Success in the paving industry is built on relationships among people, not businesses
To take advantage of the 2023 paving season, Loren VanderYacht and (silent) partner Ken Otter didn’t have months to meticulously plan operations and business strategy for their startup company, Lynden-based Asphalt Northwest. The time from initial concept to launch was a mere five weeks. Launching a capital-intensive business so quickly and without any guarantee of work would rattle the nerves of most new business owners. Yet VanderYacht was confident the work would be there. Success in the paving industry, he says, is built on relationships among people, not businesses.
“On a daily basis, my customers primarily only worked with me, and they got to know me and could depend on my ensuring their project was done right the first time,” VanderYacht said. “Many of these customers became repeat customers. Relationships were built. When I changed companies, often the customer would follow, so I was confident we could continue many of those relationships — many whom I’ve worked with now for 20-plus years.”
In business since March, Asphalt Northwest offers paving and grading services to the residential, commercial, industrial and municipal markets and primarily serves Island, Skagit, Snohomish and Whatcom counties. It’s a locally owned company that proudly employs some of the top area professionals, also all residents of Whatcom County.
Given VanderYacht’s enthusiasm for Asphalt Northwest’s achievements this year and his appreciation for the relationships he’s formed in a career that spans more than three decades, you’d never believe that a career in the paving industry was not his calling.
From ‘job’ to lifelong career
When considering employment opportunities as a young man, VanderYacht didn’t aspire to a career in the asphalt paving and grading industry.
“I wasn’t drawn to asphalt,” he said. “I just needed a job. The first asphalt company I worked for, I started out at the bottom. I earned $9 per hour weighing trucks.”
For 31 years, VanderYacht worked his way up the ranks, from dispatching to superintendent and then to estimating. He’s worked for small, family-owned companies and larger corporations, all in Whatcom County. What kept him in the industry were the relationships he built with co-workers and customers.
“Over the years, co-workers and customers have become friends,” he said. “I have some customers I’ve worked with for over 25 years.”
In early 2023, VanderYacht was ready for a change and decided to seek a partner to open a paving company. Around this same time, Dylan Otter was also looking to start a paving company.
“Loren was my supervisor when we worked together in the past,” Dylan Otter said. “I left the industry to work for my father, Ken, at LandTek, but I wanted to return to the paving industry, so I approached Loren about a potential partnership. I thought the worst case was he may say ‘no.’ I had no idea he planned to go into business for himself. The timing worked out.”
Overcoming startup challenges
In February 2023, VanderYacht and the Otters decided to pursue the business venture. VanderYacht currently serves as company president and Dylan Otter as asphalt superintendent.
However, paving season was on the horizon, and if they were to capture any of this season’s business, they needed to move quickly. They fast-tracked the business and incorporated on March 23. Such an aggressive schedule brought two major challenges.
First, the partners believed that new, top-quality equipment that is clean and presentable would help represent the high standards they would provide at every level of the business. However, they struggled to find all the equipment they needed locally on such short notice. Some equipment was sourced from as far away as California and Arizona.
Their biggest hurdle was hiring an experienced crew — and quickly — to be ready to roll at the start of paving season around late March. In paving, a quality finished product is often dependent on the skill of the crew.
“This is not the type of work you can just take someone and simply train them to do it and send them out,” said Leah Roorda, the company’s asphalt administrator. “It takes years of experience to master it.”
Hiring a skilled crew was critical, VanderYacht said.
“We knew we had to have experienced, highly skilled people,” he said. “That would be key to our success. Inexperience can lead to lower-quality work, and as a business we could have been finished not long after we started.”
VanderYacht and Otter needed top-notch pavers to solidify their reputation from the get-go as a business that puts quality first. To recruit and retain the best, Asphalt Northwest would need to offer top pay and a robust benefits package. The company offers competitive wages, fully paid medical, dental and vision insurance for employees and their families, a retirement program, and paid leave.
Together, they reached out to previous co-workers with whom they had established relationships and knew the quality of their work.
“Between Loren and myself, we’d worked with everyone on our team at some point,” Dylan Otter said. “We knew their work history. They had a lot of trust in us and in Loren’s experience.”
That gave the team a lot of options, VanderYacht added.
“We were able to be selective,” he said. “Our paving crew averages 14 years of experience. This is one of the best crews I’ve had in 31 years, and not just skill set-wise. We have a team of truly great people. We’ve become a family.”
While some companies currently struggle with staffing shortages, this has not been a problem for Asphalt Northwest. VanderYacht says qualified people continually knock on their door.
Thriving despite a lagging economy
While the economy has been sluggish this past year, VanderYacht says that it hasn’t had much effect on the paving industry, because there is still plenty of work available from new housing developments and commercial projects.
In fact, the newly formed company has not struggled to acquire the level of work needed to keep its crew busy. Otter explained that since customers tend to work closely with a company’s estimators, schedulers and site crews, rather than the top-level ownership, it wasn’t difficult to be the paver of choice for previous customers’ 2023 projects.
“The local contractors know who we have working for us — who the foreman is, who is running the paver, etc. — as they’ve worked with them at some point over the years,” he said. “There is a lot of trust in Loren and the capabilities of our crew.”
Lane Stremler, president of Stremler Gravel, concurs. He was worked with VanderYacht for 20 years, as did his father and uncle before him. Stremler has upcoming projects on the books with Asphalt Northwest.
“Problems can arise in construction,” Stremler said. “That’s where our work history with Loren is important. We know he’ll have our back. There is a lot of value in that. When Loren and I discussed the new business, I had two key questions for him. First was about the equipment, which has a lot do with the finished product. Asphalt Northwest has brand name, high-quality equipment. Second was the crew. For asphalt, you need experience both in running the machine and on the ground. He told me who he had working for him. He’s got a highly experienced crew behind him.”
Asphalt Northwest also offers one of the best warranties in the area — two years on workmanship and materials, twice the industry standard. With several projects now completed and available for potential new customers to view, it will be a much smoother road for the company to land bids with companies with which there has been no prior relationship.
“I’ve looked at projects they’ve completed,” Stremler said, “and the quality of work is impressive.”
Finishing strong in 2023
VanderYacht expects Asphalt Northwest to finish strong in 2023, thanks in part to established relationships decades in the making. His goal for 2024 is to add some equipment and a couple of additional employees. VanderYacht and Ken Otter’s 10-year plan is to retire and pass a highly successful business down to their sons.
While Asphalt Northwest is still new and the team is working hard to establish its place within the local paving industry, the experience so far has been gratifying.
“The two most rewarding things are that the employees that previously worked with us made the decision to move to our company,” VanderYacht said. “And several customers made the decision to follow us as well. Without those, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.” ■