“I am the complaint department!” That phrase summarizes a big portion of Andy MacDonell’s job as president and owner of Itasca Utilities. “Actually, I have several titles depending on what day it is.”
Andy is a second generation business owner. His father, Randy, formed the business in 1976 with partner Irv Biersdorf. Randy Mac, as he is known, became the sole owner in 1986. Andy began working in the business part-time during the summer after his junior year in high school. He attended Itasca Community College and UMD before returning to the business sooner than expected.
“I had no plans to do anything other than work for my dad in the business,” Andy explained, “but it happened differently than I expected. However, it’s worked out just fine so far.”
Itasca Utilities installs natural gas mains, fiber optic cable, primary and secondary power lines and communications cables. The company also takes on excavating jobs and water and sewer utilities for private and commercial projects. They also provide building demolition services.
Itasca Utilities works with different vendors to provide these services, but the largest volume of business this year has come from Northwest Gas and the Grand Rapids Public Utilities Commission. “We’ve had busy years and we’ve had lean years, so when the economy is not good you’ll find us in Brainerd, Duluth, Baudette and anywhere in this region.”
Excavating accounts for roughly 25 to 30% of the business, while the rest is the underground utility lines work. Itasca Utilities employs 21 people today, including Andy. Due to the seasonality of the work, most of the employees are laid off for five months each year. A handful of people work year-round—mostly with snowplowing during the winter—but that number varies based on the severity of snowfall.
“We have been fortunate to retain a solid core of people who enjoy this work and who return year after year,” said Andy. “Most of these guys do other things in the winter—logging, fishing or other winter activity—and want to come back to work for us each spring.” Andy noted that his unemployment compensation fees are substantial, but he knows it’s the cost of doing business.
Grand Rapids State Bank has been Itasca Utilities’ bank for years Andy added, and that relationship has been valuable. “They have been very good to us; they understand the seasonality of our business and the need for a good operating line of credit so we can manage our cash flow.
“GRSB has stuck with us in the bad years and the good years,” Andy continued. “Jared Pink and his predecessor, Al Liestman, took time to understand our challenges and help us manage the business. We use a lot of heavy equipment, and that equipment wears itself out when we’re busy, so we’re never far away from talking about operating capital.”
The past two seasons have been especially good at Itasca Utilities, and Andy has worked with Jared Pink, vice president-business banking, to ease the growing pains. New equipment was needed to keep pace with the demand that large contracts with Northwest Gas and the Grand Rapids Public Utilities generated.
The Itasca Utilities shop on the River Road includes space for two shop mechanics whose primary jobs are to keep the equipment rolling. Meanwhile, Andy’s job varies from day to day. As the public face of the company, he is the primary sales person as well as the complaint department.
“We get tons of work involving road rights-of-way, and often this involves crossing people’s private property,” said Andy. “If the grass doesn’t grow back, or if we happen to spill bentonite (drilling mud) on someone’s lawn, I get those calls.
“We want to be responsive and courteous, so we’ll look after all of the issues that may result from burying miles of cable or pipelines, for example,” added Andy. “Our reputation is all we have, so if we want repeat business, we need to make sure people are satisfied when we dig a line through their property.”
Andy’s dad, Randy, still has a presence in the business, although he’s not as active as he once was. “He helps out by keeping me pointed in the right direction,” said Andy. “He keeps threatening to retire, but so far he’s there to give me a hand. It works well.”