Self-reliance is a big part of your DNA when you’re a contractor based in the bulls-eye center of a state that is the fourth largest in size but third least populated in the U.S., making rural infrastructure your core business and carrying the enduring name of Century Companies Inc.
Founder Jack Morgenstern was a bit of a maverick when he came to Lewistown, Montana in 1975 with $5,000 and a backhoe. He arrived determined to forge a successful construction company based in this small town tucked on the edge of the Rocky Mountain range. Forty years later, Jack is retired, and a next-generation of management and ownership leads Century Companies’ diverse operations, which grew from strictly asphalt paving to add concrete paving, excavation, underground utilities, heavy civil and construction management to its suite of services.
President and CEO Tim Robertson was tapped by Morgenstern in 2003 to lead Century. Over the next several years a team of new leaders was assembled to redefine the company into a more multi-faceted and self-managed organization. "We probably look more management-heavy than other companies of our size but a lot of that is due to the complicated, high spec jobs we tackle that demand a strong project management focus. We go where others won’t and perform at a higher level of quality than many," says Tim.
He adds, "There’s a vast expanse geographically between projects. There’s less population and services are more remote so we have to have reliability in our equipment in order to make a living out here. We have to be self-reliant to get up and stay running and not lose hours or days. We squeeze a lot of work into seven months and can’t afford downtime. Making things more difficult is the fact that our primary shop during the season is under the blue Montana sky."
A full 95% of Century’s projects are 100 miles or more away from Lewistown. Operations extend into four states: Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Nevada. Major projects include cold-in-place asphalt recycling for Yellowstone National Park highway reconstruction and runway paving for rural regional airports riddled with bad soils and poor aggregates. "You’d be hard-pressed to find a local airport east of the Continental Divide in Montana that we have not paved," says Tim.
At peak season Century employs more than 165 people. Crews go out in April for the long haul, spending weeks to months away from home in a relentless sprint against the calendar. In fact, Jack, Tim and VP of Equipment Jeff Patnode are all licensed pilots, plus the company employs a full-time pilot who has two aircraft at the ready to transverse a 300-400 radius from Lewistown at a moment’s notice delivering bids, parts and people.
This season much of the activity is in Sidney, ten miles from the North Dakota border on the periphery of the Bakken Formation. The Bakken is peppered with 6000+ active oil wells and is the largest oil field in physical size in the world, meeting 10% of US demand. It extends from Montana and North Dakota up to Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Canada. More than five years into the latest boom, Sidney and its sister towns are still struggling to keep up with the burgeoning demands on infrastructure.
Town Pump, a major Montana gas station/convenience store/casino chain, is building a mega truck stop just outside of Sidney at the "four corners" intersection on Montana Highway 16/200. Century was contracted for what would be one of its largest parking lot paving projects ever, with 18,000 square feet of asphalt laid. The crew will lay two lifts total, a 3" compacted base mat with a 2" top lift.
Twenty minutes away in Lambert, a town of around 400, another Century crew is paving a new athletic track and parking lot complex at Lambert Public Schools, a 120-student facility that is benefitting from the region’s sudden oil-infused prosperity.
Century has four asphalt paving crews and eight portable hot asphalt plants so it can fully supply its operations with mix. "As part of our business model, we place hot plants in rural settings and also form partnerships with local businesses to service rural infrastructure," says Jeff.
Century has operated Blaw-Knox pavers and compactors for as long as anyone at the company can remember, a brand association started by Jack. Today’s fleet includes two Blaw-Knox PF510s, two PF3200s and a PF410, and the latest pavers from Volvo which are a proving a testament to the BK legacy: two Volvo P7110, 10-foot tracked pavers.
"Companies like Century that perform a mix of commercial and highway paving are finding the size, low profile and 360-degree visibility of the 7000 Series to be the right fit for their applications," notes Tom Hunt, sales rep with local VCE dealer, Tri-State Truck & Equipment, in Billings.
But before its management inked a deal, it was critical that the employees who would operate the paving equipment believed in it. That happened by engaging them in the purchase decision. "I believe strongly in self-managed teams and a leadership philosophy that gives employees the wherewithal and permission to manage themselves to success," says Tim.
