May 10, 2013

Texas Man Makes His Living in Construction, Without Heavy Lifting

John Gold III built his inventory of steel plates — which his business, Plate Guy, rents to construction sites — with help from his father. Photo by Ian Floyd.

By Ian Floyd
For Reporting Texas and the Austin Business Journal

AUSTIN — Cross-breed a family business in Houston with an Austinite’s ethos, and here’s what you get: a bunch of steel plates stacked in a field between Ben White Boulevard and Interstate 35.

They’re the inch-thick plates road crews place over excavations to keep traffic moving.  John Gold III, 36, has built them into a business driven by a mentality that’s part entrepreneur and part slacker. His firm, the Plate Guy, rents about 90 plates, worth around $300,000, to utility companies, construction companies — anyone with a hole in the ground that needs a tough cover. 

“I have never been one for hard work,” says Gold, who opened Plate Guy in 1999 after he graduated from the University of Texas. “I don’t mind it, but I’m not into that ‘work your whole life.’ Everything I do is with the intention of setting up my life to where I have a lot of free time.”

Gold knew the plate business because of his 72-year-old father, John Gold Jr. The elder Gold is a restless entrepreneur who shows no slacker tendencies. He owned businesses in construction, a freight company, a crane brokerage, and finally All States Mat Inc. All States rents wood pallets that construction cranes sit on. In 1992, the company added steel plates to its rental stockpile and found plenty of customers.

With his dad’s financial help, Gold opened an Austin branch and began building his plate inventory. The elder Gold was skeptical, Gold says, but backed him anyhow. Gold says his father embodies the traditional businessman — wining, dining, golfing and looking for the next deal. For Gold, a successful business isn’t about being busy.

“I want to earn business based on demand,” he says. “I’m a good person. I provide a good service and a good price. This is what I have to offer, no more, no less.”

Kevin LeMay, a contractor for piping firm Rangeland Services LLC, has worked with Gold for four years. LeMay says the Plate Guy is simpler and more personal than a chain outlet, but “it still boils down to the price.”

“You can get the same plate for $7 a day that’s costing you $50 a day elsewhere. That’s a no-brainer,” he says in a telephone interview.

Troy Cooley met Gold when Cooley worked for a now-defunct construction company. In 2009, Cooley opened Titus Works LLC, a utilities contracting firm. When Cooley needs steel plates, he calls the Plate Guy, where he says he’s treated less like a number than he is at bigger firms.

“If I call [John] and say I need something this afternoon at 2, it’s not always going to happen, but I know he makes an effort to get me plates when I need it,” says Cooley in a phone interview.

It takes Gold a few hours to load and deliver an order, but a lot of his job is just waiting for the next order. A busy month is 12 jobs, he says, more than enough to cover the $1,000 a month he spends on land rental and operating expenses. He operates a website and does office work at home.

“If I make $5,000 a month, that’s $4,000 in my pocket,” he says. “I am not out there buying sports cars, but I live well within my means.”

Gold credits his father with bringing him into the family business, as well as making him work harder when he was younger.

“He would have me start out just by learning how to operate heavy machinery, learning how to handle all of your basic tools, how to build stuff, how to do whatever and then a lot of cleaning up and grunt work,” Gold says. “I didn’t realize for a long time that he was secretly training me.”

In 2008, the elder Gold gave his son full ownership of the Plate Guy.

“I pretty much left him alone,” John Gold Jr. says. “I don’t try to tell him too much. If he asks me, I’ll tell him my point of view. But he is intelligent and can think on his own two feet. That’s all you need.”