The Word of Mouth: Success
John Fithian Contracting Co. Relies on Reputation
By Bradley Kramer
The school bus yellow trucks catch the eye. The work vehicles are impeccably clean with chrome details that twinkle in the sunlight. On the door panels, the brown script spells the name, John Fithian Contracting Co.
It’s the only advertising the auger boring contractor needs.
John Fithian Contracting relies on its success spreading by word of mouth up and down the East Coast, across the Midwest and wherever else it may. It’s the philosophy that a good job gets rewarded, and for the family-owned company based in Northeast Ohio the philosophy works.
“Word of mouth is the best advertising,” says John Fithian, grandson of the company founder and namesake. Fithian says the company’s success is a byproduct of the reputation the contractor has among customers, inspectors and engineers. “We give the [client] what they want.”
Headquartered in Boardman, Ohio, a township just south of the City of Youngstown, John Fithian Contracting works year-round with little downtime. The company already has bid on close to 700 jobs this year. “The customers tell us when to work,” says John, who runs the business with his three brothers, Larry, Jim and Jeff. Most projects are water and sewer line installations along the East Coast or in the Midwest, primarily Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana.
It’s the contractor’s word-of-mouth reputation that John says is the reason the company can work in so many places.
The crews’ presentation at the jobsite also is a major factor in the contractor’s success, says Jim Fithian, who works in the company’s repair shop. Aside from the spick-and-span trucks, the company keeps its equipment in good working order and the crewmembers look and act as professionals, keeping the public in mind. “Presentation sells us as much as the job we do,” Jim says — and John agrees.
“Once the crew shows up on the job, that’s what sells us,” John says. “I believe we can go anywhere and once we start working there for a couple weeks, we’ll start getting calls.”
Yet, even without the benefit of advertising, John Fithian Contracting boasts a track record of success that dates back to the 1920s, when the four brothers’ grandfather, John “Del” Fithian, started a contracting company that specialized in installing gas lines for East Ohio Gas.
Del Fithian’s contracting company, called simply Fithian Contracting, installed gas lines by hand. Crews used shovels and picks to install the lines until mechanical innovations came along. Del’s son, John “Jack” Fithian, took over the company in 1963 and renamed it John Fithian Contracting Co. During the 1960s, the contractor developed two more customers, Ohio Edison and Columbia Gas.
Jack Fithian realized early that open-cut methods added to construction costs by digging up roads to install gas lines. He had an idea to trim expenses. In 1965, John Fithian Contracting purchased a coal boring machine from now defunct Salem Tool Co., Salem, Ohio. The machine was designed for coal recovery in mines. Fithian used it to go trenchless.
The coal boring machine is a basic open auger — casing wasn’t used with it as with typical boring machines today — with a 7-ft stroke. The crews would drill a hole under a road and push the pipe in separately. Not only did the new process save money, it also saved time.
By today’s boring machine standards, the coal boring machine is small in diameter and has little power, but it was fast, says Jim, who used the machine when he worked as a crewmember when he was younger. Even today, the old coal boring machine remains in the company’s eight-unit fleet, ready to be called into action.
“If we need to, we’ll bring it into the shop and get it working good again so we can send it out,” Jim says of the old machine.
Jack’s sons started working at the family business during the 1970s. John helped with the business side while Jim, Jeff and Larry worked on the crews. Today, only Jeff — Jim’s twin brother — works in the field. John does the accounting and job bidding. Larry, a certified civil engineer, is the job planner. Jim works in the shop, welding and repairing equipment.
It was also during the 1970s that John Fithian Contracting started to focus solely on auger boring. The gas line installation business had started to falter.
“Nobody was building homes, and the gas business was just terrible,” John says. “We needed to change something or we were not going to be around for much longer.”
The company started to explore other business options.
Horizontal boring was just getting started in the mid-1970s and provided the best opportunity. John Fithian Contracting purchased a Richmond Mfg. Co. boring machine in 1975 and started doing water and sewer installation. By 1980, the company had quit gas line installation altogether and became strictly a boring contractor.
