Inside the mind of Lile Quarry’s mechanically-inclined owner

By |  October 14, 2019
Lile Quarry is currently opening up a new pit in southwest Missouri, marking a new chapter at the operation that falls under owner Jim Lile’s purview. Photo courtesy of Kevin Yanik

Lile Quarry is currently opening up a new pit in southwest Missouri, marking a new chapter at the operation that falls under owner Jim Lile’s purview. Photo courtesy of Kevin Yanik

Jim Lile has always been a natural mechanic and welder.

Well, not quite always. But as Lile was told more than a half-century ago, he’s at least had a knack for fixing and welding things since he was a young tot.

“They say I started welding at 5 ½ years old,” says Lile, the owner of Lile Quarry in Strafford, Missouri. “My dad had a farm, and he repaired all of his old equipment. He did all of his welding, and he used to let me go out there and fire that thing up anytime I wanted to weld on scrap.”

Back then, most people told Lile’s father that letting his son weld was a waste of good welding rods. The way Lile’s father saw it, his son was learning.

Now 66, Lile says he continues to learn something about the quarry business every day. Growing up, he never imagined being a quarry owner, let alone one who’s celebrating his 23rd year in the business this October.

But here Lile is, with an aggregate operation in the southwest corner of Missouri that’s producing roughly 250,000 tons of construction materials every year.

“It’s nothing like some of the big boys, but it’s still a quarter of a million into the market,” Lile says.

Sound maintenance

While Lile Quarry is no mega producer, the operation sets an example for how a modern producer should effectively maintain essential equipment.

In an era when more producers are turning to outside help to keep equipment up and running, Lile Quarry manages virtually all of its repairs in-house. With the exception of tires, Lile Quarry handles all of its own equipment repairs.

Because Lile puts so much stock in maintenance – from – his plant to rolling stock – repairs are largely kept to a minimum.

“If we do good maintenance, we don’t have to do repairs,” Lile says.

In addition to running Lile Quarry, owner Jim Lile tends to have a multitude of personal projects going on in the shop adjacent to his office. Lile is currently rebuilding a 1929 Harley-Davidson motorcycle, among other things. Photo courtesy of Kevin Yanik

In addition to running Lile Quarry, owner Jim Lile tends to have a multitude of personal projects going on in the shop adjacent to his office. Lile is currently rebuilding a 1929 Harley-Davidson motorcycle, among other things. Photo courtesy of Kevin Yanik

Just look at how Lile approaches maintaining his plant – one that’s been in place since 2007 – and an outsider will gain an appreciation of how the quarry owner goes about his business.

“When we put this new plant in, we put in 1,750 ft. of grease hose,” Lile says. “One person can service the entire plant from two locations. It takes him 15 minutes. There’s a meter on the end of the dispenser that tells him exactly how many ounces are going into each bearing.”

Because bearings regularly receive the right amount of grease, Lile Quarry barely has to replace them.

“The local bearing place will say, ‘Everybody uses more bearings than you do,’” Lile says. “They have new things that tell you when a bearing is getting hotter – things like that – but the bearing place tells us, ‘Never mind, you don’t need it.’”

Other vendors have grown to appreciate Lile Quarry’s approach to maintenance, as well. Unlike a number of producers, Lile Quarry is rarely pressed to have a critical part delivered within 24 or 48 hours. That’s because Lile Quarry plans ahead.

Lile Quarry foreman Bill Weaver and his team keep a close eye on the plant. They simply won’t let an essential part reach a stage where a replacement becomes dire.

“Bill and all of the workers are very conscientious about watching things,” says Lile, whose operation has eight employees.

Waste not, want not

After Jim Lile purchased his operation in 1996, he identified several bottlenecks that led him to invest in processing machines that are tailored to each other. Photo courtesy of Kevin Yanik

After Jim Lile purchased his operation in 1996, he identified several bottlenecks that led him to invest in processing machines that are tailored to each other. Photo courtesy of Kevin Yanik

Lile is also very conscientious about waste, striving to eliminate it where he can.

“We didn’t start out a wasteful family,” he says. “We were a hard-working family and we used what we had.”

Most quarries produce at least some waste piles, but Lile will challenge those who visit his operation to point out such piles on his site. He’ll challenge them to look because the piles simply aren’t there.

The goal at Lile Quarry, after all, is to find a use for every last stone.

“I’ve got money tied up in that rock,” Lile says. “Why would I just want to pile it up as waste? You can blend it and do all sorts of wild things.”

