Growing below ground
Todd Schwandt and his wife, Dina, founded Acha Construction in 2009, and in just two short years the Elko company has grown to 42 employees.
Acha Construction, which built a solid reputation by specializing in site work and infrastructure improvements, recently began a new venture, underground construction at mine sites, that has added a significant boost to the company’s revenue stream.
Todd Schwandt says Acha Construction was solicited to bid on concrete work at several new underground portals under development, and though it wasn’t successful on its first few bids the company won a contract for work at Newmont Mining Corp.’s new underground portal in its Pete Bajo pit north of Carlin.
“We were asked to do it because there was a need,” Schwandt says. “We built up a tremendous reputation in our two years, and we were asked to provide a service and assist in get a mine online and focus on doing the underground concrete work. Good concrete guys are hard to find, and that is what we built our reputation on.”
Last month, a crew from Acha started working just inside the portal building sumps, but the crew now is deep inside the portal building concrete pads for a new ventilation system. Preparing a team for underground work presented significant challenges, capital investment and training, Schwandt says.
Concrete crews used to breathing free air under the open sky had to be equipped with self-rescue breathers, special toolbelts, metatarsal boots that contain steel plates from toe to ankle to prevent crushing injuries, and special hardhats with headlamps.
Acha Construction also had to purchase specialty equipment such as a diesel-powered whacker to compact earth since two-cycle gasoline engines aren’t allowed underground. The company recently purchased a modified tractor to haul its employees deeper underground at a cost of roughly $40,000. Insurance costs for the underground work crew also increased significantly.
“I didn’t even know they made diesel-powered whackers,” Schwandt says. “We are making a sizable investment in underground construction.”
Worker also had to complete training from the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Schwandt hand-picked a crew of six men for the mine site work; some volunteered, others were his top hands at concrete work.
As the young company ramped up its workforce the past two years, it sought out the best carpenters and labors from the Elko area and now is pulling in workers from Boise, Idaho, Salt Lake City and Reno.
Schwandt admits that the though of losing his pool of talented help to good-paying mining jobs has him worrying.
“It scares me every day,” he says. “We pay our guys really good and try to match close as we can the wages they are making at the mines. I do pay hazard pay for working underground as incentive to stay with us.”
The underground team has been working 10-hour shifts for the past three weeks, and Schwandt says the crew loves the change of environment and has asked to stay on as long as possible.
Schwandt says it also is beneficial for Acha to bid on mine site work because the company is not competing against two dozen other contractors. The workers also avoid the brutal winter weather that stifles construction work throughout Elko County.
“The beauty is that it is year-round work and is not tied to construction where we are working in warm-weather months. Underground, it is the same temperature every day. Winter comes to Elko with a vengeance, and this will be a nice job if we can carry it through the winter,” he says.
What turned out as a small expansion to his workforce may turn into the largest revenue stream since most of the major mines in northeastern Nevada are developing underground mining operations, Schwandt says.
“All the mines in Nevada are going that direction. It is a limited market as far as vendors out there, so we can be more aggressive on pricing. We are making a commitment that we are here for the long run, and more bids are coming out on the horizon.”
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