Area man turns lifelong love of heavy equipment into a new career.
From the pages of In Business magazine.
Fascinated with heavy equipment for as long as he can remember, Bill Atkinson, 37, owner of Bill’s Earth Services, recently turned his passion for moving dirt into a skid-steer-for-hire career.
You could say he’s playing the heavy — heavy equipment, that is.
Blame it on the Tonka trucks he played with as a kid, or the construction crews he’d watch for hours as they skillfully maneuvered machines to bust concrete or change landscapes. For Atkinson, it was like watching a mechanical ballet of sorts, and often he would try to emulate them.
“I usually played with radio-operated toy trucks,” he laughs, “and I’d run them until they died. I was the kid outside pushing snow or dirt with one of my toys.”
It’s taken a while for Atkinson to circle back to his lifelong passion and newfound career. He spent 14 years as a diesel technician working on semi trucks and gasoline tankers- — a good career that taught him how to repair or diagnose just about any kind of mechanical or electrical issue, but he just didn’t see a path for growth.
Finally, to suit a deep-seeded desire to operate heavy equipment, Atkinson enrolled in Sun Prairie’s Diesel Truck Driver Training School where he earned a CDL license and learned to operate a number of machines, from skid loader to excavator to bulldozer to front-end loader.
His ambition was coming into focus.
Atkinson launched Bill’s Earth Services in 2016 and has been working in excavation ever since, but his main enjoyment comes from moving dirt. “It just speaks to me,” he admits, “but it’s probably more about the equipment.”
Operating heavy machinery requires a degree of respect for the machines because, like anything else, if used improperly, they can be dangerous, he notes.
Perhaps that’s also part of the appeal. Unlike the Tonka variety, these are not toys.
Atkinson’s favorite machine is a skid steer (or skid loader) because of its versatility in allowing an operator to do everything from prepping a driveway (so it’s ready to be poured) to stacking logs or boulders.
He took out a loan to purchase his skid steer from an acquaintance, and rents attachments and other heavy equipment as necessary to save on costs.
Over the past couple of years, Atkinson has kept busy bidding on jobs, getting subcontractor work including excavating basements, building additions, or prepping land for new homes, and securing his own earth-moving gigs. He believes his work is also making a small dent in the trade worker skills gap, as well.
After years of observing and helping landscapers, he’s also learned additional skills, like building or repairing retaining walls.
The most common mistake homeowners make is failing to install proper drainage behind retaining walls, he notes. “If you don’t put drainage or a drainage stone between the dirt and the wall, water pressure can build up and the whole wall could fail,” he cautions. “A good retaining wall should last 15 years or more.”
Bill’s Earth Services is not profitable yet, perhaps by his own doing. “It probably sounds ridiculous, but in my first two years it was difficult for me to charge what I’m worth. This year I’ve stepped up my price,” the more confident Atkinson reports.
The best part of being an entrepreneur, he says, is controlling his own schedule. He works six days a week — May through November depending on weather — and tries to secure five to seven jobs a week. In five years he’d like Bill’s Earth Services to employ 15 workers across five locations.
Atkinson is optimistic that 2018 will be a banner year with job opportunities coming his way, and at press time he was looking to hire three full-time workers.
Meanwhile, he continues to learn as much as he can from others while building a career with roots back to his childhood.
“I did it the old-school way, the school of hard knocks,” he states. “My parents were teachers and I’m the first one in the family to do something like this, but why not? Everyone has a dream.”
Bill’s Earth Services
Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.