Growing family: Expanding a family-owned business

By |  March 5, 2015

PQ1503_conners1RHaving started small, family-owned Conners Crushed Stone now operates five quarries near Waco, Texas.

The Conners family settled into the aggregate business by way of a spontaneous purchase at an auction. Gary Conners, patriarch and founder of Conners Crushed Stone, brought home a vintage B-Model Mack truck and another small steal, a 1940s-era rock crusher.

“I didn’t know the front from the back of that [crusher],” son Scott Conners recalls.

Gary came to central Texas from the coalfields of northwestern Pennsylvania, and sons Scott and Jeff insist the notion of getting back into the minerals business was always simmering in their father’s mind.

That was in 1989. Today, Conners Crushed Stone is a multi-quarry limestone operation with locations scattered within a 150-mile radius of Lott, Texas, a dot on the map along state Highway 77 in Falls County, 25 miles south of Waco. Gary Conners, his wife Mary Helen, sons Scott and Jeff, and daughter-in-law Pam form the management team of Conners Crushed Stone.

The company has stayed family-owned, independent and competitive – no small feat in an industry seeing buyouts and consolidations even among aggregate giants. In 25 years, the company has grown to five quarries and 100 pieces of equipment, including six rock crushers and a workhorse fleet of 18 Volvo wheel loaders and two Volvo excavators. The story of how the Conners have carved a living for themselves and 48 employees is a mix of happenstance, necessity and a dose of down-to-earth values.

Thinking thrifty

In 1964, Gary and Mary Helen were faced with overwhelming medical bills and no insurance for care for their eldest son who was born with an illness. Gary came home one day and told Mary, “I found an old dragline I am going to buy. If we need to [to afford it], we’ll eat beans.”

“That’s all we ate for a long, long time,” Mary Helen says.

Their thrift paid in spades. Gary bought the dragline and moonlighted by cleaning mud tanks and building stock ponds. So began Conners Construction, the forerunner of today’s operation.

Their conservative business model has sustained them for 40 years. They are selective in the quarry land they lease and run their equipment as long as they can, performing most of their own maintenance. And that older P&H dragline now marks the entrance to their Lott office.

For several years the rock crusher stood stagnant and threatened to sink into the prairie grassland.

“Some boys from Somerville drove by, saw the crusher and asked Pam if we would crush some rock for them,” Scott says, “We started crushing straight crusher run rock, and it would not sell so we took a 33-ft. oilfield trailer to build our first set of portable screened decks. Then we bought more conveyors out of another company’s bone pile, and started crushing rock.”

Motivated by their initial success they churned out tons of stone, but found few takers.

“The contractors told us it was just a little too big,” Scott says. “Once we got it down to two inches or less, they started buying and we were out there 24 hours, even on Christmas and New Year’s Day, drilling and crushing.”

Conners Crushed Stone has used Volvo wheel loaders for 16 years.

Conners Crushed Stone has used Volvo wheel loaders
for 16 years.

Striking a limestone gold mine

The Conners happen to be located in a geographical sweet spot. Eons ago the area from San Antonio north to Dallas was covered by the Mesozoic Seas, which left vast limestone deposits protected by harder cap rock. These striking marbled belts can be seen in the high cliffs at Big Bend down to Rio Grande. In the central Texas plains, this rock is shallow and obscured beneath the rolling landscape. Conners accesses this rock by drilling 18 to 45 ft. into the strata using an Ingersoll Rand MD30-IR drill, then blasting and excavating the limestone out of the ground.

The Conners quarries are some of the last limestone deposits readily available east and south of Dallas, an enviable position to support the burgeoning Texas oil boom.

In 2013, Texas’ production of crude spiked to record levels with more than 890 active oil and gas rigs. The majority of Conners’ customers are hauling stone for oil pad bases, with some trucks traveling 100 miles one way.

Their second customer mainstay is the Texas Department of Transportation, which is sponsoring a multi-phase highway improvement project on I-35, the direct link between San Antonio, Austin and Dallas. The $4.8 billion project will expand lanes and improve toll-gate flow on one of the most heavily congested highways in Texas. Oglesby, 45 minutes southwest of Waco, was the first quarry opened by Conners in 1995.

