Reaching New Heights from the Top of History’s Steps

Written by Mark Golombek

The current boom in construction has amplified environmental concerns. One way to lessen the effects of a construction site is to use high-quality ground protection mats. Sterling, of Phoenix, Illinois has been working in the lumber industry since 1949 but has shifted gears over the years to concentrate on producing the best mats available. It takes great pride in its work, and we spoke with its Chief Executive Officer Carter Sterling to find out more.
Sterling is a sixty-nine-year-old, third-generation business with each generation reshaping the business in its own way. The current group has changed the business plan drastically. This used to be a civil construction support company specifically dealing with hardwood lumber, supporting the construction of bridges, underground tunnels, and highways as well as a supplier of blocking lumber to pack materials for shipping to the metals industry.

“We cover a small geography here in the Chicagoland-northwest Indiana area. We have been able to evolve the business through innovation and entrepreneurship, and now we have a multi-national footprint, growing from fifteen employees to 315 over the span of twelve years,” says Carter.

The U.S. has a desperate need to upgrade its energy infrastructure, and renewable energy installations such as wind and solar farms require new transmission lines to carry that power to communities in need. This includes natural gas, oil, and other hydrocarbons.

The U.S. has been experiencing a boom in the exploration and extraction of natural gas, oil, and other hydrocarbon energy sources. Pipelines are needed to bring those to markets, and the construction equipment needs to get through rural environments, whether they are agricultural fields, sensitive wetland areas, or difficult terrain like swamps and mud.

“Not only is it very challenging, but it can also be very harmful to the environment. What we do, through a myriad of techniques, is provide temporary ground protection and site access solutions. We manufacture and install temporary roads, primarily made of our proprietary, cross-laminated, timber panels,” says Carter.

Sterling also uses a variety of other products as the situation dictates, providing all of the necessary site access and ground protection tools and recommending the appropriate materials to both preserve the environment and increase efficiency.

In this niche industry, Sterling has created an advantage with its proprietary product that gives access to difficult to reach locations. Its TerraLam CLT (cross-laminated timber) mat is a real game-changer, but like any industry where money is to be made, there is intense competition.

“You have to continually compete in this world as it moves pretty fast. The world of ground protection is eighty years old, and you can follow its history back to the corduroy road and WW1,” says Carter. Corduroy roads were made to create a firmer surface by laying down a surface of logs over wet and marshy areas or to replace a road surface destroyed during war. These roads were functional but bumpy, hence the name that alludes to their corduroy-like surface texture.

The TerraLam Mat is patent pending. Sterling only delved into this industry twelve years ago, through its third generation. It recognized that existing systems were very inefficient and desperately needed innovation because it was not environmentally sustainable.

The old-fashioned wooden mats were made of a mixture of dense hardwood species such as oak, hickory, and hard maple. These species of wood take nearly a century to grow into a tree large enough to harvest, but when put into matting products for pipeline projects, they only survive between two and four years in the field.

“Eighty to one hundred years to grow, and two to four years to destroy! That feels painful when you think about it, and nobody was doing anything, and I mean nobody. From Canada to Ireland to the U.S., coast to coast, top to bottom, there was no innovation or change because everyone seemed content, and money was being made,” says Carter.

Carter and his brothers, all Eagle Scouts, knew there had to be a better way. They thought the status quo was awful but were not initially committed to pursuing ground protection as the entire business. But, the further they looked into it, the more they realized this had to change.

They set about creating a better solution through trial and error and failed, as many entrepreneurs do, with the first three or four ideas. Then came the technology of cross-laminated timber or CLT. They took that base technology, which is very popular in Europe, and moved it into the U.S.

“We adopted it and adapted it to this specific industry, which allowed Sterling some nuances to acquire the patent application which we feel very confident about. The core of what makes it disruptive and different is that the product is half the weight, is stronger, and is built out of plantation growth softwood lumber,” says Carter.

Sterling is using American-grown southern yellow pine, which is harvested from East Texas through the Gulf Coast to the Carolinas. It is grown like a crop of corn and only takes about twenty years to mature. When this is built into the Sterling product, using the proprietary manufacturing process, it will last between five and ten years. It has a much longer lifespan than other woods and is more durable.

“It’s a huge improvement in sustainability, and because it’s half the weight, we utilize half the trucking, taking a massive amount of carbon off the highways and improving safety. We are doing our part. We have already, in the last eighteen months, taken over five thousand trucks off the road,” says Carter.

Sterling is supporting the industry that constructs energy infrastructure. Projects such as the Keystone Pipeline are very contentious, and people are concerned about the environmental impact. It is very important that Sterling protect nature when companies build transmission and pipelines. It plays a very important role by combining protecting the environment and providing the energy that the country needs.

The site access side of the business is doing well. At one time, Sterling was just a manufacturer, but the marketplace demands efficiency, and that meant Sterling needed to shift gears and become a turnkey service provider.

“We understand our products and others in our industry better than anybody. We know the application of them better than anybody, so we created our own construction companies, and we are now the first on the site and the last off,” says Carter.

Sterling creates the right-of-way with clearing crews and has a complete forestry division. It performs stormwater pollution prevention plan (SWPPP) work, which is essential for erosion control, especially around waterways. Sterling comes on with its crews and prepares and clears the site for construction activities. It builds roads, work sites, and work platforms with TerraLam mats.

When the construction aspect takes place, Sterling leaves the site to allow for the building of the power line, pipeline, wind farm, or solar plant. When that is accomplished, Sterling comes back to pick up the roads and work platforms and do the fundamental restoration required to bring the site back to its natural state.

“This allows our customers to only hire one company for all of that. It’s not only a tremendous convenience but a huge cost savings,” says Carter.

Working with many contractors can create chaos and confusion, so clients want to deal with only one if possible. “When you have one contractor to manage the project from start to finish you can really control the calendar or the construction schedule,” says Carter.

The relationship Sterling has with its suppliers is a big deal. It was a supplier for most of its life, so it thinks like a supplier and has tremendous respect for its suppliers. The company takes huge pride in treating everybody from truck drivers who haul Sterling materials to the guy who restocks the vending machines the way it wants to be treated.

“It’s a very important part of doing business that is getting a little lost in America in the era of emails and texts. It’s harder to build those relationships, but we are only as strong as our supplier partners,” says Carter.

Sterling’s supplier partners were once the hardwood sawmills, which Carter says are run by wonderful people. The hardwood industry is composed of ‘mom and pop’ sawmills scattered throughout the country, and about every seventy-five miles is a small sawmill.

Now that Sterling has moved to softwood, it is procuring its materials from a billion-dollar industry with a world-class supply chain. “That is our goal; we are committed to creating a world class organization and that requires excellence from the supply chain. We give our customers the respect they deserve… you can’t attain that status without world-class suppliers as partners,” says Carter.

Another aspect that separates Sterling from the rest lies within its culture. It is an entire team willing to admit that they can make mistakes. There is a set of company rules, but there is one primary one: assume good intent.

“We always have the assumption that people screw up and make mistakes. It doesn’t mean you are a jerk or did it on purpose. We assume that people try their best and have good intentions. That driving mantra has been a very powerful tool for us here,” says Carter.

Twenty years from now, Sterling sees itself as a dominant market leader in North America and globally for ground protection and site access. This company is going to grow rapidly, and the assumption is that it will expand tenfold. It will continue to be entrepreneurial and drive innovation while improving sustainability and bringing that environmentally conscious mandate to its customers along with cost savings.

“Long gone are the days where people will pay a premium for the warm cozy feeling of green. You have to have cost savings as well, and we are delivering on both,” says Carter.



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