Expansive Excavating Expectations
M.L. Chartier Excavating, Inc. delivers range of turnkey services
It was the French author Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr who said nearly two centuries ago, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Today, M.L. Chartier Excavating, Inc., a 66-year-old excavating and environmental services company launched in 1954, serves as living proof of Karr’s wisdom.
Headquartered in Fair Haven, Michigan, and with operations in Harrison and Webberville, Michigan, M.L. Chartier Excavating’s business over the years has shifted from its early days when, under the leadership of Founder Malcolm Lavern (“ML”) Chartier, it began excavation and trenching for pipelines for many of the state’s regional oil and gas utility companies. As the utilities’ needs for new office areas and workstations grew, the company expanded its scope of services to include the demolition of buildings, land clearing and construction of structures for containing hazardous materials.
In the mid-1970s, ML’s 15-year-old son Malcolm Todd, known simply as Todd, began working in the oil fields where he learned the excavation business, proving to be a quick study. After Todd’s graduation from Adelphian Academy in Holly, Michigan, ML turned the company over to his son. ML wanted to devote himself to his passion for breeding quarter horses at his farm in Texas. Though ML died 16 years ago, his guiding principles to provide turnkey operations at a fair price while maintaining superior quality and safety are now what drive Todd and his team.
“When dad turned the company over to me, M.L. Chartier Excavating had about six team members and $350,000 in sales,” says Todd. Today, the company has 140 team members and is a $30 million force. And, there’s another Malcolm on the management team: Todd’s son Malcolm Pierce, known as Malcolm, who also grew up learning the family business before attending Northwood University in Midland, Michigan, where he majored in business. Today, he oversees eight to 10 crews (about 12 persons per crew) between the company’s three facilities.
“When I want to know what’s going on with one of our jobs,” says Todd, “Malcolm is my go-to guy because that’s who the crew leaders report to.”
What Goes Around, Comes Around
Like any business success story, M.L. Chartier Excavating adapts well to changing business conditions. Such was the case in the early 1990s when the company’s business shifted from pipelines and energy to 100% automotive.
“The automotive industry had huge environmental issues at that time,” Todd says, “So we provided automakers with excavating and environmental services that included thermal desorption (burning, cleaning and recycling) of contaminated soil and the transport of liquid and solid hazardous materials (hazmat).” With a rolling fleet of 150 vehicles, M.L. Chartier Excavating has extensive transportation capabilities.
“As we progressed through the 1990s, automakers evolved and by Y2K were heavy into recycling and had replaced oil-based paints with water-based finishes,” Todd says. “They understood that they had to operate in concert with EPA and run a clean environment, and they did.”
As a result, M.L. Chartier Excavating’s business shifted back to pipeline and energy. “In 2005, we started to get into hydro excavation work and now have 30 hydrovac trucks (think giant shop vacs on wheels) in addition to our rolling fleet,” Todd says.
“The hydro excavation process provides a way to dig around a pipeline without cutting or breaking it,” he explains “These half-million-dollar trucks go 100 feet deep and, using pressurized water, remove or move the dirt. A vacuum then transfers the dirt into a tank. This allows for a non-destructive and more accurate way to excavate soil and locate underground utilities.”
In addition to the hydrovac and rolling fleets, M.L. Chartier Excavating’s inventory includes an 85-unit fleet of loaders, bulldozers and excavators, plus 200 frac tank rentals for storage of hazardous waste and for use on large remediation projects.
Safety is also an important asset that impacts all the company’s team members and provides the firm with a competitive advantage. Team members stay current in safety training through MUST (Management and Unions Serving Together), TAC (Transport Accident Commission), ISN (International Suppliers Network) and Veriforce. “Virtually every utility company adheres to its own safety association,” says Todd, “and we take great pride in staying current with their different protocols.”
M.L. Chartier Excavating’s environmental services menu is another company differentiator, says Todd. “Almost every excavator will run into environmental issues along the way. For those without the equipment and hazmat training, we can come in and remediate the hot space. This makes us a go-to source for both excavation and environmental. It’s hard to be both but that’s what separates us from other excavators.”
Big Capabilities for Big Jobs
M.L. Chartier Excavating’s reputation for being a go-to source for excavating and environmental services because of its skilled team members and extensive equipment inventory has earned it some expansive projects. Among them: the Michigan Enhanced Infrastructure Replacement Program (EIRP), a $2 billion effort begun in 2012 to replace the state’s 2,600 miles of natural gas pipelines. As one of five contractors that met stringent project criteria, M.L. Chartier Excavating is finding old gas lines, some made of wood in the 1940s and 1950s, and replacing them with new lines made of long-lasting engineered plastics.
“Also,” says Todd, “we opened our Webberville location near Lansing, Michigan, to be closer and more responsive to the EIRP projects,” which now represent about 25% of the company’s business.
Another 25% of the M.L. Chartier Excavating’s business stems from cleaning up oil spills—as many as two a day—resulting from truck rollovers and pipeline ruptures and ranging from $2,500 to $25,000 in business each year. Its largest oil-spill job came in 2010 in the form of the Kalamazoo River oil spill, when a pipeline, operated by a natural gas company, burst and flowed into the Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River, near Marshall, Michigan. “We teamed with Young’s Environmental Cleanup Inc. in Flint, Michigan,” says Todd, “on what was a two-year, $30 million job.”
The remainder of M.L. Chartier Excavating’s business is for the Michigan Department of Transportation. “The rebuilding of roads represents about half of our business,” Todd says. “We’re prequalified to do $50 million annually. As the infrastructure continues to deteriorate we’d like to see more government funding so we could do more.”
Creating a Compelling Culture
As M.L. Chartier Excavating’s diverse business grows, so does the importance of maintaining a company culture where team members feel valued,” says Todd. “We invest a lot of time and money in training our team members, so we don’t want to lose them. Recognizing that our team members, especially the younger ones, want to belong to something, we joined a local labor union to help provide them with that sense of belonging.”
The company also celebrates safety successes with monthly safety awards for zero accidents. Team members who go the year without a safety-related incident receive large Grizzly-brand coolers for their efforts. “We can get red tagged off a site for one violation, so safety’s huge for us,” Todd says.
Also hugely important, notes Todd, is anything that helps create a family atmosphere, such as job-site pizza/deli tailgates, regular birthday celebrations and opportunities to serve the community through local food drives, including those for our four-legged friends. Such efforts help explain the company’s team member-retention rate. “About 60% of our team members,” says Todd, “have been with us for five to seven years, and we’ve had many retire after 35 to 40 years.”
He also notes that, while the pandemic slowed business for a couple of months, the company is “running at 100%” with team members having returned from temporary layoffs. The company also recently launched its redesigned website featuring easier-to-access and updated information.
Finally, as the business media continues to report on the skilled worker shortage, M.L. Chartier Excavating is being about as proactive as one can get.
“For the past two years, we’ve taken our trucks to the local middle schools, where students can see the equipment, ask questions and learn about careers in excavating and environmental service,” Todd says. “We also participate in truck-or-treat events at Halloween, where the younger children can come in costume for treats and up-close interaction with our equipment.
“We do this,” he says, “because we want to do all we can to fill the void resulting from the removal of shop programs from our schools. These young boys and girls may have a future in excavation and environmental services.”