Family strength guides Woodruff & Sons through 75 years serving the Bradenton and Sarasota region.
It was 1973 when a 13-year-old Don Woodruff was driving a loader and working a sewer installation job near Holmes Beach.
A man in the neighborhood saw the boy and yelled to him that he couldn't be operating that machinery. Woodruff kept working, so the man called the Holmes Beach Police Department.
It wasn't long before Police Chief Snooks Adams arrived at the scene.
The man ran to Adams and said, "That's a kid running that machine."
Woodruff still remembers Adams telling the man, "The best thing you can do is go back inside and let him do his job."
It should be noted that when Adams died in 2010, his obituary in The Islander read, "Adams spent much of his life on Anna Maria Island as a police chief who used common sense as his guide."
In 1973, Adams knew the Woodruff family, from the oldest to the youngest, had construction in their blood. Woodruff & Sons had expanded its business from Michigan City, Indiana to Florida and had emerged as a major player in underground infrastructure on Anna Maria Island.
After making the move to Florida, Roy Woodruff, who had established the business in 1946 with his dad, William, and his brother, Louis, had to rely on his sons, Don and Bruce, and his daughter, Linda, to help get the job done. It was all hands on deck as they tried to get established in a new location.
Adams knew Don Woodruff was competent driving heavy machinery, even if he did follow him around the island at times when Don was driving a tanker, just to make sure he was OK.
Of course, he was.
As Bradenton-based Woodruff & Sons celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2021, members of the family will be sharing many such stories of the early days. Their annual picnic will be a huge affair this particular year as they celebrate at the company headquarters (6450 31st St. E., Bradenton) on Oct. 23.
Linda Wakeman remembered her elementary school days in Michigan City when her dad, Roy Woodruff, would put her in the car to drive the area, lighting smudge pots, which at the time were used as a warning device at construction sites. Once the smudge pots were checked, it was time for ice cream.
When her younger brothers reached the age of 9, their playground became construction yards where they could drive trucks. One brother would work the pedals and the other would steer. They were preparing for the future and they didn't know it.
It's been the family way since 1946 and it figures to continue for years to come, even if the preparation is a bit different. Linda Wakeman's son, Chad Wakeman of Mill Creek, is being groomed to take over when Don and Bruce Woodruff eventually retire.
"I grew up with little trucks in the sandbox," Chad Wakeman said. "When I was young, I remember sitting on the floor at night, separating (pay) checks while watching TV."
Unlike his uncles, who were needed after they graduated from Manatee High School to help run the company, Chad Wakeman earned a degree in civil engineering from the University of Florida in 2007. But he said he learned the key ingredients about Woodruff & Sons from his family members.
"They care ... they are truthful ... they have integrity," he said. "They get in the hole and work with the guys."
Well, his mom might not get in the hole, but even she has to "wear the hardhat" at times when it comes to the company's office work and dealing with employees.
Those living in the Lakewood Ranch area might not be familiar with the Woodruffs, but they are familiar with their work. The company has handled high-profile road projects such as the Lorraine Road and Lakewood Ranch Boulevard extensions, and the underground infrastructure at Main Street at Lakewood Ranch and San Marco Plaza.
Don Woodruff said those who drive the roads probably are more familiar with roads they didn't build, or roads that were built over underground infrastructure they didn't construct.
He noted that sometimes when you drive a road, you notice a series of dips.
"We pay attention, so you don't see that in our jobs," he said. "If you do, it will be corrected. Roads ride terrible when they aren't done properly. We drive these roads every day and we are very proud of the work we do. This is our home."
For 75 years, hard work has been a trademark of the business.
"My dad was one of 12," Linda Wakeman said. "He quit school in the 10th grade because he needed to make money."
After serving during World War II, Roy Woodruff bought a bulldozer and started the business.
Don Woodruff said his family never lost sight of its modest beginnings. He said the company never grew out of control.
In 2007, Woodruff & Sons learned another important lesson. They had many projects with private builders when the economy sagged. Those builders pulled the plug on projects. The lesson was to keep a mix with municipal projects.
They also have tried to keep a family atmosphere in running their company when it comes to employees. Woodruff & Sons seldom take jobs more than an hour away from Bradenton so their workers can be with their families at the end of a day. The company currently has 160 employees. They use mostly full-time employees because they want them to stay for the long term.
Seven current employees have worked for Woodruff & Sons more than 40 years.
When the company picnic is held in a few weeks, all the employees will be able to select new boots from a Red Wing truck.
"It benefits us to keep up our relationships with the employees," Don Woodruff said.
Today, sewers and underground utilities remain Woodruff & Sons' main line of work, and Don Woodruff doesn't see any slowdowns in the future, even if he doesn't have a "crystal ball."
Whatever they face, a family member will be there.
"It's in our blood," Wakeman said.
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