As a fifth-generation contractor, Paul Rees has experienced the construction industry firsthand for as long as he can remember. His company, Rees Construction, was established in 1887, and has operated out of Quincy, Illinois, for over 130 years. The company was passed down to Rees by his father, David Rees, leaving Paul as the company’s current president and main shareholder. Paul is a member of the Under 40 in Construction Equipment Class of 2018.
“I’ve been around the company my whole life,” Rees says. “I remember when I was little getting in backhoes and things of that nature, and just always being around it. I’ve been working here every summer since I’ve been able to.
This is another in a series of profiles highlighting Under 40 Awards winners. Go to ConstructionEquipment.com/U40Appl to enter.
“I was more out in the field still at that point, so I’ve had a taste for laying pipe and running jackhammers,” he says. “I know what they’re going through in the field.”
Although Rees owns the business, Rees Construction is a family affair. Two of his cousins work as superintendents of Site Development and Excavation, and Sewer and Water.
“Before me it was my father and his three brothers,” Rees says. “Then over the years my father started buying them out. Now he and I are the sole owners, and he’s almost out.”
In general, the company specializes in projects relating to excavation, sewer and water installation, site development, and concrete services.
“I like figuring out how to do jobs for clients that are very difficult to do,” Rees says. “The City of Quincy [will also] call us on all their emergency work. Anything they have issues with, they’ll want us to figure out.”
In the past 10 years, Rees Construction has more than doubled in revenue, and increased employment and equipment purchases three-fold. Rees also began implementing GPS systems across his equipment fleet in 2016.
“I saw the need for competition in the road construction industry,” Rees says. “At that point in time, we were just doing sewer and water lines, so we started out dabbling in a little bit of concrete here and there. Now we are probably the leader in Quincy for roadwork for concrete.”
Rees then expanded into dirt work.
“There really wasn’t anybody in town that could take on these big sites, and move all the dirt and put it in the pipe, and do absolutely everything that needed to be done to the site,” he says. “[Since] that tied in with [what] we’re already doing, site utilities, why not start moving the dirt too?
“That’s where we started buying dozers, and the GPS finally came. We can complete a whole site, and not need anybody else.”
Rees says adding GPS machine control was the next step to becoming the best contractor in the overall region.
“If you don’t have it, you’re going to fall behind,” he says. “That’s just where the industry’s going. It’s something that I think you have to have. I prefer my competitors not having it to be honest with you.
“[With GPS] you’re not looking at stakes all the time, you’re looking at a screen telling you exactly where you need to be in relation to what their grades need to be. It cuts down on human error.”
Rees says almost all of the new equipment the company owns is plug-and-play for machine control.
“You have to build a file that basically talks to your GPS,” he says. “We use a Topcon system; you put it into your machine and it goes into the base [station]. Your base is stationary on the job site and talks to all your equipment. You just plug your system into the machine, and you’re ready to go.”
With older machine models, Rees says implementing machine control was much more involved. He had to hardwire the machine control technology.
“To me, [plug-and-play is] the biggest innovation of technology out there right now, and that’s what’s needed on equipment.”
Having a better handle on job site grades is among one of the benefits Rees has experienced after implementing GPS machine control.
“A guy can sit in a dozer instead of having a guy standing outside exposing themselves to risks by saying, ‘the stake tells you to cut down a foot,’” he says. “[Meanwhile], the guy in the dozer is just sitting in there and ‘oh, well I’ve got to cut down another foot here.’ It exposed the potential risks of a guy standing outside all day around heavy equipment, and cuts that out.”
In addition, Rees says it just makes the job easier for the operator.
“We’ve got [machine control] in a couple of our excavators as well, and on new construction, the operator can see exactly where he needs to dig, and be able to keep his grades,” he says. “Before it was all human interaction with pipe lasers and people in the ditch telling us ‘you’ve got to cut down two more inches,’ things like that. We’re hoping to just implement more technologies and keep everybody safe and going home every night.”
With more machinery on his hands, Rees knew there was also a need for more operators to work for the company as well.
“The double in [our] revenue stemmed from the amount of jobs,” he says. “We had a limited number of pieces of equipment, and only a few employees when I started here full time. We probably at least tripled the amount of equipment we have, and we have a lot more employees.”
Rees says as long as he sees “a need” for new machines, he’s willing to purchase new equipment for his sites.
“As long as you keep it productive, it’s easy to pay for itself,” he said. “Typically there’s not a piece that sits. Everything is out on the job site constantly.”
Nearly all of the equipment is John Deere. Rees says the company has worked with Deere for as long as he can remember, so partnering with the company on machine control made sense.
“John Deere has a great financing program,” he says. “Most of our equipment is Deere, and they have helped us out quite a bit along the way. We are not married to John Deere by any means, but we like the service they give us, we like the reliability of their equipment. Compared to some of the others that we’ve tried, they’re just outperforming.”
Because of advancements in construction technology, Rees has his Deere dealer, Martin Equipment, handle most of his maintenance.
“They’re good at what they do,” he says. “I was working on a personal project, running the dozer over the summer, for example, and I think it was a Sunday. I broke a belt and I called one of the people, and they met me at the store to get me a belt.”
Martin also monitors the condition of Rees’ equipment through JD Link, and will typically notify the team before Rees even knows a problem has occurred.
“Because most of our equipment is fairly new and we keep our equipment updated, that helps out with the maintenance factor because typically we don’t get into high hours, which means a lot of breakdowns,” Rees says.
When it comes to daily maintenance, Rees says his operators go through the equipment each morning, grease it, and check fluids.
“Our shop was built in the 1800s and used to roll covered wagons out of it; it’s old,” Rees says. “We go through and fix anything and everything we can possibly fix during winter shutdown. We bring every single piece of equipment through the shop, fix absolutely everything we can on our own, and mechanics from John Deere will come in if we need help. Every piece gets washed, waxed, and cleaned every winter.”
Between ensuring maintenance is sound and keeping up with technology, Rees admits it’s tough to grow a construction business.
“You have to be ready to put in long hours, and you’ve got to be passionate about your job,” he says. “You’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing or else the hours are going to be too long for you if you’re just starting out.”
He expects to fully own the company by 2020.
“I’m majority shareholder anyway, but I’m very excited for that,” he says. “I couldn’t have started the company and made it into what I did without [my father] having the resources there for me already. So he’s owed a lot for that.”
Becoming a Construction Equipment 40 Under 40 winner is also a “big honor” for Rees.
“It makes me feel like I’m doing good,” he says. “Every time I see any of my dad’s buddies, they’ll be like, ‘I was playing golf with your dad on Tuesday and he was telling us about how good you’re doing, that you’ve got this job, this job, and he doesn’t need to worry about a thing anymore.’ So that coming from the guy that you’re basically taking over for, you like that validation.”
To keep the Rees Construction legacy running strong for another 130 years, Rees hopes his three sons (17, 14, and 10) eventually gain an interest in taking on the business.
“They haven’t had a lot of exposure,” he says. “My oldest is at football camps all summer long. So he pretty much can’t work for the summer, and he’s the only one of working age thus far. The youngest one would come over in the summer a little bit and get on stuff. It all depends on them.
“You hope it gets passed down,” he says, “I’d like to see it keep going. We have a great history with the city of Quincy and all the surrounding communities. I hope it continues to grow and can be around for a long time.”