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Texas Holdem

Contractor keeps Cat equipment for the long haul.

Twenty-one years ago, Ken Lester bought a Cat® 325 Hydraulic Excavator to fulfill a need in his equipment fleet.

“Before I bought that machine, I tried three different brands,” says Lester, owner of Lester Contracting, Inc. in Port Lavaca, Tex. “When it was all over, I settled on the Cat Excavator.

“I liked everything about it,” he says. “Plus, at that time the size and weight of the Cat machine was a little different than what anybody else had to offer. It was the biggest machine that I could carry on my haul truck. Since then, just about every machine we have purchased has been a Cat.”

When it comes to his equipment fleet, which today numbers more than 40 machines, Lester relies on Cat machines, which comprise about 95 percent of the total fleet and range from a multi terrain loader up to 330-class hydraulic excavators.

From its home base of Port Lavaca and in nearby Victoria, Lester Contracting performs drainage, utilities and street improvements. It combines a 50-50 mix of civil and private work.

Lester likes the reliability of Cat equipment, and says that his operators prefer to run it.

“My operators would rather run a compact loader or multi terrain loader than just about any other machine we have,” says Lester, who started working for his father during summers in the late 1970s when he was a high school student. “Even though they may not move the same quantity of material, they like to run ‘em. It’s almost like a ‘big-boy’ toy—they are very operator friendly, and fun to run.”

Lester may start out renting a machine, but purchase it six months later if there is enough work to keep it going. The majority of his purchases are made through Cat Financial, which simplifies the process and enables him to obtain the financing he needs in a timely manner.

Lester is still running the 325 Hydraulic Excavator he purchased in 1993, and has never traded any of his Cat equipment.

 “We still use it,” he says. “It probably has close to 20,000 hours on it, and we use it as a secondary machine. I’ve not been a guy to trade them off.”

A move to GPS

Five years ago, Lester won a bid to grade a 50-acre high school campus in Victoria, Texas. The job involved a lot of complex grading, with athletic fields and elevation changes.

Based on a previous visit to CONEXPO-CON/AGG, he was aware of GPS machine control systems, and thought the time was right to implement it on the high school job. Outfitted with GPS machine control, a scraper and dozer performed beyond expectations.

“Instead of having to set blue tops over 50 acres, we graded that site with GPS equipment, and we have been using it ever since,” he says. “It has been a big benefit for us, especially when we are grading a large area. The GPS can be accurate within five-hundreths of an inch.

“We have a crew that understands and knows how to set up the equipment in the field,” Lester says. “I have a field engineer that builds the 3-D models in-house that we program into the equipment, and we have added more GPS control to our fleet this year.”

GPS is an innovation that has helped the company increase revenues, Lester says.

 But versatility and a reputation for performing quality work have kept the company on a steady growth curve since Lester assumed full control of the company from his dad in 1998 following a buyout of company founder David Kinchen two years earlier.

Over the last 16 years, Lester Contracting has grown from 20 to 60 employees, and annual revenues have increased from $2 million to $16 million. Last year, the company was selected as a finalist for Contractor of the Year by Equipment World magazine.

Locally grown

Lester prefers to work as close to home as possible, which facilitates local hiring. A good share of the company’s work in recent years has come from Victoria, a town of about 63,000 people half an hour’s drive from Port Lavaca. Victoria has seen a positive economic impact as a result of the Eagle Ford Shale oil and natural gas drilling activity in south Texas.

“There is a lot of trickle-down work related to that oil field, with motel and apartment construction, and the city is investing in infrastructure improvements,” Lester says. “We’re a fairly diversified company with a broad customer base. We chase work that involves earthmoving, underground utilities and site prep work.”

Along the Gulf Coast, the company has completed numerous projects for the State of Texas General Land Office, including rock shoreline protection and marsh restoration.

Dennis Rocha, a coastal project manager for the Texas General Land Office, says Lester is quick to make needed corrections. “He is very innovative when it comes to figuring out logistical solutions in an economical manner,” Rocha says.

Lester employs a full-time safety manager who visits jobsites and leads monthly safety meetings for the entire crew.

Lester prides himself on maintaining the equipment fleet—as he sees it as a way to attract and retain good operators—and keep the machines in peak operating condition. He utilizes S•O•SSM Fluid Sampling to monitor equipment health.

“There have been a couple of instances where we picked up something in the oil sample that gave us a preliminary indication of a problem and helped us avoid a costly failure,” Lester says. “It’s just comforting to see that report and know that your machines are in good shape.”

Lester credits his wife, Melissa, with running the front office in the areas of payroll, accounting, bookkeeping and human resources. With a background in banking, Melissa joined the company in 2002. She has instituted procedures that have helped streamline the operation.

“She does an excellent job,” Lester says. “My CPA brags about how accurate her books are. She keeps the rest of us in line, too. I would be in a world of trouble without her and my fleet of Cat equipment.”


Lester Contracting utilizes the Compact Track Loaders in multiple job applications.

“The Compact Track Loader is a very versatile machine, and the tracks seem to offer more stability,” Lester says.

“On our utility projects, they are real convenient for working on the street, or for working in tight areas. Where a loader or a backhoe is too large, the Compact Track Loader is more efficient. And we do a lot of site prep work. You can come in at the end of a job where you have to backfill curbs and sidewalks and dress the site out, and the Compact Track Loaders are really handy for that type of work.

“I started with one and I have three now, and my guys would probably like to have a couple more.”

Lester also utilizes forks on his 420 Backhoe Loaders and 924 Wheel Loaders for moving pipe as part of his utility work. “They come in handy, because we install a lot of pipe for water and sewer,” he says.


“When we bought our first Cat machine, a local dealer had been here in Victoria for years,” says Ken Lester, president of Lester Contracting. “We felt it would be beneficial to have somebody local for parts and service, and it has really paid off.

“We like dealing with Holt Cat because they are local. They respond quickly if we have an issue out in the field that we can’t resolve and need to get a mechanic out there.

“They have a well-trained staff—their mechanics, their product support and sales people. I think they employ good, qualified people, and they do a good job taking care of our needs in a timely fashion.”

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Categories: Construction,Small Dozers