Last winter, prior to deciding which paver brand to purchase, Century flew a group that included operators, mechanics and management to Phoenix to demo one of the first Volvo P7110 pavers to hit the market. The employees returned to Montana convinced that the Volvo was the best machine for their needs. "A few went down to Arizona dead set on a competitor’s paver, but they came back with a newfound respect for Volvos, which we now own. It was a good decision," said Aaron Golik, VP of Paving.
When the decision was made to purchase the two 7110s, Century sent a number of paving personnel back to Phoenix to attend a Volvo Road Institute course for operator and maintenance training on the Volvo 7000 Series pavers to prepare for the arrival of their new machines and upcoming paver season. Century routinely enrolls staff in Road Institute to keep them ahead of the latest industry advances. They also attend annual Volvo best practices paving and compaction seminars held at Tri-State.
Still, the bottom line is a heavy factor in the final decision, says Jeff, who speaks with the acumen gained from managing a fleet that tops 500 total units. "Like it or not, a large part of our purchasing decision still comes down to owning and operating cost. As owners, we were buying two pavers to run until we retire, and we want the best product. Asphalt is expensive. If there is any downtime and the asphalt cools it’s wasted. If you lose 40 tons of asphalt waiting at a job site while the paver is down its gets costly pretty fast," he says.
Historically, Century acquires equipment via outright purchases. In this case, Century made the two-paver acquisition using a flexible finance program through Volvo Financial Services that schedules payments for seven months on, five months off.
"We were able to structure a deal with VFS that works with the way we handle capital and aligns with our seasonality," says CFO Tracy Golik. "Being a conservative company we like to keep financing to a minimum. The two-paver purchase was a definite ‘go’ item we needed for the upcoming season. We decided to finance and were looking for the best avenue to make that happen."
VFS also financed Century’s most recent triple asphalt roller purchase of DD70, DD118 and DD25B. "It’s a very sweet program that cycles with our season. It’s clean and neat from an accounting perspective," Jeff adds.
Due to Century’s extensive pre-purchase scrutiny of asphalt pavers between several top manufacturers, there was a short timeframe for delivery before the start of the season. Century signed the deal in late February and needed the pavers in Montana for a spring start. They again placed their trust in Tri-State and Volvo to receive delivery in less than eight weeks from the day they signed the order.
With nearly a full season under their belts, the operators who were instrumental in making the case for Volvo are still confident in their choice.
At the Town Pump project, Casey Vosen, Paving Foreman, notes, "Overall the 7110 is a great machine. The greatest benefits I see are the ease of setting up the screed and the paver speed controls, which are very steady. You can set them and continue paving at that consistent speed."
Century’s Volvo pavers are equipped with the Omni 318 screed. This extremely reliable Omni design is the result of over 75 years of Blaw Knox pursuit to perfection. The proven front mounted extension design provides superior material and width control in every application. The front mounted extensions provide operators full visibility across the full width of the screed. Operators can easily maintain the correct and consistent "head of material", when making on the fly adjustments to paving speed, width and depth. High off screed density and award winning smoothness are delivered on every paving job all the time.
Over at the Lambert track, Ken Damon, Laydown Foreman, with 22 years of paving experience, also gives the 7110 thumbs up. "It is a very easy paver to operate, with smooth hydraulics and it gives a very nice crown."
As the construction climate warms up across the rest of the country, Tim expects to see fewer transient competitors in the Bakken as contractors move back to their home territories, but no softening in the scope of projects. The competition - and Volvo equipment - has only helped Century up its game.
"There’s been a definite shift in construction activity in eastern Montana that we have not seen in 40 years," says Jeff. "There’s more competition, the job specifications continue to get more stringent and the equipment has to perform to a higher standard. The Volvo P7110s have allowed us to be more efficient in meeting specs to provide a higher quality product to our clients. In the grand scheme of things our investment in the Volvo pavers was driven by the fact that we need to deliver the best quality product we can. And by the way they give a damn nice ride."