• Media Planning Guide
    Pedal to the Metal
    by Jeff Winke

    March 1, 2008

    ARTICLE TOOLS Share Reprints Print Email From zero to four GPS systems, a midsize contractor blasts ahead with technology.

    Top fuel dragsters are the fastest accelerating vehicles on the planet, starting from a dead stop and reaching astounding speeds of up to 330 mph at the 1/4-mile finish. When this from-nothing-to-all-out approach is applied to business decisions, it often results in an equivalent crash-and-burn scenario. Contractors who add too quickly to the payroll or machine fleet can find themselves scrambling for extra projects or wishing they had a parachute to slow down the process.

    But Gene Lowder of Lowder Grading & Utility Inc., a midsize site-contracting firm based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, recently took his firm from zero to four 3D GPS grade control systems in one controlled blast. The company typically tackles site prep projects ranging from big-box stores to high school additions and small strip malls.

    “You could hardly pick up an industry trade magazine without someone referencing GPS systems, so it piqued my curiosity,” Lowder says. “I explored it, started asking questions, and soon recognized that no one in my area had yet purchased a system--and that became a big motivator. I wanted to be the first one off the line.”

    Planning the Plunge
    The dual mast Trimble GCS900 Grade Control System provides GPS guidance for Lowder Grading & Utility Inc.’s excavators and dozers.
    The idea of moving into GPS machine control fit into Lowder’s business plan. “I was finishing up a stretch of expansion and we were in a holding pattern--a time to catch our breaths. I wasn’t interested in buying more iron or hiring another 15 employees. My business plan was to maintain employment at roughly 55 [people] and become more efficient with my machine fleet.” He continues, “As I considered the alternatives to buying another excavator or dozer, everything pointed to GPS machine control.”

    Lowder invested a year of research--reading trade magazines, studying manufacturers’ literature and consulting with a larger contractor for which his firm had completed subcontract work. “They have Trimble systems so I asked a lot of questions and sat in one of the machines to learn how it works,” Lowder says. The deciding factor for Lowder was the confidence he had in his local Trimble dealer’s support and service. He explains, “I was thinking, ‘Why invest in new technology if you don’t have the support to help you effectively operate it?’” Through Spectra Integrated Systems, an authorized Trimble dealer located in Charlotte, Lowder was offered access to Spectra IS’ factory-trained, 24/7 technical support, which would provide installation, calibration, training for Lowder’s machine operators, and a local, fully staffed repair center--all crucial support when making a giant leap into technology.

    Timing is Everything After the initial GPS grade control presentations, it was several months before Lowder decided to purchase. “I wanted to time my entry into this technology to coincide with the local economy and I wanted to build a backlog of business,” he says.

    “I began to feel confident enough with the notion that GPS machine control could help us, so I looked at what would provide me with the optimum advantage on a project site,” Lowder says. “I know many contractors start out by purchasing a base station and a motor grader. This doesn’t make sense to me. I wanted the efficiencies during mass excavation, since that’s where we make the most money. By the time we’re performing fine grading, all the money has been made or lost already. It makes sense to me to equip one or two machines in the cut environment and one or two in the fill environment.”

    He ultimately purchased Trimble GCS900 Grade Control Systems for the company’s Hitachi Zaxis 230 LC and Zaxis 270 LC hydraulic excavators, and for two dozers, a Cat D5M track-type tractor and a John Deere 750J crawler dozer. Lowder also bought a Trimble SPS880 Smart GPS antenna rover and an SPS850 modular GPS receiver, which is being used as the base station.

    “I reached a point when it all came together,” Lowder says. “I understood that 3D GPS grade control is a tool … it’s practical … and it’s going to make us a better, more efficient operation. The largest mistake in the grading business is moving that cubic yard of soil twice. Today, the only way to win a project is to be the low bid. If we move that yard of dirt two or three times, we’ve lost our margin and there’s no making it up.”

