BY KAT BRAZ
As any affirmed Midwesterner will tell you, there are only two seasons: winter and construction.
The orange barrels, lane closures and detour signage that herald warmer weather are viewed as a nuisance by many drivers. Mike Madrid, CEO of Highway Safety Services, empathizes. He’s encountered traffic delays, too.
“Just the other day I was driving along U.S. 41, heading to a meeting in Terre Haute and the road was closed,” Madrid says. “I didn’t know it was closed — and we were the ones who closed it.”
There was a time, nearly 40 years ago, when Madrid would have placed those barricades himself. After working for the Indiana Department of Transportation for a few years in the early 1980s, Madrid saw an opportunity for locally sourced traffic safety products and services. He founded his first traffic safety company, The Mike Madrid Company, in 1984.
In the early days, Madrid did pretty much everything himself. He acquired equipment and supplies according to the needs of the contracts he secured. He hauled barrels and signage to the worksite. He learned how to be an entrepreneur as he was building the company.
“I didn’t know anything about the business side of running a business,” Madrid says. “I went to the Chamber of Commerce, which had a retired executives council, and they put me in touch with Ken Schuette. Ken helped me in a lot of ways, but the best thing he ever did for me was connect me with his friend, Mick McTague, who owned the largest asphalt paving company in the area. Mick became my mentor, introduced me to people in the industry and gave me all the work I asked for. My business just grew and grew.”
After experiencing explosive growth — including a spot on the INC 500 fastest-growing businesses in America and recognition as the Small Businessperson of the Year by the Indiana Small Business Association — Madrid sold the business to National Equipment Services in 1999.
“They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Madrid says.
He continued to run the company for three years but then decided he wasn’t interested in working for a $750 million corporation anymore. He preferred being his own boss. He had a five-year noncompete agreement, so in the intervening years, he started a few medical companies and bought a home care business. Once 2005 rolled around, Madrid decided to return to what he knew — and Highway Safety Services was born.
“I wanted to get back into the highway business,” Madrid says. “I understood the players, I had relationships in the industry and there was less chance of failure. The first time you build a business, you’re in uncharted territory. You don’t know what works. Now, we have a good idea of which risks to take and which mistakes to avoid.”
Highway Safety Services moved into its new 20,000-square-foot headquarters on South 500 East in 2021. Madrid continues to expand the facility to house an ever-growing array of state-of-the-art equipment, such as a new computerized line-striping truck equipped to lay down epoxy road markings. The company employs 70 people, many of whom travel the state deploying construction signage, message boards, barricades and barrels or applying pavement markings and creating grooves. And because Madrid has done that work himself, he can empathize with his crew.
“When they’ve been out there for 14 hours in the hot summer sun, I can feel it,” he says. “I know how important it is to stay connected to our boots on the ground and give them the information and support they need to do their job efficiently and safely.”
Safety is a prime concern for Madrid. The company has invested in truck-mounted attenuators, the large yellow-and-black striped extensions on the backs of construction vehicles that visually warn motorists of approaching hazards and act as crash cushions to absorb impact and protect the vehicle and its crew.
“One of the biggest threats we face is inattentive drivers,” Madrid says. “Drivers are just not paying attention. We work in environments where there’s a lot of risk and we’ve got people’s lives on the line. We want everyone who works here to come home each night.”
Madrid’s not only worried about his crew, but his clients’ crews as well. Highway Safety Services acts as a subcontractor for the major road construction outfits in the area, some of which he first started doing business with back in the 1980s.
“In this industry, relationships are everything,” Madrid says. Not only among his clients, but within his workforce, too. Many of his employees enjoy long tenures with the company. “We always say that if you work in traffic safety for two years, you’ll stay here for life. It gets in your blood.” ★
Five Tips for Budding Entrepreneurs
- BUILD RELATIONSHIPS — “I got my job at the DOT because I knew a guy who was a civil engineer. He’s now head of research for the state and we serve on our church board together. It’s all about who you know.”
- JOIN PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS — “When you’re sitting next to someone who is a potential customer and you’re talking about how you can work together to improve the industry, rather than selling him on your services, that goes a long way toward building relationships. I believe in joining as many associations as possible where we can make an impact.”
- DO WHAT YOU KNOW — “I’m not exactly in love with barrels and barricades, but I know a lot about them. I know a lot about highways. When you do what you know, you can grow your business a lot faster.”
- SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE SMARTER THAN YOU — “So many people have egos. They’re not willing to hire anybody who knows more than they do. And it’s tough to work for a guy who thinks he knows it all.”
- KEEP YOUR PERSONAL FINANCES IN ORDER — “Many banks and investors want to know they are extending credit to individuals with good credit scores and no history of lawsuits or other adverse records. It’s important to keep good personal financial records.”