customer requests for additional poured concrete, which meant adding additional labor and a salesman. The same scenario led to the formation of Altoona Mulch, as customers who had lived in their newly built homes for several years kept asking for more landscaping materials.
“We saw a need here in the community, and we’re in our third year of this now,” Berkey said. “So we do have a retail arm.”
The backbone of Berkey’s construction business is a fleet of 12 Cat machines—from hydraulic excavators for digging and backfilling, to compact machines for concrete and other work, to a 908H2 Wheel Loader for handling mulch and other landscape materials. Berkey still has the first piece of equipment he purchased in 2001—a TH83 Telehandler.
“We were constantly having problems with a forklift on one of our framing crews,” Berkey recalled. “I actually had called Ziegler Cat to come out and do a repair on it, and the service person recommended that I give the salesman a call and talk to him about the new Cat Telehandler series.”
The telehandler helps with moving materials, anything from lumber at a jobsite to setting roof trusses and hoisting shingles up to the roof.
“It’s basically our main tool on the job, short of a nail gun or a hammer,” Berkey said. “I’m not really sure what the guys would do without it. It really is a main piece. And once we get it back to the yard again, just unloading trucks and moving stuff around, it’s a very versatile piece of equipment for us.”
When it comes to getting in and out of tight areas, Berkey utilizes the 257B 3 and 277C Multi Terrain Loaders, as well as a 304E CR Mini Excavator.
“The hydraulics are very smooth and precise for working in tight spots, whether putting a window well in, or digging right up next to a foundation,” Berkey said of the mini excavator. “And our operators feel very confident working with this machine in a tight space so they don’t accidentally bump anything.”
A new small wheel loader, the Cat 908H2, is a key machine for Altoona Mulch, as it moves materials from storage bins to loading pickup trucks for retail customers.
Utilizing equipment from the Cat Rental Store allows Berkey to try out a machine or attachment before purchasing it.
“We use different styles of buckets, augers, hammers, pallet forks, and different attachments for snow removal, whether it be pushers or a blade or a broom. And the rental store has been a good resource if we need to try something out to verify that we really want to purchase it.”
For mowing yards, Berkey attaches a clearing tool to the front of a skid steer loader.
“We like to keep those yards neat and tidy during the growing season,” Berkey said. “Our maintenance guy will get some funny looks when people see a skid loader arrive on site, but it’s quick and agile, and it saves us a lot of time.”
While the company came through the recession largely unscathed, it did teach Berkey some important lessons.
“We learned not to let ourselves get boxed into a corner,” he said. “Don’t be small-minded. Realize there are a lot of opportunities out there, and be willing and open to do other things. It’s very easy when times are good to always say, ‘Well, I’m just going to do this and stay focused on one thing.’ I believe you don’t want to get outside of what your real profession is, but don’t lose sight of other opportunities that are out there.
“That’s where businesses like Concrete Professionals and Altoona Mulch come from,” he added. “They complement what we do. We can utilize our equipment in many different applications, and we’re able to add additional revenue streams.”
The best piece of business advice Berkey received came from a mentor who told him not to be afraid to say ‘no.’
“He said that when you understand how to tell somebody no, you’ll really understand how to make money,” Berkey said. “I think that goes back to knowing which jobs are a good match for your capabilities, and if it’s not something that fits what you do, it’s okay to say no. Not every customer is destined to be your customer. Figuring that out has really helped us a lot.”
WHAT THEY LIKE ABOUT CAT EQUIPMENT
“When we have guys come in and interview for a job, they see all the Cat yellow paint sitting out there, I think it sets us apart,” said Eric Berkey, owner of Berkey Home Builders, Inc. “The guys know what they’re going to run, and they like it. We don’t hear complaints from our operators about fatigue or, ‘This machine’s not comfortable to run, it doesn’t do what we need it to do.’ And that’s a real plus for us, because you want to make sure your employees are happy and comfortable and can be productive for you.”
WHAT THEY LIKE ABOUT THEIR CAT DEALER
“In our business, relationships are everything, and you build those over time. Ziegler has just been a great partner for us,” Berkey said. “If we need something or have a question about something, they’re always available. They will let us demo equipment to see if it will actually help us instead of saying, ‘You need this,’ and we end up with a piece of equipment that we’re really not going to utilize.
“So their demo process is great,” he added. “It enables our operators to try the machines out first. It’s not just here for an hour and then it’s gone. We can run it for an entire day if we need to verify the utility of the machine.”