Outlook 2022: ‘Right moves’ help Jackson Demolition double revenue in challenging times

Jackson Demolition lead operating engineer Arnold Drouin operates a 352 Cat excavator as they tear down the former First Prize Center in Albany
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Jackson Demolition lead operating engineer Arnold Drouin operates a 352 Cat excavator as they tear down the former First Prize Center in Albany

SCHENECTADY — The little tree-removal business started in Schenectady in 1949 is now a structural demolition operation working on projects as far away as Texas.

Jackson Demolition Service managed to complete its latest growth spurt in the past two years, nearly doubling its revenue to $50 million amid the pandemic that caused so much trouble for some other businesses.

“We’ve invested significantly in people and we have made the right moves,” said Mark Ramun, vice president of industrial sales.

“COVID affected our business for sure,” he said, explaining that many clients halted work during the initial surge in the spring of 2020. “So what happened to us is we lost about $8 million in contracted value that went on hold indefinitely,” Ramun said. “We were very fortunate to pick up a very large project, a two-and-a-half-year project in Alabama.

“We didn’t have any layoffs.”

Jackson Demolition has taken down derelict houses right in its hometown and large paper mills many hundreds of miles away. Last year it demolished most of the deteriorating buildings at the former Tryon youth detention facility in Fulton County, and it’s currently taking down one of the most prominent eyesores in the Capital Region: the old First Prize meat-packing plant in Albany.

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Jackson Demolition jumped from 85 to 130 employees during this last stretch of growth and was looking to hire five more at the end of January.

Further growth may come from expanding geographical reach with offices outside the region and from expanding services performed.

“We want to grow the environmental remediation side of our business, which largely pertains to ground and water contamination,” Ramun said.

Company President Alexander “Sandy” Jackson is also considering the sale of a majority stake to an outside investor, which would be a new chapter and a new phase of growth.

LIFE’S WORK
Jackson Demolition was begun as Jackson Tree Service in 1949 by Sandy’s half-brother Fred. The six-man operation removed trees in and around Schenectady but added structural demolition services over the years.

Jackson worked there as a teenager one year and accepted an offer to buy it the next year.

“I took it over out of high school,” he said. He operated initially under the DBA Jackson Tree and Demolition Service, but dropped “tree” from the name in 1978 and incorporated it as Jackson Demolition Service.

“I never did much of the tree cutting,” Jackson said. “I did mostly demolition work and some land clearing.”

Another big change: His focus shifted away from residential work.

Jackson Demolition still does residential demolition in the Capital Region, but more than 80% of its revenue is industrial work.

“I realized that to get bigger I had to get into industrials,” Jackson recalled.

A turning point in the path of his life and for his company was landing a contract to demolish a former Bayer aspirin factory in Rensselaer, around the same time General Electric was gearing up to level a significant portion of its sprawling Schenectady complex.

“The Bayer aspirin work let me look GE in the eye and ask for some of that work,” Jackson said.

His company wound up performing a series of demolitions for GE, and this work cemented Jackson’s reputation in the industrial sector.

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Anyone with an excavator can take down a two-story house, Ramun said, but the owners of major industrial structures demand a record packed with safe results, plus full liability insurance.

Jackson Demolition doesn’t pursue small residential contracts far away from its base on Schenectady’s Northside — the expense of moving large machinery and a crew with proper certifications to a distant site is significant and a project has to be large, complicated and lengthy enough to recoup the cost.

ART AND SCIENCE
At times, Jackson Demolition consults with outside engineers or other experts to analyze a structure it has been hired to take down.

But much of its work is guided by experience, not formal training. Jackson himself didn’t go to college. He learned by watching, asking and then doing.

There’s sometimes a point at which he realizes there might be an unknown unknown, something missing from the equation that he can’t identify.

“Sometimes I just don’t like the way it looks. And what I do when I get to that point is call smarter people than me, or different people who have been in similar situations,” Jackson said.

“Demolition is not a science, it’s an art,” Ramun said. “You try to make it as much a science as possible, but it’s still an art.”

