Small Business
Getting started: Demolition
August 20, 2001: 9:05 a.m. ET

Tearing down buildings for a living can be fun and profitable
By Hope Hamashige
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Few people can resist the spectacle of a really good implosion: The blast of dynamite, the mushroom cloud of dust and in 10 seconds 20 floors of outdated hotel rooms are reduced to rubble. And the crowd roars.

Even demolition on a smaller scale picture a crane hurling a wrecking ball at the side of a building inevitably draws crowds of gawking, cheering passersby.

There is an unquestionable allure to it all. For as much as we admire buildings, we also love tearing them down. The only ones having more fun at a demolition site than the spectators, says Tom Robinette, are the guys who actually get to do the wrecking.

"I think the most fun we ever had was blowing up a 200-foot-high concrete smokestack at an old plant outside Chicago," said Robinette. "We imploded on a Sunday morning, there were about 150 people there and everyone had a good time."

There's not a lot that those in the industry don't like about what they do. Yes, asbestos abatement can be a drag. Of course, you have to be extremely cautious not to hurt anyone or damage the surrounding buildings.

But the benefits far outweigh any negative side there might be to breaking down walls and tearing apart old buildings piece by piece.

"Demolition contractors tend not to go out of business. It's very lucrative and you get to be your own boss," said Mike Taylor, executive director of the National Association of Demolition Contractors. "And you get to wear flannel shirts and hard hats and spit and use bad language."

These are all good things, by the way.

Start is cheap; growth pricey

Almost nobody gets to start with explosives or wrecking balls, however. Most guys, like Tom Little who founded Brandenburg Industrial Service, earn their way by starting with small jobs. Little started by tearing down garages for extra money on the weekends.

Likewise, Robinette and his brother started their demolition company in
1972 after both had gotten out of the military. Their father had been in the wrecking business and the Robinette boys had learned to run bulldozers when they were 12 or 13 years old.

"When you are that young and you get to wreck a house it sort of sticks with you," said Robinette. "So, we bought a truck and got to work."

Getting started can cost as little as a few thousand dollars for a truck and some tools. Heavy equipment to make a job go more quickly can easily be rented for a small sum.

When it comes to destroying walls and ceilings, there is really no substitute for experience. Unlike other businesses, there are no reference books, no college courses, almost no way to prepare for it at all. You just have to jump in, start doing it and hope it all works out for the best. For that reason, a lot of people in demolition, like Robinette, learned the trade from someone in their family or had once worked a crew and knew a little about operating equipment.

In the beginning, though, someone who is new to the field may have to bluff their way through their early days, at least a little. "You never say 'no' when some guy calls and says 'Do you do this?' You say 'Yes' and then figure out a way to get it done," said Taylor. "You do whatever brings a check in over the transom."

You do a good job and nobody gets hurt and start working your way up from garages to homes to tearing the guts out of apartment buildings and strip malls to demolishing huge structures. In 31 years in business, Tom Little has gone from tearing down garages to taking down Soldier Field in Chicago.

As so often comes with growth, however, there can be a lot of short-term pain. The business is capital-intensive as well as labor-intensive. Robinette said he's got at least $4 million worth of equipment on his lot just outside Chicago.

"My crane alone cost $750,000," he said.

Even so, there's dough

The most skilled in the business can make a lot of money. Taylor said most contractors can expect to make about a 10 percent profit on a job. Diligent recyclers can increase their profits by selling the glass and steel beams they rip out of the buildings. But the work is a little unpredictable so you can never say with any kind of certainty how much you will actually make.

Imagine, for example, tearing down walls in a building quite easily with a skidsteer. These new toys are the darlings of demolishers because they fly through sheet rock like paper, and then can turn around pick up the debris and shovel it into a container.

But then all of a sudden the machine runs into something it didn't expect: block walls. Unexpected problems like these can lead to delays, which cost money and can drag on one's profitability.

It can go both ways, though, said Taylor. Sometimes you underestimate your expenses and may break even on a job or lose money. Other times, you overestimate the same, and have a huge payday.

There is definitely an up-and-down nature to the business, said Taylor, but it's mostly up. When he was running his own company, Taylor said he rarely paid any attention to the sales during the year. Come Christmas, he would pay a visit to his accountant to see how they were doing.

"He always came in and said you guys made a lot of money last year," said Taylor. "And with that we paid ourselves huge bonuses and threw a huge party." graphic


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Robinette Demolition

Demolition Contractors National Association


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