When he was seven years old, he knew how to drive a Mack truck so well he says he would train new drivers for his dad’s sand, gravel and rock hauling company. Years later, James C. James not only still drives those big rigs, but along with his wife, Michelle, has expanded the operation to 10 employees of his own running the family-owned company in northwest Lincoln.
If you drove through the highway expansion work between Omaha and Lincoln, or on U.S. Highway 77 south of town, chances are pretty good there was a truck from James Enterprises offloading gravel there. If you've flown out of Omaha's Eppley Airfield, you've taken off from a runway they've helped rebuild. And, if you're a Lincoln area homeowner you may have boulders and glittering rainbow rocks decorating your professionally-done landscape project delivered by them, too.
The business chalked up $1.75 million in revenue in both 2013 and 2014.
Business got off to rocky start
But it hasn't been easy.
It's been years of hard work to get to this point, starting with James' first job out of high school as a shop technician at a local truck stop just off I-80 on the west side of town. That's where he used some of the lessons as a mechanic he picked up as a kid from his dad, servicing engines and doing other minor services to get truckers back on the road quickly.
By 2002, after quitting a subsequent job at a trucking firm, James was ready to start his own business. After buying a rig of his own, he helped his dad's firm with its contract for gravel and rock hauling with the Nebraska Department of Roads. Along the way, James learned how to successfully bid for projects, manage employees and building good relationships.
"It does well to gain wisdom from others who've paved the way," Michelle said.
Perhaps the most important lesson James picked up from his father was persistence.
That's because for the next couple of years the nascent business struggled. James and his wife were about to have their first child, and brought in so little revenue the family even applied for state aid--and were turned down because they owned a small business.
When his dad retired after 27 years behind the wheel and under the hood, he decided to sell James his truck. James needed that extra truck to take on more highway jobs if they ever would be successful; he was willing to cash in his retirement plan, but he needed more money than that.
Lincoln's CDR comes through with a microloan
After being turned down for a bank loan--"we didn't have a long enough track record in the business," he said--James turned to Community Development Resources, a Lincoln-based SBA certified microlender. If he were approved for $30,000, he could purchase that truck and a pup trailer.
So in 2005 he sat down with CDR Executive Director Rick Wallace. Without that long experience in business, Wallace would have to find another reason to approve the loan.
"I knew he grew up in this business and I knew from his mindset what his goal was, which was attainable. I knew that he would crank that motor over and go to work and make it happen," said Wallace.
And James was fortunate; long before assuming the helm at CDR, Wallace knew the industry, having built highways and crushed concrete for two decades with his own construction firm.
"What he was telling me was doable," Wallace explained. "He described to me how he would carve out his niche in the marketplace, and I knew he would accomplish it."
Although the non-profit lender admitted using a highly depreciating asset like the truck as collateral was a risk, "he was not a risk for us character-wise.
"He came in and was straightforward with me," Wallace said. "I told him, 'don’t blow no smoke here, because it ain’t gonna carry up. You tell me what you want to do here and what you can accomplish.'"
James could: he joined Michelle at NebraskaEdge's NxLevel entrepreneur training program, a 12-week course on creative marketing strategies, strategizing, advertising, financing and social media networking, which provided them guidance to write a five-year business plan.
The company also was certified as a disadvantaged business, ensuring when it came to bidding on highway projects funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the company would be able to compete on a level playing field. So impressed, Wallace approved the loan.
'Kept pushing through, never lost faith'
While contract work wasn’t steady, James had plenty to do. Adding employees at the rate of one a year to take on extra hauling jobs, "I was working 18 hours a day," he said wearily. He'd wake in the wee hours, drive all day, grabbing "nickel and dime" driving jobs for $10,000 or $20,000, then, when finished, head back to the garage to fix trucks through the night, starting all over again the next day.
"Never thought about getting a job, and selling the business," James said. "I just kept pushing through, never lost faith. It’s who I am, it’s what I was born doing, it’s what I know."
But by 2007, the company's fortunes began to turn. James Enterprises picked up contracts with a handful of construction firms operating in the Cornhusker State, including a nationwide supplier of aggregates and heavy building materials, hauling gravel, sand and rock out toward jobs in Hastings and Grand Island. Revenues climbed to half a million, and the company moved from a sole proprietorship to incorporating, saving a bundle at tax time.
"With more employees and trucks, we could do bigger contracts," Michelle said. But the escalating price of fuel then put the crunch on hauling firms, especially small businesses.
"It was killing us," James remembered. "We’d bid contracts the year prior, and since we were too small, we couldn’t negotiate a fuel surcharge."
Still, the company made enough to pay off their first microloan, and in 2009, they went back to CDR for a second one, which, combined with profits from the business allowed them to buy another truck to handle even larger contracts.
SBA financing for a line of credit and another truck
Five years later, James Enterprises needed a $50,000 line of credit. This time, Wallace pointed them to Union Bank, where they were approved for an SBA Express loan in May 2014 to smooth over seasonal changes in work, truck parts, tires and payroll.
"Plus, we can use the line of credit for fuel because we don’t have fuel accounts all over the place, or if we would have a breakdown out west, we can handle it," James said. "If we didn't get the SBA loan at that time, it's wouldn't have good."
And in February 2015, the company snagged a 7(a) SBA loan from Union Bank, this time for $145,000 for a self-assembly kit truck, which, when assembled will bring James Enterprises' fleet to seven. That doesn't include a couple of pickups with a small side dump for residential jobs; for more than a decade they've worked with professional landscapers in the area.
"Every year we added three or four new contracts a year," James said. "This year we have six contracts lined up with large construction firms, one even all the way out of Scottsbluff."
And the next generation is getting a taste of the family business.
"I’m able to be around my family now and my daughter comes along on some of my hauling trips," James said with a smile. And looking back to when he was her age: "Although she doesn’t mind getting dirty, I haven’t taught her how to drive yet."