Story written for Compact Equipment magazine and first appeared in March 2022
Curtis Allen is no stranger to taking risks. Surrounded
by his equally adventurous brothers, he recalls plenty of times they engaged in
There was the time they all went skydiving. And he cannot forget about the toboggan ride they took down the mountain after visiting the Great Wall of China – “That was pretty sketchy,” he recalls with a laugh.
But even jumping out of an airplane and flying down a mountain on a rickety sled pale in comparison to the risks he took to establish, grow, and improve efficiency of his business, Gila Water Management.
He started the company in 2018, focused on maintaining irrigation canals for the local Irrigation District in Thatcher, Arizona. The small community is the Upper Gila River Valley, northeast of Tucson.
Along the 25-plus miles of canals he’s responsible for, most of the work is reclamation. He explained, “When I started, there was a lot of overgrowth and areas that hadn’t been touched in years. I’m getting it where it needs to be, as well as ongoing maintenance and cleaning. It’s a big job.”
Curtis strives to run an efficient, effective company. His company’s small size – “It’s just me and two other guys full time,” he said – and large workload means the right equipment and top-notch services are must-haves. He learned that early on, with challenges he faced practically from day one.
Searching for Equipment and a Partner
When Curtis took over the work for the Irrigation District, he inherited a backhoe that had severe problems.
“My contract began on January 1. The backhoe had to go in for service on January 2,” he remembered.
Curtis took the backhoe to a local dealership. While it did get repaired, he was dissatisfied with the process, from the timeline to the total cost for service, with most of the issues stemming from poor communication from the dealer.
Not long after the experience, he felt it was worth the investment to move on from the problem-plagued backhoe and buy one that would be more reliable. After his experience with the local dealer, Curtis wanted a different partner but there wasn’t another equipment dealer in the area. So, he expanded his search and found RDO Equipment Co., a John Deere dealer with multiple stores in Arizona.
Even though he grew up around and had operated other manufacturers’ equipment, Curtis had no concerns about making the change to Deere equipment. “Deere makes good machines,” he said.
The one thing he was concerned about with RDO was that it was more than just a few miles down the road. RDO’s closest store was in Tucson…200 miles away.
Risk to Reward
Early signs were good that Curtis made the right choice. Going in with a tight budget, Curtis assumed the “new” addition to his fleet would be a used one. However, Sales Professional, John Davis showed him how financing options worked in his favor, and he could get the exact machine he wanted: a new 410L backhoe.
After getting it onsite, Curtis found the Deere backhoe was the reliable workhorse he expected. But Curtis, always looking to improve efficiency, quickly identified that a mini excavator would be the next smart addition to his fleet. It would offer greater range of motion and functionality on certain tasks compared to the backhoe. There was one condition: he only wanted the machine if RDO could pair it with a tilt rotator.
John worked with engcon® a specialty attachment manufacturer that also offers a tilt rotator. The engcon tilt rotator is essentially a coupler that enables attachment changes without having to leave the machine’s cab. They added it to a Deere 50G mini excavator.
“Curtis’ work often meant he’d need to dig a trench, put pipe in the ground, then bury the trench, so that’s three different attachments he’s switching for one job,” John said. “The engcon would let him do the whole job without getting out of the cab to switch the attachments. It was going to save him a lot of time.”
Curtis was so please with the combo, he added an engcon to his backhoe as well – even though, “No other company in the country had put an engcon on a backhoe before!” he said.
His gambles paid off and Curtis was able to up his efficiency game and double his work with the Irrigation District by his second year. He started looking at the next area of opportunity to improve his business.
Making the Grade
In 2019, Curtis purchased a Deere 333G compact track loader (CTL) with a dozer blade. It was another great tool that played a key role in helping him maintain the canals.
“We’re cleaning and dredging, then we need to clean up the slopes and slope away as the final step,” he said.
Because the machine did not have grade guidance, Curtis and his operator were simply eyeballing the work. That led to extra passes and a lot of rework – sometimes twice as much time spent going back to fix the work that had been done.
In 2020, Curtis saw Deere’s launch of its new SmartGrade™ CTL at CONEXPO-CON/AGG. He was convinced it was exactly what he needed. It was the industry’s first 3D grade control solution on a compact piece of equipment. These types of systems have been proven to greatly increase productivity, with some of Deere’s earliest tests showing grading productivity gains of at least double, up to four times the productivity compared to a dozer without one.
John agreed the SmartGrade CTL would work well for Curtis and reached out to Matt Asche, a Deere territory sales manager. He arranged for Curtis to demo a prototype at John Deere’s Proving Grounds in Sacaton, Arizona. He was hooked.
In November of 2021, Curtis received RDO’s first SmartGrade CTL in its Southwest region. Even with minimal experience running grade guidance, Curtis and his operator got up to speed quickly, thanks in part to help from another RDO team member, Jason Riley, a compact construction sales professional based out of RDO’s store in Chandler.
Curtis also realized the benefits quickly, saying, “I have run this exact machine with the blade, both with and without the 3D guidance. Without grade guidance, I was making 10 to 12 passes on a road, trying to get the right grade. Now with it, I do a better job in only three or four passes.”
All the Pieces of the Puzzle
Gila Water Management continued to grow throughout the past two years, even with pandemic challenges, and is planning for more growth this year.
Curtis acknowledges that the machines and technology have been game-changers for his operation. He understands that many companies, especially smaller ones, are hesitant to try new machines and technology because of the belief that the investment is too risky. But he sees those moves as risks he can’t afford not to take.
“I operate with a razor-thin budget,” he said. “And I would pay double what the engcon and SmartGrade cost because they save that much time and do the work that much better.”
Service also plays a big role in Curtis’ success. He credits RDO’s fast response time for getting him out of a pinch more than once, saying, “They’ve had a technician out to me the same day, sometimes within a couple hours of me making the call.”
And that experience calmed his initial – and biggest – hesitation of working with RDO, the initial risk he expected partnering with a company two hours away: response time.
“Going into things, I fully expected to wait at day or even two for service,” he said. “I took a chance on RDO. It was a risk that I hoped would pay off and it has.”
While his risky days may be far from over, Curtis can take comfort in knowing that partnering with a trusted company means he’s never gambling on equipment and service.
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