The timing of this business shift worked well for the contractor, John says, because “it really allowed us to grow up with the industry.” Now, after more than 30 years, the transition seems to have worked out.
“We’ve had some slow times, but now we can barely keep up,” John says. He credits the company’s ability to adapt and change with the contracting business as a major contributor to its success.
Water and sewer projects make up the bulk of work, but the contractor also does electric and fiber-optic installation. “Basically, anything underground,” John says. For instance, the company has installed pipelines for farmers to transport manure between their crop plots and pipelines for the Pittsburgh International Airport to transport jet fuel beneath the tarmac.
John Fithian Contracting uses auger boring machines with 170,000 to 1 million lbs push/pull to install 6- to 72-in. casing, hard rock boring heads with diameters of 24 to 60 in., and various sized tunnel boring machines by manufacturers Barbco Inc., The Robbins Co., Akkerman Inc. and American Augers Inc.
Augmenting its equipment fleet, the company also designs and manufactures some of its own equipment, such as cutter heads.
The 17 employees who make up John Fithian Contracting have just as much of a legacy as the family itself does. Some have been with the company for more than 20 years. Some have followed in their fathers’ footsteps, creating their own lineage with the company. Experience has been passed down through the years.
John Fithian Contracting operates with three crews of three to four members. Sometimes, if the workload gets heavy enough, the company will send out a fourth crew.
The crewmembers are the most vital part of the business, John says.
“Our guys are good at what they do,” he says. “The guys on the crew make it or break it. They’re harder to replace than myself.”
However, one challenge the company runs into is finding good workers who are willing to travel extensively throughout the year. Fithian looks for people with a good work ethic but that’s not the only criterion. The workers also must fit in with the crews’ personality. “They not only work together, they live together too,” John says. “They go to the jobsite together and they go to the hotel together.”
John Fithian Contracting puts so much stock in its crewmembers because they are the face of the company, and customers want to feel comfortable with the people they hire, John says. The relationship with the customer is key. It keeps the customers loyal.
“We like working with customers and helping them any way we can,” John says, adding that he’s willing to go the extra mile to help his customers without necessarily billing them the extra dollars. “I think it’s just about being nice people in general.”
However, first and foremost, keeping the customer loyal means doing the job right. Talk is cheap, Jim says. The contractor must provide a usable casing to be successful.
The nature of auger boring requires a lot of guess work and finger crossing, Jim says. He cites this as the primary reason why more contractors don’t get involved with conventional boring. In essence, it’s a point-and-shoot operation.
However, three decades of experience have elevated John Fithian Contracting among the premier auger boring contractors in the industry. No matter what obstacles develop during a project, the company refuses to give up.
“We stay in there and give it our best try,” Jim says. The contractor keeps trying, even at the risk of damaging its equipment, until there is no other choice than to declare the project “unable to bore.” Jim adds, “If we say it’s unable to bore, it’s true.”
With the company’s dedication and experience, it’s a safe bet they know what they’re talking about.
“It’s the only thing we know,” John says. Although he admits that the company is still learning — and willing to learn — new things about boring, John is confident that John Fithian Contracting has the expertise to complete any job. “I’ll listen to anybody on any subject,” he says. “But if that subject is boring and I dispute it, I’m probably right. It’s the only subject I can say that about.”
The company’s success has worked out for the Fithians. Although John says running a family business can be hard, the majority of the time it works well for the brothers and their father, who now is semi-retired.
Separation of duties is important in keeping the brothers’ relationship strong, John says, adding, “It helps when we’re doing well.” The main factor is keeping business and family from interfering.
“We’re family, but here it’s business,” John says. “We can go home and be a family.”
Otherwise, they’re the leaders of the John Fithian Contracting Co. The name is on the side of the company’s bright yellow trucks and travels by word of mouth.
Bradley Kramer is assistant editor of Trenchless Technology.