In 1934, 18-year-old Tony Scarsella and his older brother Leo left a small Italian village north of Rome to come to the United States. It was still the heart of the Great Depression and the brothers spoke little English, but they soon were able to find construction jobs in Seattle. They became American citizens and in the 1940s, served in the U.S. armed forces during WWII.
After the war, Tony and Leo returned to Seattle, bought a tractor and went into business for themselves. They started doing small residential jobs, which led to sewer and underground work for the city of Seattle. Eventually they got into road construction, and over the years, Scarsella Brothers Inc. became one of the leading road construction firms in the Northwest.
Although the original founders have passed away, the name "Scarsella Brothers" remains on the family business, and for good reason. Today, Tony's five sons are the owners and oversee day-to-day operations of the company. Frank Scarsella, the eldest of the second generation, serves as president. Don, Bob, Gino and Rick Scarsella are vice presidents.
While all the brothers are involved in project estimating on big jobs, Bob's primary responsibility is bidding work. Gino takes care of equipment purchasing and maintenance. Frank, Don and Rick spend more time in the field checking on the status of jobs in progress.
"We all worked here as laborers while growing up," Don recalled. 'When we graduated from college, each of us chose to come back into the business. I guess it's in our blood. We're proud of what our dad and uncle were able to accomplish and we're proud of what we've been able to add to the company's legacy."
That legacy includes clearing, grading, excavation and pipework for at least part of virtually every major roadway in the Seattle area, including Interstates 5, 405 and 90.
"One of the first really big jobs the company did was Highway 18 near Auburn," said Don. "It was 1958, which was before any of us were involved. Scarsella Brothers put the first hole in the ground and ended up moving about four million yards of material."
More recently, one of the largest jobs the current generation has had a hand in was a major reconstruction of 1-90 at Mercer Island in the 1980s. 'We were the prime contractor for one large project [$24 million] on that job," said Don. "We were also a sub on three others. It was a multi-year project that significantly expanded 1-90 and the traffic it could carry."
Headquartered in Kent, Scarsella Brothers works in a multi-state area covering Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. It's typical for the company to have about 15 jobs in different phases of completion. When they're busy, that number rises to 25-30. The vast majority of projects are highway-related and are completed for states, counties and municipalities. The company also does a small amount of commercial work.
Scarsella Brothers employs 250-300 people during its peak months. "Like all contractors, we rely on our work force - the guys out in the field - to bring our jobs in on time and on budget," said Don. 'We have guys who have been with us 25 years or more. They know and believe in our high standards. Many of those guys started with us as grade checkers and have moved up the ranks to become foremen and superlntendents."
The company's primary emphasis has remained the same through the years. "Our specialty is the clearing, grading and underground," Don noted. "One of our strengths is a large fleet of earthmoving equipment, which allows us to mobilize and get a lot done in a short amount of time."
In the old days, Scarsella Brothers used cable machines and scrapers for mass excavation. While the company still has scrapers, much of the earthmoving work today is performed by hydraulic excavators. And the backbone of Scarsella's excavator fleet is Komatsu equipment from Pacific North.
The company owns more than 25 Komatsu excavators, ranging from the compact PC60 up to the 250,000-pound PC11 00. The company sees the PC400 as its most versatile and favorite size excavator.
"We tried our first Komatsu excavator about 10 years ago," Don recalled. "It was a used PC400 and we were immediately impressed with how smooth it was. The hydraulics were excellent and that's probably what stood out the most. We've continued with Komatsus through the years because they work. They help us reach our production goals and the fact is, we rarely have to lay a wrench on them."
Scarsella Brothers purchased the larger machines, the PC11 00 and PC750, specifically for a big job they're doing in Camas.
"We're moving about 1.5 million yards of material for a new interchange and realignment of Highway 14," said Don. "There's a tremendous amount of rock mixed with dirt and since we work through the winter, it's too sloppy to use front-end loaders. With the excavators we're able to get more done. And we like the larger machines because when we shoot the rock, it tends to break big. The PC11 00 and PC750 handle it a lot better than the smaller excavators would."
Maintaining an equipment fleet the size of Scarsella Brothers' is no small chore. The company has two shops (one in the Seattle area and one in eastem Washington) and about a dozen mechanics. "We do almost all of our own maintenance and repairs," said Gino Scarsella. "But if we're too busy, we'll call on Pacific North and they do an excellent job. Usually we'll call them for undercarriage or something that requires a lot of electronic or technical expertise. We've also had them put on training classes for our personnel.
"In addition, we have service contracts with Pacific North for the PC11 00 and PC750," he added. "They come out and do all the manufacturer's scheduled maintenance and inspect the machines at the same time. Those excavators are a big investment and we want to make sure they get the care they need. They also help us keep downtime to a minimum, which is important to our company because we thrive on high production."
Another way Scarsella Brothers has found to reduce downtime is putting lube systems on all of its excavators. "We started installing them about 10 years ago," said Gino. "It guarantees that the machines are getting greased, not just daily, but throughout the day. We think it's a pretty minimal expense that significantly prolongs the life of our excavators."
Looking to the future
While construction activity in the Northwest has slowed in recent years, the Scarsellas say they're hopeful it will pick back up again in the not-too-distant future.
"As far as highway work goes, there's a lot to be done," said Don. "All you've got to do is drive the roads to see how crowded they are. And that's not just our opinion. Many road projects have already been approved and even designed. The problem is that the money hasn't been there to fund them. Hopefully, over time, that problem will be resolved and some of those big jobs currently on hold will start being let."
Until the amount of work demands Scarsella Brothers to grow, the company is not looking to get any bigger than it currently is. "I'd say we're pretty comfortable where we are," said Don. "We're big enough to do almost any big job that comes along, but we're small enough to give personalized service and keep a close eye on all the jobs we have going on.
"There's always the possibility we could choose to diversify our operation as we go forward," he added. "In our case, that would probably mean adding structural concrete work. But grading and excavation is what we're known for. It's what our dad taught us and it's what we do best. I suppose it will always be our bread and butter."