By Kevin Klott
On a summer afternoon in Anchorage, Neil Harper got an unexpected phone call from a contractor in Fairbanks. The contractor needed Harper to deliver a big favor in a timely manner.
A 2-mile airstrip at Eielson Air Force Base needed to be painted by 7 a.m. Considering the call came in at 4:30 p.m. and Eielson was 383 miles north of Anchorage, Harper knew that math wasn’t on his side: seven-hour drive minus 7 a.m. deadline.
Young, motivated and in need of cash, the owner of Straightline LLC pushed aside logic and loaded up his trusty walk-behind striper along with one worker to help.
“I loaded up, got to Eielson around 11:30, and started striping the runway,” Harper said. “We hit the ground running and didn’t stop. My worker kept bringing me more and more paint.”
Working through the night, albeit with the help of the midnight sun, Harper put the final touch on his last 3-foot wide by 100-foot long stripe. It was 7 a.m., and he felt exhausted but good.
“It was pretty awesome to make that happen,” Harper said.
To this day, Harper takes pride in telling that story, which happened 16 years ago when he was just getting into the business of pavement maintenance. Harper started Straightline three years before that epic runway job, in the summer of 1999. At that time, all he had was a single striper he used out of the back of his pickup truck.
“I bought it used and had to practically rebuilt the whole thing,” Harper said. “I probably would have been better off buying a new one. What I thought was a great deal wasn’t such a great deal.”
Sweeping behind the scenes
Before he started Straightline, Harper learned how to stripe parking lots while working for Monty Huble at Triple S Services in Anchorage.
“I really enjoyed it,” Harper said. “It was outside work, the jobs went relatively quickly and you could see an instant change — from something that didn’t look all that great to what I thought looked great.”
That passion for painting parking lots has translated into one of the most reputable pavement maintenance companies in Southcentral Alaska. At least that is how Tim Murray sees it. As the yard manager for Spenard Builders Supply, Murray oversees an enormous amount of area that needs to be sanded during the winter.
“Spenard Builders Supply is very safety oriented. We spend a lot of money on sanding our whole facility all winter long,” Murray said. “We may even call for sand twice a day depending on how slick it is.”
With all that sand, a reliable sweeper needs to haul it all away in the spring. Murray, who has worked at SBS for 35 years, has called Straightline every spring for the past 14 years.
“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t send an email that said, ‘Fantastic job. You make our company look good,’ ” Murray said about Harper. “We’re very proud when people come to Spenard and we have a clean yard, and Straightline provides that service for us.”
Straightline provided the brooms for Granite Construction Inc.’s operations on two Glenn Highway paving projects: from Airport Heights to Hiland Road and Hiland Road to Eklutna.
“I’ve always liked working with those guys,” said Brian Marsh, a project manager with Granite. “They’re always on time, always there when you need it, always answer the phone and always helpful.”
Marsh said there are a few options to choose from in Southcentral Alaska for pavement maintenance. The reliability of Straightline makes it difficult for Granite to go with anyone else.
“Straightline has always done good work for us,” he said.
Taking customer service seriously
Hearing feedback like that from customers never gets old for Harper, who started Straightline with just himself and that walk-behind striper. He has since grown the company to 20 to 25 employees and added a specialization in crack sealing, seal coating, pavement marking (striping) and sweeping. April is always the busiest month of the year for sweeping.
“Anyone who calls wants the sweeping service yesterday, tonight or tomorrow. Nobody says, ‘Hey, come sweep me up in two weeks,’” Harper said. “It’s a ‘hurry up and get as much as you can as quick as you can.’ The whole town cleans up so darn fast.”
As far as sweeping up gravel, Straightline does a mix of residential, apartment and commercial buildings. By the end of April, all gravel is cleaned up, Harper said.
“We’re working 24 hours a day,” he said.
Most of the sweeping on commercial lots is done at night when customers are gone. When gravel is collected, some snow removal contractors recycle it by screening it at the end of the year. There are other places that just want some fill, Harper said.
Without customers, Harper said he doesn’t have a business. Therefore, he takes customer service seriously. Before starting Straightline, Harper worked for Carrs Quality Center, where the motto was, “The customer is always right.” He took that motto, along with its management style, and has tried to duplicate it at Straightline.
“No matter how busy we are, we want whoever is on the other end of the phone to believe they are it,” Harper said. “We are here for them, and quality is No. 1. We want them to call us back next year.”
Kevin Klott is a freelance writer who lives in Anchorage.