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Business is flagging ... and that's good for central Pa. business

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HUMMELSTOWN, Pennsylvania — Flagger Force entrepreneur Mike Doner skis frozen slopes and scuba dives tropical waters with his kids.

"I am one of the biggest risk takers I know," he says.

But they're calculated risks — one reason the Lancaster native is hale and hearty at 53.

The same paradoxical formula has worked economic magic for the Hummelstown-based traffic-control services company he and his wife, Michele, launched in 2003.

"We're in a dangerous business," Mike Doner says, referring to the hundreds of annual work-zone deaths nationwide.

The Federal Highway Administration reported 514 fatal motor vehicle crashes in work zones in 2010 and 576 victims. An average of 85 percent of such deaths are drivers and passengers in cars.

Incidents have been dropping steeply in the country as states tighten work-zone traffic controls.

Flagger Force, which invests heavily in training and protective gear, has had no fatalities.

The fast-growing company has dominated a sparsely populated regional market niche — professional flagging for short-duration jobs.

Many utility contracting companies that once did flagging in-house have converted.

"It simplifies things for the contractor" when someone else designs the traffic control pattern, supervises the flaggers and provides the equipment, says Patrick Kinsley, president of York-based I.B. Abel Inc. electrical contractors.

"They're nice people to work with," Kinsley says of Flagger Force. "They're very professional and very reliable" and the company "sets the bar" in the area.

"They kind of take ownership of the whole task."

PPL Electric Utilities spokesman Paul Wirth says, "One of the things we like about Flagger Force is they share a core value with us — safety."

"They're our primary flagging contractor," adds Wirth, who says PPL plans to spend $1 billion over the next five years to replace power lines and substations and install an automated smart grid in Lancaster.

"You're better off having a contractor for peak (traffic flow) jobs. It's just a more cost-efficient way to do it," Wirth says.

And a lucrative one for Flagger Force.

Mike Doner says his brainchild is on track to be a $50 million business by the end of 2014. It will purchase 140 new pickups this year alone.

The company reports a compound annual growth rate of 52 percent.

Now the economy is getting better.

Flagger Force is reaping work from Marcellus Shale-spawned gas pipe projects, infrastructure improvements spurred by utility deregulation and road repairs prompted by the 2013 fuel-tax increase and the bad winter.

The company services 350 to 400 job sites daily. It has 1,000 active clients and 1,300 employees. Trademark yellow Flagger Force helmets and white pickups dot the summer landscape.

When the Doners mention that they own Flagger Force, Michele Doner says, people reply "'We see you everywhere.'?"

Workers are dispatched as far as northern and western Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia and Maryland. The company's main warehouses are in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

But this is the epicenter.

"Lancaster County is a huge market for us," along with Berks, York and Chester counties, Doner says. "Our business has an awful lot of one-day or one-week jobs."

The 150 Flagger Force workers who live here can commute around the region, Doner adds.

"We're always hiring more people from Lancaster County."

The Doners, who live in York, anchored Flagger Force in Dauphin County because Doner wanted to be near the capital and because "I did not want to compete with my old company," Lancaster-based Way Delivery Services.

The couple were high school sweethearts. They stayed here after graduating from Ephrata High.

She worked as an accounting manager for a leasing company for a dozen years, then became a stay-at-home mom to the couple's children, Mark and Megan.

"That didn't last too long," jokes Michele Doner, who has a degree in business management and accounting. "I realized I needed a little more adult conversation."

She next joined The Longaberger Company. "I had 23 people under me for about 15 years and also was director of finance for Easter Seals."

John Way Jr., a long-time Doner family friend, described Michele's husband over the phone from his home in Hilton Head, South Carolina

"I've known Mike ever since he was a little guy," Way says.

About 30 years ago, Way tapped Doner to help expand his own homegrown business.

"He had all the things I was looking for: natural sales ability and good work ethics. He was a good, moral boy."

Way kept promoting his protégé, who had graduated from Shippensburg University. Doner was Way Services president from 1996 to 2006.

Meanwhile, Way recalls, "He was finding through his marketing program that there was an interest in flagger services."

He grew Way's temp worker wing to $15 million while building Flagger Force part time.

"At that point he was ready to go on his own; I was ready to downsize," Way says. "He made a good choice, he sure did."

In the early days, Mike Doner says, he and his son would huddle in the basement to make handheld stop/slow signs out of plastic pipe and "elbow grease."

Employees and family members still assemble the kits every summer.

"We believe we make a better pole than you can buy," Doner says.

That spirit of independence infuses Flagger Force's HQ at 8170 Adams Drive.

Out in the parking lot, employees back in because it's safer to pull out by driving forward.

On the road, Doner says, workers carry oversize traffic control signs. They also wear head-to-toe reflective clothing and safety glasses, which aren't required by law.

Employees perform 30 hours of safety drilling annually; the state minimum is four hours every three years. Truck-mounted Flagger Force attenuators (giant springs) absorb the shock of crashes and buffer workers from traffic.

Every week, Doner says, the company safety team distills lessons from near misses. The point of it all is to "do what's fundamentally right for our people" and "give calm guidance to the motorists."

So far, it's working.

Doner raps on conference table wood. He walks over to a large common area where the original Flagger Force pickup, a 2004 Ford Ranger, serves as a meeting and lunch table. The room also features a roll-top desk from Doner's dad's days as Buchanan Elementary School principal. Early on, it was his wife's Flagger Force paperwork space.

The couple say they owe their vision to strong faith and the values instilled by their parents. They credit their children with helping get Flagger Force off the ground.

Yet, Michele Doner says, the company's astounding success has surprised them.

"When we got into this, we said, 'OK, we'll do this a few years and walk away and retire.'"

That isn't happening, even though the Doners have delegated departmental duties to newly hired directors over the past year.

"Mike and I are still very much involved in the business," says Michele Doner, who as Flagger Force president handles finances and human resources.

"My plan is to work hard until our children start their families," she adds.

Then she looks forward to grandmotherhood and a bigger role in the Flagger Force Foundation for employees and the community-oriented Doner Family Foundation.

Mike Doner, the vice president, continues to oversee safety and customer service.

He's "almost the Energizer Bunny," his wife says. "He doesn't stop."

If he has retirement plans, they don't involve sitting on a beach.

Going national might be an achievable goal for Flagger Force, Mike Doner hints. But it's not mandatory. Safety is. Vision is.

And Doner's helm at Flagger Force is still young, he adds. "I've got years to have fun."


Online:

http://bit.ly/1nCeQ8C

http://lancasteronline.com/business/local_business/business-is-flagging-and-that-s-good/article_54d2b9b8-fae0-11e3-8027-001a4bcf6878.html


Information from: Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era , http://lancasteronline.com

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