The Great Lakes Construction Co., a heavy civil engineering and construction contractor, has been building the infrastructure from the ground up since 1948. The company specializes in site improvements, excavation, industrial and commercial construction, power plants, public works, highways and bridges, and environmental remediation.
Because of its long history of working on major public and private-sector projects, the company’s work is familiar to people around the state—from the pedestrian bridge at Cleveland Browns’ Stadium to the Jennings Freeway linking I-90 to I-480.
Great Lakes was founded in Cleveland during the building boom after World War II. The company began as an excavation firm, then moved into sewer work and heavy earthmoving. Within a decade, the contractor had added interstate highway construction to its list of specialties, and is still a major transportation contractor more than half a century later.
Today, Great Lakes works primarily in four sectors: transportation, industrial, wastewater/water treatment plants, and energy. Transportation projects make up about half of the company’s work, according to Jim Fox, vice president of operations.
The company’s diversity of expertise can be seen in its recent roster of work. These include:
• Metro Health Hospital in downtown Cleveland, where Great Lakes is handling the heavy/civil package including foundations, sitework and roadwork for the Turner Construction-managed project. “We have excavated over 100,000 cubic yards that had to be hauled off site in a very densely populated area on the near west side of Cleveland,” Fox noted. Great Lakes also installed more than 17,000 linear feet of underground utilities and about 90,000 square feet of heavy-duty concrete pavement.
• The BioCEPT project for Akron’s wastewater treatment plant. This $60 million project—part of Akron’s $1.2 billion sewer update—will add treatment capacity and will upgrade the technology in the plant, Fox said. Great Lakes’ role includes excavation, structural concrete, pipework and piling.
• Vrooman Road bridge over the Grand River in Painesville. This ODOT projects involves a 1,500-foot-long bridge over native-American burial grounds and had major environmental impacts. The contract was valued at more than $22 million.
Great Lakes’ private customers include First Energy, American Electric Power, CNX Gas, and Charter Steel. Strong relationships have helped spread the company’s reach beyond its Ohio roots to neighboring states in the region.
For several decades, Great Lakes has been an employee-owned company, or ESOP. “We are owned by 140 employee-owners. We are also a union contractor, and at peak season we employ up to 350 union workers,” Fox said.
“As an employee-owned company, we want to make good, sound decisions on what we buy. We want the best value,” he explained, and that emphasis on value holds when purchasing construction equipment.
When it comes to excavators, Great Lakes has determined Komatsu machines offer the best value. The company purchases Komatsu excavators almost exclusively. Their fleet includes 10 16- to 19-metric-ton excavators, primarily PC138s; eight PC228s, 12 PC360s, four PC490s, and a PC650. Currently, four of the excavators have Komatsu’s iMC technology.
Komatsu excavators provide value in many ways, Fox said. “First off, they are economical. You get a good product for the price you pay. They are very durable. Some of our Komatsu excavators have served the fleet for more than 15 years. With good maintenance, they last a long, long time.”
“Komatsu excavators also outperform their competition. We have rented and bought other machines, but we find Komatsus are superior in efficiency. Also, the operators seem to like the Komatsu excavators. They are in the seat all day long and the feedback is consistent- Komatsu has a superior product.”
While the Komatsu-exclusive policy may not extend to other equipment, “we own plenty of Komatsu dozers and loaders, and they perform well too,” he added.
Over the past few years, Great Lakes has made a significant investment in iMC dozers as well as excavators. The company owns a D51i, two D61i units, and a D85i and rents additional iMC units when needed.
The fully integrated iMC system presents huge advantages over an aftermarket GPS system, Fox noted. “The mastless setup is great. When you’re done with the job, you don’t have to spend half an hour unplugging and storing the system because it’s all self-contained. That’s a huge savings in time, potential damage or theft, and wear and tear.”
Intelligent machines can also reduce the number of workers needed on a job, including grade checkers. To compare the benefits of iMC over conventional machines, Fox recalled a mass excavation job where two Great Lakes crews were working, each using a 400 size excavator with a bulldozer pushing up. “One crew had a PC490i and the other had a conventional 400 machine. We found the 490i didn’t need the bulldozer full time” to achieve the same production that the conventional excavator and dozer team was getting.
While that example shows the productivity boost iMC brings, Great Lakes has also found “the intelligent technology on the Komatsu excavators is beneficial for pipework and working slopes,” he said. “And we have found that iMC makes an average operator good and a good operator great.”
There’s another aspect to Komatsu’s intelligent equipment that appeals to a central pillar in the company’s culture—safety. By eliminating a laborer from the area around a working machine, iMC equipment makes the jobsite safer.
Great Lakes has always had a good safety program, Fox said, but when the company decided to join OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Challenge Program (VPP), the contractor really upped its safety game. “Being a VPP Challenge Graduate got us to another level and changed the way we do things. Our business is inherently dangerous, and it’s important for us to make sure everyone is able to go home the same way they came to work,” Fox explained.
At the beginning of any workday or task, crews discuss existing and potential hazards and how to control those dangers. The Great Lakes Construction Co. has been nationally recognized as safest contractor of the year among highway contractors, which is just one of many safety honors it has received. Its crews have worked more than 2 million hours with no time lost due to injury.
Columbus Equipment Company and Great Lakes Construction have had a strong relationship for decades, dating to the 1980s.
“Columbus Equipment Company is great. They are straightforward people who are easy to relate to. When there’s a problem, they are here to help, whether it’s with a rental, service, warranty, or sale. They understand our needs and always come back with an equitable solution,” Fox said.
“Komatsu equipment is low maintenance. If you stay up on preventative maintenance, not a lot of problems occur. When they do, Columbus Equipment is there to help us solve that problem,” he added.
“Great Lakes Construction takes very good care of their own equipment. Their service program is second to none,” said Mike Swan, the Columbus Equipment Company sales rep who has called on the contractor for more than two decades.
In fact, he added, Great Lakes is a company with a philosophy very similar to how Columbus Equipment Company operates. “It there’s a problem, they deal with it and get it solved” without any drama, Swan explained.
“We appreciate our partnership with Columbus Equipment Company,” Fox said. “They understand our culture, and every person from Josh Stivison to the mechanic on site has been great to work with.”
Great Lakes Construction uses a slogan to describe the company culture: “The Great Lakes Way … Safe, Capable, Efficient.” It’s no surprise the company feels Columbus Equipment Company and Komatsu equipment have proven a natural fit.