By Michelle Price
UCBJ Managing Editor
COOKEVILLE – Last Friday, Donnie Elkins signed the papers to transfer Elk Mountain Construction, the company he had built from a dream to reality, to the Rogers Group, a company with which he had developed a close partnership throughout the years.
As Elkins sat down with the UCBJ to look back over his career and his path from one backhoe to the largest earthwork company in the region, there were a few stories and words of wisdom he shared.
The beginning of the dream
Elkins career path has always involved earthwork and excavation. His first job in the 1970s was working as a laborer with McDowell Enterprises. He then went to work with Highways, Inc. as an operator and briefly worked for J& S Construction.
“I had the background experience, but I didn’t have any money to do anything with it,” said Elkins, reflecting on the early days of his company.
Jackson County attorney Bob Johnson and other close friends encouraged Elkins to step out and follow his dream, so he borrowed the money and started the business.
“I knew where I was going…I knew where I wanted to go,” Elkins said.
But Elkins never imagined he would achieve the success he has.
“I never dreamed it. It’s hard to realize today. When I was selling it (the business) here the other day, I didn’t realize how much stuff I had.”
See related story: Rogers Group acquires Elk Mountain Construction
Elkins started Elk Mountain Construction in 1986 with one backhoe installing septic systems. He reflected that he drove the backhoe around Jackson County until he had enough work done to pay it off – before adding a truck and trailer. And every year, he would buy more pieces while operating out of the basement of his house in Gainesboro.
“I was my own mechanic and everything there. If I had a flat tire, it took me all day to get it fixed, because I had to hitchhike back to my house and get my pickup and go take it off, bring it back there, fix it and take it back,” he said.
By 1994, Elkins had outgrown his basement and built a shop nearby to work out of.
Keeping his debt low was important to Elkins
It took Elkins several years to expand the business, because he operated with little debt, paying things off as he went along.
“It wasn’t easy, and we took several years to do that (expand). It took me about a year to pay for that backhoe, and then I went from there. Every time I bought something, it was easier to pay for it, because I had more stuff to back it up,” he explained.
Elkins attributes his attitude towards debt with the company’s longevity.
“That’s the reason I’m still alive today. A lot of people went out and into debt and interest went up on them, and they couldn’t make it. I’ve paid my way as I went,” he said. “We always paid our bills when they come in the door. We didn’t wait 90 days, 30 days or whatever…we paid our bills.”
Elk Mountain’s move to Cookeville brings rapid growth
In 2002, he relocated the shop from Gainesboro to Cookeville. At the time, he had only three employees.
His business quickly progressed from only digging septic systems to supplying gravel, topsoil and dirt. From there, Elk Mountain began excavating and clearing land, digging basements and driveways. Their business slowly transitioned from residential to primarily commercial projects. They are now the largest supplier of topsoil and fill dirt in the region.
Elkins attributes this growth to the increased exposure and the friendships he developed over the years.
“I’ve come across a lot of great people in my lifetime, met a lot of nice people and got a lot of great friendships out of it,” Elkins shared. “I bonded with so many people in my life up here that believed in me, I got the work, and it just kept growing.”
Increased business drives innovative solutions
Elkins’ business had increased so much since the move to Cookeville that it was time to begin looking at innovative solutions to supplying the materials he needed on a daily basis.
The answer was to become the supplier of those materials. In 2005, Elkins and partners bought land and developed Cookeville Limestone, a rock quarry that provided the gravel that so many of Elkins’ projects required.
Cookeville Limestone was a successful venture that drew the attention of the Rogers Group, a Nashville-based company specializing in stone, paving and road construction.
Developing a working partnership with Rogers Group
“In 2013, Rogers Group acquired Cookeville Limestone,” said Elkins. “It was a great uniting deal there that led to better friendship, more jobs together, and eventually the sale to Rogers.”
Elk Mountain began to partner with the Rogers Group on projects across the region, such as the Highlands Business Park, Cookeville Regional Medical Center, Hormann and many projects at Tennessee Tech, including the new Recreation Center and the new science building.
Rogers Group would team with Elk Mountain on a turnkey product for their customers, with Rogers Group providing the base and paving, and Elk Mountain providing all the grading, excavation and utility work.
The decision to pass on his legacy
Recently Elkins decided that he was ready for a slower pace, and he began to plan for the future of his company and his employees.
“I worked seven days a week for years, met a lot of great people,” Elkins said. “Rogers is a great company. I picked them to do it.”
After over 30 years in business, Elkins wasn’t going to leave anything to chance in how he left the company. He entrusted his dream to a team he had worked with and knew very well.
“I went out the way that I wanted to go out,” he emphasized. “I didn’t have an auction. I didn’t have to sell. I didn’t have to do anything. I could have kept it, but they’re a great company, a big company. I knew they would be good to the employees, good to me. I knew they would take care of the employees. I knew they would take care of my name. I knew they would likely go in the direction that I was in, and that’s what they want to do – stay in the same focus and same direction.”
Elkins’ plans for the future are to spend some quality time with his family, grandkids, wife, traveling and fishing.
All the things he never took time for.
When asked if he would do anything different, Elkins’ only comment was, “Slow down and enjoy it a little better.”
The keys to his success
Elkins had a few pearls of wisdom for those starting a new career.
“You’ve got to be consistent in what you’re going to do. You’ve got to have direction…consistent direction. Stay on track and know where you’re going,” said Elkins. “You’ve got to build bonds with people. That’s one of the biggest things – bonds, friendships with people and trust.
“One last word of advice – keep your drive going.”