Gabe’s Construction Celebrates 70 Years

The business has become a family tradition. Started in 1942 by patriarch Jacob Gabrielse, Gabe’s Construction has been passed down from generation to generation to generation to generation.

As Gabe’s celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2012, vice presidents Matt Gabrielse and Nick Atkin represent the family’s fourth generation to enter the executive ranks at the company. Tim Gabrielse, from the third generation of the family, heads the company now as president and CEO, and he has made it his mission to make sure the business is left in the capable hands of his up-and-coming successors.

Gabe’s makes its headquarters in Sheboygan, Wis. The company’s managers are either family or friends. Tim is Matt’s father. Nick is the stepson of Ken Gabrielse, who recently retired as executive vice president. Scott McGee, senior vice president, is a close family friend. But it all started with Jacob, and his three sons John, George and Edwin.

Before founding Gabe’s Construction, Jacob worked for Murphy Construction as a project estimator. His oldest son, John, Tim’s father, also worked for the contracting company as an equipment operator until joining the U.S. Navy once World War II began. When Jacob started Gabe’s, the two youngest sons, who were both still in high school and middle school, would help their father in the field.

In the beginning, Gabe’s was a contractor for installing farm field drainage tiles, Tim says. Eventually, the company grew into the public works and sewer construction business, which led to entering the utility sector and the emerging natural gas market in Wisconsin and other Midwest states during the 1950s and 1960s.
In the 1960s, Gabe’s consolidated its business in natural gas distribution and other utilities and public works projects. By the 1980s, the company began building the fiber-optic backbones of today’s communications network. The company also got involved with high energy, high voltage underground energy lines.

Gabe’s entered the realm of large diameter horizontal directional drilling (HDD) in 2002 and then specialized telecommunications-related construction in 2007.

“Really, that’s where we are today,” Tim says. “We’re much more of a specialized contractor today than we were 30 to 40 years ago. We’re in approximately 40 states in North America and also have a Canadian operations office. We’re a much different company than what my grandfather started in 1942.”

Heck, it’s not even the same company as it was when Tim, as a child, used to go out with his father to fill the kerosene lamps on barricades to make sure they burned all night. Now, barricades use battery-powered flashing lights to mark the worksite. When he officially joined Gabe’s Construction in 1974, he remembers using cable-operated excavators before the advent of hydraulic machinery. It’s the tools of the trade that he has seen change most.

“The greatest thing that has changed in my time here is the evolution of the equipment,” he says. “It’s more efficient and easier to install the product. Directional drilling has probably made the greatest impact than any other means of installing product. We don’t need to do as much maintenance on the equipment, because it’s better built than it was years ago.”

Safety is another area in which Tim has seen the industry evolve during his time in the business. “Today, we’re so much more safety conscious,” he says. “That has really struck me over the years.”

Gabe’s Construction was one of the first contractors in Wisconsin to hire a full-time safety director, Matt says. The company has instituted a number of measures to ensure safety is maintained on the jobsite, including “tool box talks” every morning on the jobsite and yearly meetings for the company to review its safety agenda.

Much of the safety initiative lies with the employees, Nick says. The company has pushed to have its operators “OSHA 10” certified through the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and those safety-conscious employees pass on their knowledge.

“We have a lot of employees who have been here for 25 years or more, and they pass it on,” Nick says, mentioning one superintendent who started at Gabe’s before he was born.

“That’s a big part of our success,” Matt adds. “The guys who have been here, they mentor and teach the new guys how to do things.”

“Safety is something we’ve seen become more important throughout the industry, especially in the last two years,” Nick says. “The owners and pipeline contractors are definitely becoming more self-aware about safety. That’s definitely a good thing.”

The notion of passing on the expertise to the younger generation has been a hallmark of Gabe’s success since the beginning.

Passing It On

Jacob Gabrielse died in 1954 at 56, and his sons took over the business and followed their father’s example in leading Gabe’s Construction to greater success.

“I’m the third generation, but I hardly knew my grandfather,” Tim says. “From the stories we heard of him, we understood that he wanted top production at all times. That’s the lesson my dad taught us. He wanted to make sure we were successful in this business. When I was running a crew for my dad in my younger years, before I was married, he would slyly ask me at the dinner table how production was that day. I could always tell if he was pleased if he passed the mashed potatoes to me or my sisters first. Those are some of the unique things in a family business.”

