Maximizing productivity for today’s compact machines.
The Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration maintains 131 national cemeteries in 40 states and Puerto Rico, as well as 33 soldiers’ lots and monument sites.
For those who have visited a VA cemetery, they will recognize the military-style alignment of burial plots marked by white headstones in close proximity to one another.
To achieve that level of precision, a northern Minnesota contractor who installs burial vaults in veterans’ cemeteries relies on a Trimble GPS system mounted on a Cat® D5K LGP Dozer; and a Level Best box blade dual-grade laser mounted on a 279C Compact Track Loader.
When crews from Frontier Construction Co., Inc. mobilize at a burial site, a mass excavation about eight feet deep has already been completed. Precast concrete burial vaults are placed atop a layer of crushed stone, fine graded with the D5K using GPS. Because the grade can be slightly off from the movement of the tracks of the setting machine, a 325B LC Hydraulic Excavator, and also from a 938G Wheel Loader carrying vaults to the 325, the grade is touched up with the 279C Compact Track Loader outfitted with the dual-grade laser.
In addition to the compact track loader, dozer and hydraulic excavator, cemetery work performed last summer at Tallahassee National Cemetery utilized a Cat 304CR Mini Excavator for installing the drainage system below the rock.
The stone base provides drainage for supporting the crypts, while enabling the crew to easily set the crypts to installation tolerances. Once the crypts are set in the ground, they are covered with dirt and topsoil, which is planted with grass or sod.
“It’s all about the precision required to get lots of these concrete vaults in a line and on a precise grade,” says Irving Seelye, president of the Native American-owned company based on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation 100 miles west of Duluth. “We are talking about specifications that are extremely tight—within a quarter of an inch.
“And if you don’t do that and you don’t do it right to the ‘T,’ you’re going to have issues that will cause you to perform some re-work,” Seelye continues. “I’ve lived through it, and it’s just one of those mistakes that you only want to make once. And we don’t have those problems anymore.”
Seelye attributes Frontier’s hard-won success to the experience of his sons, who run the business in the field, and also the GPS and laser grading technology. Behind the scenes, his wife, Kathy, two daughters (Kathy and Angela) and a close friend who has been estimating and performing project management for Frontier since the mid-90s add to the company’s success.
“It’s a relatively small group of people that I need to perform these activities, and we’ve got it down to a science,” Seelye says. “There’s no one you can trust over and above your own sons, and they’ve really carried the mail for the company. So it’s all about making sure we implement quality control with the Cat equipment that we have come to rely on.”
Seelye’s initial reaction to investing in GPS technology 13 years ago was that it was too costly, and that he could tolerate the cost of labor. But when representatives from his Cat dealer, Ziegler, demonstrated the effectiveness of the Trimble GPS grading system, he became a believer.
“When we first started talking about GPS and dual-grade lasers and whatnot, I said ‘no,’” Seelye says. “But once I saw how well it works, then I didn’t need to question it any further. If you’re going to do work that is that precise, and do it just once, there’s no other way. That was back in the days when Trimble didn’t utilize many satellites, and it was still convincing to me. It’s far more advanced technology today.”
Frontier Construction maintains enough revenue to stay profitable from the cemetery work. It also has a general construction division that utilizes a Cat TH560B Telehandler, 277 Multi Terrain Loader, and a 330C Hydraulic Excavator to perform site work and erect commercial buildings. “We would have had hell to pay putting up some of the buildings we did without that telehandler,” he says.
Prior to the recession in 2008, Frontier operated a branch office in the Twin Cities for general contracting. But when the economy slowed, that office was closed and the niche cemetery work with the VA and general construction work with tribal governments carried the slimmed-down company through the recession.
“It was a tough decision to liquidate assets and dissolve the branch office in St. Paul, but that’s what we did,” Seelye says. “We had those conversations at the kitchen table. It was so stressful around here, and I remember my oldest son pointing his finger at me and saying ‘That was your idea, Frontier Construction Company.’ And he’s absolutely right, but you know, we’ve survived a lot. The company today operates with a lot less stress. It’s damn hard being a first generation contractor.”
