For Pat Alpers, the story isn’t about her being a woman in a male-dominated field. It’s all about Alpers Excavating being a family enterprise. Among the firm’s 20 employees are seven other family members: sons Bryan, Chris, Mathew, Dirk, and Brent, daughter Joanne Merrifield and her husband John Merrifield, Pat’s son-in-law.
That it’s a family business makes sense—that’s how it started with Pat and her husband, Jim, in 1969. Jim Alpers was a longtime railroad man who decided he needed to find additional means to supplement his income for his growing family. The company started humbly. “My husband worked for the C&O Railroad, and we had to find something else while raising our family. We had an opportunity to buy some fill dirt and we were helping out friends. He did it on his days off (from the railroad),” Pat says.
More and more people began asking for their services, and Jim Alpers Excavating was born. At the time, he was still working for the railroad—but not for long. “I told him either the railroad or excavating,” Pat says. “He decided to work with excavating.” Good thing, as it was just two years later that the railroad left Traverse City.
It was a true Mom and Pop operation. In those days before cell phones, when they got a call, Pat would have to load up the kids (they eventually had seven) and go find Jim. The youngsters soon began helping out as well. “When the boys were little kids, they would wash windows,” Pat remembers. “They all had to know the meaning of hard work.” Today Pat’s grandchildren are following their parents’ footsteps as well, working as they are able, making it three generations of Alpers in the business.
Tragedy struck in 1990 when Jim was diagnosed with lung cancer and died. The company carried on, now with Pat as the lead Alpers, which she still is today. “It’s good for me. The office is in my home. It’s been a reason to get out of bed,” she says with a laugh.
Another challenge came with the downturn in the economy a decade ago. “When the economy went down, a lot of people in this business left or sold out. We continued and survived,” she says.
That longevity and the company’s reputation have served it well. Alpers says while the business is built upon successfully bidding for jobs, many times their customers come to them knowing they’ll be charged a fair price. That often becomes an agreement to pay for their time and materials without submitting a formal bid. “When people ask for us they know our reputation. They don’t want a dollar amount right away.”
Recent projects have included work at Crystal Mountain Resort, Thirlby Field and Mari Vineyards on Old Mission Peninsula. The company offers a range of services, from residential work to commercial and municipal. They still provide top soil and fill, just as Jim Alpers did back in 1969, as well as demolition, grading, road building, even septic systems, drain fields, and water and sewer hookup.
Pat says the company has earned the respect of its peers, which she says is a two-way street. “We have a good relationship with other companies. We’re friends with Elmer’s and others in the business.” They often work with other companies on projects that go beyond their own expertise. “(They) do the things we don’t, like boring under a road. That’s their specialty. We don’t do asphalt. You can only do so many things.”