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P&Q Profile: Whitaker Construction’s John Sather

By |  October 8, 2020
John Sather joined Whitaker Construction Co. in 2014. Photo: P&Q Staff

John Sather joined Whitaker Construction Co. in 2014. Photo: P&Q Staff

John Sather brought his tremendous knowledge of the aggregate industry to Whitaker Construction Co. in 2014, helping the Brigham City, Utah-based company build up its aggregate division by establishing several operations in a few short years. Sather, who serves Whitaker Construction as vice president of aggregates, is eager to expand the company’s aggregate division further, with a goal of having 10 to 15 working sites by the time he retires.

What ultimately brought you into the aggregate industry 30 years ago?

I took to the aggregates because it’s Monday to Friday, whereas the construction side – cutting into roads – is late at night. I’ve been in management for 20 years. I watched how engineers wanted spec product, and nobody would provide it to them. Plus, there’s nothing more fun than building a business and supplying customers.

It’s clear Whitaker Construction values your experience in expanding its aggregate division. How important is it to you to have some leeway to build up operations?

When we started [our site in] Wellsville, [Utah]. I said: ‘You hired me and told me you wanted an aggregate company. You have to trust me. And they’re like: ‘Yeah, go.’

Usually when you start on a quarry, you’re three to five years [out] on profitability. I was profitable in my first year. And I went in and got a lot of the business [through] face-to-face contact with customers.

John Sather, left, with Whitaker Construction president and CEO Mike Whitaker. Photo: P&Q Staff

John Sather, left, with Whitaker Construction president and CEO Mike Whitaker. Photo: P&Q Staff

Being in the aggregate business, you have to learn to deal with the excavation side of it. If they (customers) have problems with compaction, call them. Teach them how to put your material down, but don’t lecture them. If you teach people to lay down your material, you gain friends.

I show them how to do it so they can get their compaction down right away – and then they can run. You become the hero. I like to help people. It sounds really corny, but I’ve done that with people. With my material and my designs, you’ll get a better compaction quicker.

That’s how I met (Whitaker Construction president and CEO) Mike Whitaker. They had problems with compaction. They bought it from another company. I went out and showed them how to put that material down. They were like: ‘What’s the catch?’

You’ve had industry experience outside of Whitaker. What is it about working at Whitaker Construction that gets you excited?

It’s that empowerment. You’re empowered to do what you need to do. That is so big. With bigger companies, you have to go to somebody to get approval. You don’t get that instant gratification. If you empower employees, they’ll feel the power of it and care more about what they’re doing.

Let’s talk about plant startups. You’ve taken the lead on several of these already at Whitaker Construction. What’s your general process like in getting a plant set up with crushing, screening and conveying equipment?

It’s not only the equipment, but it’s the material you have to feed it and your mix design prior to putting it into the crusher – knowing what you’re going to come out with. You can’t just throw it in and it comes out that way. That takes years of knowledge, knowing what material is going to do and how it’s going to react.

It’s also the settings on your equipment. That’s why I’m particular about KPI-JCI (& Astec Mobile Screens). The automation system they have – being able to zero a cone out from the tower rather than with the old shims. I bought a new Kodiak K400+. I can make regular aggregates [and] plant mix by the change of the cone liner, so I don’t have to go buy two units. I look at things longer term.

And then it’s what you’re making. It’s a lot more than just crushing rocks. It’s putting your design together, stacking it so it’s in spec and it stays in spec.

Do you see a systemic problem related to conveyors that makes product go out of spec?

If you don’t run your conveyor up and down, you’re going to be out of spec because your larger rocks tend to go to the outside of piles. Everything’s done by size and weight. That’s what KPI-JCI [does] with the [SuperStacker]; it will not only telescope in and out as it moves, but it will stack up and down where you can put 180,000 tons underneath one thing. With it moving and laying out that pattern, it’s constantly rolling it back and forth.

Then, where it goes one way, it will go out a foot, come back this way, go out another foot, come back. That way, you’re laying it all down, and when it comes back it will come to another section on top of it. It’s kind of like a pre-mix deal. I like to always think of aggregates as a bunch of marbles – just different sizes.

