They Make “The Earth Move”
J.R. Caskey, Inc. combines experience, tech-savvy and good old-fashioned grit to get the job done
Over 30 years ago, John Caskey was a chemical engineer working as an oil rig foreman in Louisiana. After an unexpected oil embargo hit in the mid-1980s, he and others headed up the Eastern Seaboard in search of employment.
He settled in Virginia and it was there that memories of working on his grandmother’s tobacco farm and a $2,000 loan inspired him to buy a tractor. Thus, “a small earthmoving company” was born, now known in the region as J.R. Caskey, Inc.
Fast-forward through the decades and with some intuition, hard work and strategic investments, J.R. Caskey is now a family business employing people that John considers to be “very talented and skilled operators and superintendents.”
Today, the company employs nearly 50 skilled workers and is one of the industry’s leading site development firms. It offers a full range of services in Virginia and North Carolina and tackles anything from grading and excavating projects, to underground utilities, to soil stabilization and full-depth reclamation projects.
Follow the Cheese
At first, John and his tractor had humble beginnings. He started out working for residential homebuilders putting in driveways, digging footings and growing his base with high-end custom homebuilders in the area. That’s how he crossed paths with his now wife and business partner, Ginger, who was working for a custom homebuilder at the time.
The two joined forces with big plans for their future—turning the company focus toward commercial construction. This move, unfortunately, occurred just in time for the construction industry to hit a downturn in 2008.
The Caskeys knew they needed to adjust course. “We could see that residential construction was starting to slow down,” Ginger says. “John had already been through one professional economic downturn, and he didn’t want to go through that again. He realized with his survival skills that you need to follow the cheese.”
While state and federally funded projects continued to thrive, the company sought the certifications needed to qualify in Virginia and then in North Carolina. In an effort to steer the company toward a more viable construction market, they began to take on more complex public projects, ranging from schools to sports facilities to airports.
And follow the cheese they did.
When asked what makes J.R. Caskey stand out, the company’s Operations Manager, Javier Luevano, doesn’t skip a beat: “Experience, grit and resilience.”
J.R. Caskey has built a reputation for being a fearless business partner with a highly skilled team that doesn’t shy away from challenges, he says. The company is known for tackling technology advancements head-on and proactively adapting to market trends. That shows in the versatility of its projects—from the Federal Reserve System to the Randolph-Macon College football field to work for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).
“Where we excel is where other people don’t want to,” Javier says. “If it’s tight, if it’s heavily orchestrated and it needs a lot of thought, planning and execution, that’s our forte.”
Case in point: the company recently stepped out of its comfort zone to deliver services in the middle of one of the busiest stretches of the country’s interstate highway system to help out a prime contractor. The project involved working at night for 11 weeks on the I-395 HOV express lanes that stretch from the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Virginia. Another challenge the team tackled this year was J.R. Caskey’s first runway/taxiway rehab project providing soil stabilization and full-depth reclamation at the Blue Ridge Regional Airport in Virginia. Full-depth reclamation involves a process that rebuilds worn-out asphalt by recycling the existing roadway.
With recent accolades like the prestigious Virginia-D.C. United States Senate Productivity and Quality Award and VDOT’s Contractor of the Year and Safety Record of the Year awards under their belts, the Caskeys attribute their ability to consistently raise the bar to a team that works tirelessly to meet and exceed expectations in all areas of their business.
“We have some extremely talented people working for us,” Ginger says. “When we take on a project we sit down with a set of plans, throw them on the table and everybody shares their ideas. Everyone has a voice, their input is heard and they’re respected for their level of expertise.”
Javier wholeheartedly agrees: “I’m confident that our supervisors will out-design, out-work and outperform anyone simply because they’ve seen it, they’ve lived it, they’ve been in it.”
Investing in the Future
That team includes the Caskeys’ three sons, who’ve all had a hand in the family business over the years, and who’ve been influenced greatly by the company’s employees.
“They attribute the people that work here with the success that they’ve found in the industry,” John says. “The superintendents have all had an incredible effect on them.”
Ben, the oldest son, earned his master’s degree from Louisiana State University in construction management. He now works for a state transportation agency contractor in the Mid-Atlantic region and has helped implement the GPS systems and modeling technology used at J.R. Caskey. Jacob, the youngest, is a senior at Auburn University in the building science/construction program and has worked his summers interning as a Superintendent/Project Manager at J.R. Caskey. His proud father states that Jacob “set a record for hauling in 5,200 tons of stone dust in one day” for a project.
