Eyes on the future and hearts rooted in Chicagoland, Plote Construction is one smooth operation
When you check out Plote Construction’s Instagram page, you’ll find a few brief words and one bold statement: “We like big machines.” It’s only fitting, then, that The City of the Big Shoulders is home to this notable family-owned firm, whose line of work — and this isn’t a stretch — is alluded to in Carl Sandburg’s iconic Chicago: Building, breaking, rebuilding.
That’s the nature of construction, particularly when it comes to heavy highway building, which is a Plote specialty. Headquartered in Hoffman Estates, Ill., Plote is also an expert in excavation, aggregates, commercial contracting, real estate development, snow removal, asphalt and concrete production, and environmental contracting for the public and private sectors.
As the story goes, the Plote family farm was adjacent to the site of a new stretch of I-90 along Route 25 to Higgins Road in Elgin. Seizing the opportunity, a young Ray Plote approached the contractor, and was hired to operate a road scraper as part of the crew building the tollway. Eventually, Ray and his wife, Jan, invested in their own excavator and launched Plote Construction in 1964.
Today, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority is a Plote client. “Fifty years later we wound up rehabbing the entire tollway,” marveled Austin Varney, Plote’s asphalt superintendent. “That was a pretty proud moment for Plote.”
An early commitment to vertical integration established Plote as a serious contender for projects; currently, Plote-owned companies include Allied Asphalt, aggregate products supplier Beverly Materials, and a newly established concrete materials supplier, Waveland Materials.
Not only does the firm produce the majority of its own asphalt, mixes, concrete, and aggregates, it offers a full slate of environmental services, including organics composting, landfill construction, compost site development, and contaminated soil removal and disposal. Plote comes full-circle with dedicated recycling facilities that handle construction and yard waste as well as shingle recycling.
Deice ice, baby
As of this writing, Chicagoland residents and businesses were plowing through a characteristically cold and snowy winter. For Plote, this means two things: spring planning and snow removal. “This is the time of year when we do quite a bit of work away from the field,” Varney noted. “We actually snow plow for O'Hare Airport, and have several contracts like that to keep us busy.
“This is also a busy season for our estimating department as we get ready for the rest of the year. Estimating gets the ball rolling for the rest of us — there's really nothing we can do without having a job to do,” Varney chuckled. “Once we get a contract our office works on getting prices for job site materials. While we have our own gravel pit, we also work with other vendors to purchase stone and asphalt additives, cement for our concrete plants, and so forth. All of those deals start happening right around now.”
When it comes to cooperation, Plote is an “all hands on deck” operation. “(The asphalt division) typically directly follows the excavation department and their ability to organize themselves. It helps us tremendously in our scheduling and our planning. The concrete division is right behind us, so there's quite a bit that has to happen ahead of both divisions to make sure it all gets done on time. We’re very successful with it.”
Varney explained that once contracts are in hand and the necessary materials in the right quantity are lined up, Plote’s quality control department jumps into action. QC reviews each project and its specifications, and begins the process of creating customized surface material combinations, or “mixes,” for each job on the schedule. “This is one of their busy seasons, getting all the mixes together and approved. All of our mixes have to get approved by whatever owner we're working for,” Varney clarified. “Right now, it's a big coordination project to get all that put together and ready to go so that when the weather does break, we can hit the road and go,” said Varney.
The importance of pairing the right mix for the right use can’t be overstated. According to the National Asphalt Association, “Surface mixes can be customized to absorb noise, to reduce splash and spray during rainstorms, and even to help treat rain water.”
Customers in the private and public sectors have specific quality standards for material use. For example, the City of Chicago has its own quality standards for mixes that vary from project to project, as does the Chicago Department of Aviation, the agency that partners with the city to oversee construction work at O’Hare. The agency is known for its dedication to green construction initiatives, such as using soil collected from excavation projects, recycling, and landscape reuse.
In 2018, as part of the ongoing O’Hare Modernization Project, Plote built a deicing pad designed to make it faster for aircraft to get to departure runways after deicing. “For many years, deicing was typically done at the terminal gates,” Varney said. “The new Central Deicing Facility (CDF) is 80-plus acres in the middle of O’Hare. Planes taxi out to the pad, get deiced, and pull right out to the taxiway for takeoff.”
