“PC55s are just the right size”
James Ates worked most of his life for someone else. He spent time with a tank and utility contractor, eventually becoming a foreman. After several years with that company, he turned his attention to public works, serving both the cities of Arcadia and Bernice, La., as a sewer and water superintendent.
“I guess one day he decided that he wanted something of his own, so Dad started a company focused on utility installs,” recalled his son Alan, who is now President of Ates Construction, Inc. “It was very small scale, but he was determined to make a go of it.”
At times it took more than determination to stay afloat.
“I remember at the beginning, he had one piece of equipment and the bearings went out of it,” Alan said. “When he tried to buy new ones, he didn’t have enough credit. Dad, other family members and I walked roadsides and ditches collecting tin cans and pop bottles to raise the money.”
That was one of many days Alan – his first name is actually James, too – spent alongside his dad learning lessons about business and life. When Alan graduated in 1988, he immediately joined Ates Construction full time.
“Dad was a fantastic mentor, and we had a lot of good years together,” Alan reminisced. “He taught me the values of hard work, honesty, treating people fairly and more. The company grew and thrived because of his persistence and ability to exceed customers’ expectations.”
Father and son worked side-by-side building Ates Construction for nearly 20 years until James passed away in a car accident in 2007. Alan took over operations and became President. Today, he owns and operates the company along with his wife, Amy, who is Vice President and takes care of payroll and accounting.
“Utilities are still our mainline business,” Alan emphasized. “We lay underground water, sewer, storm and gas distribution lines as well as install above-ground piping and systems. Most of our projects fall into the public sector, but we provide service to commercial developers, too. We consider ourselves a utility contractor who provides other services, if a project calls for it.”
Alan’s description doesn’t adequately acknowledge the comprehensive nature of the company’s offerings. In addition to installing pipe, it does excavation, concrete work and building construction for water and sewer plants, including filtration systems. It has a boring division and also put up some fire stations and commercial buildings a few years ago. Alan estimates that roughly 90 percent of the company’s current jobs are in the public sector, nearly all of it as a general contractor.
“I learned that you have to go where the dollars are,” said Alan. “A few years ago, there were a lot of plants. We built seven of them in the Monroe area. Now, there’s a transition back to more straight-utility work such as water and sewer mains, so the bulk of our projects involve putting those in.”
Ates Construction is currently busy with a $2.6 million dollar contract for the city of Homer, La., installing new water mains and tying into existing lines. Additionally, it will run updated service lines to private homes. In total, crews will lay about 56,000 feet of pipe.
“That would be on the higher end of our range, but it’s not the largest project we have ever done,” Alan pointed out. “We laid nearly 256 miles of pipe on a $4.5 million job for Calhoun County, Arkansas. Putting in underground utility lines for commercial buildings would be toward the smaller side of the range.”
In addition to traditional, hard-bid public works projects, Ates Construction has maintenance contracts with several cities, as well as with gas and electric provider CenterPoint Energy.
‘Nothing compares to a Komatsu’
Ates Construction has close to 20 full-time employees who are involved with as many as five projects at any time. Key staff members include Secretary/Treasurer Ed Hislop and Foremen Porter Ates and Robert Littleton.
“At one time, we had almost 100 employees,” Alan said. “Dad told me that was too many, and we needed to scale back. Our size now is just right for what we do. We have some long-term, dedicated people who are reliable and can get any job done on time and within budget.”
Alan pointed out that his dad also shared with him that Komatsu excavators were the best. Ates Construction purchased its first, a PC220, in the early 2000s.
“We rented excavators for years, and ran nearly every brand,” Alan noted. “Dad said nothing compares to a Komatsu. They are more productive and reliable than the competition. Other brands aren’t even close.”
Today, Ates Construction runs two compact PC55MRs it acquired from H&E Equipment Services’ Bossier City (Shreveport) branch. H&E recently installed a thumb on one of the excavators.
“We get into a lot of tight areas, and the PC55s are just the right size,” said Alan. “We don’t have to worry about a counterweight hitting something or hanging over into a lane of traffic. They have good breakout force and hydraulic power for running a hammer. Komatsu has the best undercarriage, too. They last and last.”
Alan appreciates KOMTRAX, Komatsu’s telematics system as well. When one of his PC55MRs was stolen, he called his H&E sales rep at the Bossier City branch. H&E team members located the machine via KOMTRAX and notified authorities, who recovered and secured it until Ates personnel could retrieve the compact excavator.
“Within 15 minutes of calling H&E, we knew where the machine was,” said Alan. “KOMTRAX is a great tool. Komatsu and H&E know how to take care of the customer from all standpoints. H&E helped us get the right machines for our business, and we purchased them using Komatsu Financial at zero percent interest for 24 months. You can’t beat that. H&E provides us with exceptional parts and service support. We value our relationship, and that’s another reason we stick with Komatsu.”
Expansion possible under the right circumstances
While Alan is committed to Komatsu excavators, he’s more flexible when it comes to Ates Construction in general. He’s willing to expand under certain conditions.
“I’m satisfied with our size, but I’m not opposed to growth,” Alan affirmed. “If there is an opportunity in another market, I’ll consider it as long as it doesn’t jeopardize our ability to provide quality work that’s completed on time and on budget.”
Pursuing other avenues is a good possibility. Amy is in the process of obtaining her contractor’s license, which would make Ates Construction eligible to become a certified Women’s Business Enterprise.
“It might open up other avenues to explore,” said Alan. “We will have to play it by ear and see where that takes us. In the meantime, we’ll stay on the path that we have been on for many years. It’s proven fruitful.”