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Out in force

Traffic control company poised to reach 1,000 employees this year

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Flagger Force's Brad Frederick directs traffic at the routes 11 and 15 interchange at Route 274 in Perry County. The Dauphin County company provided traffic control personnel and temporary signage and barriers for the transport of a 310-ton electrical transformer from Duncannon to the PPL Juniata substation on Aug. 13 and 14. Photo/Amy Spangler
Flagger Force's Brad Frederick directs traffic at the routes 11 and 15 interchange at Route 274 in Perry County. The Dauphin County company provided traffic control personnel and temporary signage and barriers for the transport of a 310-ton electrical transformer from Duncannon to the PPL Juniata substation on Aug. 13 and 14. Photo/Amy Spangler

Some people grab life by the horns, while others tend to wait for good things to come to them.

Mike Doner has always opted for the former.

Ten years ago, he and his wife, Michele, started Traffic Control Services, which operates as Flagger Force. It has grown from a part-time company with a staff of three to a full-time endeavor with a national reputation for work zone safety.

"Don't lose your focus. That's the second something can happen," Mike Doner said to a group of new and current flaggers recently on-site for certification and recertification.

The state requires that flagger certification be renewed every three years through four hours of training. Flagger Force employees average 30 hours of training every year on setting up work zones, driving trucks and flagging.

"I worry a lot about the safety of our employees," said Doner, who wears a yellow "safety-driven" wristband. "No job is too urgent that you can't take the time to do it safely the first time."

Through a calculated business risk to honor a two-hour response time pledge to its large utility and contractor clients, Flagger Force has opened offices in King of Prussia, Scranton and Baltimore during the last six years.

One of its first large clients was Philadelphia-based PECO Energy Co.

As a result, the company has averaged 30 percent to 40 percent annually in workforce growth.

Flagger Force posted 2011 revenue of nearly $27 million and is approaching 1,000 employees, said Doner, the company's vice president. In the first year, the Doners made payroll with only $1,000 to spare.

Flagger Force serves more than 500 active customers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Doner's sights now are set on New Jersey. He has been eyeing Flemington and Hillsborough for the company's next branch office to dispatch flagging crews.

With many smaller firms in this industry, Flagger Force's goal is to be the company of choice, Doner said. The company has global-positioning systems in all of its trucks, which could push 500 by the end of the year, and it is making a concerted effort each year to invest in technology and other equipment.

The company spent about $7.5 million last year on new equipment, Doner said.

During the last two years, about $1 million has been invested in proprietary software that appropriates the resources needed for each job and offers real-time scheduling.

"When we started, we were writing things down on paper," Doner said.

The company moved to a whiteboard and then Excel before investing in this specialty program.

"We just need the Internet now to connect to Virginia," he said.

Flagger Force gets calls for about 100 jobs every day. Most require just two or three employees, Doner said.

With the technology in place and the expansion of facilities, Flagger Force plans to move to a 24/7, 365-day-a-year operation by Labor Day. The two-hour response time and emergencies, especially on weekends, are driving that change, Doner said.

"Weather has a huge role to play," he said.

The software program also makes it much easier for the company to expand its territory.

"If we were only going to be a Mid-Atlantic company, we wouldn't have invested in the technology," Doner said.

A long-term growth strategy is being discussed, he said. The Doners are working with internal and external planning teams to determine whether they will open franchise offices, go with an owner-operator model or continue to own and expand organically.

Doner foresees expansion south along the Interstate 95 corridor. The company also could begin moving west, he said.

The focus would be on more densely populated areas — likely older metropolitan areas with a high concentration of utility companies, he said.

"We have a very unique opportunity to put our footprint on this type of growth opportunity," he said.

When the Doners started Flagger Force, the hope was to be in the business for 10 or 15 years, then retire. They hadn't planned on building large facilities, Doner said.

"It's way beyond our wildest imaginations," he said.

Flagger Force history

Late 1980s: A self-described risk taker who loves to go boating, scuba diving and skiing, Mike Doner sees a niche in the market for traffic-control services. Doner is early in his career at a temporary staffing firm that serves Lancaster, York, Adams and Berks counties.

He didn't have the money to start his own company, so he pitches the idea of a traffic-control division to his employer. The initiative is a success.

Clients are still responsible for setting up work zones, while Doner provides flaggers. It is cheaper for utilities and contractors to hire third-party firms that specialize in flagging services to manage work zones.

2002: Stagnant growth in other areas of the staffing business prompt Doner and his wife, Michele, to start their own company. Traffic Control Services, which operates as Flagger Force, begins as a part-time gig for both. With some financial support from family, the Doners begin growing the business outside the staffing company's service territory.

Spring 2006: Doner leaves his full-time employer to focus solely on Flagger Force.

2009: The Dauphin County-based company, which started out of the Doners' home in York Township, moves to its first corporate headquarters in Lower Swatara Township.

July 2012: Traffic Control Services closes on the purchase of its second corporate headquarters in Swatara Township, the former Arcus staffing facility at 8170 Adams Drive. Once the company transitions to the new space this winter, that office will be used for training and as the flagship branch for dispatching flagging crews.

Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin County. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jasons@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal. Circle Jason Scott on .

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