2016 Greatest Story Never Told winner: Skyline Construction Owner
: Mark Arthofer, CSP Location
: Dubuque, IA Skyline Construction is led by Operations Manager Zach Decker, ASM; Owner Mark Arthofer, CSP; and Office Manager Ben Arthofer.
Skyline Construction sprouted from Mark Arthofer’s decision to build a pond on his family’s farm. “We had a huge pile of dirt, so I put an ad in the paper and started selling the dirt,” Arthofer says. The year was 1999 in the midst of the housing boom.
“On nights and weekends, I was delivering loads of dirt to people,” he says. “Then they asked if I had a way to spread it out. So I said, ‘Yeah, I can spread it out.’ ”
That turned into people asking him to provide more services, such as seeding, building retaining walls and pouring concrete. "That’s honestly how it started...because we built a pond,” he says.
That call to action to answer customers’ needs by providing more services is what propelled Dubuque, Iowa-based Skyline into the snow business. In 2000, Arthofer left his day job and incorporated the company.
A cold winter and a truck on fire
The first December brought with it a record-setting 37 inches of snow. Then, in the thick of the season, Arthofer’s sole plow truck caught on fire. That’s when he called on his cousin to borrow his 1976 Chevy, complete with stick shift, no power steering and a 7-ft. straight blade plow.
“I salted with a shovel off the back of the truck,” Arthofer says. Why? He had made promises to his customers that he would get the job done.
Something about that first winter’s 52.8 inches total snow, nearly 11 inches above average, sparked a passion that is still with him today. “Any person in their right mind would say, ‘This is stupid,’ ”Arthofer says. But, an outpouring of thanks from his residential customers for digging out mailboxes and driveways kept him going.
“It gave me the desire to do more,” says Arthofer, who earned his Certified Snow Professional certification this spring. “And also my son, Ben, was young, and he’d ride around with me.” A family affair and illness
Ben Arthofer was 10 years old when he started riding with his dad. “I was born into the snow business to a certain extent,” Ben says. “It became a part of my life-style.”
Now, at age 28, Ben serves as office manager and has played a key role in major financial decisions, purchasing equipment, and building new facilities to accommodate the company’s growth. With his help in establishing a business plan and focus on financial forecasting, the company has doubled its plowing operations and salt sales.
Ben and Operations Manager Zach Decker, ASM, act as Mark Arthofer’s right hands. “If I didn’t have either one of them, I would consider not doing this anymore,” Mark says. “It’s the best of both worlds. Younger managers want to deal with them, while older managers want to deal with me.”
But the business wasn’t immune to challenges. In 2010, Ben began having unexplained physical episodes that would be diagnosed in 2011 as complex seizures. “It turns your whole world upside down,” Mark says.
At age 22, Ben found himself unable to drive due to his medical condition. Many MRIs later, doctors determined that Ben would need risky brain surgery. Fortunately, the outcome exceeded doctors’ expectations. “They told us it was a miracle, and no one had gone through a surgery that extensive without major deficits,” Mark says.
Ben continued to take classes during his recovery. In December 2014, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with an emphasis on finance. “We were blessed because the outcome was much better than what the doctors gave us,” Mark says. “We prepared for the worst. Luckily, we got the best."
At Mark Arthofer’s Skyline Construction, it’s all in the family. From left: Ben and Carter (Ben’s son, age 5), daughters Andrea and Sara, Mark, and his wife Marian. Culture shift
Ben’s experience changed the company’s culture, Mark says. “People have realized it needs to be more of a team effort, and family is important,” he says. “We became more family-focused. If someone on the team is dealing with a family member who’s in the end stages of life, I’ll tell him to go be with them. You can’t get that time back.”
Although Mark admitted it can sometimes be challenging to work around schedules and needs - cause weather doesn’t wait, after all -he says it’s necessary. The result is a tenured and experienced team. “I have guys that have been with me 10 to 13 years,” Mark says.
Ben agreed that his medical issues have entirely restructured the business. “But instead of giving up, we pushed harder and created a culture that is geared toward making customers get the best service at a fair price.”
