By Anne Pyburn Craig
Last Tuesday, board members from the Monroe County Economic Development Commission were welcomed to a presentation at the headquarters of Cleary Construction, learning the latest about a second-generation family business born right here in Tompkinsville that now employs 120 people and operates branch offices in Louisville and in Birmingham, Alabama.
Much of the growth, technology officer and administrative manager Carter Walden told the board, has happened in the past year. “In June of 2017 we had around 70 employees, about eight job-sites in various states and a single office location here in Tompkinsville,” he said. “Today we are around 120 employees strong, up to 16 job-sites at any given time…Our current work is from Northern Indiana to Central Alabama and from Clarksville, TN to Knoxville, TN, making an oval around I-65. We are very fortunate to have I-65 so close to serve as a corridor to access jobs in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, and Alabama. We also perform work in Ohio, Illinois and are looking to expand into Georgia.”
But none of it would exist without the vision of Ronnie H. Cleary, who founded the company in 1985.
“Ronnie began his company by offering services for paving, chip sealing, dozer, and end loader work with his wife Shirley taking care of the office,” Walden said..”Shirley is still here working with us today and she has played a vital role in the success of Cleary Construction. Shortly after the company’s founding, Ronnie’s son, Darren Cleary, came on board with the company as an equipment operator and crew superintendent and expanded Cleary’s range of services. Darren and his crew completed a wide variety of installation jobs including septic tanks, small diameter water lines, residential foundations, and local soil conservation jobs.”
Darren’s sons Joe and Wesley have come on board in vice presidential roles. And the Clearys are living proof that, with enough creativity and energy, it’s entirely possible to build a skilled local workforce.
Adding 50 people, Walden said, takes “a lot of interviews…a lot. We do a lot of advertising for employment using banners, local websites, and social media sites to reach out for various positions we have added. We have a great office staff and we have recently added people to Estimating, Shop Support, Equipment Maintenance, and Project Management. We also have great crews that turn out some great work in many states. In the last year we have added Laborer, Operator, Foreman, and Superintendent positions in our field operations.”
In a phone interview last Friday afternoon, CEO Darren Cleary confirmed that the company finds plenty of good hires right here at home. “We focus on finding and keeping good young talent,” he said, “You’ be surprised at the great young people we’ve found right here in Monroe County. We’ve found our core people here. We just interviewed a young lady yesterday; she’s ambitious, ready to go to work. That’s the kind we get coming on; they’re energetic and want to do well for themselves and their families. The youth around here are better than we make them out to be at times.”
“We do as much as we can to work with the youth locally and throughout the state,” Walden told the EDC board. “We know that they are the future of our workforce. It is important to us to build good relationships with them before they graduate school and let them know about the opportunities and careers that await them in the heavy construction industry. We also have worked closely with Mitzi Holland, our Monroe County High School College & Career Counselor. We participated in mock interviews along with other Monroe County businesses, to help the kids transition into being career ready.”
At last spring’s College and Career Fair, while some businesses felt that the kids were more interested in the candy and swag than in possible futures, Cleary representatives were busy all day long. “Before the career fair, I polled some students about our company and what we do. I mostly heard “they dig in the dirt,”” said Walden..”So, for College and Career Day I wanted the kids to know what Cleary Construction did and how many careers are possible when working for us. We compiled some drone video footage from various jobs, along with a good booth setup, and I think they got the message. We got a lot of attention and a good response in inquiries.. I think the main thing in reaching the kids is, you have to draw them into your booth. The drone video, die-cast models of our equipment and some pipe product we work with helped us to get their attention.”
For upcoming events this September in Shelbyville and Murphy, Walden plans even more fun. “We hope to do more hands-on interaction with the kids and let them run an actual mini-excavator,” he told the board..”We have acquired a 24-foot air-conditioned enclosed trailer; inside, we will be playing some of our drone footage, excavator operation and excavator safety videos. We are also working with Wayne Supply to possibly utilize an excavator simulator in our trailer that they can operate before getting on the real thing.”
But as any employer knows, it’s not just about finding good people but about keeping them. “We have to treat our people well,” says Cleary. “Yes ma’am. Insurance, vacation pay, retirement plan, life insurance. The ones that want to shine and grow, there’s all kinds of room for growth.”
Last weekend, Cleary sponsored the fireworks for the City of Tokkpinsville’s Light Up the Ville celebration for the second year in a row, and that’s just part of the company’s effort to give back. In 2017, working with the school district, they donated a brand new practice field for the Falcons at Darrell Carter Stadium. “The practice field was dedicated in honor of Ronnie H. Cleary,” said Walden. “The field was named Ronnie H. Cleary Athletic Field. We are very pleased to know that it will be used to help the children of Monroe County to grow competitively and learn about teamwork for many years to come.”
So what advice would Darren have for a young entrepreneur of today with a dream and a gleam in his or her eye? “Be focused,” he says. “Stay the course, be patient, don’t think it will happen too quickly/. You have to be patient and ready for the long haul. We’ve been here 30-some years and only hit our stride the last five or 10.”
So what’s the future hold? Great things, no doubt; at the moment it’s a matter of staying the course set by Ronnie and Shirley from the very beginning. “We’re blessed to be fortunate enough to be here,” says Cleary, “and be profitable. We know it’s time to give back, both as a thank you to the community and a way to recognize Dad’s life’s work. We just continue to grow. We need employees; every day we need more employees, the growth hasn’t stopped yet. We’d like to build a new office and shop one day, sure, but there’s just too much going on to stop and think about it right now. That makes us happy, to have too much going on.”