Rarely does a local success story start in a sugar beet field in northern Minnesota but nothing is typical about how Terry McFarlin got his start in the construction business and, in a relatively short amount of time, worked his way up to the top post at one of the largest and most highly respected road construction companies in outstate Minnesota.
The year was 1990. McFarlin had graduated from high school a couple years earlier and was still spending his summers helping his grandparents on their sugar beet farm near Crookston, just as he had done since he was 12 years old.
At the time, Jim Anderson needed a truck driver and flagger at Northern Paving, his Crookston-based construction company. Anderson plucked McFarlin out of the sugar beet field and put him to work. McFarlin had no college education. No specialized heavy equipment training. He showed up for his first day of work with a good pair of work boots, a desire to work hard and the experience he gained by driving trucks and tractors on the farm.
McFarlin learned the complexities of highway construction on the fly, relying on a strong will to learn and a knack for making quick decisions, which proved to be the recipe for his success. He learned to operate all the company’s equipment and even spent time in Northern’s lab perfecting asphalt mixtures.
Anderson is the son of Art Anderson, who founded Brainerd-based Anderson Brothers Construction Company, which was a sister company to Northern Paving. After 10 years working at Northern Paving, McFarlin moved to the larger Anderson Brothers office in Brainerd and continued moving up through the ranks.
Less than 10 years after his move to Brainerd, and before his 44th birthday, McFarlin made the most important move of his professional career: into the president and CEO’s office at Anderson Brothers.
McFarlin’s quick ascent to the top of a multi-million dollar company like Anderson Brothers — with no formal training or pedigree — that operates in a highly competitive and complex industry would be considered an anomaly at most companies. But at Anderson Brothers, it’s more the rule than the exception.
That’s because the Anderson family’s approach to building the company has always been somewhat atypical. A college education or vocational training doesn’t necessarily make you qualified for a job at Anderson Brothers. Diplomas, certificates and other credentials that can be framed and hung on the wall don’t carry as much value as having a strong work ethic, experience in related industries and references from those who work at Anderson Brothers.
That’s been the company’s formula for success since 1940, when Art Anderson and his brother John started Anderson Brothers. In those early years, the pair focused on excavating and hauling materials for road projects. They then expanded into gravel work and road-mixing asphalt, which means mixing the aggregate and asphalt oil on the road and then blading and rolling the mixture into place.
In 1960, the company bought its first hot asphalt mixing plant along with a paving machine, roller and two new road graders. But by then, John had passed away and Art died four years later, while Jim was in college. Jim moved home and took over the company. He still serves as board chairman.
The company steadily grew during the years and McFarlin continued to impress company managers with his work style. In 2007, company President Dave Johnson was nearing retirement so the company hired a consultant to help determine his successor. The consultant conducted extensive interviews with the company’s managers before McFarlin’s name surfaced as the person to be the next company president and CEO. He was promoted to senior vice president of operations and groomed for four years before moving into the president’s office in 2010.
“It was a culture shock,” McFarlin admits. “In the field, I had to make decisions quickly. The office is a little less intense. There is still a lot of operational stuff that I deal with, and a lot of challenges. The personnel issues require a lot of listening, but they did a nice job of preparing me for all the issues I might be faced with.”
Today, Anderson Brothers employs 185 people and serves an area extending about 60 miles around Brainerd, even though the 50 employees on the highway crew can find themselves as far away as the Canadian border. The operation primarily focuses on asphalt paving and production but it also owns and operates several gravel pits, three rock-crushing and washing plants, and three mobile asphalt plants, which can be moved close to construction sites. The company also sells aggregate to municipalities and other construction companies, rents equipment to contractors, paves residential driveways, and maintains parking lots with patch sealing.
Along the way, Anderson Brothers has been a strong supporter of the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation. As a charter member when BLAEDC formed in 1985, Anderson Brothers continues to support the organization’s efforts and receives business retention and expansion visits from BLAEDC to discuss local economic development issues. BLAEDC also takes that opportunity to thank Anderson Brothers for its commitment to and support of the Brainerd Lakes Area.
Prior to 2008, a large part of Anderson Brothers’ work was site preparation for commercial construction projects. This included clearing, grading, installing underground utilities and paving parking lots. But those projects dried up when the economy tanked, requiring the company to rely more heavily on the highway projects for the brunt of its business. Currently, that type of work amounts to about 65 percent of the company’s revenue, which makes McFarlin a little uncomfortable. “I don’t like to rely on the government for that amount of work,” he said.
McFarlin said bidding for highway construction projects has always been very competitive, but it’s become even more so in the last few years because contractors are hungry for work. Anderson Brothers has always had a good success rate in winning state contracts because the company’s good at what it does and relies on efficiencies that allow it to bid low while still making a profit. And providing high-quality results have helped the company’s profit margin as well as they regularly benefit from incentives the state builds into its contracts for things like the quality and density of the asphalt used in projects.
Anyone driving east out of Brainerd on state Highway 210 has passed right by Anderson Brothers’ headquarters, where dump trucks and a variety of other equipment are neatly lined up when they’re not being used. “I like to see an empty yard in the summer,” McFarlin said, adding that the company has million of dollars tied up in its equipment and gravel operations but the employees are first and foremost on his mind, and the employees always came first when Art and John Anderson started growing the business 72 years ago.
“Our retention rate is good, and a lot of that is because our people get home at night and they make a decent living,” McFarlin said. “People seem to be much more family oriented these days and we do our best to accommodate that. We have found that it can be accomplished by having versatile employees.
“We have a lot of couples who work here and we have third-generation families working here. It’s a family atmosphere — everyone knows each other,” he said.
Even McFarlin was surprised with how quickly he ascended through the ranks. But as he points out, all his managers started low on the totem pole and worked their way up. Education and training were never as important as attitude and work ethic, which is starting to change somewhat as the workforce changes. More college graduates are earning positions with the company, but they don’t automatically earn a big desk and a bigger paycheck. They start in the field with a shovel in their hands to learn the business from the ground up.
From the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp.