Still in the family: Need for dams on their ranch started Baranko Bros.' earth-moving company

By Virginia Grantier, Dickinson Press
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It was a dam quandary.

Nearing 50 years ago, two brothers wanted a network of stock dams constructed on the family ranch so they could run more cattle — increasing the operation their dad had turned over to them.

But Emil and Ernie Baranko, on their ranch 20 miles north of Belfield, couldn’t find anyone with the expertise or time to do it. So they did it themselves.

The first dam project took about a week — the brothers used two pieces of equipment, a bare-bones Caterpillar tractor and a scraper with no cab to shade them from the sun and heat, said Emil, now 80. The brothers followed a plan that the U.S. Soil Conservation Service had designed for them for a 200-by-300-foot dam, he said.

The dam, finished in 1967, is still there and operational, Emil said.

And so is Baranko Bros. Inc.

After the brothers built the dam, a parade of ranchers wanted dams and waterways for their places, too. So, the Barankos established an earth-moving company in a shop on the ranch, about a half-mile commute from the ranch house.

Ernie eventually focused on ranching, while Emil — who had had attended college with aspirations of becoming a civil engineer before life and the military draft changed that — would end up overseeing the construction company. Eventually, beyond soil-conservation projects, he would see to fruition such jobs as construction of sections of Interstate 94 as well as airport projects.

But it was Emil’s wife, Marcia, who was the backbone of the operation, “making sure I got something to eat,” and raising the children, said Emil, who retired for about 15 years ago and is snowbirding in Mesa, Ariz.

One of the Barankos’ three children, 41-year-old Glenn Baranko, the current president and CEO of Baranko Bros., remembers helping on company jobs while still in grade school.

Emil said Glenn would carry surveyors’ stakes, run errands to the vehicles and perform various tasks, because Glenn “always wanted to be out there.”

“I always knew that was what I wanted to do,” said Glenn, a self-proclaimed heavy equipment/truck lover.

Glenn’s office at the company’s headquarters in Dickinson is adorned in heavy-equipment decor: In addition to family and dog photos, there are shelves of die-cast model trucks and hand-made wooden models given to him as gifts. On the walls are prints of vintage Harley Davidson motorcycles.

The company has grown from the two brothers and two pieces of soil-moving equipment to about 200 earthmovers, trucks and trailers — plus the pickups and such — and employs about 100, increasing to 150 employees during construction season, Glenn said. The company still has the original shop on the ranch, as well as facilities in Center — including another company, Center Coal Co., owned by Glenn.

And there is the 22,000-square-foot Dickinson headquarters. It was substantially expanded in 2013 as the company had additional space needs because of the increase in business brought on by the oil boom, Glenn said.

Forward-thinking family

The company started its cutting-edge ways decades ago. Glenn said he remembers, as a kid, his forward-thinking dad going to computer classes.

Emil said it was in the late 1970s when, at an Oklahoma contractors’ convention, he saw a crowd of people gathered around a particular booth, and he went to take a look. Being demonstrated was the future — a computer that could easy calculate a construction-job estimate and then immediately recalculate whenever the demonstrator changed the dollar price of items in that estimate.

Emil wanted that for his company, but couldn’t find anyone in North Dakota to provide the service. So he sent two employees to Colorado for computer training, and when Dickinson State College offered computer classes, he took them.

Baranko Bros has continued incorporating other new technology — including, most recently, global positioning systems (GPS) and what Glenn calls “intelligent ‘dozers” made by Komatsu, with a price tag each in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The operator of an “intelligent dozer” basically plugs in some information on a panel in the vehicle, points the equipment in the right direction and the bulldozer, with GPS-guidance and information from the project’s computerized design plan, is pretty much on its own — its hydraulics on automatic, Glenn said.

Also, through GPS, Baranko Bros. can pinpoint the location of an individual piece of equipment and find out whether it’s operating or sitting idle — enabling supervisors to know, among other things, if the operator is working or not.

Building the future

Recent projects include doing massive earth work for a new Watford City school, and also a major road project and the Watford City bypass completed in 2014. Glenn said that was a relatively easy job because they cut the road across prairie — so there were no traffic-control complications or the need to contend with the rebuilding of existing roads.

Glenn said a past challenging project was welding several thousand feet of pipe next to Nelson Lake near Center, and then placing and submerging the fresh-water pipeline across the lake.

Also, Glenn said a unique situation occurred years ago during construction of an Underwood-area dam when, in a wetlands area, they found a tremendous amount of bison bones. He said he was told Native Americans many years ago would run buffalo into a slough, where the animals would become bogged down and easier to hunt. The dam project was delayed while state archaeologists removed what was considered to be items of historical significance.

The company early on moved beyond just stock dams, diversifying during the late 1970s oil boom, building oil-pad sites, roads and doing coal mine reclamation, power plant maintenance work and constructing landfills for fly ash.

A big focus now is the company’s environmental work, Glenn said. Baranko bought the assets of an environmental company last year and now specializes in removal of contaminated soils and saltwater, proving 24/7 spill response and related services. The company is also building a special-use landfill south of Belfield for oilfield waste.

Glenn said there is a waste landfill 25 miles north of Belfield, but there is a “definite growing need” for additional landfills to be placed strategically throughout the Oil Patch.

Glenn said, based on his experiences with oil companies, many of them are handling contamination situations responsibly.

“They are good stewards of the land,” he said.

The company’s biggest current undertaking involves 40 employees and is a two-year project that began last year: grading flat the acreage for a new railroad spur on a section of land between South Heart and Belfield for Great Northern Inc., an oil and gas land services company.

Glenn said the family’s company — which mainly has North Dakota projects, but has worked in South Dakota and Montana — has all the work it can handle. With the current dip in oil prices, he said there has been a slowdown in new construction, but maintenance and environmental services are still steady.

The company has long-time customers who trust Barankos’ work, Glenn added. His work day runs from about 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and then he takes phone calls at night at home. He makes time to help with his son’s Boy Scout pursuits, but doesn’t do much more extracurricular activity.

As far as the next Baranko generation, Glenn said he doesn’t know what his 11-year-old daughter or 9-year-old son will do. But his son’s driving passion is very familiar to him.

“He’s all boy … all trucks,” Glenn said.

Grantier is a reporter for The Dickinson Press. Contact her at 701-225-8811