Special feature: James Sokalski

By: Ed, Photography by: Supplied

Deals on Wheels catches up with James Sokalski, who sold up most of his contracting equipment and moved to the US, setting up a business there

Regular readers of the magazine will be familiar with James Sokalski of JPS Earthmoving, as he has been featured at least three times previously.

The first time I spoke with him would have been in late 2017. He was about to embark on a holiday to the US, and I had not long talked the 20-year-old self-employed contractor into writing an article about his take on the contracting industry there (DOW 295; Feb 2018).

We followed that up a few months later with a closer look at his Wellington-region-based business (DOW 300; June 2018).

At that stage, diesel-mechanic-turned-contracting-business-owner had a couple of staff, four excavators of varying sizes (all Hitachi), and was about to receive his first brand-new 25-tonne machine, again a Hitachi. He was specialising in civil and forestry work.

A couple of years later, in mid-2020, around the high point of the pandemic, we had a brief catch-up with him (DOW 325; May 2020), where he was using an Attach2-supplied grab bucket on a Carterton workshop demolition.

Keeping in touch

In 2020, James was demolishing a Carterton workshop

I’ve kept in touch with James on a semi-regular basis, probably because he reminds me a bit of myself at that age — never afraid of giving things a crack, although, we diverge on backgrounds. I grew up in a family that breathed trucks and machinery, whereas he has no immediate parental connections to the industry; it’s something that makes him relatively unique.

In the intervening years since the Carterton demo job — although we didn’t document it — James’ business continued down the civil/forestry paths and also moved into road maintenance, traffic control, and machine recovery. With this came decent-size staff and equipment numbers, which, at one stage, even included two tracked road milling machines working throughout the North Island.

"When the prices of logs began to drop and forestry work slowed up, we moved more into vegetation management jobs for the larger roading companies and that opened other opportunities for the business," says James.

When I spoke to him in 2022, he made mention of a possible relocation to the US. He was keen on the lifestyle and to get involved in what’s probably the largest earthmoving market in the world for a Western-bred contractor.

Not in a relationship or having any children gave him the freedom to make such a big life change at 25, so by early 2023, he had downsized his New Zealand business and made the geographical move.

"At home, I kept my first five-tonne excavator that now spends its time on a farm of one of my employees who, over the years, has become family. I also kept two 20-tonners, and a
six-wheeler, along with two staff to operate them on the JPS earthmoving business," says James.

"It’s good to have a base there still, as well as being able to hedge the currency having something in both in the US and New Zealand."

On the ground in Tennessee

The new yard is taking shape

It’s early 2024 when I caught up with James, around eight months after his move to Tennessee. He found himself just out of Nashville in a town of 41,000 people right in the heart of the work that James has been chasing — mulching, clearing, and bulk excavation, although, as you will see, he isn’t turning down other jobs.

As we speak, he’s preparing for a move in a couple of weeks to a small town of around 4000 people, sitting a further 45 minutes south of Nashville and three hours from Memphis.

After taking a virtual drive around, thanks to Google Street View, I commented that he successfully found a US version of Carterton, New Zealand. A few minutes down the road from his JPS USA LLC yard is also where James has just purchased a brand-new house on just over an acre of land for a price that would make anyone in New Zealand green with envy, even when the exchange rate is taken into account.

"I wouldn’t say this is my ‘dream house’ but it makes a great investment to rent out once I find my dream house. I feel the property market here is where New Zealand was 15 years ago. I aim to purchase more properties and even hope to own some land in different states," says James.

Tooling up

James Sokalski relocated to Tennessee, US in early 2023

With all the paperwork taken care of, James is fully set up as a legitimate US business. Along with the usual small ancillary equipment seen in a contractor’s fleet, his work focus is on the bigger stuff, so he has tooled up with a 325hp FAE PT300 tracked carrier with mulching head and a 25-tonne Caterpillar 325F L excavator.

"I put a lot of my own money into getting set up, but as I’m starting from scratch here, one thing about the US is that credit score is everything. It doesn’t matter if you have a 75% deposit; they won’t even look at you without a credit score. It’s a nightmare honestly; you have to have credit to get a credit score but they won’t give you credit unless you have a credit score — a real chicken and egg problem," says James.

"One good thing is that Cat Finance was able to use my New Zealand information, and it reduced my interest rate.

"My next purchase will probably be a yard machine and that will keep me sorted for the next short while. I want to focus on building without debt — a few people I look up to in the industry have been giving me some guidance — and only using it where needed to build credit score, as one day, I may require a large capital loan."

A clean slate

The two main pieces of kit ready to start the day

As we speak on the phone, James is wandering around a block of land so he can prepare a quote.

"It’s crazy; this site is solid rock and the trees are growing out of the cracks," says James. "I haven’t seen land like this back home. The owners want me to clear out around 21 acres.

"The difference between here and New Zealand is that mulching work might be two weeks of the year for us there, but in the US, I can run mulching gear full-time."

The heavy snow that brought the region to a near standstill is a couple of weeks behind him, so James is ready to make a start on a demolition job, followed by some land clearing once the contract is finalised.

"Those two jobs will keep me going for six to eight weeks and there are others to price," James says.

Getting established

The FAE PT300 tracked carrier on mulching duties

James tells me that the hardest thing is getting established, although, being new in town (or the country for that matter) was something he expected to encounter.

"The Kiwi accent is a good conversation starter, and I’ve found the people here really great. But you end up having the same conversation over and over," says James.

"I feel like getting a T-shirt that says: ‘No, I’m not from Australia. Yes, New Zealand isn’t a part of Australia. No, you can’t drive to the US from New Zealand. I feel that would save a bit of time.

"To get my name out there, I’ve joined a state-wide contractors association, but these jobs came from my social media presence, which I’ve been focusing on.

"You’re basically starting with a totally clean slate. Whatever you’ve done before or whatever qualifications you may have doesn’t really count. You have to show them you can do the job, and it’s a matter of survival of the fittest.

"I feel the first two years will be the hardest, as there’s just so much to learn from general contracting to even the tax code here. The laws in Tennessee and the US can be a minefield as well. According to Tennessee law, I’m ineligible to get my truck license for a couple of years due to immigration, but I can get an AR15 gun by just showing my ID at any local store, so I suppose there are trade-offs.

"I’m looking forward to growing my business in the US, and I’d advise anyone thinking of doing it that there’s no better time than the present. If you had asked me three years ago where I thought I would have been, I wouldn’t have said Tennessee, but here I am. It scares me sometimes to think where I may be in the next three years."

To follow James’ journey, check out his JPS USA Facebook page or contact him on LinkedIn.

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