Caleb Kattner has spent 16 years working with Reece Albert, working his way up to superintendent for the company. He started by learning the ins and the outs of the business, learning accounts payable and receivable, contracting, estimating, and GPS and optical surveying. He then studied in the field under other superintendents and took little bits of each of their leadership styles to craft his own management philosophy.
What was your first project with Reece Albert?
My first job was a Home Depot. You talk about scary times. It was my first job — I didn’t want to mess up. I was scared to death of messing up. I was probably 24 years old. There’s kind of a funny story about it, I got done with the job and I called one of the senior superintendents here, and I was scared to death because when it was all said and done I had four bobtail trucks worth of base leftover. I was scared that I’d hauled too much. I just knew I was going to get fired. He told me I just had one mad blademan because he’d be chasing rocks around on that parking lot for a month.
How did you get hired on at Reece Albert?
I did the majority of my college at Angelo State University. I did some at Texas Tech, but I graduated from ASU and then directly after that I went to work for Reece Albert. I was trying to get in to talk to [Reece Albert President] Jack Albert about employment. I started in late January 2000 trying to get ahold of him. Late April is when he finally—I thought—was able to talk to me, but come to find out he was just trying to see how persistent I was. I wore out his secretary; I called her every day for three months. I finally got in with him, and he told me if I graduated in May that he would hire me. I graduated and started here May 30. I started in the office, and he wanted me to go through all aspects of the office. I went through accounts payable, and then I went and did some accounts receivable stuff. I went into contracting and helped with phase reports and saw how a job is set up, did some estimating work, takeoffs and whatnot, then I went into surveying and learning surveying both with optical and GPS. After that is when I went with Roland [Pinkerton] on the Houston Harte [Expressway] project. I spent a lot of time there just seeing how these jobs were built. I spent about a year and a half on it back in 2001-2002. Roland is one of our superintendents. He’s been around a long time. He’s just full of knowledge. He’s amazing. We’ve got a lot of older guys that have just been around forever and ever, and they’ve got a lot of knowledge. It was just sort of a training process that Jack put together. I was in a meeting one time and I’d been under somebody’s wing the whole time, and Jack said that I was going to do the Home Depot. I thought he had me confused with somebody else. I thought, ‘Surely he didn’t mean my name. I’m not ready.’ He threw me to the dogs and that’s how I learned, I guess. I was scared, man. I kind of figured it’d be my first and my last.
Did you get more confident with the next job?
Jim Bass Nissan was my second job. I was still running scared then. I did not want to mess up. Back then I felt like I needed to do everything. I needed to shoot the grade. I felt like if I did everything and something was messed up, it was my fault. Now I’ve learned to let these guys do it, and they do it better than I did. I’m in better shape now.
Why did you want to work for Reece Albert?
At that time, the job market wasn’t the greatest. I was an animal science major. I had kind of done different aspects of construction growing up, and at the same time kind of had a ranching background. I knew I wanted a degree, so that’s where the animal science degree came in because it was something that I knew about and had some interest in. I really kind of knew that I probably wouldn’t have a career in agriculture. But I wanted a degree. Road construction is not something that I knew really anything about. The only road construction that I’d ever really been involved in was when I worked on a ranch when I was 12 years old. They had a Kenworth bobtail and an old track loader. I drove this Kenworth dump truck and loaded it myself with this track loader. I was a little bitty guy and the steering wheel was about twice as big as I was, and all I knew was I needed to load dirt in that truck and take it to that guy that drove the maintainer. I just did that for two summers. That’s all I knew, just get dirt from here to there.
What did you learn from that experience?
I’ve got guys out here now that are brand new or fairly new, and I want everybody on the job to know what is going on and why it’s important, what we’re doing. There are some complicated situations sometimes, and I need to make sure that everybody understands what is happening, what we’re going to be doing that day, so that no matter your experience or skill level you know what’s happening. It just makes everything run a lot smoother when everybody knows and I don’t have to run around and tell people what to do and every move to make. I’m just here as a support system for the guys. They really make my life a lot easier. I remember not having any clue and no idea what we were doing or why on that farm. That really makes work monotonous. You don’t feel like you have a real role in the overall project. You’ve got to let these guys know that they have a voice. Even the guys that might have started last week, they have just as much of a voice as the guy that’s been here for 20 years. Sometimes it’s those people that open your eyes. You can’t see the forest for the trees and all of a sudden this new guy shows up and says something and all of a sudden a lightbulb goes off. It’s a team. You hear the term, ‘Is that your crew?’ I guess in that terminology if you want to use that, but really we’re just kind of a team. Everybody has a big part in it.
What kind of jobs do you normally work on?
