As a young entrepreneur, LaVerne (Vern) M. Sessler was committed to making good things happen. He focused on delivering quality services and never cutting corners. More than 60 years later, these are still the guiding principles that have helped grow a family business from its humble beginnings into one of the top demolition companies in the country.
At just 19 years of age, Vern and his wife Barbara decided to follow their dream and start a business. In 1958, L.M. Sessler Excavating was formed. While the work had always been a labor of love for Vern, the business venture required self-sacrifice and creativity in order to succeed. “It was a lot of long days and late nights,” says Jane Shaffer, Vern’s daughter and company President. “I just remember all the family support they received. Our grandmother would come over to watch us when our parents would go to their other jobs.”
Vern had the company’s sole asset, a backhoe, painted pink to help attract attention and grow the operation. “My father was a great marketer, he was ahead of his time,” says Craig Sessler. “Back then, you might see a million yellow tractors but a pink one would make you stop and take notice. It was all about remembering the name on the side.”
While the company has since added its name to a modern fleet of equipment, the pink backhoe continues to grab attention as a local landmark outside the firm’s headquarters in Waterloo, NY. It serves as a lasting tribute to Vern and a reminder of just how far the business has come since its early days of installing septic tanks, sewers, waterlines and digging swimming pools.
Through the early 70’s, the company gradually moved into the demolition business – starting with small projects like houses and garages to larger commercial buildings. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes produced widespread flooding that devastated New York’s Southern Tier region. Sessler was among the first demolition firms hired for the cleanup effort. “The floods were a major turning point,” Craig says. “It put us on the radar for government work and a lot of urban renewal projects followed.”
By the end of the next decade, all of the Sessler children had joined L.M. Sessler Excavating and Wrecking. With the additional family members, the business started pursuing more demolition projects involving bridges. “At that time, bridges and highway work started to become a big opportunity because of the aging infrastructure,” Vern Jr. says. “I think we got ahead of the curve early and were able to stay there. We grew with the industry.”
Sessler Wrecking not only grew with the industry, they helped transform it. Their innovative solutions include an invention that allows traffic to flow safely and concurrently underneath a bridge while it’s being demolished. The patented technique – created by Vern Jr. and Craig – is used on nearly every bridge demolition project to this day. “It’s funny because the patents haven’t changed much since we first came up with them, so I guess we got it right the first time,” Craig says.
In addition to demolition, the company is also involved in equipment leasing, environmental services and real estate development. Their diverse portfolio is a reflection of the family’s multi-generational influences on the business. “Demolition has been the mainstay for all the Sessler companies, but our parents were entrepreneurs and they gave that spirit to us too,” Jane says.
That opportunistic approach has helped them land some well known clients and many memorable projects. “The removal of the Lake Champlain Bridge was one of our highlight projects because it was one of the biggest and most challenging,” Jane said. A majority of Sessler’s business is located in the Tri-State area of New York City with notable demolition projects such as the Tappan Zee Bridge, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the Long Island Expressway.
However, the company is community-minded, directing much of their charitable assistance to efforts that help strengthen the local area. They believe the region’s human resources and its central location provide a competitive advantage for doing business. “We’ve worked all over the Northeast and you’re not going to find a more beautiful place than the Finger Lakes,” Craig says. “It’s our hometown. It’s about giving our kids the quality of life that’s found here.”
With its third generation now firmly entrenched in the family business, the company is well positioned for the future. “Just growing up in the company, I guess you could say it was always in my blood,” says Craig’s son, Kevin. The growth of the organization’s environmental division to leadership status in remediation and recycling can be attributed, in part, to the infusion of the family’s youth. Nearly 99 percent of all bridge demolition is now recycled into reusable products, helping the company, and the planet, become greener and more sustainable.
“There’s been so much that our family has been involved with,” Jane says. “We have a lot of pride in our company and its employees.