Digging It

Mike Pitonyak has his business exactly where he wants it

Mike Pitonyak in his officeby Virginia Lindauer Simmon

When Mike Pitonyak launched his Barre company, Capitol Earthmoving Inc., 13 years ago, he quickly learned where his priorities lay.

Andrew Michael Pitonyak — Mike to his friends — is sitting in the catbird seat. He’s living the American dream, and firmly believes it’s still possible for anybody “with a lot of work, the right people and a lot of luck. If you get the combination right,” he says, “the American dream is still there.”

Pitonyak is a prime example of living that dream. The co-owner (with an investor-partner) and full-time operator of Capitol Earthmoving Inc. in Barre, he has dug his niche, literally and figuratively, in the construction world.

Capitol Earthmoving is small as such companies go — anywhere from six to 10 employees working on jobs that bring in typically between $2 million and $3 million a year. And that figure is perfect, as far as Pitonyak can see.

“This company is very simple,” he says. “There’s only one boss, and that’s me. I don’t have foremen and superintendents. If you have a question, you come to me, and I’ll give you an answer. We’re here because we like building things, and we can do that because I have the drive to do it that way and because we’re small. Big companies can’t do that.”

Pitonyak is only half joking when he says he loves playing in the dirt. “When I was either 12 or 14 years old, I worked part time for a guy named Kimble Utton, a civil engineer who lived in Montpelier.” Pitonyak worked with Utton in Barre for a contractor laying out the parking lot for the Wayside Restaurant. “It was my first experience of digging in things and making a mess,” he says, grinning.

He liked it so much, he decided he “needed to go to work more than get an education” and left St. Michael’s High School in Montpelier for a job with Webster-Martin Consulting Engineers in Burlington — now a division of Dufresne-Henry Inc. — helping survey much of the Interstate system in Vermont in the early ’60s.

After several years with Webster-Martin, in 1970 Pitonyak landed a position with the city of Montpelier as assistant city engineer, eventually becoming city engineer and director of public works. In 1974, he left to join Cooley Asphalt Paving Co.

After Cooley was bought by Pike Industries, Pitonyak remained until 1991, when he left to work for Ray Cooley Construction in Burlington.

By 1993, he had gained enough experience in the industry to have a pretty good idea of how he would run his own company. He approached Bob Lord, then the owner of E.F. Wall & Associates, and asked if he would be interested in starting an excavation business.

“Bob and his family had been in the excavation business since they invented bulldozers,” Pitonyak quips. “His father had an excavation business called B.E. Lord. I had met Bob when I was city engineer in Montpelier. He thought it was a great idea, so in December of 1993, we started Capitol Earthmoving.”

In February, Pat Lawson, Lord’s sister, joined the company as office manager, he says, “and off we went.”

For a few months.

Pat LawsonBob Lord, who lent Pitonyak the money to get him started, owns 50 percent of the company. Pat Lawson, Lord’s sister, has managed the office since soon after the company’s inception.

The company’s first job began in June of ’94, and on Sept. 12, Pitonyak had a major heart attack, followed a week later by triple bypass surgery. “For eight weeks after that — which was the rest of the season — I couldn’t call the office, let alone do anything else,” he says, “so here we were, a brand new company with employees, and our first big job, the owner had a big heart attack.

“Bob and Patti and the people here ran the company,” he says. “We made it through that first year; I’m sure we lost money, but we made it. We’ve always felt since then that if we could survive that, we could survive anything.”

Pitonyak learned something else from that experience. “It’s all about the people,” he says. “It’s not about how big my bank account is or my ability to borrow money or how much I can bond for or how much equipment can I line up in our dooryard. It’s about the people who run it. I’ve always tried to do things bigger companies cannot do because of their size, or just tried to do things with employees that other companies never thought of.”

