The Journey of the Owner/Operator: Sam Eaton
By Max Winemiller, product manager, CASE Construction Equipment.
There may be no occupation that represents the roots of the construction industry better than the owner/operator.
Sam Eaton — a living, breathing and working example of the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality that drives many — has roots that run deeper than most.
Eaton was born and raised in southwestern Pennsylvania, and except for an eight-year period in North Carolina, has spent all of his 80 years here. As the owner and sole operator of Eaton Excavating in Clinton, he runs the business his way and continues to do what he loves most.
“I like site development. I like a lot of finish work, dozer work,” he says. “Right now, I'm doing house work in a rural area not too far from Pittsburgh. It's all farm country out here and I do a lot of work for farmers, building roads. Lot of site development for houses. I'm working on a five-acre lot right now, and they're putting an $800,000 house on it a few miles away from my house. But that's a typical job. I do lakes, ponds, clearing. A lot of times I go out and take trees down with the backhoe.”
Eaton grew up operating machinery on a family farm that dates back to 1750. Running heavy equipment came naturally.
“Back in '54, I went in the steel mill and I operated heavy overhead cranes. I saw the steel mills leaving the country, and I started thinking about a different occupation. It wasn't too much of a transition to just jump over to heavy equipment.”
Eaton sought greener pastures in 1985 in the booming North Carolina construction market. After a heart attack in 1992, he returned to his roots and moved back to Pennsylvania. He’s been running his own business full time since then with no immediate end in sight. And he’s earned a loyal following over the years.
“I get a lot of referrals,” he says. “Either jobs for people that I've worked for before, or they referred me to somebody else. I have one builder that I work with, I've done work for him for a while, and I'll probably get repeat work out of that.”
“I've been doing this for so long most people must think I'm pretty good at it,” he says with a laugh.
You won’t find Eaton chasing the latest technology or swapping machines out every two or three years. Eaton has relied on an old 1983 CASE 450B dozer that he bought when it was three years old. It’s been a workhorse for him for more than 30 years. And, much like himself, Eaton hasn’t set a retirement date for his 450B.
“I bought that in North Carolina in about '86, [when it was] three years old. I was impressed with the 450 loader (CASE made a steel tracked loader at the time). They upgraded the track system and went to that Chrysler-designed transmission which was fantastic. When I had a chance to buy a small dozer, I bought a 450B. They both have the same engine, same transmission.”
A vintage dozer working on a big jobsite generates a lot of interest.
“Most people, when I come on a job say, ‘How come you don't have a bigger dozer?’ I say, ‘Well, wait till the job's over, then ask me that.’ They’re always amazed at what I can do with that machine. That little machine will move a lot of dirt for a 50-some horsepower engine.”
Well past any warranty or service agreement, Eaton performs his own maintenance on the 450B, sourcing parts from his local CASE dealer.
“We have a shop and my two sons are pretty good mechanics. So, if we have any breakdowns I buy the parts and put them on myself.”
“If I’m going to maintain it, I want something that’s bulletproof,” Eaton continues. “That’s what I found with the 450B. Very little maintenance. I’ve never had any breakage. Yeah, it's getting pretty old now [but] I've never ordered a part they didn't have. So far so good. As long as I can get parts for it I'll keep running it.”
Eaton’s not stuck in the past. He just doesn’t have reason to trade up. And he’s practical.
“I don’t want to go in debt at 80 years old.”
And while subfreezing weather may keep Eaton off his 450B from time-to-time this winter, he plans to keep working for the foreseeable future. And remaining fiercely independent — a throwback owner/operator of the best kind.
“I don’t know how much longer I’m gonna be able to do it,” he concludes. “I’m in pretty decent health right now.
I’ll probably keep doing the same thing.”