Degen Excavating has weathered plenty of economic highs and lows during its nearly 60 years in business. Still family-owned and run by the second generation with a possible third generation knocking on the door, the company has shifted core competencies over the years.
The Lima-based company was founded in 1958 by Fritz Degen who emigrated from Switzerland and took a job in construction. “The company that my father started working for upon his arrival to the Ohio area needed underground excavating and earth moving services, and he said ‘I can do that.’ So, not knowing the first thing about that type of work, my father taught himself, starting a company that has come a long way,” said Bill Degen, Fritz’s son and current president of the company.
For many years, the company specialized in water and sewer work, contracting with municipalities, commercial clients who built shopping complexes, and subdivision developers around Lima. Starting in the 1980s, the company developed another specialty—pipework. At the time, Standard Oil Lima Refinery asked Degen Excavating to bid on constructing new fire suppression systems within the plant. “They were looking for someone at the time as much as we were looking for work. Even though plant ownership has changed multiple times, our work ethic has kept that door open, including today with the present owners Husky Energy. We have nurtured the relationship and it has developed,” Degen said. The company also works for other processing plants, pipeline companies, natural gas companies and chemical facilities in the Lima area.
During The Great Recession, the company was fortunate to be working in an area where investment had not dried up. The refinery undertook major renovations, and Degen Excavating helped. It also helped build an ethanol plant. A maintenance contract with Husky Energy at the Lima plant also involved performing the majority of the underground excavation work along with any other jobs they were asked to perform by the client. “We stay versatile and cater to all of our client’s every changing needs.”
Recently, work from private sources and municipalities seems to be coming back as well, he said. “We are doing some state work and some private sector work. Other avenues are opening up.” Employment is holding around 40 to 45 employees.
In addition to excavation, water and sewer services, Degen Excavating offers more specialized hydro-excavation and hydro-blasting services, utilizing highly pressurized water for applications such as blasting through rock, steel pipe or excavating in hard-to-reach areas where excavators could not gain access. Key members of the Degen Excavating team include Joshua Barhorst, vice president; and Dustin Ingle, Brian Wireman, Scott Wiremen and Jeff Hardesty, project superintendents.
“Ninety percent of our work is in industrial facilities— refineries and chemical- and fuel-producing facilities,” said Josh Barhorst, VP and project engineer. “The PC228 has a tight turning radius and a shorter stick. We don’t need a lot of reach, and it has a lot of power. We can set the box in a tight space and sling a lot of pipe in a tight area. It’s perfect for what we do.”
Degen Excavating‘s history with Komatsu and Columbus Equipment Company goes back a long way. “We bought one of the first Komatsu excavators brought into Ohio,” Degen recalled. “Everyone shamed us because it was Japanese. However, there was positive attention too, including Komatsu representatives who came from Japan to see what Degen Excavating thought of the machine and what suggestions we had for improvements.”
The Komatsu excavator proved to be of high quality, and Degen Excavating’s relationship with Komatsu and Columbus Equipment Company has grown over the years. Today, the company owns a variety of Komatsu equipment, including eight excavators (mostly in the 200-class), three WA250 wheel loaders and a D61 dozer.
“Komatsu equipment is extremely reliable,” Degen said. “With a good maintenance program, they seem to run forever. It is not a problem to get 8,000 or 9,000 hours out of them before we have to do any engine work.”
In fact, until recently, the company owned a PC120-3 that “has to be 30 years old,” Degen said. Its fleet includes a PC220-3 with more than 20,000 hours on it and a PC220-5 with nearly 18,000 hours. One of its wheel loaders is a Dash-1 model.
Degen Excavating and Columbus Equipment Company have “a good relationship, a good partnership,” Degen said. “Everyone has problems with equipment from time to time that we can’t repair ourselves, Columbus Equipment fills that need.”
“We do lease-purchases on a lot of equipment, because our needs vary, and Komatsu Financing has been good to work with,” Barhorst noted. “The service technicians have been very helpful, and I enjoy working with Luke and the sales department. When we need a machine, Luke makes it happen—loaner machine, rental machine, you name it. The service is outstanding.”
Bill Degen has had a passion for the construction business since he was 8 years old and his father would take him to jobsites and have him do small tasks. “Other boys had toy trucks and equipment, I had real ones,” he said. It’s a passion many in the industry know—a passion that helps companies sustain through the tough times and make smart decisions about equipment and jobs that can lead to future growth.