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If you can’t work hard, you won’t last long in Texas. It’s just part of the culture, and something the world saw this summer when Hurricane Harvey dumped 5 feet of rain along the Texas Gulf Coast.
Just east of Beaumont, KAT Excavation and Construction was swamped by that deluge. Flooded shop and offices. Water up to trucks’ floorboards. Hundreds of thousands of people without homes. But as with so many others, Kerry and Belinda Trest, son Chris and their employees pulled on the waders, fired up the bass boats and started fighting back. Hard work for sure, but nothing this fifth-generation construction family couldn’t handle. It’s what Texans do.
Kerry Trest grew up in the construction business. As the years went by, he decided he would try it on his own. He started out small, with a chainsaw cutting trees. He rented a dozer to do a few jobs and just kept going. He bought his first piece of equipment, a Cat D4 dozer, in 1989 and started site work and land clearing, officially incorporating the company in 1992.
In 1996, Kerry also saw some regional opportunities in trucking and bought dump trucks. “We got so busy, we couldn’t find enough dump trucks to keep our equipment busy, because everybody was busy at the same time,” says Kerry. “So that’s when we started buying dump trucks. We went from a construction company to a dump truck company.”
By 2009, Kerry had 28 trucks and was hauling material for himself and other contractors in the area. “At that point, we pretty much quit doing civil work and went 95 percent oilfield. We ran sand pits, sold rock and materials and built pads and retention ponds,” says Kerry.
But as usually happens, the price of oil dropped. The country entered a deep recession. Kerry cut his fleet to 15 trucks and started looking to diversify, primarily back to civil construction. Kerry and his team moved their focus to jobs in the field. Today, the company is back up to 22 trucks, five operators, three mechanics, a helper, 22 to 24 drivers, two dispatchers, and support staff members.
The recession also taught KAT Excavating some tough lessons about business. “You can’t live on a promise of others, but we still have to live up to the promises we make,” Kerry says. “We learned a lot about choosing our customers to make things run a whole lot smoother. We have always had commitment to deliver quality service, trust and dedication to our customers, and have learned along the way you should be able to expect the same from them.”
Equipment utilization also became a priority. “We rent a lot of equipment, all of our bigger stuff, and even some of the small stuff,” Kerry says. “We’ll add equipment, but it’s one or two pieces a year. We have to look at how much work it’s going to take to pay off that piece of equipment before we buy it.”
Kerry’s wife, Belinda, has worked in the business in various roles throughout the years and stepped in full time in 2013. During the recession, the two of them forged a plan to diversify and strengthen the company and survive the recession intact. A lot of that plan had to do with their workers.
“We refer to them as Team KAT,” says Belinda. “We mail them a weekly newsletter and do open-ended meetings and surveys for their feedback. We offer healthcare benefits and bonus incentive programs not usually seen in a company our size. We try to create a feeling of ownership and pride.”
Recognition also plays a big part in the company. The employee of the month is selected by fellow employees, and the employee of the year is voted on by the staff.
The HR efforts have paid off in terms of the loyalty and longevity of many of the company’s workers. “We’ve had some people with us for 20 years plus,” Belinda says. Recently, KAT was awarded Best Small Employer by Work Force Solutions of Texas for the South-East Texas Region.
Kerry and Belinda agree that Generation X and baby boomers are a reliable demographic for the company and have something to teach. “We have also seen an influx of people who tried to retire at 62 or 65 who must rejoin the workforce to supplement their Social Security income, and they have become some of our best and most reliable employees. I really have to compliment those guys,” says Belinda.
“Some of the older guys, if they know somebody is taking care of them, they’re going to dig in and stay awhile,” says Kerry. “We have a team of drivers comprised of men and women who are committed to our vision and service. At the end of the day, we want long-term employees.”
As with many companies in Texas, KAT Excavating loses people to the oil and gas industry during booming times. And when the oil patch goes bust, many of them return. This inspired the company to institute “Pidgeon Awards” for those coming back to KAT; the one with best story gets the “Leader of the Flock Award” at the company’s annual Christmas Dinner.
And while millennials may be the toughest demographic to recruit and retain in the construction and trucking business, there’s one millennial in the company who seems to be earning his keep.
The couple’s son, Chris, age 26, started working for the company when he was a sophomore in high school. Since then, he’s gotten a taste of all aspects of the business including the shop, dispatch, equipment operation, and job bidding and estimating. Last year, they put him in the field to start running jobs.
Kerry admits he was a bit nervous when Chris started taking responsibility for his own jobs, frequently pinging his son with phone calls and questions. But it didn’t take long for Chris to convince his dad to give him free reign. “He’s working hard out there. He has to prove himself more than the other guys, and he’s doing an amazing job,” Belinda adds. Kerry and Belinda are proud of Chris as the family tradition continues.
The Trests also have three daughters who help with filing and other office chores when it gets busy. And everybody in the family and members of Team KAT get involved in big cookouts for charity and community events, some feeding up to 500 people. The company is also involved in a host of community organizations including Texas High School Rodeo, Chamber of Commerce, 4-H, FFA, Special Olympics, the Texas Oilman’s Bass Classic and The American Cancer Society.
In addition to the safety meetings required by the DOT, KAT Excavating uses the services of a contracted safety expert, road compliance liaison and additional nonrequired compliance services. The company also sends key people, usually someone from each department, to OSHA training annually. Additionally, they invite their insurance company to come on site, inspect the operations and make recommendations.
The company’s performance and ethics have not gone unnoticed in its home state. In 2016, the company received the Torch Award in the For Profit Large Business category from the Better Business Bureau in Southeast Texas. The award is based on the company’s commitment to ethical practices among employees, vendors, contractors and competitors; and involvement with local volunteer and charitable organizations.
“Many people have said he’s the best grading contractor in the Beaumont area,” says Cody Odell of Mustang Rentals. “It’s rare in this size of company to deal with the owner, but that’s one of the reasons they’re so respected around here.”
Colin Garrett of G&G Enterprises Construction has been impressed with how clean Kat Excavation and Construction keeps its jobsites. “That’s something they take a lot of pride in, something that’s normally a hassle with other contractors, but they do it voluntarily. They’re a great company all around.”
“They try to work with you, point out ways they can save you money and get stuff done quicker,” says Joe Penland Jr. at Quality Mat. “They are the kind of people who when the job starts, they attack it. Their people are so well-qualified that they can get more done than other people can do with double the crews.”