“The limestone mix from Oglesby is a rare deposit, high in calcium carbonate and low in iron and magnesium, which makes it a good base for state road work,” Jeff says. “Every quarry is a little different, and even though this is our oldest site, we’re still learning what’s here. We expect to get another 20 years out of the limestone deposits,” he adds.

The quarry site exceeds 350 acres.

“At one point we were producing 27 types and sizes of limestone at Oglesby,” Scott says. “Now, we have five standard sizes ranging from 24-in. riprap, which is a big seller for erosion control, down to crusher fines.”

Land leasing

Today, Jeff manages business development, scouting prime limestone faults throughout the central Texas region based on the quality of the stone and its proximity to demand. The Conners’ business model is to lease versus purchase mineral rights.

Conners leases land for four of its five quarries – Oglesby, Lake Whitney, Greenwade and China Spring. The solely owned quarry is in Reagan, a 440-acre property that is also pastured by Scott’s herd of 300-plus beef cattle. When the quarrying is completed, it is returned to grazing by replacing the topsoil, grading to a 3-to-1 slope and reseeding.

A wheel loader at a Conners Crushed Stone operation fills a bottom-dump haul truck.

A wheel loader at a Conners Crushed Stone operation
fills a bottom-dump haul truck.

The volume of stone crushed at the Oglesby quarry is running at maximum capacity through a Telsmith impact crusher that can take rock up to 60 in. x 60 in. in size – all moved with a relatively minimal fleet of four wheel loaders, including a Volvo L250G, L180G and two L180E models.

The L250G with a 9.0-cu.-yd. rehandling bucket is the newest member of the Conners’ fleet, operated by one of the company’s most experienced employees, Vidal Garcia.

“With the extra 6 in. of dump height on the L250G, you can see the cutting edge, so you can squarely draw off the top when loading a truck,” Scott says. “And the torque parallel linkage on the L180G allows you to ease into the pile of rock, so you don’t have to work the loader so hard.”

All of the Volvo wheel loaders are optioned with the Boom Suspension System, which provides a smoother ride and helps prevent spillage to improve productivity up to 20 percent.

At the Reagan Quarry, tri-axles and 26-ton belly dumps rumble past beef cattle to wind back to the loading area. The Reagan site is averaging its best production of crushed stone per day.

“It’s the last rock you get to before going east,” says Scott, noting one customer transports multiple loads daily to Navasota more than 85 miles one way.
At this quarry, a Volvo L220E, L220D, L180D and a new L220G are the power wheel loaders, doing dual duty moving rock to the jaw crusher and from the crusher to the waiting haul trucks.

Investing in equipment

The Conners’ fleet of excavators, haul trucks, scrapers and wheel loaders includes many auction purchases, and they buy for the long haul, quite literally. They first saw Volvo wheel loaders at ConExpo-Con/Agg in 1999.

“We never dreamed we could own a Volvo or that they’d show interest in a small contractor like us,” Scott says. “But shortly after the show, Bill Taylor, a Romco Equipment Co. salesman, stopped by our quarry and gave us a demo.”

The demo sold the Conners on the wheel loader, the dealer and the brand. The Volvo L150C was the first piece of equipment they purchased brand new.

In 16 years of owning Volvo wheel loaders, the Conners have sold only three. They withstand the rigors of what can at times be non-stop quarry action.

“I have only had to replace bucket pins on one loader and that was the result of operator neglect,” Scott says. “Otherwise, I have never had to replace a single pin on any of these Volvo wheel loaders, and we have an L180D with 36,000 hours on the original engine.”

Back at the Lott offices, the Conners are preparing for their next round of expansion. They’re putting the finishing touches on a new office building, adjacent to their workshop, which is decorated in warm earth tones and rock accents with Lone Star touches, such as the Texas state flag emblazoned above the entrance door. Gary’s office sports a handmade Texas wood desk and mural-sized photos of his quarries. Next door, a new cubicle is being equipped as a nursery for the fourth generation, great-grandson Lane, who was born this summer.

It’s a fitting tribute to the Conners’ heritage and future.

Take note

Conners Crushed Stone seldom purchased new equipment in its early days, but has been buying new wheel loaders in recent years.

Amy Crouse is product marketing and communication specialist for Volvo Construction Equipment, www.volvoce.com.

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