Tyler, the middle son, graduated from Christopher Newport University with a degree in business administration and has been working at J.R. Caskey full time going on three years. He’s spearheaded the company’s drone surveying, leads the full-depth reclamation crews and is proving instrumental in the development of the company.
“Tyler is the one who’s always keeping an eye on what’s going on in the industry and talking to people who are out there doing the work,” Ginger says. “He somehow gets his dad’s ear and says, ‘We can do this!’ If Tyler can come up with a way to be more efficient or be the first in the area to have a new technology, then John’s willing to try it.”
As a result, the company has incorporated changes that help get jobs done more reliably and efficiently for customers. They have robotic-positioning technology to eliminate dependency on satellites and unexpected weather, drones to quickly measure and convey job progress to customers as well as aid their estimating, and iPads in the field that enable cloud-based communication in real time.
“I think overall our investments are second to none,” Ginger says. “I don’t know of another company out here that’s spent the same amount of time and money in technology and equipment, and in the education of employees in the field and in the office.”
As they continue to invest in their people and adapt their technology, the Caskeys are also expanding into renewable and alternative energy projects. This, Ginger says, “is where it’s at” when it comes to the next wave of cutting-edge projects. They recently completed a soil stabilization project with Wood Group (formerly Amec Foster Wheeler) at the NAS Oceana Solar Facility, an 18-megawatt facility with nearly 100 acres of solar panels that power approximately 4,400 homes, and the firm is seeking additional opportunities in solar projects throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.
Bridging the Generational Divide
While innovations emerging within the construction industry are taking J.R. Caskey’s business to the next level, the team understands that knowledge transfer is critical to future success.
Foreman Gerrit Terhune, a 40-year veteran and one of J.R. Caskey’s “original five,” found himself working on a project with the Caskeys’ son, Tyler, and they struck up an unlikely friendship. The two quickly became an inseparable pair, bridging the generational divide.
“It’s incredible,” Ginger says. “You’ve got this one guy who can drive a dozer with his eyes closed and can just feel the dirt and the weight and know what he’s doing from instinct, and then Tyler is helping him learn how to use the iPad.”
Always one to jump at an opportunity to adapt, John believes his company’s employment of industry veterans with real-world, old-school techniques working shoulder to shoulder with recent high school graduates and university interns is a key to success for the long term.
“That is the coolest thing, that we’ve got a knowledge transfer going both ways,” he says. “You’ve got the technology coming one way and old techniques coming the other way. The rewards are great, to pass this along to the next generation and see what they do with it.”
Leaping Tall Buildings
J.R. Caskey was designated as a Women’s Business Enterprise when Ginger became a majority shareholder in 2009. Ginger admits she’s felt the pressure to prove herself as a woman in the industry since she first entered construction in 1993. Today, she’s confident in the respect she’s earned over the years and feels she is taken seriously as a business leader. She now sits on the Transportation Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Advisory Committee at VDOT, where she serves as an advocate for disadvantaged businesses.
“I’m not trying to wear a cape and leap tall buildings with a single bound, but I’m willing to do my part to get the job done,” she says. “I get out there just like everybody else. Because of that, I think that I’m respected by our employees, our men and women—and by our customers too.”
When it comes down to it, the Caskeys know their greatest asset is not in the latest technological advancements, but in their employees.
“I just think it’s so important to respect the people, whether it’s your ground man or your right-hand man. I’ve learned so much from all of them,” John says.
And while the company invests in training, pays well, offers employees a 401(k) match and quality insurance, according to Ginger, employees claim the ultimate reward is something surprising.
“We have competitive benefits, but that’s not it,” she says. “This might sound trivial, but they say they feel rewarded because I hand-deliver cupcakes to them on their birthday.”
Ginger orders the crews’ protective equipment and takes it out to them in the field. She buys them new vests, hard hats and glasses. And on hot days, she puts watermelons in their coolers. John has an open-door policy, and his team knows they can come to him with their problems and solutions. Employees tell them it’s this “little stuff” that lets them know they’re valued.
Regardless of how large or successful the company becomes, it’s clear that it will continue to retain its humble roots and be run with the care and attention of a small business. At the end of a long, hard day, the family is more than just the Caskeys—it’s the whole crew.