I guess there’s not a normal job for me. Commercial work, parking lots, building pads, big stuff like that, highway work—which, out here in West Texas right now a lot of times it’s just widenings and whatnot. I did a riverbank stabilization job that was a lot of fun. It was something different. It was a plaza areas with games and lots of big boulders and slab rocks being used. It was kind of out of the ordinary, but it was fun.
What do you like best about your job?
I like being able to look around and see projects that Reece Albert has built or ones that I’ve been a part of. When people don’t know, I can say, ‘Hey, I was a part of this, I did this job back in 2003,’ or whenever. It still looks good, it’s still holding together. We take a lot of pride in what we do and make sure it’s done right. The Alberts don’t expect any less. You’re going to do it, and you’re going to do it right, and you’re not going to cut any corners because we all live here and we have to live with what we produce. We have to use the roads too, so you might as well do it right and build them good.
What makes you say, ‘Today was a good day?’
Everybody got home safe. We had a good production day, made good progress, I didn’t fill out any accident reports, no personal injury reports, no nothing. Everyone went home. That’s a good day, right there.
You always look forward to going home at quitting time, and it’s always good when you set a goal like, ‘We’re going to quit at 6 p.m. today,’ and at 6 p.m. you’re at a good stopping point and you go home and everybody sees their family or does whatever they need to do. But you have those days when you have a breakdown or something and you’re at a point where you can’t leave and it’s 2 a.m. and you’re still out there trying to remedy the problem, the breakdown or whatever. Those turn into some long nights sometimes. That doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s memorable. You never forget it.
Are there any bad days that you’ve had that stick out?
We were doing a job in Ballenger one time and we were milling off an existing roadway, milling the hotmix off of it. We came to this certain section that had been patched and patched and overlayed and there ended up being 12 inches of asphalt material over the original concrete road, and that’s what we were trying to get to was the concrete. We got to one of those sections, and the belt on the milling machine broke. Of course we’re out in the middle of nowhere, and it’s not like you can just run to Walmart and get you a new belt. I think that belt had to come out of Dallas. We had a 12-inch drop off in the middle of the driving lane. It’s not like we could just leave. I think it was 4 a.m. before I finally got home after waiting on that belt to get here from Dallas. We’ve got to get it put on and then try to figure out how we can mill this to where we can just get off the road. That’s just a very unsafe situation. Luckily it was a low-volume road so we had that to our advantage. But that’s a scary night when you’ve got flaggers out there and it’s pitch black and you’re using all the lighting you can but you’re limited on your resources. I was just scared to death that somebody was going to get hurt that night. Luckily nobody did, and we got home and continued the next day. But that’s one that will always stick out.
What other safety issues do you face?
I feel ultimately responsible for things that do happen. If they back into one another or something like that, I feel like I didn’t do something that I should have done to prevent that incident from happening. The main thing we deal with is these guys just wanting to get in a hurry and get things done, and that’s when things happen. You’ve got to slow down. We’ll get the work done, don’t worry about it. Just slow down, make sure you are paying attention to what you’re doing, and don’t get in a rush. Fatigue is another thing. You’ve got to know when that’s enough for one day. A lot of our accidents happen later in the day. When people are tired, they get complacent.
What do you do about the things you can’t control?
All you can do is just make sure that everything you have is legal. If you’ve got all your signs you need to make you legal, really and truly you can’t control the public. They’re going to do what they’re going to do. The only thing you can do is protect yourself. I constantly have powwows with the guys, and I’m constantly reminding them, make sure you don’t stand there with your back to traffic, always have two sets of eyes on it. If you don’t need to be on the roadway, don’t be on the roadway. Get against the fence as far away from traffic as you can unless you absolutely have to be there. That’s something I fight a lot, especially with the newer guys. They want to be out there, and they want to be involved. But there are times I don’t need everybody out there. Incidents are going to happen if you do this type of work. You just try to minimize them, you know?
Does any incident in particular stick out to you?
It wasn’t on one of my jobs, but it was on a Reece Albert job—the superintendent on the job is a great friend of mine. We had a striping subocntractor out there. Everything was legal, we had the attenuator trucks, we had follow vehicles, we had cones and barrels set up and arrow boards going. And we had a guy that was apparently under the influence who came onto the job site and struck one of the striping contractor guys on the ground. That was a pretty sad day. You want everybody to go home. It really is a pretty dangerous job sometimes.
What does your family think of your job?
I think they’re proud of what we do. They know some of the projects we do, and they know that I was a part of those jobs. Sometimes I can tell that the long hours kind of drain on them. I have two boys, ages 6 and 9, and they want me at home all the time. When I get home I just try to make the best of the time that I can. I do my best to leave work at work when I leave here.
How many phone calls do you take a day?
You have some of those days where it’s just quiet. You take advantage of those days. And then you’ve got days where it’s over 100. I would say 100 phone calls a day is average, just because there is so many moving parts to our outfit.
