Interview: Goodfellow Bros. (GBI) celebrates 100 years of good work
By Jenny LescohierApril 26, 2021
There aren’t many companies that make it to their 100-year anniversary. Fewer still are those which are family-owned operations and still going strong after four generations. But that’s exactly what Goodfellow Bros. (GBI) is and has done, now moving toward the future but taking with it all the same values the company was built upon.
To find out what it takes to achieve a century of growth and success, we talked with Chad Goodfellow, CEO. Following is an excerpt of our discussion.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What’s the story behind how the company was founded?
Chad Goodfellow, CEO of GBI: Our company was actually founded in a cafe in France after World War I. My great-grandfather [Jim Goodfellow Sr.] and his two brothers [Bert and Jack] had just finished fighting in the war and they met up in Europe to figure out what they were going to do next. They were all engineers for the U.S. Army and they realized they’d spent a lot of time and energy rebuilding Europe, wouldn’t it be great to go home and rebuild their own country?
They founded Goodfellow Brothers in 1921. At that time, our nation’s infrastructure was nearly nonexistent, particularly in the state of Washington. A lot of the early projects we did were roads to help what we would call the ‘breadbasket of Central Washington’ get products to market at the Port of Seattle.
We like to joke about how back then, when you estimated jobs you were figuring out the amount of hay that was needed to feed the horses that would pull the equipment that would do the job. It was such a different time.
365: What are some projects GBI is most proud of?
Goodfellow: We were able to do the first 2 million yards of excavation on the Grand Coulee Dam. When it was constructed,
between 1933 and 1942, it was the largest construction project in the world, and it’s still one of the largest energy sources on the West Coast. That project led to a bunch of other hydroelectric projects for us.
More recently, we’ve done a lot of work building campuses for the four largest technology companies in in the world. In those cases, our team was part of thousands of people working together to build facilities that are truly works of art today.
Some of the other types of work we love involve projects in very remote locations, performing important tasks such as habitat restoration, or maybe a municipal or state project for a community that doesn’t have a lot of resources.
To help revitalize smaller communities is something we really enjoy. We love to go in and build relationships. Leaving a place better than it was when we came in is a tenet of who we are.
Here on Maui, we’ve partnered with Grow Some Good to help build farms for elementary and middle schools, where kids are learning about agriculture and how to grow their own food.
Being a heavy civil contractor, we have a lot of unique resources and we enjoy helping in that way. When we have opportunities to assist community organizations, it creates a lot of good feelings and goodwill.
365: Walk us through the company’s history between its inception and today.
Goodfellow: My grandfather’s era was in hydroelectric power, from the 50s through the 70s, and we made a name for ourselves as a large civil rock contractor. In Washington, we’re working in very difficult environments, such as granite rock. Using equipment to manage rock is a unique skill set, so we had the opportunity to work on very technically difficult projects throughout the West Coast.
They were looking at local contractors to assist, but they didn’t find the resources necessary to get the project done, so they reached out to us. One thing about Hawaii, the ground is all rock and we’re dealing with a lot of difficult types of subsurface materials. We ended up getting the job and that was the foundation for our presence here in Hawaii.
Today we have offices in Seattle, Portland, Sacramento and Livermore. We also have offices on every Hawaiian island, and our home office is still in Wenatchee, Washington.
We have roughly 1,200 to 1,300 employees.
365: How has the business evolved over the years?
Goodfellow: Our business has always been focused on earthmoving, civil construction and civil engineering, but the scope has changed drastically throughout our history and I think that’s one of the ways we’ve been able to stay in business for 100 years.
Early on, we were mainly a heavy highway DOT contractor, and then when a lot of the energy work came in the 1950s, we pivoted. Today, we do heavy civil construction, underground utilities, structural concrete work and in some of our markets we do paving.
We focus mainly on the horizontal infrastructure, but the types of work we do include habitat restoration, solar and wind farms, as well as private developments and subdivision work. We even work out in the ocean here in Hawaii. We find ourselves having to mold to the different environments we work in.
365: What else has contributed to GBI’s longevity and success?
Goodfellow: In my job as CEO - and I think I can speak for my dad who would say the same thing - the most critical part of what I do is ensure that we stay true to the culture that was set by my great-grandfather. He was a very people-first, relationship-based, craft-focused person.
The most critical part of our success is our craftspeople who are working out in the field. If I make a promise, they’re the ones that actually deliver on it. We try to do everything we can to show not just appreciation but respect for those individuals.
