I can only talk as an owner operator of a wheeled excavator (rubber duck ) for lads or lasses looking at mini diggers, dozer, ADT etc some comments will still apply but non are hard and fast rules.
There is a big difference between doing your own contract / price work which is what I envisaged doing when I started out, compared to general hire work which is what I’ve ended up building my business on.
With the best business plan in place, fate can still step in and send you on a different path. Prepare for and expect the unexpected then with a bit of luck you’ll at least be partly prepared.
- My godfather owned a small Plant Hire / building company with a MF bhl that his brother operated. It rarely came out of the village our way but if it did I’d hear it coming and run to see it pass. If it came our way it was generally to do work for National trust within the area. Although only a kid I’d follow the sound of it working, cutting through the woods until I found it. At 11yrs old we moved and ended up living next door to where the machine was being used to develop a residential park home site. New drainage, roads etc and within a short time I’d graduated from standing watching in awe as the machine worked, to actually sitting on the wing watching Terry feather a fist full of levers between his hands with the dexterity of a surgeon. It was a small step ( giant leap for me) to be allowed to sit in the driving seat & move the machine forward while Terry sat out the back atop the king post pulling a trench. Being torque converter made it much easier for me and Terry having control of the backacter and legs kept all in his control. From front seat I graduated to sitting atop the king post and trench pulling. I can still see my first attempt after being left full control of the machine. A water pipe trench across a field, something’s you never forget. The excitement, pressure to get it right safely but also the diabolical mess I made of it. I think report would have been, digs ok, control ok, must remember to move once down to required depth. Roller coaster bottom on that one.
1995 model Atlas 1304M rubber duck in August 2001.
- I’m lucky to have broad exp from that first MF bhl as a youngster to motorway muckshift & big bits of kit, road widening & upgrading works, cross country pipelines, airside works & civil work with some seat time on just about everything. Never been up a tower crane though. It was during a spell of road upgrade contracts in the late 90’s and the fact it was always the same two of us within the company that ended up on ducks that I realised many lads don’t like ducks for a couple of reasons. Many trained on tracks so find a duck wobbly and unstable, other problem is you can be a glorified gofer, or wheelbarrow. Lads who learned on tracks are not used to the flexibility of a duck where as I learned on a bhl and fully appreciate the flexibility. Over the years I’d looked seriously a couple of times at becoming an o/op with many folk saying get your own machine but I could never make the benefits out way the risk of no work or getting knocked which seems to be a constant problem within the industry, along with a mortgage & young family it hadn’t been the right time. Now I was keen, I’d found the niche, the in that could set me apart and my then employer had no ducks of his own so I wouldn’t be stepping on anybody’s toes, in fact he might offer me work.
- Attitude. You don’t have to be the best operator, trimming type 1 to within 5mm or digging more trench than anybody else but you do have to be adaptable, level headed, and approachable. It’s no good throwing the toys because an engineer changed a level or the banksman used the wrong traveller. All this, I’ve done it once I’m not doing it again, not my fault, stuff you, attitude is not the makings of a reliable owner operator who a foreman will welcome back onto his next job. Wherever you are in the food chain, be it works manager, foreman or ganger it’s the folk around you who make you shine or not. In my experience, supervisors appreciate an operator who can be shown a job once, then be left to get on with it without issue, drama or negativity. It’s important to be able to use initiative but also to be a team player. Doing what’s required as requested.
- First job should be the question lol 43yrs old and over 28yrs around Plant but that first day following the lowloader with my own machine on to site, I didn’t know if I was going to throw up, pass out or mess myself the nerves were so bad. I said then and I’ll say it now. I will never take the Micky out of anybody for being nervous of anything be it a test of any sort or simply climbing a ladder. I had every conceivable thing I could think of covered, tyres, pipes, electrical breakdown, attachment Hire, even a replacement Hire machine should this one fall apart, more experience than many but still like a lamb expecting to be slaughtered. All went ok though, plus I made a very good mate in Lister Geriche another Atlas (at that time) o/op This first job was thanks to a contact via my previous employer and my 2nd Hire was back on another of their contracts I’d worked on prior to going solo. The following months in fact following years went very well for me, encountering old acquaintances and contacts who knew of me and subsequently I worked for the same contractor on several jobs taking me from Southampton to Farnborough, Wadesmill, Peterborough, M25, A12, Silverstone, Mildenhall, Betteshanger & Ashford Kent with foremen within the company sharing and moving me amongst themselves.
- Knowing that when you put yourself out to get the result needed, it’s you that gets the thanks & respect for a job well done. I don’t care who you are or what you do, someone saying thank you, or good job, thanks and thumbs up makes your day all the more worthwhile. Many times as a Plant Hire operator I was requested by name by clients but never truly felt that I was appreciated by my employer for what I gave them.
- Wondering where the next hire is coming from has to be the biggest concern. That and wondering when or if you’ll get paid. Throw in a breakdown at the worst conceivable time, e.g. Waiting within a large building for next truck of concrete, only to turn the key and find it will not start once the truck has arrived. Pressure, sort it. Gut wrenching moments we experience then try and forget. Worst I heard of was a police activated rolling road block for the o/op to cross from centre reservation works to hard shoulder and get clear of the motorway, machine would not start. Very valuable lesson learned. Do not switch it off during an important possession. Being away from family, missing your children growing up, there can be some serious negatives to being an owner operator.
- Support? What do you want? Any want to be owner operator who requires a support network is not going to make it as an o/op imho. Agreed it’s nice, brilliant if you have a more experienced person(s) you can bounce ideas off and talk to for advice but if you look around and see a nice machine, nice pickup truck / van etc and think yes, I’m having some of that because you think it’ll be cool and you’ll be rich, lol, think again. Many ask, why did I buy my own, I say because nobody else would employ me. That’s a joke by the way. To say being an o/op takes a special kind of person sounds a bit pompous or like were up ourselves which is far from the truth of any of the o/ops I know but we are different. I think we love our jobs, like having hyd oil instead of blood in our veins, we’re certainly not normal, doing the late night maintenance & repairs to ensure all is ready for tomorrow morning. I’m comfortable now 16yrs down the line with a top spec machine on Hire to a tier 1 contractor but it wasn’t always like this. My second Hire I was sleeping alternate nights in the back of my mini metro as it was too far to travel everyday. Being an o/op isn’t the bed of roses I fear many think it is. I think it wrong to “encourage” anyone to be an o/op it is a major commitment that has left some broken hearted and massively out of pocket. Anybody who has the passion & desire will find a way but don’t do it just for the money, you’ll never be rich doing what I do.
- Don’t, I’m serious, don’t. In today’s market I would not be going out and buying a rubber duck, I’d be a freelance operator. Less overheads, no finance worries, no maintenance or breakdown concerns and financially better off. Anybody who considers themselves capable of making it as an o/op will never be out of work in today’s market as a freelance operator. Having your name on a bit of plant is a great achievement, some might say, status symbol but it’s not worth your health, wealth or family so think carefully before committing anything.