How about your day-to-day job? What’s the hardest part of it these days?

Not being able to get back to the people in a fashion that I like. If you call me, I will call you back in five or 10 minutes. But the busier I get and the more meetings I’m in, then I don’t [deliver] that instant callback. It’s communication.

That’s a good segue to customer service. How do you think customer service is faring in our industry today?

I think customer service face-to-face is important – even with COVID. When there’s a problem, run to it. An email or a text doesn’t always get read in the right context. It doesn’t take care of the problems. If you go out and meet somebody, you’re going to solve their problem for them. If you made a mistake, own your mistake. Just a ‘sorry’ or a ‘thank you’ or ‘I appreciate your business’ goes so much farther than a text or an email. I strongly believe in that, and people confide in you. It’s going out and giving them what they deserve.

Do you think that’s changed over 30 years?

I do. I think it’s changed a lot. I think we’ve gotten more into an automated system; it’s make spec and ‘here you go.’ The thing is: Whether it meets spec or not, either your customer is in spec or out of spec. So are you going to fix it for them or let them sit and suffer? That’s why I go out on jobsites on the freeway and show them that you’re out of spec on your road base. It’s because of the way the grader operator’s doing it.

In our industry, from construction all the way to aggregates, there’s been such a growing pattern [but] no one is teaching people exactly why. You tell them not to do it, but you don’t show them why. I think if you show them the ‘why’ then the ‘what’ goes so much further.

I take some of my employees out on a job and show them what [customers] do; this is why they don’t get the compaction rate. If you give them material that’s out of spec and not mixed properly, the proctor is not going to match the material that they’re putting down. They’re not going to get their compaction.

So really, you’re saying once a product goes out the door, there’s a general attitude among producers that the job is done?

There is. Look at your sales tickets. It says: ‘Spec guaranteed onsite.’ Once the customer takes it, it’s yours. I don’t do that. I walk them through it, show them it’s in spec onsite. I’ll walk through how they handle material and place it. It’s not to lecture them; it’s to help them. Because if you help them, then their laydown costs are going to go way down.

If there’s an [instance] when I’m ‘even’ with the next competitive quarry, they’re going to come to me even if they’re a little bit farther [because] they know my material and they know I’m going to come stand behind them and fix their problem if they have it. That, to me, is valuable.

Is there an opportunity for technology to play a role in the customer service equation?

Absolutely. I email out all of my submittals. I’ll email out their tickets. A lot of times, though, it goes to their front people and not the guy in the field. The guy in the field really doesn’t have that technology.

There’s a gap for how busy people are. There’s a gap in there between the guy in the office and the guy in the field. So if I can fill that gap, the guy in the field is going to love me and the guy in the office is going to love me more because I took care of his problem.

How about jobsite safety: What does safety mean to you?

Says John Sather: "Safety comes first for me. If you have an accident, it’s something everybody lives with." Photo: P&Q Staff

Says John Sather: “Safety comes first for me. If you have an accident, it’s something everybody lives with.” Photo: P&Q Staff

Safety comes first for me. If you have an accident, it’s something everybody lives with. Accidents shouldn’t happen in our business. There’s nothing so important that you have to do it right away and do an unsafe act.

If something happens to an employee, I’m not going to tell his wife – we all are. I want people to think about that. The impact on managers and foremen [if] somebody gets hurt on the job or dies is something you live with for the rest of your life.

You want employees to engage on that. Sometimes, things happen that are completely out of everybody’s control, but it’s not different than lightning storms. I make [operations] shut down the equipment, get out of it and we stop. It’s a great time to celebrate production and go get a burger.

If you teach people in your culture that people matter, that we care and that we don’t do stupid stuff, then you don’t have that safety problem. Safety problems, to me, come from the old attitude that ‘if you ain’t man enough then get the hell out of the way.’ If you’re a real person, you care about every employee.

I want to be a mentor, and I want my guys to be. If you’re a foreman or a lead man, you’ve got to train the guy down below you so we can fill your position – so you can move up.

Kevin Yanik

About the Author:

Kevin Yanik is the editor-in-chief of Pit & Quarry magazine. Yanik can be reached at 216-706-3724 or kyanik@northcoastmedia.net.

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