    In addition to eliminating costly rework, Lowder likes the fact that the system can help him and his crew spot potential problems in the field before they become a redo situation. “With the 3D digital model, our guys can recognize ahead of time if something doesn’t seem right--let’s say a site staking error or a mis-staked storm drain line.”

    Additionally, Lowder believes the GPS machine control system helps to maximize the skills of his machine operators. “It’s no secret that skilled operators are harder to find today,” he says. “So, if we can take good operators who have equipment experience and initiative and put this tool in front of them, it increases their skill level.”

    Well Ahead of Schedule
    Lowder’s excavators are used in conjunction with top-loading, six-wheel dump trucks to achieve mass excavating needs.
    As an example of the company’s success using the Trimble GCS900 Grade Control System-equipped machines, Lowder points to the Salem Creek Industrial Park project, which was completed well ahead of schedule. “We completed everything about 30 days ahead of schedule,” Lowder says.

    Located on the outskirts of Winston-Salem, the approximately 40-acre parcel is zoned for heavy industrial use with the intent of attracting manufacturing/fabrication facilities, warehouses and/or distribution centers as tenants. As many as 20 structures will be built on one- to four-acre tracts.

    The contractor is responsible for everything from clearing the standing timber to widening the access road into the property to developing erosion control, which includes some large stormwater management ponds. In addition to all the mass grading, the company completed the public utilities and fine grading.

    “Once we cleared the canopy, we started using our Trimble GPS machine control systems,” Lowder says. “We had a substantial amount of undercut on this job and used the GPS rover system to quantify the undercut. We were able to literally walk the site and get a precise 3D diagram. With the rover, we could be at any point on the jobsite and know exactly if we had six inches or six feet of excavating. The Trimble systems definitely helped us stay out front of the schedule. We certainly had less re-dos.” The Trimble 780 Smart GPS antenna integrates the GPS receiver, GPS antenna, radio, radio antenna and battery into a portable, all-on-the-pole application. “We used the rover stick for stakeout, grade checking and measurement.”

    The two excavators were used in conjunction with a couple of top-loading, six-wheel dump trucks to achieve the mass excavating needs. The two dozers followed up to accomplish the fine grading. “The Cat D5M was equipped with full automatics and helped us achieve grade dead-on to the plan,” Lowder states.

    Working Harder and Smarter Lowder’s now 78-year-old father, Charles, founded the firm in the 1950s. “My dad’s philosophy when faced with a tough challenge or deadline was to give it some gas--work harder,” Lowder says. “He made our company successful with that approach. I like to think that we still put the pedal to the metal when faced with obstacles, but that we’re now using the latest technology to be more productive.”

    Equipment InformationCaterpillar,
    John Deere,

    Jeff Winke
    Jeff Winke is a business and construction writer based in Milwaukee. He can be reached through

    PO Box 4369
    4140 N. Cherry Street.
    Winston-Salem, NC 27105-2536

    July 1,2011
    Mr. Gene Lowder
    Charles D. Lowder, Inc.
    2810 Griffith Plaza Road
    Winston-Salem, NC 27103
    Re: Country Club Commons - Bldg 4
    Winston-Salem, NC

    Dear Gene,

    Per our discussion this morning, your team and especially Dale Salmon went the extra mile and exceeded
    expectations remaining positive during the site preparation efforts. You have some valuable resources in
    your well managed company that will be sustainable for many years to come with this type of
    performance. We really appreciate the take charge attitude and schedule driven sense of urgency your
    company displayed on this very important project for WFUBMC. This should lead to other opportunities
    in the future.

    Thank you again for a JOB WELL DONE!!!


    Lee F. Cook
    Senior Vice President
    Telephone (336) 759-9525 • Fax (336) 759-0734 •

Contact Information

Lowder, Inc.

2810 Griffith Road
Winston-Salem, NC 27103

Phone: 336-760-0477
Fax: 336-760-6640

Office Hours:
Monday-Friday 7 a.m.- 5 p.m.

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