Owners Brian Mathiowetz, wife Ronda and sister Julie Anderson in the company’s “antique equipment museum” (Photo: Kris Kathmann).
Third-generation earth-moving and construction management company becomes southern Minnesota’s largest.
Brian Mathiowetz is a gambler. Instead of dice, he rolls with the weather. At the time of his Connect Business Magazine interview this summer, Mathiowetz Construction Company was halfway through a three-month contract to build two roundabouts in Mankato, despite excessive rain in June. Every day over schedule would cost the company a $15,000 penalty for each intersection that was being turned into a roundabout.
“The weather always delays us, and we plan for it,” Mathiowetz said. “A lot can happen yet this summer, but by the time this is being read, the roundabouts should be open and everyone will be happy.”
The 56-year-old Mathiowetz (pronounced Math-o-wetz), who has been company president and CEO since 1999, has beaten the odds in a different game. He’s the third generation to own and manage Mathiowetz Construction. Typically it’s under the third generation’s management a family business begins failing. That’s not the case here. Mathiowetz directs the largest civil construction firm outside the Twin Cities, and is surrounded by family members on the job. (See sidebar “DNA Development.”)
“You have some big players up in the metro area,” Mathiowetz said. “But we work mostly in Mankato, Rochester, Cannon Falls, Stillwater, St. Cloud, Brainerd, and the southwest metro area. Minnesota is a great place to have a business, with good, honest people. We’ve had very little problem collecting payment for our work.”
Two massive projects in Mankato this last summer were roundabouts near River Hills Mall and site work for the new Walmart distribution center. One might expect a company with sizeable projects, 170 employees, and more than 300 pieces of heavy equipment would have headquarters in Mankato, or perhaps, Rochester. Instead, planning and management of Mathiowetz Construction occurs in a group of buildings in the small community of Leavenworth, a few miles from Sleepy Eye.
Mathiowetz said, “We pretty much are Leavenworth. Of the 21 people in town, 10 are family and/or employees. I live walking distance up the road from the office.”
Mathiowetz grew up in Leavenworth, the oldest of four boys and two girls. The study of math and science came easily for him, including pre-calculus and pre-physics classes at Sleepy Eye High School. He believes he lacked the creativity needed for English classes, but said, “I’ve become much better with language use and writing through practice. And I now enjoy learning about history. I’m intrigued with the two World Wars. My bucket list includes a trip to the Normandy Beaches.” Also on the list is an upcoming trip to Budapest, Hungary to visit one of the three international exchange students his family has hosted.
Mathiowetz began working in the company business when he was 13, picking rocks and running blue tops–moving stakes that have a little blue fringe on the top. He described the latter as a tedious, but challenging job, saying, “When you get a road to about the right height, a surveyor comes and levels the dirt, small pile by small pile. The person running blue tops removes and reinserts the marker stick every 100 feet, running ahead of the equipment, sometimes for up to four miles. It has to be done three times for each section of the road, once on each side and once down the middle.
“By the time I was in high school, I took on other responsibilities during the summer, mostly setting grade stakes for large earth movers, so they would know where to place their 40-ton load of dirt. I also helped install culverts large enough to drive a pickup through, replacing bridges.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1981, Mathiowetz returned to working in the field, being a go-fer, learning to run every kind of equipment and doing whatever the supervisor needed done. His sons entered company employment the same way.
“In those days we used an eye level for measuring,” Mathiowetz said, producing one to see. “Now they are obsolete, and everything is done with GPS and lasers. But I still have an eye level in my truck, just for nostalgia. I haven’t used it for a long time.”
An attachment to items related to the business runs in the family. Mathiowetz’s desk is surrounded by a collection of miniature backhoes, dump trucks, scrapers, loaders, graders, a sheepsfoot and a semi truck designed to haul construction equipment, all in their original packaging. More highly prized is the bulldozer carved from wood by a retired employee. Mathiowetz said, “I’m just starting–you should see my dad’s collection” and led the reporter to several display cases of vintage equipment models his father had amassed.
In the 33 years since Mathiowetz became a full-time employee, the number of employees has nearly doubled, as has construction efficiency.