Now that Frontier specializes in the burial vault business, it’s a smaller company with less labor costs, thanks in part to grading technology.
“We’re profitable again,” Seelye says. “We’re leaner and smarter, and we’re discussing ways to upgrade some of our equipment assets with Ziegler.”
Seelye’s first exposure to Cat equipment was when he worked on the Trans Alaska Pipeline at age 19.
“I knew from doing all of that travel and working for these big companies that it was Cat machines and dealer support services all the way,” he says.
When Seelye wrote the business plan for his company, he did research to get solid information, and talked to some Caterpillar competitors.
“I was a blue collar guy back then, not a businessman, but the only one that came to visit me was a Caterpillar salesman; his name is Andy Micheletti,” Seelye continues. “He sat down and tried to help me with what I needed to accomplish relative to equipment needs and costs. He was very receptive and took me seriously.”
Seelye’s relationship with Ziegler has flourished since that initial meeting, When he needs to make an equipment purchase, he reviews various purchase options with his accountant.
“A lot of times, we would start on a rental-purchase, or a lease-purchase option,” Seelye says. “Sometimes we just sat down and hammered out an agreement to purchase outright. The bottom line is, when it comes to acquiring a machine, the flexibility at Ziegler has been great.”
Frontier has utilized the resources of Cat Financial to acquire several pieces of equipment through the years, an option that Seelye says has worked out very well.
The Cat Access account with a $50,000 line of credit has also proven to be an invaluable tool for Frontier.
“You can walk into any Cat dealer in the United States, and that Cat Access card is good to go,” Seelye says. “I had a 325 Excavator in South Carolina where I wanted to replace the main hydraulic pump, along with some other repairs. We sent it the shop before it failed. The local Cat dealer did an $18,000 repair on a lot of different things on that machine, and the Cat Access card was the way to go.”
Frontier utilizes Product Link™ to stay on top of machine maintenance intervals.
“We are so scattered with our jobsites, and I’m just not that big of a contractor,” Seelye says. “What made sense to me was when I need service, the software tells me when the machine is due for service, and I call the local Cat dealer wherever we are and get it done.”
When his crews are working outside of Minnesota, Seelye simply taps the resources of the local Cat dealer for equipment rentals, service and GPS training.
“With some of this new stuff, we do need help, and we’ve always received the training help we need for things like Trimble GPS and the dual-grade laser,” he says. “Cat equipment just keeps getting better.”
WHAT THEY LIKE ABOUT CAT EQUIPMENT
Irv Seelye made a commitment to GPS and the dual-grade laser when his company contracted the performance of cemetery work for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to the investment in technology, Frontier Construction had three or four laborers standing on the crushed rock with rakes in their hands grading it to within a quarter of an inch of the specifications.
“I mean, it was a game changer,” recalls Seelye, president of Frontier Construction Co. “It cut back on the laborers’ raking, it improved the number of concrete vaults we could set in a day. There’s no doubt in my mind that making the investment in Trimble and the dual-grade laser has saved considerable time and money with the VA, and other grading jobs.”
Adds Irv’s son, Earl, who is the vice president for the company:
“It just takes the operator error out of everything—the machine is doing it for you. All you really need to do is just push the rock in the right places and you eliminate the operator error.”
WHAT THEY LIKE ABOUT THEIR CAT DEALER
“I deal with Cat dealers a lot because I travel all across the United States, and in my experience, they’re as professional as you can get,” Earl Seelye says. “They really go the extra mile. “The precast we handle is getting bigger, so we had to have a Cat 349 Hydraulic Excavator come in here, which is really large. I coordinated with the Cat dealer and they made it happen. They are able to get you some big pieces of iron.
“It has been a great experience for me working with all the different dealerships,” Earl says. “It’s the same high standard everywhere you go, Caterpillar is second to none. And their equipment is durable and reliable.”