Our mission is to be the ‘Contractor of Choice’ for our employees, clients and the communities in which we live and work. Being that contractor of choice for our employees, we recognize there are choices out there, so how can we create an environment to help us find and retain the very best and brightest? Doing that is the special sauce that allows us to be successful.
When you’re a really small family business, you know everyone personally so it’s pretty easy to share that appreciation and the values we stand for. As we’ve grown, one of the biggest challenges we face is making sure that our culture and values filter throughout the company, not just to our executive team but to the project managers and to our foremen and field crews, so they can still feel that same level of appreciation.
365: How do you do it?
Goodfellow: Getting that message out from the top down is done by being present, that’s the first step. You gotta be out there walking job sites. For all of our division presidents, it’s a core piece of their responsibility, to walk job sites and make contact with our different field crews.
Most people can tell if you genuinely care for their benefit. If you’re doing things authentically and for the right reasons, I think people see that, and it’s contagious.
We work hard to develop our team internally. We have a robust online training platform, as well as a year-long, intensive program for young leaders.
It’s important to show employees a strong path with the opportunity to succeed. They need to see the organization really cares about their growth as a person. We don’t have folks jumping somewhere else for a nominal amount of money, they stay because they see their future’s bright here.
365: What are some of the challenges the company has faced and how have you overcome them?
Goodfellow: We love technology and sometimes we find ourselves on the bleeding edge, where we get a little ahead of
the curve. We’ve partnered with Trimble since the early 2000s, and at one point we were the largest owner of Trimble GPS of equipment in the country. For a smaller contractor, that was something we took a lot of pride in.
When you make those types of technological adjustments, it takes a tremendous amount of energy and work to push them forward, and we’re learning as we go. People struggle with change and having to do things a different way.
On one side, we’ve got to constantly innovate, yet on the other side, we have to focus on what we already do right. If we get too focused on innovation, we could lose focus on what’s truly important, which are those craftspeople in the field and making their lives easier, not more difficult.
365: Is there a fifth generation that’s coming up through the ranks? What does the future hold for GBI?
Goodfellow: The oldest of the fifth generation is my son, Max, who is four years old, so he’s got a long way to go. He hasn’t made that decision yet.
We’ve got this great foundation with our executive leadership team, which has never been stronger. As we develop that team, it opens up opportunities through acquisitions, geographical growth and vertical integration.
The industry has gotten tremendously more complex than it was just 20 years ago, but the level of sophistication in technology - whether it’s through telematics in the equipment or through business intelligence and utilizing the data that is available to us - is extremely exciting.
Just the nature of the work is changing too. My great-grandfather was building a road where road had never been built before. Now we’re working in environments where if you look under the ground it’s a mish-mash of different utilities. The work we perform is much more surgical than it ever has ever been and we need to use technology to our advantage.
365: Where do you think technology will lead construction in the future?
Goodfellow: Everybody is very focused on automation right now, but I think there is always going to be a need for skilled operators, they’re a critical piece. Are these operators going to be physically located in the machines? I think it’s fair to say there’s potential for people to operate equipment without actually sitting in the seat of the machine.
I think using gamification is something that’s interesting too. For our folks in the field, we do our best to give them feedback on production and what we need to accomplish in a day, but it’s not personalized. I think as we’re able to utilize the data in a better way, we’ll be able to help establish better goals for our people to accomplish individually.
Look at what’s been done with GPS technology. One of its greatest advantages is it empowers our operators to see the whole job site, to see the big picture so they know where they are, where they need to be, and they can work without being held to a survey or stake. This allows them to be tremendously more effective than they were prior to us using GPS technology.
365: Will technology help alleviate some of the skilled labor shortage?
Goodfellow: I have a tremendous loyalty to our people who are working in the field, and having years of experience in the seat of a machine is not easy to replicate. Having said that, I think the labor shortage is a real issue in some of the markets we work in.
How can we help younger people look at construction as a positive, leading industry where you can make a good wage doing cool, technological work? The satisfaction of physically accomplishing something on a daily basis is a message I hope we can get out there so we can get more people into construction.
As part of its centennial celebration, GBI is accepting applicants for a $50,000 grant from charitable organizations located in the communities where the company operates - Hawaii (Maui, Kaua’i, Kona, O’ahu), Washington (Wenatchee, Maple Valley), California (Oakland, Livermore, Folsom, Lodi), and Oregon (Portland). The deadline to submit is midnight PST on Sept. 30, 2021. To apply or learn more click here.