“With the 90 employees we had in 1981, today we could do 40 to 60 percent more work because of more efficient equipment and technology,” he said. The variety of customers also has changed from being predominantly farm related.
Clients include municipalities and other public sectors such as MnDOT and private customers such as Walmart, Menards, Lowe’s and Target. Ag-related clients include railroads, co-ops, ethanol plants, Del Monte, sugar beet plants and about 100 farmers each year. Mathiowetz said, “We build sites for grain loading, dairy barns and sheds; we remove trees, and we do terracing, drainage and tiling work for farmers.”
The company’s motto, ‘In All we Do, We Build It Right,’ is their only form of advertising. Mathiowetz explained, “Mostly we just support community events in Sleepy Eye and New Ulm. We support after-prom parties for 10 high schools. That’s not going to get us jobs, but word-of-mouth about the quality of our work does.”
The small town, family business approach extends to employee relations. Mathiowetz said, “I treat all employees as family and, as the CEO, I attend employees’ family functions–weddings, anniversaries, funerals. Our people are good people. They can get a job anywhere. We try to reward them with job satisfaction as well as with good compensation.”
Looking back at more than three decades, Mathiowetz said, “You have to feel your way as you go. You have to ask yourself if you want to do this and if you can do this. On October 31, 1999, when our father was taken from us by a heart attack, I had to answer those questions. I don’t know if I had a choice. Some of it’s in the blood.”
Today the biggest collective challenge is scheduling, considering the weather and accommodating clients who change things daily. During the summer, Mathiowetz meets with his three project managers at 6 a.m. to discuss the previous day’s challenges and the critical issues that will be handled that day.
“At what point in the day do we pull 50 people off a project when rain is approaching?” he said. “We might have 20 trucks approaching what could become a mud pit. Constant anticipation planning is required—Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. ”
After checking in at the office, Mathiowetz returns to the field by late morning to check on projects. Meetings sprinkled throughout the week involve educating legislators about industry concerns, industry association tasks and meetings with a customer’s high-level management team to “take care of little things before they become big things.” Supper at home is usually followed by an evening of phone calls.
Mathiowetz’s wife, Ronda, describes him as “honest, hard-working and intuitive.” The honesty is evident in what he calls his humility story.
“A good number of years ago, I had a box cell phone in my pickup,” he said. “When the phone rang, the horn honked. Working alone on a Saturday, I parked the pickup with the nose over the embankment so I could hear the horn. I was operating an excavator ad, when finished, had to travel the excavator up the very steep embankment backwards, using the backhoe bucket as a lever to push it. Because I couldn’t see where I was going, the equipment track went up on the hood of my pickup and smashed the truck. Totaled it. I had no way to get home and no way to call anyone. That experience taught me to be forgiving of others’ mistakes.”
If he could be granted one wish, other than a preference for no winter season, Mathiowetz wants stability in the economy and in funding sources. He regrets that during the recession of 2008-2010, the company laid off 25 percent of its employees.
“In this business, everything is variable and uncertain now, when it used to be more reliable,” Mathiowetz said. “Almost all highway funding for a significant project begins with federal money, and then the state adds money, the county adds money, etc. All of the partners must come up with money or it all stops. In mid-July of this year, a temporary fix was discussed to carry over the federal transportation spending bill, which was scheduled to expire in August. And the Highway Trust Fund is bankrupt for the first time since it was formed in the 1950s. After the election in November, the new Congress will have to debate how to do a new six-year highway bill. Without it, funding and new projects will be few and far between.”
He said his company often takes on challenges others shy away from, such as the Mankato roundabouts, in which timing was a continuous challenge and also the company’s 15 sub-contractors were affected by rain and schedules on other jobs. It was like orchestrating a symphony, he said.
“There have been a lot of 70-hour weeks,” Mathiowetz said, “but now my advisors, including a family business consultant, say I should work 50 to 55 hours a week. We’ve been fortunate to have good advisors for a family business. Most family businesses fail because of bickering amongst the family, people having too many different visions of the future. I’m moving the company from one generation to another. I must make it all fit together. I gather good people together and point them in the right direction. Some of those people predate me in the company. My goal is to be smart enough to transition this company to a fourth generation and have them answer the questions ‘do I want to do this’ and ‘can I do this?’ I’m faith-based, a steward, a caretaker. The company is not mine per se.”
