Jeff Simmons moved to Fargo in 1999 with nothing more than a duffel bag and a pickup truck and as he says not a lot going for him.

What he did have going for him was a background in dirt work. His father owned a small family business in Glenburn, N.D., that was into dirt work, gravel hauling and demolition.

“It was the only thing I ever wanted to do,” Simmons said. Starting as a laborer shoveling manholes, he eventually ran crews and became a partner in Excavating Inc., an excavating and site development construction company based in Minot and West Fargo.

Simmons got to be in places most kids don’t get to go.

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My dad worked in the oil field and he’d take me right out on the drilling rig with him when he’d go get his ticket signed. A lot of the guys were working weeklong shifts and didn’t get to see their kids. Times were different back then. There weren’t all the regulations and safety rules. They’d take me right up on the drilling rig, and I’d go right out on the deck and watch the guys drill a hole. They’d keep me entertained while my dad was handling his business with the pusher on the rig. I probably saw some things I didn’t need to see. Probably learned some new words, but it was also quite the experience to be around that heavy machinery.

Simmons says he just kept showing up and got an opportunity.

I was given an opportunity to be part of the ownership (Excavating Inc.) and I’ve done that, which is gratifying because the dream of doing this was wanting to own this. I spent a lot of years as a laborer. In one season I went from the laborer on the job to the foreman on the job when I was about 23-24 years old. That was really an experience and not always a good one. Because of that somewhat good, somewhat bad experience I stepped away from dirt work for a year or two because I thought maybe it isn’t for me. I did something else for a year or two, but it kept calling me back. When these guys hired me (Excavating Inc.), I was shoveling out manholes then I was an operator. Then before you know it we had more jobs than we had guys. We’re not big on titles around here, but I had to run that job. I went from running that job to eventually being in charge of the two or three crews we have here. The education hasn’t really stopped. You learn how to work with people. Manage product. Manage position. Play the weather.

Jeff Simmons of Excavating Inc. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Jeff Simmons of Excavating Inc. Chris Flynn / The Forum

Simmons’ Excavating Inc. partner was his boss.

Bill Burke is my partner now, but he was my boss. He gave me an opportunity. He gave me the chance to try to be a part of this thing. I was originally hired by a different gentleman, who was a good teacher. He really was a smart man. He knew how to move dirt. He knew how things needed to go. My dad taught me how to work and Bill and Tony taught me how to be more efficient in my work. I’ve had these three good teachers, which is a benefit. A lot of guys that are going to come into this won’t be as fortunate as I’ve been. They’re just going to be “Joe.” “Joe” may not know much about dirt work, but he wants to do it. I didn’t have to work any less than “Joe” did. I had to earn my keep. If “Joe” wants to make it, be on time and be willing to be teachable.

Bill was the right guy.

When I landed down here I maybe needed a little guidance. Bill has given me some of that guidance I needed. He was the right guy. He knows how driven I am. He understood how to motivate me to always push and see if we can’t get better or do better and be better and because of that, that relationship really thrived together. He was able to trust me to handle things that meant he could do other things. Things to improve our business, improve our standing and make us more efficient. I’m really fortunate for the situation I landed in. I’m not here because I’m special or really smart or unique in any means. I’m here because because I’ve been willing to work hard and somebody gave me a chance. In turn I’ve been able to give the chance to other people that have worked really hard for us.

Demolition of the old City Hall began Dec. 17. The old City Hall was built in 1958. The new Fargo City Hall, on the right, opened in September of 2018. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Demolition of the old City Hall began Dec. 17. The old City Hall was built in 1958. The new Fargo City Hall, on the right, opened in September of 2018. Chris Flynn / The Forum

Simmons had a background in dirt work, but he says a person with no experience just has to do a couple things.

I’ve been blessed to learn from some really smart people, a lot of self starters, people that aren’t afraid to get a purple thumbnail. If you want to get into it, the two things you really need to do is be able to be to work on time, all the time, and know that you are going to work a lot of hours, but the payoff on the backside is, you get to build something, something that’s tangible and you can see 10,15 or 25 years down the road. You can also make a good living. There are a lot of people that sell themselves short. They quit this industry because it’s too hard. It’s too long. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. The reality is if you can push through all that stuff, the education never ends and the opportunity to grow doesn’t really either.

Simmons says finding good people to work will be a challenge.

The reality is skill trades do not have the numbers that we used to. Even when I started doing this job I could always find a farm kid that had been on a truck or been on a loader and wanted to work. You could get him into the mix and he’d probably come out the other side pretty good at it. Those people are out there still, but it’s getting tougher to find. If you’re willing to work and get a sunburn, sweat and have mosquitoes bite you, you could make a good living doing this. I think the biggest challenge in this industry in the next x-amount of years is going to be finding good, hardworking, smart people to do these jobs and when you find them, take care of them.

Working long hours, but gratifying work.

I don’t think guys doing the concrete, the dirt work, the underground, the pipe layers, I don’t think they get the credit they should. I really don’t. A lot of those guys work a lot of hours to support kids they don’t ever get to see because of this kind of work. For me it’s a gratifying job. I’m proud of what we do here. I’m proud of what I’ve been able to learn. There’s a lot of good contractors in Fargo-Moorhead. They are really driven, intelligent people. There a lot of places for this younger generation to land with those guys and to be the next generation. To be the guys that built that building or paved that road.