Work Ethic & Service Meet the Road
True North Asphalt paves the way with pride and performance
Looking for a way to pay for college, Nick Whitehurst and his twin brother, Dave borrowed $9,000 from their folks and bought True North Asphalt (True North) when they were only 19. The duo went to Michigan State University (MSU) by day and sold driveway repair and replacement services door to door by night.
“We had a big MSU flag flying from our sealcoating machine,” Nick recalls. “We found it was a great sales tool. The Michigan State fans wanted to support the local boys, and the University of Michigan fans joked that they liked to see their rivals slaving away while repairing their driveways.”
That started in spring 2001; and as the pair worked their way through college, they learned every aspect of the business—from selling to sealing to collecting open invoices, Nick says.
Paving the Way
Initially, True North focused on residential paving and sealcoating projects, but it soon grew into projects for the business community. Today, True North does anything and everything pavement-related. From new construction to repairs, the company provides all of its services in-house. Approximately 95% is commercial-industrial work and around 5% is residential, he says.
The Madison Heights, Michigan-based company was started by Michael Pattwell. He sold the company to Nick and Dave in 2001. Today, Michael is the company’s Corporate Attorney and Nick is the sole Owner. After graduation, Dave went back to school to earn a graduate degree but helped out at True North on weekends before Nick bought him out. When Dave finished school, he went to work for a Fortune 500 company, where he is still employed, Nick says.
Nick is proud to have dedicated his career to the asphalt industry. He has worked in all of the roles: from a laborer to salesperson, all the way up the ladder. Now, as the company President, he oversees the sales and marketing efforts, as well as quality control and customer service.
“My dad was a small-business owner, and I am very fortunate that my wife’s father was also a business owner. So, I came from a background that made it easy for me to be an entrepreneur. I met my wife when I was 20, so she knew about the long hours that go into running a business, and she knows a lot about sealcoating and how time intensive this industry is. She’s really been with me since the beginning, so I’m blessed that she is very understanding,” Nick says.
“I was fortunate that when I got out of college in 2004, the real estate market was booming and the companies that were hiring were offering me the same salary I was already making running this business at the time,” Nick says. “My dad told me, ‘Sometimes, when you stick with something, it sticks with you.’ I consider myself very lucky to find something I enjoy doing and sticking with it.”
Pride in the Project
Nick is a firm believer in producing quality projects with the best products. True North uses Seal-Pave asphalt sealer manufactured by the Surface Coatings Co., a GemSeal Company, in Auburn Hills, Michigan. The material is delivered to the yard in 8,000-gallon increments. When it arrives, Surface Coatings has already added water. True North has the ability to store up to 10,000 gallons of pre-mixed Seal-Pave. The company also uses Black Diamond Coatings Inc. products, as well.
High-quality equipment also plays a role, he says. “From our Seal-Rite trailers to our new fleet of commercial trucks, we believe our equipment is a reflection of our company. With our capacity, no job is too large to complete within an established project timeline. Equipment breakdowns are a part of life, but with our proactive fleet maintenance program and backup equipment, projects are completed on time,” he says.
“We self perform every aspect of each project down to the line-striping,” he adds. “All of the asphalt paving, concrete paving, asphalt sealcoating, crack filling and line striping is done by us. That is important because our goal is to provide our customers with the professional expertise that comes from years of servicing both residential and commercial properties.”
Nick says every job includes a customer walk-through to ensure proper project scope and set expectations. That means the job site measurements are accurate, he says, and cost estimates are on track without cost overruns. Once a timeline is established, permits can be pulled, and the team adheres to all Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance standards and local codes. Then, when the job is done, the project owners have a final job walk-through.
Every project has its own challenges, but Nick says some are more daunting than others. Projects like The Home Depot can be challenging because there are several phases within the construction project as well as multiple trades working simultaneously.
“When we work on The Home Depot renovation projects, we are doing everything from concrete to striping, asphalt paving, bollards, etc. So, when we take a project like that, we have to coordinate all together and do it in a timely manner; that’s how we make money,” Nick says. “It is all about accommodating the customer; they don’t have time to close a store while they redo a parking lot. We are able to control all the facets of that project because we are doing each aspect of it ourselves. That’s really one of the areas where we excel. We will be there when we tell them we will be there.”
That’s important when working with big companies like The Home Depot, Target and Dollar General, he says.
“Timing and reliability mean something,” he adds. “Plus, it’s rewarding to see a project well done. Not to mention, we find fans at some of our jobs. Once, we were repaving the handicapped parking spots at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Specialty Center in Detroit (part of Detroit Medical Center) and the kids were coming in and marveling at the paving trucks."
“We had 15 kids in line to ride on the asphalt paver. Our guys were picking up kids and handing them up and explaining how the machines work. We had a tight timeline to get that job done, but we would stop and do that because they really enjoyed it,” Nick says.
Nick says True North is all about serving the customer.
“We talk about that a lot. We may be a construction company, but everything you do in life is in service to someone else,” he explains. “Just like slowing down to let someone in front of you on a highway on-ramp, it’s a mentality we promote.”
For example, if the crew is building a new parking lot, they don’t know who the customer is, he says. “You don’t know if the guy you’re talking to owns the lot or is lost and needs directions. It’s important to keep that attitude of service in the back of your mind.”
True North is all about doing what’s best, not only for the company, but for the team of 46 employees, Nick says. “We have people who have been here for 10 years. This is about how they can make their house payment or how they pay for college—like I did. It is less about my goals and more about the people who work for me and how to grow a company the best way possible.”
“When you pull out of this yard, you need that service mentality, even if you’re tired or on a deadline or worked 12 hours the day before. In every encounter, you are representing not only yourself, but every crew in the company; it’s all about how you treat your fellow employees and clients,” Nick says.
Nick says he tries to make himself available to his team, as well as his clients, to help solve challenges. “I’m in the office at 5:30 a.m. and if someone has a concern, I’ll help him or her deal with it. Our team members really are like a formalized family. While we’re not hugging everyone, we treat one another respectfully,” he says.
“We’ve grown and hired the right people so I don’t have to deal with the small problems on a daily basis,” he adds. “You can only do so much in one day. If you have problems to solve, start with the most important and work your way through it. I’ve been fortunate to hire people who are good at their jobs and I can remove myself from that. If you don’t like problem-solving or waking up like your hair is on fire, this is not the industry for you,” Nick says.
Part of the Community
Being active in the local community is something that Nick and the True North team enjoy. They participate in an annual fall fundraiser for the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak.
True North also supports the fundraising efforts for Our Lady of the Lakes Parish and School in Waterford, Nick says. “For their golf outings or sporting clay tournaments, we like to shut down for the day and take the entire staff to participate,” Nick says. “It’s a great way to give back to the community and have fun together.”
“We have been on a successful run, so giving back to the community that has supported us is critical,” Nick says. The company had more than $10 million in gross revenue in 2020 and is looking to grow again in 2021. Toward those growth goals, two years ago, True North merged with a concrete and site-work company to enhance its abilities.
Being successful and growing the company is important to Nick because he hopes his three children—ages 5, 7 and 9—will want to join dad on the job when they grow up. “l want to have a company where they can come in and it will take care of them. That is something I’m working toward.”
But he understands that it’s all about not forgetting what brought him to where the company is today.
“It’s what separates us from our competitors,” he says. “Here at True North, we believe four major factors give us the edge that clients are looking for when choosing an asphalt maintenance company: our people, our equipment, our material and our process.”