The CDF pad must stand up to the weight of fully loaded passenger and cargo aircraft. “What is required in this kind of process is a very thick base of material. We use a special type of asphalt that we affectionately call ‘popcorn’ asphalt.” The technical term is actually asphalt treated permeable base, or ATPB. “The asphalt goes down in place of a basic stone layer that allows water to penetrate through that lip of material and drain out. We set 6 inches of ATPB, and put another 6 inches of binder on top of that.”
Binder changes the composition of asphalt and concrete to maximize their performance characteristics. Binders may also need to be modified depending on their use and the climate in which the work occurs. A binder can help keep the asphalt as stiff or as malleable as it needs to be, and can help coatings adhere to aggregates. Atop the 12 inches of ATPB and binder is another 13, 17 or 19 inches of concrete. “We placed close to 300,000 tons of asphalt on that job alone,” he stated.
But that’s not quite all. Plote’s work on the CDF, which opened in December 2018, also used 220,000 cubic yards of concrete in addition to excavating and moving over a half-million cubic yards of earth. “That's why we had to work around the clock to get it done,” Varney laughed.
A high degree of diligence is required to track and fulfill constantly changing specifications that cover preferred materials. “There are basic generic types of materials that are always going to be used, but there are also many specialty materials, depending on the project, that you're going to need. For example, we use a product called stone matrix asphalt, or SMA. While Illinois has been using SMA for 10 or 15 years, Plote is gaining a foothold using SMA in larger, more highly traveled projects.” SMA helps keep ruts from forming on paved surfaces. It also helps with noise reduction as many of these highways go through residential towns. Additionally, the porous texture allows water from pooling on the surface and becoming a hazard to the motoring public.
“The company that we buy our materials keeps up to date so they can have those materials on hand and ready for us as we get into the season. It's a constant flow of changing specifications, and even the generic mix designs that we use for standard surfaces and standard binders can have miniscule changes in parameters almost every year, so we deal with constant change.” Such precise preparation keeps Plote ahead of the curve, no matter the season or the complexity of the specs.
Building a sustainable future for the planet and the company
Environmental sustainability is a Plote cornerstone. To date, the firm has produced and used in excess of one million tons of recycled material, including asphalt roof shingles (RAS), stone, concrete, and of course, asphalt. Recycling asphalt roof shingles keeps them out of the landfill, and cuts down the need for new liquid asphalt and stone production. With millions of tons of shingles discarded in the US every year, that’s just one a significant sustainability play for the firm.
Additionally, Plote recycles hundreds of thousands of tons of asphalt and concrete for use in road construction projects. Four mobile recycling plants further support their commitment to being an environmentally responsible construction company.
Nurturing human talent is another critical aspect that defines Plote’s history of quality on-time and on-budget performance. The Plote Leadership Program provides future leaders with specialized training. Varney, who is taking part in this year’s program, said, “Sixteen members meet once a month for rigorous leadership training, and to learn how to become better people and better leaders. It’s been an amazing experience, and I’m so glad to be with a company that sees this as an advantage for them. They want to see people in the organization stay, and we’re all extremely grateful for that.”
Broadening their scope is another step in the company’s future proofing. According to the company’s website, “In addition to its vast construction experience, Plote Construction has expertise in real estate planning, zoning, entitlements, property management, leasing, site selection, land development and acquisition and disposition.”
“We’ve been making a very aggressive push to get into the private sector, where we don’t necessarily have to be the low bidder to get a project. Quality and production are what drives the job. We've been extremely successful at that, we've done some contracts here in the last few years for some pretty awesome and amazing customers,” he admitted. “Our team is made up of some very special people that have common goals, those goals are centered around continuing the tradition and culture of the Plote name. We establish relationships that show Plote is here to do the best job we possibly can.”
Plote’s values drive your results.
Safety: Before all else safety paves the way.
Family: Plote is a group of individuals focused on providing success and stability for the benefit of its employees, customers, and the community.
Integrity: Being courageous, trustworthy, and accountable defines our integrity.
Direction: Plote’s mission, being of true north course, provides the company guidance towards its continued success.
Personnel: Plote’s strengths stem from its people, who are highly skilled, creative, and have a can-do spirit interacting in a mutually respectful manner.
Teamwork: Plote’s teams effectively communicate and cooperate to achieve shared goals for the benefit of its employees, customers, and the community.