He mentions as an example, Tom Emler, a graduate of the University of Vermont who came to work for the company a couple of years ago as project supervisor. “One of the ways I got him to come to work for me is that I said, ‘Look, Tom, we are going to stay small. I don’t want to be one of the big boys. You’re going to work pretty hard until the first of November, and then you go home and do what you want to do with your family, and I’ll send you a paycheck all year long.”

That message was a shock to Emler’s system, says Pitonyak. “It’s a very different way of life.” Pitonyak also supplies T-shirts, hats and work boots for his people and is as flexible as possible when it comes to their personal needs. “I’ve bailed guys out of jail!” he exclaims. “It is what it is, but we’ve also improved a lot of people’s lives.”

The other policy, he says, is to work hard five days a week so employees can have weekends for themselves and their families. “The only time in 13 years we worked on a Saturday was last fall, when we got a job to build a tractor supply down on the Barre-Montpelier Road. We couldn’t start it before Sept. 19, and it had to be paved last fall, so we were forced to work Saturdays.”

One way he maintains this dedication to five-day weeks is by not having a shop or owning a lot of equipment. “We lease everything, so we don’t have breakdowns, because it’s always new, state-of-the-art. That makes it easier for us to attract good help, too, because they’re working in the best that there is. If you can’t make it in five days a week, you’re not going to make it in six,” he says.

Tom EmlerTom Emler, project supervisor, came to work for Capitol a couple of years ago. Pitonyak says he caught the interest of the University of Vermont graduate by promising him hard work until the first of November and a paycheck all year long.

This emphasis on his people is no surprise to Wayne Lawrence of Lawrence Engineering, who met Pitonyak when he worked for the city. “I did a lot of work for him then and when he was at Cooley Asphalt Paving,” says Lawrence, who found himself in the unusual situation of becoming friends with his client. “It’s a little different working with Mike, because we’re friends. But we were able to separate the two very well. When I worked for him, it was all business, and when we went out for dinner, it was personal.”

Pitonyak has created an environment where he can control a lot of variables. He prefers to be a named contractor so he can control the work flow and the subcontractors. It’s things he can’t control that present challenges.

“Weather is a big one when you’re playing in dirt,” he says. “Another one is that you don’t know what’s under the ground, and you’re asked to construct something and attach a figure to it not knowing what you’re going to run into.”

Permit restrictions present challenges, too. He mentions Act 250, OSHA, VOSHA, and the Agency of Natural Resources. “All those people have things they’re in charge of, and their goal is the only one in front of them,” he says. “It’s really difficult. I understand that we need regulation, but I think Vermont has gone way beyond what’s reasonable.”

Of late, fuel prices have created a headache when it comes to estimating jobs. “If I bid a job right now and we don’t do it until this fall, what happens to gas prices,” he says. “Then the bankers and the bonding companies — they change their way of doing business, and all of a sudden, you’ve got to switch gears.”

Change is difficult, he acknowledges. Some changes have produced positive results, though, especially in the area of technology. “I’ve got computer systems that help me with my estimating. They are just phenomenal. A lot of the heavy equipment is computerized. And we have instruments we can take out in the field. Someone can e-mail us a complete set of plans, we download it into a hand-held thing, take it out in the field and we can lay out any point on the site to within an eighth of an inch.”

Pitonyak continues to be a hands-on manager. His days usually run from around 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and he’s on the road a lot. “I could be here first thing in the morning and in Bennington by mid-morning, back here at mid-afternoon and headed somewhere else before the day ends. I try to spend about half of my time bidding work and half of it with my guys.”

For fun, he takes out his Harley or takes the occasional trip to Aruba with his wife, Sandy. Their extended family includes his four children, Sandy’s three, and several grandchildren. Her youngest, Justin, age 17, races a street stock race car at Thunder Road, says Pitonyak, “so we help him build race cars.”

Retirement is an idea whose time will never come, if Pitonyak has his way. “I don’t think I want to mow the lawn three times a day. I like to build things, and as long as I’ve got my health, and my masters that work with me, I’m going to keep going until they put me in the ground.” •