Richard’s and Mary Lou’s sons, Brian, Leon, Glen and Dean, began operating equipment while still in grade school. Their sisters, Sue and Julie, worked summers during college. After Richard’s death, company ownership fell to Brian, his wife, Ronda, and his sister Julie. Glen spun off from the family business to form M.R. Paving, which works cooperatively with Mathiowetz Construction on projects.
It’s obvious the construction business is in the family’s DNA, and their educational choices. Brian Mathiowetz graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering from the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology and holds a civil engineering license. (His sister, Julie Anderson, has a mechanical engineering education.) Ronda handles contract management and EEO. Their son Brett, applies his construction management degree to project management and serves on the bidding team. He currently works with the Walmart crew, scheduling and keeping the trucks hauling. His brother Chad, fresh out of college with a business degree, is the GPS surveyor and right hand for the supervisor on the roundabouts.
Son-in-law Brent Kuchera applies his business management education to the estimating team. Although his wife Rachel’s business finance expertise occasionally comes into play, she’s biding her time for full employment until their young children are in school.
Anderson works with human resources and on marketing special projects. Her husband, Paul, is in charge of equipment management and maintenance, and he supervises purchasing. Their children, Jordan and Tori, work for the company during the summer.
And the previous generation still checks in. Mathiowetz said, “My mother, Mary Lou, who was with the company for 55 years and has been my mentor, still has an in-box. She can come in and hold us all accountable.”
Digging Up The Past
Brian Mathiowetz’s grandfather, Martin Mathiowetz, founded Mathiowetz Construction Company in 1924. The first customers were farmers who needed land cleared and graded for driveways and ditches, and snow plowed in the winter. The company neared bankruptcy during the Depression and continued to struggle through the 1940s. The 1950s brought tragedy and new challenges when a fractured neck and back limited Martin’s ability to work. His 17-year-old son, Richard, took on the responsibility, with coaching from his parents. Working with his younger brother, Reinhold, he moved the company into the MnDOT arena in the 1970s. The firm constructed miles of the interstate system, as well as other highways, mostly in Minnesota.
Richard Mathiowetz was so highly regarded by members of the state legislature that, upon his death, legislators unanimously voted that the 26-mile section of Minnesota Hwy. 4 between Sleepy Eye and St. James be designated the Richard J. Mathiowetz Memorial Highway.
Just down the road from Mathiowetz Construction is what Brian Mathiowetz calls “our antique equipment museum,” a horse pasture in which equipment from the 1930s through 1960s shares the area with a palomino and a pony, both owned and ridden by Mathiowetz’s sister, Julie Anderson. Because the 1970s equipment is still running, it literally has not yet been put out to pasture.
Paving The Way
In addition to his involvement in every company project, Mathiowetz spends a significant part of each week in professional and community volunteer activities. The accomplishment of which he is most proud is the group home he built in Sleepy Eye for his daughter, Stacy, who has developmental challenges.
“When Stacy graduated from the Academy for the Blind in Faribault, there were waiting lists for group homes,” Mathiowetz said. “We went to county officials to learn what it takes to build a group home. We stumbled through all of the paperwork and built the group home, which is administered by a private company through Brown County. Stacy and four housemates live there.”
Mathiowetz’s professional involvement includes serving on key industry advisory committees that involve topics such as grading, open shop, erosion control, etc. In 2011 he was the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota Skill Responsibility Integrity Award Winner.
Mathiowetz’s community involvement includes the Church of the Japanese Martyrs Parish Council, the Teens Encounter Christ National Conference Council and Christ Leadership Team, the Riverbend Together Encounter Christ Council and the Rebuild Resources Leadership Board.
He is also heavily involved in the Friends of San Lucas Mission in Guatemala. “I’ve been there eight or nine times,” he said, “planning for things like consistent electricity for the clinic and hospital and overseeing construction of homes, churches, community shelters and stores.”
His sister, Julie Anderson, represents the company in the Sleepy Eye and Springfield Chambers of Commerce.
The Essentials: Mathiowetz Construction Co.
Address: 30676 Cty Rd 24, Sleepy Eye, Minnesota