Rock Stars: Why Do We Succeed?
People — and their creative solutions — are the driver behind Gulf Coast Limestone’s success.
Why is Gulf Coast Limestone able to unload over 80,000 rail cars per year?
Why are we one of the industry’s largest unloaders of open-top rail cars?
About 25 years ago, I was a young supervisor, new to the position and with a lot to learn about the aggregates business. We had a rubber-tired excavator, which we drove from yard to yard and job to job. We had it all figured out. After all, with a machine which was also a truck and an operator who was also the driver, well, what could be better than that?
Primo Araujo was the operator who was also the driver. He could drive from Seabrook, Texas, where our home office was, to Dickinson, Texas (about 10 miles away), unload five cars for the county, and drive back to Seabrook in one day. We were the experts.
We had three yards of our own where we railed in limestone base from Texas Crushed Stone, unloaded it onto the ground, and sold it by the truck load. One of our yards was in Baytown, Texas, which was on the other side of the Houston Ship Channel from our home office. At that time, the road to Baytown went through a tunnel under the ship channel. It was one lane each way and quite narrow.
Primo, our very brave and highly skilled operator, would drive the excavator through the tunnel. The machine did okay on the downhill portion of the tunnel, but when coming up the other side, it slowed to a snail’s pace, stacking up traffic and irritating motorists unlucky enough to get stuck behind the excavator. Primo was accustomed to various hand gestures, such as the “California Howdy” of Beverly Hillbillies fame.
As our business grew, we added another rubber-tired excavator, and we drove them all over, to unload a few cars here and a few cars there. One of our yards was on Old Galveston Road in Webster, Texas, and was called the Fondren Yard. It was a rail siding which had previously been a public team track, and the rail ran very close to the road. It could hold 12 cars.
It eventually became busy enough to leave a machine there permanently. My grandfather, Bill Robinson, who founded the company and ran it in those days, purchased an old John Deere 690 B excavator from a Ritchie Bros. auction and put it in the Fondren Yard. It was one of those old-style excavators with long control levers sticking up from the floor, sort of between the operator’s knees. If you tried to swing left and close the bucket at the same time, you would bang your knuckles together.
We had recently hired another operator named Donald Broussard who didn’t mind operating the John Deere. He would unload a set of cars from the ground, leave the material piled up alongside the track, and then flatten out the piles so that he could drive the excavator on top of the material. The added elevation made it easier to unload the next train.
I was driving along in my pickup, performing my supervisor duties one day, when Donald called me on our low-band radio, which we had installed in all of our machines and vehicles. There were no private conversations on the low-band radios. Everyone could hear everything. We were high tech.
Donald said, “I need you to come over to Fondren. I need to show you something.” I told him that I was busy and to just tell me what he needed, but he persisted. I could tell from his tone that it was pretty important, so I headed over.
The large yellow excavator could be seen from miles away. My imagination ran wild as I approached the yard. What sort of freak accident could result in our machine being on top of the train? My first thought was to blame the railroad.
As I pulled into the yard, Donald had a big grin on his face. As I was going through my, “What and why and who and what the hell?” speech, Donald was trying to calm me down. He said, “Let me show you.”
As I sat there and watched, I gradually came to realize that he had found a better way. Even though the machine was way too big to be on top of a rail car, Donald had doubled his speed and could get the cars much cleaner.
We now have a fleet of 50 excavators with proprietary buckets and patented ramps and unload for all of the major aggregate producers all over Texas and into Louisiana and Oklahoma.
But it all started with the imagination of Donald Broussard.
Bobby Walker is the vice president of Gulf Coast Limestone.