According to Lile, some of Lile Quarry’s overburden is used to reclaim benches and parts of the property. In other cases where material might be deemed as waste, Lile Quarry explores opportunities to make useful products.

“We have figured some place to go with it,” Lile says. “Maybe the customer needs the clay.”

More recently, Lile Quarry came across a pure ledge of sandstone in its reserves. Lile is putting in the time to determine the best path forward for the sandstone. As he describes, the discovery adds another layer of adventure to the day-to-day activities at the operation.

“We’ll have 150,000 tons of sandstone to start processing once we put a plant in,” Lile says. “Right now I’m researching what I need to make – sizes, who needs to buy it – before I buy the plant. I’m trying to buy the right machine to start with.”

Those who visit Lile Quarry will find several pieces of Komatsu equipment within it. Says Jim Lile: “We’ve kind of converted over to Komatsu right now. We think they’re just serving us better.” Photo courtesy of Kevin Yanik

Those who visit Lile Quarry will find several pieces of Komatsu equipment within it. Says Jim Lile: “We’ve kind of converted over to Komatsu right now. We think they’re just serving us better.” Photo courtesy of Kevin Yanik

Making the most of his land – whether it’s carving out a niche product or realizing a sales opportunity that others might dismiss – is a mentality Lile likely learned from his father. Lile also gained a true appreciation for work from his father, who approached each day as a chance to accomplish something.

“My father would get up in the morning and say, ‘Oh, we get to do this today or we get to do that today,’” Lile says. “He was excited about getting things done.”

Spending the days at Lile Quarry alongside his sister, Brenda Lile, and daughter, Jamie Rogers, makes the work all the more rewarding. The two ladies manage Lile Quarry’s office.

Lile also has two young grandchildren who are already taking to equipment. The business may be theirs to run someday.

“They seem to really enjoy and appreciate it,” Lile says. “They see so much benefit. We’re kind of a family that works for ourselves and we don’t work for others.”

Running a business isn’t for everyone, though. Some businesses aren’t self-sufficient, Lile says. This can take its toll on ownership customers.

“I see contractors who should be working for somebody else because they’re not doing a good job at what they’re doing,” Lile says. “There are other producers who produce a lot, but they get less efficient the bigger they get.”

Of course, the less efficient an operation is, the less profit it has to go around.

“There are a lot of bigger operations that wish they had my profit,” Lile says. “They wish they had my profit, because it takes a lot of rock for them to get a few cents a ton.”

Entering the business

Lile Quarry is currently piling up sandstone that’s being utilized as a decorative rock, but Jim Lile sees good opportunity for the material because it is abrasive and very pure. Eventually, Lile intends to add a sand plant to process the material. Photo courtesy of Kevin Yanik

Lile Quarry is currently piling up sandstone that’s being utilized as a decorative rock, but Jim Lile sees good opportunity for the material because it is abrasive and very pure. Eventually, Lile intends to add a sand plant to process the material. Photo courtesy of Kevin Yanik

Consider, too, that Lile became a quarry owner after gaining exposure to area quarries as a diesel mechanic.

Working at diesel shops, Lile spent considerable time fixing equipment at aggregate operations. He got to know various quarry owners over the years by working on their trucks, crushers and other mechanical equipment. As Lile built relationships across the industry, he built a reputation as someone who could potentially run an aggregate operation.

The owner who previously managed Lile Quarry at least viewed Lile that way.

“Whenever this particular owner wanted some advice or help, he would pause for a little bit and say, ‘You know, you need to buy this place,’” Lile says. “I said, ‘No, I’m just a farm kid. I don’t need to go in debt like this.’

“But he said, ‘You can run it.’”

The previous quarry owner, one who had no children or heirs to take over his business, kept on Lile about buying the operation for three years. Lile confided in various people within the industry during this period, but he had also gained a tremendous understanding from the perspective of a diesel mechanic of what aggregate operations did right and what they did wrong.

“I had no predisposed ideas on how this quarry should be run,” Lile says. “I was very open to ideas.”

After Lile purchased the business, he didn’t set out to change everything overnight. Instead, he recognized bottlenecks in the plant and identified inefficiencies that the previous owner overlooked. Slowly, he evolved Lile Quarry into what it is today.

“I was not a revolutionist coming in,” Lile says.

In addition to managing the aggregate business, Lile and his family currently farm the land. This summer, the Liles were producing hay beans and millet within a stone’s throw of a new pit Lile Quarry is opening.

“It’s a fact that everything you do or have is grown or mined,” Lile says. “We do both.”

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