The lesson: Before the younger generation can take the mantle from its forefathers, it must first learn all aspects of the business.

“They didn’t give us a silver shovel and say, ‘There, go have it,’” Tim says. “They had us go out into the field. They really taught us how to run a construction company. That was very important. When you hand down a construction company from generation to generation, you have to make sure the kids understand what it takes to run a construction business. It really is unique in the business world. It’s challenging, but there are a lot of rewards.”

As the fourth generation enters the company’s management, Tim hopes he can instill his knowledge in them so they’re educated about the business and ready to take over.

“One of the things I’ve learned and have started to realize, as my years here are coming to an end, is I want to make sure the fourth generation is prepared to take the reins,” Tim says. “That’s one of the things that still drives me to come to the office every day, to educate and make sure they understand what it takes to run this business.”

Already, that influence has taken shape. Nick draws on the company’s 70 years of experience in the construction contracting business to understand the nature of the industry.

“We’re somewhat riding the roller coaster sometimes of work and the economy,” Nick says. “You have to keep a straight face and continue moving forward.”

Likewise, the lessons Matt has learned have helped in troubleshooting today’s challenges.

“Being a younger man, listening to the third generation and the advice they give, so that when we’re riding that roller coaster, we know how to solve certain problems,” Matt says. “Without their leadership, it would be very hard to transition to the fourth generation.”

The company’s success can be judged by its longevity. “What an accomplishment, passing down the business from the first to the second generation, let alone from the third to fourth. It speaks to the family values we have and the relationships we’ve built among our employees and customers,” Matt says. “It shows we can work as a team and be a family at the same time.”

Maintaining the family aspect of the business is a primary motivator for Tim continuing the business and why he believes so strongly in passing Gabe’s to the next generation.

“Certainly Gabe’s could be sold to other companies, but I really wanted it to be a family business,” he says. “Family is very important to me. It’s very important to my dad, and I just think there is still a strong market for a family business rather than a big rollup company. As a family business, we can give more attention to our customers than those big rollup companies. The family aspect is very important to us.

“My dad is going to be 91 years old, and he is extremely proud that the company is still around and has a solid foundation for the future, and that it was built from ground up. That’s the reason I’m not looking to sell it on the open market.”

Working in Pipelines

The bulk of Gabe’s contracting work involves the installation of telecommunications networks and large diameter directional drilling for pipeline installation. While some of its pipeline installation is for water and other utilities, the majority of it is for natural gas gathering, transportation and distribution.

“Almost all of our work in the last three years has been in the Marcellus and Midwest,” Nick says. Gabe’s has been heavily involved with building the gathering, midstream and transmission pipelines for the natural gas coming out of the Marcellus shale, along with projects to upgrade facilities in the Chicago area and the East Coast.

Nick has seen a trend toward larger diameter pipelines over the last few years. In 2008, he recalls most projects were in the 8- to 10-in. diameter range, whereas now Gabe’s is working on more 24-in. diameter installations that feature multiple lines in one right of way. In the next five years, he hopes to see more activity in the gas industry.

“The growth we’d like to see is continuing to work in the Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York area, doing the shale work we’re currently doing,” Nick says. “But we’d also like to expand a little more in the Bakken shale region in North Dakota. And over the next five years, we’d like to add one or two more directional drilling rigs.”
Gabe’s current drill fleet includes three maxi rigs from American Augers and a mid-size rig from Vermeer. Nick says the company would like to add a drill in the 300,000- to 500,000-lb class to handle more of the drilling operations on a project and provide more turnkey solutions.

“Working in the shale plays has dramatically helped our business,” Nick says. “We’ve seen our directional drilling rigs have been very busy since 2007. When our rigs are out being productive and making money, it has kept our people working.”

Directional drilling has been a major impact on the projects Gabe’s is now involved with, Tim says. With the technology of today’s jobsites, contractors are able to conduct the work in a more environmentally sound manner.

“I remember the old days, running the gathering lines, distribution lines and transmission lines up through Wisconsin in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” Tim says. “I remember all those spreads. I think the biggest difference now is in the equipment and techniques we use. Again, directional drilling made a tremendous difference. I remember when we’d do river crossings, we’d have to cut a big trench to do it. We don’t do that anymore. I think my grandfather would be thrilled with technology we use today.”

Bradley Kramer is a contributing editor for Trenchless Technology.
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