Nitteberg Construction Co., small South Dakota town share a bond

Updated Jul 11, 2013

Gale Nitteberg COY 2013Each February, Gale Nitteberg, his wife and their grandchildren pack up and head south for about month to escape the harsh South Dakota winter for the warm beaches of Florida.

He says years ago he and his wife thought about leaving South Dakota and maybe moving somewhere warmer, but it was never something they were serious about.

After all, Nitteberg was born and raised on the shore of Lake Poinsett near the sleepy town of Estelline. And in the 39 years since he started Nitteberg Construction Company, he and his community have supported one another in a very special way.

Equipment World was lucky enough to see this bond up close when we visited Estelline to interview Nitteberg as a finalist for our 2013 Contractor of the Year Award.

After graduating high school, Nitteberg attended vocational school and became a mechanic for a couple of years. “Ever since I was a kid, I always enjoyed taking things apart,” he says.

But he was eventually drawn to the driver’s seat of heavy equipment and enjoyed working with dirt. “Part of it is the challenge, I guess,” Nitteberg says. “I kind of feel like a race car driver. Once it’s in their blood, it’s always in there.”

In 1974 he bought a used backhoe for pretty cheap from a man in Sioux Falls. He started out digging basements, installing water lines and local sewer lines and watched his business grow.

After a few years of doing jobs for the people of his hometown of Estelline, South Dakota, the 1980s brought a trying time for Nitteberg. Unfortunately, the locals who helped his business get started were unable to come to his aid. “The interest rate was really high,” he explains. “The people with money weren’t spending any. In a small community the work can dry up pretty quickly.”

So Nitteberg was forced to go back to the basics and worked by himself for a couple of years to make ends meet.

But in the summer of 1986 a weeklong drenching of Estelline dropped 13 inches of rain atop the small town, flooding nearby Lake Poinsett and the many homes around it. “It was a disaster,” Nitteberg remembered. “But it was probably really good for me business-wise.”

Nitteberg and a crew got to work and eventually rebuilt and reinforced the shoreline. The amazing thing is that since then, the lake has flooded twice more, the most recent flood in 2009 being the most serious.

“I hate to say it, but it really got me going again,” Nitteberg says. “There are seven guys I hired during that time that are still with me today. And that’s a big part of my success. The people working for me.”

These days, the bulk of Nitteberg’s business comes from installs for Rural Water systems across the state and region. But between 10 and 15 percent are private jobs he does for his neighbors, the people that kept him afloat and propelled him forward.

“I’ve worked for these people since 1974 and have a lot of repeat customers,” he says. “They hardly want to let you say no to a job. You gotta take care of them no matter how small. They’re the ones who make you.”