The blunt-force tool commonly associated with the industry, the wrecking ball, is now relegated to a display of battered specimens outside the Jackson Demolition headquarters on Anthony Street.

“The wrecking ball is widely recognized, but we have replaced our wrecking balls with high-reach machines,” Ramun said.

“A lot of the demolition techniques we employ are re-engineering the building to have designed weaknesses, and we pull on the building from a safe distance and let it fall.”

The safest plan is often to knock it over, move in beside it and chop it up where it lies. That way, nothing will collapse underneath the workers or fall on them.

“There’s areas in First Prize like that,” Ramun said. “The building’s so old and the floors are so decrepit, or the roof is so decrepit, that you have to evaluate your hazards as you go.”

A bit of ingenuity and a little tinkering are sometimes what get the job done safely.

Ramun, a third-generation demolition contractor, said this mindset led his father and grandfather — neither of them engineers — to design, build and patent a hydraulic shear that is one of the go-to tools in the demolition industry.

He shows photos of a crab-like robot perched atop a 750-foot smokestack at one Jackson Demolition project. The stack couldn’t be brought down safely with explosives: A cemetery was 50 feet from one side of the stack, the main power line for that part of the state was 100 feet in another direction and a protected waterway was 200 feet in a third direction.

So the robot methodically chipped away from the top down, a foot at a time.

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Jackson Demolition modifies many pieces of factory-built equipment in-house, Ramun said, adding water sprayers to keep the dust down, cameras for a bird’s-eye view, counterweights to keep the machine upright, armor above the cab to protect the operator and more armor underneath the machine to protect its mechanicals.

What Jackson can’t buy and modify it will sometimes fabricate from scratch, Ramun said, and many of its competitors do the same. The industry is small enough that manufacturers don’t design everything to fit the specialized needs that arise.

Looking forward, he said, Jackson Demolition doesn’t expect to gain much business directly from the infrastructure spending planned by states and the federal government. But the drive toward green energy should keep its people and their modified demolition machinery busy — someone has to get rid of the old fossil fuel-burning power plants.
“We have a saying,” Ramun said: “You can find our next project if you find the carbon.”

STILL AT WORK
When The Gazette called Sandy Jackson out of the blue to interview him for this story, he obligingly checked his calendar for an opening.

“Well, I’m going to Alabama Saturday,” he said, just like anyone else might discuss their weekend plans. “We’re blowing up a smokestack.”

At 68 years old, with a half-century in the profession, Jackson’s voice still conveys enthusiasm for the work, the people he works with and the problems they figure out how to solve.

“What would you do without it?” he says. “I’ve got a great life, and part of the secret is the people I have around me.”
Jackson was born a British subject in Jamaica and wound up in Schenectady because his father had worked in the city at General Electric many years earlier.

“In buildings that I later tore down,” Jackson added.

He has kept the headquarters in Schenectady and kept a home here, even as out-of-state contracts grew to supply 80% of his company’s revenue and as he spent more time at a residence in Florida.

It is, he said, due to affection for the people he’s worked with over the years.

Jackson credits some of his competitors with his success.

“John Bloomfield was instrumental in my growth,” he said of the owner of Bloomfield Building Wreckers, a mentor who was at his side on that first big project, the former Bayer factory.

Michael Patrick Cristo, owner of M. Cristo, assisted him with a project at the Watervliet Arsenal. “He parked his company, shut it down and ran my machine,” Jackson said.

Frank Santoro & Sons loaned him a set of wheels for his lowboy trailer at a critical moment when a job was on the line, but more often was just a source of knowledge. “I used to sit on the job and watch them. I learned so much from them.”

The list of people he’s enjoyed working with continues from there.

“That kindness you only find in your hometown — in such a small area you know everybody,” he said. “The goodness is not in the weather, it’s not in the taxes, it’s in the people.”

Jackson Demolition Service
FOUNDED: 1949
LOCATION: 397 Anthony St., Schenectady
EMPLOYEES: 130
BUSINESS: Knocking down obsolete or decayed industrial and residential structures; site remediation

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Categories: Business, Outlook 2022, Schenectady, Your Niskayuna

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