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Florida Contractor Puts GNSS Technology to the Professional Operator Test

Customer Profile: Shipps Excavating, Inc. is a family owned and operated excavation and grading contractor that has been serving Southwest Florida since 1976.

Business Challenge: Improve business opportunities and drive productivity with technology.



  • 1-2 hours a day in time savings
  • Improved fuel efficiency
  • Assured quality
  • Reduced chance of rework
  • Eliminated need for survey stakes or need for surveyor to re-stake when one is knocked down

Looking beyond its comprehensive list of services, Venice, Florida-based Shipps Excavating is much more than a grading, excavation and demolition company with decades of experience. It’s the expression of a passion for construction that is seemingly hereditary, passed from father to son.

The legacy began when Doc Shipps started a logging and excavation operation in Vermont called Shipps Construction in the 1960s. He moved to Florida in the 1970s with his son, Steven, who began clearing sites and building roads for a cattle farmer. By 1976, Steven founded Shipps Contracting, an extension of his dad’s company, in Venice, Florida—he was just 20 years old, with a flatbed truck and a tractor.

The company grew its reputation and services in southwest Florida over the years, with help from the entire Shipps family, from Doc to Steven’s brothers and, eventually his children. His son, Jonathan, in particular, has the same innate love for heavy equipment, working with his dad since he was a child. Jonathan fondly recalled driving tractors long before he drove a car. His first vehicle was a diesel truck that could pull a grading tractor. In his 20s, he was working as a project foreman and equipment operator for his dad. When his dad tragically passed from cancer, Jonathan chose to continue his dad’s company and his legacy. He’s done just that and more.

Today, Shipps Excavating has gone from a handful of employees to more than 20, and the scope and scale of projects undertaken ranges from equestrian centers to soccer fields, and lake digging to road grading, thanks largely to its reputation for quality and timely work, a culture established by Steven and Doc years before.

Jonathan said, “We had a really good reputation for grade work on projects of all types, but I felt we needed to upgrade our capabilities to better compete in the business both in terms of talent and types of projects. I wanted the right skilled team so that we could grow at a pace to keep up with opportunity. But we needed to grow smart so we can do more with less.”

Smooth Transitions

A small subdivision grading project opened the door for Shipps to transition to construction technology.

“Trimble stretched my thinking about all that’s possible,” he said. “Fortunately, I’ve known Cory Baker, our representative from SITECH North & Central Florida, for over a decade. He is a friend and someone I trust to help guide our technology advancement. When I mentioned that my competitors were using GNSS and I thought we needed to consider it, he wholeheartedly agreed.”

To help Jonathan understand the potential value, Cory brought a John Deere 650 dozer equipped with the Trimble Earthworks 3D Grade Control Platform to the subdivision project that Shipps was working at the time. Jonathan jumped in the cab and, with a few directions from Cory, set out to finish grade part of the site.

Using the Trimble Earthworks “Autos” or automatics mode, Jonathan operated the dozer controls and Trimble Earthworks controlled the blade to stay on grade.

“I couldn’t believe the difference,” recalled Jonathan. “I take great pride in my abilities as an equipment operator—but this system made me better. I put it on Autos for the first pass and I could see right away that it would reduce the number of passes we might make to achieve the right results.”

Even his grandfather, who is now 91, and uncle, both highly experienced operators, picked up the technology-enabled operation with ease and were amazed. Immediately after the demo, Jonathan bought a Cat D5K2 LGP dozer and the Trimble Earthworks Grade Control Platform.

Today, Shipps owns four technology-enabled dozers with four Trimble Earthworks 3D systems equipped with Autos, three Trimble SPS855 GNSS Modular Receivers and the Trimble SPS986 GNSS Smart Antenna with Tilt Compensation as well as the Trimble Siteworks Software with the Trimble TSC7 Controller for easy jobsite data management.

Work Development

At any given time, Shipps has multiple large jobs and a handful of smaller jobs that range from road building to mass grading for commercial development.

An example of a larger job is the TerraNova Equestrian Center development project. The first phase of the project required the mass grading of 28 horse arenas, a one-half acre barn, a mile of road and the excavation of a four-acre lake. Along with track hoes and off-road trucks, Shipps had several Trimble Earthworks-equipped dozers on the job.

“The technology allows our operators to keep tolerances to within one-half inch and slopes under 2%, while completing jobs faster,” said Jonathan. “I’m able to provide a better-quality product because we know exact elevations, grades and slopes with the GNSS—and we’re faster. Bottom line, I can knock jobs off faster with just as good or better results, so clients are happy and we’re able to take on more work.”

Moving Forward

Jonathan is quick to say that he won’t sacrifice quality and culture in the name of growth. “My operators are extremely proficient at their jobs. My goal is to provide them the best tools to complete the jobs with efficiency and accuracy—not overwhelm them or lower our expectations of quality,” he said.

With that in mind, he continues to work with Cory at SITECH North Central Florida to evaluate new systems. His next step in the office will be a shift to Trimble Business Center as a way to quickly and easily create accurate, integrated 3D constructible models for construction surveying and machine control. On the ground, he’s looking at the Trimble Universal Total Station (UTS) for a motor grader for finish and mass grading pads instead of a dozer, a solution that is ideal for areas that require tight tolerances, like roadway turn lanes. Currently, he’s running the 2D Sonic Tracer with cross slope on a Cat 12H motor grader.

Jonathan concluded, “GNSS has opened up an entirely new world of opportunities for me and my crew. It’s put us in a whole new class of contractor with a competitive edge.”

He’s already begun teaching his nephews, who also love all things construction, about the technology and the ways of the modern equipment operator. After all, it’s the family tradition.