Do you like what you do?
The simple answer is I’ve got to have a job to support my family. But I’m kind of blessed, in a way, that I found a job that I can make a career out of. I really enjoy doing what I do. I work for an outfit that takes care of their employees the way they do, to where I don’t mind going to work. I’m not saying I look forward to going to work every day, but I never dread it. I just look forward to smooth days.
Do you have a feeling of satisfaction every day?
Different phases of the job are just kind of slow moving or slow paced, and I have a harder time with those. I like looking back at the end of the day and seeing what we did, the instant gratification. It’s kind of like mowing your grass, that’s instant gratification. You can see exactly what you just did. It’s harder to see it; you have to kind of step back and take a big picture look on some of the processes we do because you feel like you didn’t do anything that day. But you made a huge step in the ultimate completion of the project. It’s hard to see sometimes. Those are my hardest days, where it’s stuff that needs to be done, but you really can’t tell that we did a whole lot that day. Those are tough.
Do you think that’s important to your guys as well?
You can see it in their whole demeanor. They know when they had a great day. They all feel good, and you can just see it on their faces. They strive to do that every day, but sometimes as a job manager I have to pull the reins back and say, ‘Ok, guys, we’re going to do this today.’ It’s part of the puzzle that, for one, isn’t very fun to do, and two, you can’t see really what you did that day. You know what you did, but the visual part is a big part of it also. Paving and concrete and all that, that’s kind of fun because that transforms the project at a pretty rapid pace, whereas a lot of what we do is building the cake, you know? That’s what I refer to it as, building the cake. When you go to put the icing on, that’s the fun part.
Would you be proud of your sons for going into construction?
It’s made a great living for me. I want them to do whatever they want to do, whatever it is that makes them happy, and hopefully they make a lot of money doing it. Then they can support me!
What do you like about being a superintendent?
It’s managing people. You have to know which way to motivate that guy, which is completely different than the other guy. That’s what’s kind of fun for me is trying to figure that out. I had a guy, it was his first day, and he asked me, ‘What does it take to make a great employee?’ I’d never been asked that in 16 years. I said, ‘First off, you need to show up every day. I probably won’t have that issue with you. But always be paying attention to what we’re doing, and then paying attention to what happens next. That way next time we do that operation, you don’t have to be told what’s next. Then you’re a good employee.’ If you have somebody that you don’t have to tell what to do, that just makes a fluid motion for the whole team.
Your guys under you actually make you. I would be nothing without those nine guys that are directly under me. And they make me look good, therefore I take care of them. If you have the rapport and the guys that back you, you’re gonna succeed. If you don’t support them in everything they do — I’ve seen before where supervisors talk down to people and feel like they have to constantly chew them out and stay on their butt the whole time. But you have to let these guys take their own path, give them some rein, and I’m just here to make sure that they don’t get into trouble or do something that’s going to bite them later on. They’re running this job just as much as I am.
How did you learn your management style?
Really and truly, I was under Roland for a good period of time, and I learned so much. When I got out on my own, I’d also befriended a lot of older superintendents who had been around Reece Albert forever. So when I was faced with an issue, I’d pick up the phone and call every one of them, and every one of them would give me a different solution to whatever I was faced with. Then I had to pull from that what was going to work best for me. I’ve built a job, and it’s kind of a compilation of all the Reece Albert superintendents rolled into one. It’s a pretty good mix, and I’m able to face adversity where I might use this guy’s method of how he would handle this and that guy’s for that. It’s not just that I learned under Roland. I don’t do just what he does. I use all those guys that have helped me along the way. I’m greatly appreciative that they’ve let me feed off of them. Everything I do in life, I’m kind of like a sponge. I want to know everything about it.
Reece Albert is real good about letting me go stick my nose into things that are completely beyond my job description. But I want to know everything. I want to know all aspects of this business, even if it’s just sitting in a meeting and listening. You gain a lot just by listening. The other day—way beyond my job description—but up here at this all-mix plant they were having trouble the other day and they let me go up there and just get right in the middle of the troubleshooting of the hot mix plant. I’m not around hot mix plants very much, but that was kind of cool getting to see the process of trying to troubleshoot and being on the phone with technical people from all over the country. Those hot mix plants are pretty complicated deals. Reece Albert will let you grow as fast as you want to grow. Anybody that takes initiative to do above and beyond what you’re hired to do, I think they embrace that. They’re fully supportive. There are people who just want to go to work and do what they’re hired to do, and they’re not going to advance. I like to be told, ‘You can’t do that.’ That’s a challenge. I want to get into project management more. That’s one of the things they let me stick my nose into and dive into it more. If I can keep a project manager from having to do anything on any of my projects, then that’s what I strive to do.