Both Mark and Ben say they couldn’t have made it work without Decker. “Mark treats me like family,” Decker says. “He treats everyone with respect and gets respect back. Everyone here loves what they do. We’re here to make good money and get the job done.”
Service is key
Over the past 16 years, Skyline has grown from that sole truck and employee to a full-service operation with 15 full-time and 35 seasonal employees and more than 50 pieces of equipment. Skyline is still holding strong to the foundation that got it to where it is today: offering services that respond to customer needs. The company’s mission statement is mirrored in its services: “To always make our customers’ needs a priority and assist them in the best way we can.”
During non-winter months, Skyline provides concrete services and commercial lawn care, sells topsoil and dispatches large trucks. Ben owns Skyline Sweeping, which he started at age 18 in 2007. In 2008, Skyline began brokering bulk and bag salt products. In 2011, the company ventured into adding liquids.
“A few short years ago, we started doing brining,” Decker says. “That has made the business take off fast. Everyone likes liquids, and people are slowly catching on.”
When Mark reflects on what got him here today, it boils down to service. “I always say, ‘Don’t sell your price. Sell your service,’ ” he says. “People will say they want to be the biggest. My goal is not to be the biggest. My goal is to be the best.”
But even so, Ben says that mentality has led Skyline not only to being the best but also the biggest. “We have 50 guys out in a snowstorm, and we plow half our city,” he says. “By making smart business decisions and taking one step at a time, we became one of the biggest. And we got there because we have to be the best.”
Chasing the thrill
Although the Skyline team doesn’t need to chase the customer, they certainly don’t mind chasing the thrill of the snow business. “What I enjoy most about the snow business is the unpredictability,” Ben Arthofer says.
“A lot of people like to gamble, so I tell them to get into the snow business because it’s a gamble every year.”
He says that while the team can’t count on the weather, it can count on the chase and thrill of the business. “That [thrill] is what keeps me in all aspects of our business,” Ben says.
Skyline Operations Manager Zach Decker agreed: “I love going out and pushing as much snow as I can,” he says. “I talk to a lot of people who are scared of 36 inches of snow, but I love it.”
He says the main piece of advice he gives his team is to prepare for the worst-case scenario and “you won’t have any problems.”
“You have to have all your ducks in a row and make sure all guys are on the same page before the snowstorm comes,” Decker says.
With multiple facets to its business - concrete, landscaping, snow plowing, street sweeping and power washing - the Skyline Construction team attributes its success to exceptional service.
“It all comes back to the core principles of respect and honesty and offering service,” Ben Arthofer says. “Price doesn’t sell. It might sell on paper, but the bottom line is if you don’t have the service to go with the price, you’ll never keep anything.”
That mentality helped Skyline grow its business thanks to strong word-of-mouth leads. “We started out doing residential and decided three years in to go commercial,” Mark Arthofer says. The commercial work started with big-box stores in their market.
“People started recognizing our work and started calling us,” Mark says. “I didn’t go out chasing it.”
Mark says the foundation of his business is built on responding to customers’ needs: “You hear what a customer needs and adjust to whatever they’re telling you.”
“We’re always trying to be on the cutting edge of technology to offer the best service,” Ben says. For instance, Skyline was the first in town to offer treated salts and brines to its customers.
“People see us do it, and now it’s catching on like wildfire,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s my service that sells. I don’t need to brag. People see what we do and what we have to offer them.”
Ben Arthofer has played a key role in the growth of Skyline Construction. His efforts were recognized in June when he was honored with SIMA’s Employee of the Year award. His father Mark says Ben’s illness taught him to live in the moment while focusing on the future. “He is always pushing the company to look outside its comfort zone for innovative solutions to equipment, service, communication and safety.” Organic growth
Selling service over price has caused Skyline to grow organically over 16 years.
“When a customer comes to you, they are either upset with who they have or they heard of your reputation,” Mark says. “I’m comfortable with where [the business] is at. I’m not out pursuing opportunities; it’s grown on its own.”
Ben agreed maintaining the status quo would be fine for him, but: “New customers keep wanting to do more. Over the next five years, I could see us doubling in size.”
Special thanks to our Greatest Story Never Told contest sponsor:
Alicia Hoisington is a freelance contributor based in Cleveland.