Kelli Pawlik
Photos provided by Alpine Demolition Services
The term “operational excellence” often is applied to global fast-food juggernaut McDonald’s, which uses precision planning to offer well-liked menu items prepared to meet the same quality standards anywhere in the world.

Based in the same region of northern Illinois, Alpine Demolition Services does not claim to have the global presence of its neighbor McDonald’s. However, Alpine owner Kelli Pawlik and her husband, Karsten Pawlik, also point to operational excellence as a factor in their demolition company’s ability to survive and thrive in the competitive Chicagoland demo market.

The Pawliks point to efficient, well-equipped operations in the field as one of several factors that have enabled the company to grow from modest roots in a home basement office to a company that takes on approximately 100 projects annually.

Seeking higher ground

Kelli, Alpine’s owner, and Karsten, who assists with risk management and safety as vice president of operations, were well-suited to start a demolition business when they chose to do so in the early 2000s.

“I have a background in finance and have been president of Alpine Demolition since we started 20 years ago in our basement,” says Kelli, who has a degree in finance from Iowa State University.

Karsten, meanwhile, comes from a family that has been involved in the demolition sector since the mid-20th century. His pre-Alpine career prepared him for the venture they launched 20 years ago.

“I have a degree in civil engineering from the University of Florida and an MBA (Master of Business Administration) from Northern Illinois University,” says Karsten, adding that he used to work for heavy civil contractors prior to Alpine’s establishment.

Their dovetailing areas of expertise have enabled Kelli and Karsten to help the firm steadily grow beyond its modest origins.

“Alpine technically performs over 100 projects per year, ranging from single-family homes to large bridges and buildings,” Kelli says of the company’s current scale.

She refers to Alpine as “a best-in-class contractor servicing customers who demand that level of service.”

The company’s steady growth means Alpine, based in St. Charles, Illinois, is now a long way from its two-person staff origins.

“Alpine has a management and support staff of 12 and over 50 employees in the field,” she adds. “Alpine has the best demolition workers in the industry.”

The Pawliks say securing adequate numbers of qualified employees can be a challenge.

“The operators’ unions in our area have fallen short getting new members trained to have ready when we need them,” Kelli explains. “Last year, we could not even get a mini excavator operator.”

That circumstance provides one more reason Alpine adheres to the founding principle that company leaders should “respect all employees and treat them fairly.” Having the right employees is especially crucial because of the types of jobs Alpine has pursued to spur its growth in the competitive Chicago market, Kelli adds.

Not taking the easy path

Alpine secures projects with a unique strategy of specializing in the hard jobs that other companies “don’t want to or can’t perform,” Kelli says. “Alpine chooses the hard jobs because there is less competition and more margin on these jobs.”

That approach means Kelli and Karsten seek out and closely monitor new demolition and dismantling techniques, as well as newly introduced equipment and technology.

“Alpine is a leader in the latest technology and equipment to provide the best-in-class service,” Kelli says. “Alpine’s mantra is safety, quality and production,” she adds, pointing out that being properly equipped ties into all three of those job site priorities.

The right employees with the most efficient technology are vital for Alpine to maintain its competitive edge, Kelli says. By leveraging the best team members, technology and equipment, the safety-oriented demolition company successfully executes its projects.

Among its investments in equipment and technology are those designed to take down multistory buildings, such as an apartment tower Alpine dismantled in Rockford, Illinois, last year. (See the article “Getting within reach” in this year’s March/April issue of Construction & Demolition Recycling.)

“Alpine has two high-reach excavators that are less than two years old,” Kelli says of the firm’s Volvo 750 and 480 model machines. “Alpine has the only Volvo 750 in the Chicago market.”

The high-reach machines, Kelli says, “differentiate us from our competitors. We can do projects more efficiently and safely than other firms due to their reach.”

In the Rockford project and in other cases, Alpine will deploy European-made Brokk robotic processing and material handling units provided through the manufacturer’s office in Monroe, Washington.

Alpine also deployed an aerial drone in the Rockford apartment project, which played a valuable safety role because it could “survey each building as it was being demolished to make sure no unexpected structural failures were developing,” Karsten says.

Other machines in the Alpine fleet include Caterpillar 349 and 330 model excavators and what Kelli calls a “wide array of attachments ranging from grapples and buckets to processors and breakers.”

Overcoming challenges and staying active

The U.S. economic rebound following COVID-19-related restrictions in the first half of 2020 has provided an active market for demolition contractors, the Pawliks say, but it also includes management challenges.

“Everyone is having issues finding and retaining qualified personnel,” Kelli says, adding, “We are continually adding, promoting and training employees.”

Inflation leading to higher wages and fuel costs means Alpine must closely monitor its costs and margins, sometimes increasing prices to cope with these issues.

New and changing regulations also compete for management attention.

“In Illinois, there are always new laws and changes to laws we need to keep an eye on,” Kelli says. “Alpine is on the board of the Illinois Mechanical and Specialty Contractors Association, where we try to work through any new laws that may spark new issues.”

The better news is that demand for demolition services has been steady in 2022, Kelli says.

“Market conditions are always competitive, but there is a lot of work being bid and awarded,” she adds. “School work in June is really big this year, and there are [a] lot of other small and large jobs where demolition is being performed. Demolition for new warehouses and subdivisions is a big market segment we are working in.”

While Kelli and Karsten are proud of the 20-year journey that has seen Alpine grow from a home-based startup to a considerably larger contracting firm, Kelli says another core Alpine tenet should be kept in mind when looking ahead: “Be humble and kind.”

The willingness to invest in technology to tackle tough jobs and an approach that focuses on treating others well appear to have Alpine poised to continue to reach new heights.

The author is senior editor with Construction & Demolition Recycling magazine and can be contacted at btaylor@gie.net.