Sometimes in life, a simple confluence of circumstances can shape one’s future forever. Call it coincidence, fate or destiny, an impromptu decision 38 years ago led to Gary Lawson joining the Ditch Witch organization, where he has devoted his career to serving customers across the country and internationally.
Lawson began his career as a salesman in the floor-covering industry, but when his employer was involved in a buyout, he began exploring other opportunities. One day while driving back from a job interview in Wichita, Kansas, to his home in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Lawson found himself driving by Perry, home of the Ditch Witch headquarters. At the suggestion of an acquaintance, he decided to stop in and apply for a job. And the rest, as they say, is history.
“I knew a guy, named Burl Carrier, who was an excavating contractor in Stillwater,” Lawson said. “When I mentioned that I was looking for a new job, he told me to stop in at the Ditch Witch factory. He said that it seemed like it would be a good fit. Well, when I was traveling back from Wichita and saw the sign for Perry, I figured I had my suit on and resumes in my briefcase, so I might as well give it a shot!”
Lawson’s background in business and sales, as well as his interest in equipment, have led to a successful run with the Ditch Witch organization. It was through Ditch Witch that he began his involvement with NUCA in the early 2000s, and since that time he has grown into leadership roles with the association, including his current role on the board of directors. In recognition of his contributions to the association and the industry, Lawson was presented with the 2017 Associate of the Year award at the NUCA Convention, March 9, 2018, in San Antonio.
Life of a Salesman
Lawson grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the son of a salesman in the steel industry. Lawson knew early on that he would follow in his father’s footsteps. “I always knew what I wanted to do,” Lawson said. “I enjoyed meeting people and talking to people, and I just knew that I wanted to be in sales.”
While Lawson’s father passed away when he was a teenager, his grandparents had an influence on him and his future career. Hismaternal grandfather was an automobile mechanic who ran his own repair shop in Tulsa for about 50 years. It was there that Lawson developed an interest in machinery. In fact, he rebuilt the first vehicle he bought under the tutelage of his grandfather. His paternal grandparents, meanwhile, owned a farm in nearby Claremore, Oklahoma, where Lawson got exposed to tractors and farm equipment at an early age.
Lawson graduated from Oklahoma State University with a business degree and worked for nearly six years in the floor-covering industry prior to joining Ditch Witch, where he went to work in the sales department as a factory representative, supporting Ditch Witch dealers. After working for a time in sales training, he began representing Ditch Witch as an international sales representative covering the Middle East and South Africa in the mid-1980s.
“That was a pretty eye-opening experience,” Lawson said. “Here in the United States, you are just a phone call away if you need help or need information quickly. That was not the case when you are traveling internationally with time difference sometimes of 12 hours. In those cases, you are everything for the client – sales, product support, marketing. You need to be able to meet all their needs.”
Lawson came back to the United States full-time in the late 1980s and served in various sales roles before becoming a Global Account Manager in 2001, a position he holds today. When asked what keeps him motivated after nearly 40 years with the Ditch Witch organization, Lawson points to the relationships with customers he has developed over the years.
“There are a lot of people that I have known for many, many years and have become very good friends with,” he said. “I really enjoy going out and seeing them. Of course, sometimes it is tough being on the road and away from family, but when you are doing what you love, you are able to work through those issues.”
Lawson also says that working for the Ditch Witch organization has been instrumental to his longevity. The Ditch Witch brand’s roots go back to the establishment of a blacksmith shop in Perry, Oklahoma, by Carl Malzahn and his sons Charlie and Gus. Eventually, the business shifted toward machining as the oilfield industry began to be more active in the area. The business would become Charlie’s Machine Shop and eventually The Charles Machine Works, Inc.
The company direction took a turn in the 1940s when Ed Malzahn, Charlie’s son, developed the first mechanized, compact service-line trencher that helped revolutionize the utility construction market. Since the development of that first trencher, dubbed the Ditch Witch model DWP, the company would expand its product range under the Malzahn’s leadership.
“Ed was a tremendous individual,” Lawson said. “Not only did he drive innovation in the products we offer, but he looked out for his employees. He was adamant about employees saving money and created a trust and profit sharing fund, which then led to an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). The combination of being a family-led business with employees who have a vested interest results in an atmosphere where people want to perform and take care of the customers.”
The company today is led by Tiffany Sewell-Howard, Ed’s granddaughter and the fifth generation of the family to lead the organization. Under her leadership the company has expanded in the underground market by acquiring related products and product lines, leaving it well positioned in an emerging market.
“Right now the market is very strong, and indications are that it will continue to be strong at least through 2019 and into 2020,” Lawson said. “But, we need to find people to be able to do the work, notably at the operator level. The fiber market and the pipeline market have high demand, but contractors are limited because they can’t find people to do the work.”
During his tenure at Ditch Witch, Lawson has become active in various trade organizations and events covering a variety of industries. In addition to NUCA, Lawson is active in the Distribution Contractors Association and the Electric Utility Fleet Managers Conference.
Lawson got involved in NUCA beginning in 2001 and currently serves on the Board of Directors. He has also participated with various committees, including HDD, government relations and workforce development.
“It really pays off to get involved,” Lawson said. “By getting involved you learn the ins and outs of the organization and the full breadth of what if offers and what it takes to run. Plus, it gives you an opportunity to have your voice heard to help shape the association and add value.”
When he is not volunteering his time, Lawson enjoys his family, wife Michelle and daughters Becky Helscel and Megan Lawson, and also enjoys golf and is a regular fixture at NUCA golf outings. He has also retained his interest in automobiles.
“I would like to have more time to work on vehicles when I retire – that interest is still there,” he said.
Lawson says winning the Associate of the Year is humbling, and he credits several individuals who have helped him along the way, from his family to countless people at the Ditch Witch factory and Ditch Witch dealers who helped him along the way.
In the end, Lawson says, the key to success is simple: “When you find your passion in your work, enjoy it to its fullest and you will be rewarded with a great career as I have.”
Jim Rush is editor of Utility Contractor.
NUCA Awards of Excellence
Ditchdigger of the Year
Presented annually at NUCA’s Convention to a contractor member who has made a significant contribution to NUCA and the underground utility construction and excavation industry.
Associate Member of the Year
Presented annually at NUCA’s Convention to an associate member who has made a significant contribution to NUCA and the underground utility construction and excavation industry.
We Dig America Award
This award is presented to a non-NUCA member who has made a significant contribution to NUCA and the underground utility construction and excavation industry. The achievement must have national impact and the recipient must have national stature.