SPONSORED: Toby Drake knew he would go into construction when he grew up.
His father, Wayne Drake, owned the only civil contracting company in Kotzebue. While other kids his age did what 10-year-olds in the community did, Drake practiced digging ditches with a backhoe in the backyard.
"My mom wasn't crazy about it, but I always filled the holes in," Drake joked. "I loved equipment as a kid, so I knew I'd get into the business as an adult. And when I grew up, I learned to love the challenge of figuring out how the family business was going to succeed."
The business of opportunities
Based out of Kotzebue, Drake Construction is a civil contracting company working on everything from roads and building foundations to airports and underground sewer and water.
In 1982, during Alaska's recession, the family moved from Oregon to Kotzebue for what was supposed to be an 18-month stint. Wayne, the Drake patriarch, had accepted a job building a Kotzebue high school addition and planned to finish his contract, then move to Anchorage for other work. Shortly before the project was completed, the company he was working for went out of business and Wayne decided to stay, finishing the job.
"After that, he looked around and said there's work to be done here, so he bought the two pieces of equipment and the family went up there to stay," Drake said. "He saw the opportunity in the northwest Arctic and decided to see what would happen."
The family is still in Kotzebue 34 years later, but they've grown the company from roughly four employees and three pieces of equipment to an average of 34 employees a season and more than 100 pieces of equipment. Drake Construction has also expanded the scope of their work, evolving to meet the needs and demands of the communities they serve.
That, Drake says, is what has made their business so fruitful.
The Drake team started out doing one thing: putting sewer lines in houses. Recognizing no one in the area was putting in concrete, they started a batch plan, got a cement truck and began their expansion. Later, noting an Anchorage company that came up to move a building, they realized a project of that scope could easily fit into their wheelhouse and bought moving equipment. Eventually, Drake Construction also became a marine company out of necessity to serve the waterways of Kotzebue and the villages on the Seward Peninsula by expanding with a tug and barge.
"It's been about being able to see opportunities and figuring out how to do it," Drake said.
Thriving in an arctic climate can be challenging for a business that can only operate during summer months. Being able to handle logistics, Drake said, has been integral for the business to prosper.
"You basically get a degree in logistics if you work in rural Alaska," Drake said. "We only have two barges a year now, so if you want something on the barge in June, to get here in July, you have to think about that item in February or March. We can't just run down to (a big box store) if we need something."
Supplies can range from insulated arctic pipe and lumber to bulldozers and loaders.
"A lot of work and forethought goes into planning for what we need, getting financing lined up, getting the truck to the port on time — all to meet a barge that won't be to us for another month," Drake said.
Another hurdle for arctic companies is the abbreviated Alaska summer. Drake said they generally have 100 to 110 days in their season to finish 365 days of work.
"Right when you get into the rhythm, all of your guys are clicking, your equipment is working right, then all of the sudden it's September and it's time to shut down," Drake said. "In April I had my core guys out there digging the equipment out of the snow. It's like starting a new business every year. With such a short season, the pressure is on from day one."
Drake said the cyclical nature of the state may be the hardest part of maintaining the business.
Drake explained that is why his company does so much. In larger cities, there might be one company that does civil contracting, while another pours concrete and a third does gravel.
"We had to become all of that," Drake said. "The nice part of that is we can zig and zag with the economy and the flow of money in terms of what projects come out. If it's sewer and water, we can do that. If it's gravel, we can fire up the barge and go get it. We can move with the current of the economy. We're typically busy, we just don't know what we're going to be busy with year to year."
Having a good crew, Drake said, has also helped immeasurably.
"I've got guys up here I'd put up against any crew in the state," Drake said. "And beyond that, it's the team you have behind you: your bankers, your bonding folks, your insurance people, your counsel. Having those people behind you to make sure you're steering the car in the right direction and your crew out in front to make sure everything shapes up, makes everything easier."
Planning for the future
Long before Drake was excavating the backyard during childhood, he was adopted in California and his parents were told he was Cherokee. In the 90s, while thinking about bids on projects that gave advantage to minority-owned companies, he decided to have his heritage proven, spurring him and his mother to begin research.
Months later, he got a call from Anchorage: Turned out, he is not Cherokee, he's Athabaskan and originally from the Fairbanks area.
"I had no idea, but after finding that out, everything made sense," Drake said.
He enrolled in a program with Doyon, the Alaska Native Regional Corporation, that would eventually allow him to bid on projects as a minority-owned company. Through the program, Drake was able to work on projects as far away as Puerto Rico, Kodiak and on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
Drake said his favorite aspect of his gig is bidding on projects.
"It's about how I can figure out the mousetrap that the next guy won't," Drake said. "You might know that this particular job is in a tough logistical spot and there are some nuances that the owner wants done. It's about how can we approach this differently so we get the job."
While continuing the program, Drake had his own business on the side that paralleled Drake Construction, which his dad then owned. Once he'd graduated, he and Wayne decided to merge the companies under the banners of Drake Construction and Drake Investments in 2001. Drake became majority owner, allowing them to keep Native status and, in 2006, he bought the company outright from his father.
"I've loved every minute of it," Drake said. "I'm very proud of the work our companies have done. It's rewarding because you start the morning with nothing and by the end of the day you can see serious progress."
This article was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.