From Cow Pens to Silt Fences
S&M Farms, Inc. finds niche business in a high-demand market
In 1987, Bill Soini of S&M Farms, Inc. made his living by raising cows and delivering milk to nearby residents in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Experienced in maintaining hay fields for his cows, he was asked by a local business to seed a golf course, and while doing so was approached by the contractor to install a silt fence. Little did he know that his erosion control business had been born.
Bill’s first silt fence led to many more. What began with just Bill and a couple of laborers evolved into the company it is today of nearly 30 employees and customers that range from state and private construction contractors to homeowners and public works departments. The company serves the greater New England area, offering expert erosion control to a clientele that now numbers more than 1,200. While livestock is no longer on the farm, there are cow figurines scattered throughout the S&M Farms office as a tribute to the company’s roots.
A New Era of Erosion Control
Office Manager Katrina Saengkheune came to S&M Farms 13 years ago when she says erosion control was simply a silt fence or hay bales. Today, the company’s services also include installation of straw wattles, compost sock, snow fences and safety fences, in addition to various types of specialty fences. Owner Shawn Farrow explains that his company makes silt fences of different heights, materials and stake size that are built on a customer’s site.
He says, “This has become a huge part of our business. An engineer might indicate on plans the need for a more rugged fence for a particular site. We can custom-build these and tailor to each customer’s individual needs.”
S&M Farms is the originator of the built-on-site, steel-reinforced silt fence, backed by 12-gauge by 14-gauge wire supported by large wood posts and fastened to those posts by three metal stress plates. The fence offers clients a long-lasting, maintenance-free erosion control barrier for use in high flow areas. The company uses state-of-the-art equipment such as skid steers, excavators and Ditch Witches, allowing faster installation of silt fences instead of having to do it by hand. Employees are OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and HAZMAT 40-trained to meet the demands of more complex and environmentally sensitive job site requirements.
Bill passed away in 2009, and at that time Shawn took ownership of the company and began overseeing daily operations. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts with a degree in civil engineering, Shawn has been an important part of the business since 1996. Katrina started in 2007 and sees each job from start to finish, including bidding, contracts, insurance, purchasing material and scheduling. Theodora Champa is Controller and handles office duties such as payroll, accounts payable and accounts receivable.
Best in the Business
Shawn says that outside of the office is where the company’s reputation truly begins, at the hands of more than 20 skilled, dedicated laborers who work long hours to ensure that erosion control systems are installed correctly. S&M Farms’ three foremen, Gene Gravel, Gordon Marvel and Alexander Robichaud, have each been with the company for more than 20 years, boasting an impressive collective level of experience.
“They are the foundation of the company,” Shawn says. “That’s where our reputation really came from, the quality of installation in the field. They take pride in their work and what we do, and that’s what keeps people coming back. I couldn’t do it without them.”
Katrina cites word-of-mouth as their best form of advertising. “We get calls every day from new companies that want our help with their projects. Our reputation is what allows us to continue to grow and be the best in our field,” she says.
She explains that in many cases, construction or landscaping companies will add erosion control to their services, but it’s only a small part of what they do. But S&M Farms specializes in erosion control—it’s all they do. “Now a lot of clients don’t even call us to bid jobs—they just know we’ll get out there and get it done and do it right. It gives them peace of mind,” she says.
Tom Flaherty, Estimator/Project Manager for PJ Hayes Inc., an excavating company in Walpole, Massachusetts, says, “S&M Farms has been providing us with all our erosion control needs for the past 10 years. No job is too big or too small. They provide professional prompt service, at good rates, with state-of-the-art equipment. They are our one and only subcontractor for our erosion control needs and have excelled in every way.”
No Job Too Big or Too Small
S&M Farms got its start by working for smaller companies, and the quality of work spoke for itself, leading to business with large contractors on jobs that last for weeks at a time.
Katrina says, “We have a lot of varied jobs—from two-week jobs to two-hour jobs—and we fit them all in. But no one job is more important than another. Those little jobs add up quickly, and the big jobs aren’t always there. Small jobs are sometimes what get us through.”
In recent years, the company has gained new business opportunities through the growing popularity of solar farms. When land becomes available, Katrina explains that a great deal of erosion control is required before solar companies can install their panels.
In addition, each fall, S&M Farms is called upon to install “turtle fences,” a type of silt fence designed to protect wildlife such as turtles, salamanders and other reptiles from entering construction sites. Katrina says, “There is a large demand for this in our area. Environmentalists and conservationists will halt a construction job if they see a turtle entering the site.”
The role of erosion control on a job site is not to be underestimated. A required part of the construction process, Katrina explains that the work must be done correctly and in a timely manner so that the job can continue on time without any setbacks. She says, “We’re the first ones on a site, and sometimes access to the locations is difficult and the work is very labor intensive. Sometimes the site can’t even be cleared until the erosion control is in place, and the job can get shut down if not done properly.”
A Nod to the Past
While the company looks forward to the future, Katrina also thinks fondly of the past, wishing Bill could see the company today. She says, “Bill really did build this company. The office was in his basement, and there we would go over an accounts receivable list. If a bill was unpaid, he would just call up the customer. He knew his customers, knew their wives’ names. It was very personal to him.”
Shawn has carried on that familial environment, leading the company with an atmosphere of security and trust. As a result, most employees remain with the company for a long time, building a wealth of knowledge that is demonstrated in the work performed for clients. Katrina says, “We see him (Shawn) every day, and he goes above and beyond for us. Sometimes guys leave to see what else is out there, but they are always welcome to come back, and most of the time they do.”
S&M Farms hopes to continue adding to its workforce in the future, possibly expanding its service area to states outside of New England as it is able to increase its capacity for sending crews to other locations. The company expands its client list yearly with the goal of continuing to do so.
At the end of the day, it’s the company’s reputation for quality work that leads to new clients and keeps existing clients coming back. Katrina says, “Our reputation and our knowledge have made us successful. The business has grown because we’re good at it.”