When Rick Larson joined his father in the family business back in 1989, the idea was for Rick to work a couple years for Larson Digging, Inc. before taking over the business upon his dad’s retirement. Unfortunately, things didn’t go according to plan.
Three weeks into his new position — after leaving another job to return to the family’s home base in Iroquois, South Dakota — Rick lost his father in a work-related accident leaving the 32-year-old to “sink or swim” as the company manager. However, with the help of his employees and Butler Machine Company, Larson not only learned to “swim,” but grew the business into a multi-million dollar company.
It’s not like Larson was a stranger to the business. While it would be frowned on today for safety reasons, Rick says he can remember driving Cat® crawlers when he was just 10 or 11 years of age.
“I was born in 1956 and Dad started the business in 1962,” Larson relates. “So I was running some of the machines before I was even in high school. In fact, I still remember that his first Caterpillar machine was a D8 cable crawler that was built in the ’50s.”
Established as an underground utility contractor that specializes in laying wire cables, sewer lines, and some gas lines, the company hasn’t strayed too far from its roots. However, Larson admits the majority of the business these days involves laying fiber optic cable for communications and putting power lines underground to eliminate the impact of weather on overhead lines. The irony is that he often finds himself laying down fiber optic lines to replace the cable installations his father did back in the ’60s and ’70s. In the meantime, he has also used his experience to develop and manufacture a line of cable-handling products marketed under the name Larson Cable Trailers, Inc.
“We basically cover the entire state of South Dakota, parts of Nebraska, and occasionally venture into Minnesota.” he says. “In fact, I don’t think there is a dirt road in South Dakota that I haven’t been on.”
At any one time, Larson Digging will also have as many as three “trains” working within the state. While most would call them crews, Larson says the “train” designation comes from the fact that each crew runs a minimum of two track-type tractors equipped with a cable trailer and cable plow — both tied together 60 feet apart — followed by a Cat backhoe loader.
In addition to two Cat D7H tractors, Larson’s current Cat inventory also includes a D6H track-type tractor, a D5H track-type tractor, two 420E backhoe loaders, a 420D backhoe loader, a few different skid steer loaders, and two mini excavators — a 301.8 and 305.5.
“All total, we have about 30 guys burying cable down road ditches or along the edges of nearby fields.” he says. “And I don’t know how many pieces of Cat equipment we actually have together. We have used other brands of equipment and we still have a few pieces of it,” he admits. “But to be honest, we don’t even look at anything besides Caterpillar anymore.”
Larson says it’s not because he has been displeased with any of the other brands; although he still believes Cat durability and reliability ranks among the best. It’s the service from Butler Machinery, he insist, that makes the difference.
“The service we received from other dealers in no way ever compared to what we get from Butler Machinery.” he relates. “We figure we have an average of 150 days a year to get all of our work done, given our weather in South Dakota. If you take just one day of downtime out of that, you can figure the cost of repair is nothing compared to the loss on income.”
The numbers are pretty staggering too. Given the $3 to $4 million in business Larson Digging grosses during those 150 days, that comes out to at least $20,000 a day. Even if downtime only affects one of the three trains, the loss in productivity could still amount to $6,000 to $8,000 per day.
“Yet, we have never lost a single day of work due to a problem with a Cat machine,” he continues. “The reliability of the equipment itself has made part of the difference. However, even when we have a breakdown, Butler has been on the job site in a matter of hours to make the repair. And if it’s something they can’t repair immediately, they have brought me another piece of equipment that same day to keep us going. They are the only equipment company that has ever done that or even made the option possible.” Larson adds. “Even if others are willing to try, they simply don’t have the infrastructure and inventory to make it happen. Nor do they have the number of service trucks that Butler has and they don’t have near as many locations.”
Of course, that brings up another benefit Butler has to offer, according to Larson. Even though he does most of his business with the Butler Machinery dealership in nearby Huron, South Dakota, he says he has received the same friendly service at every other Butler location, no matter where he and his crews are working at the time.
“Every store has treated us as if we were one of their own customers,” he says. “I’ve worked with Butler locations as far away as Rapid City and Aberdeen and still been surprised when they call me by my first name. And they still get there just as fast when we have problem.” he continues. “We had a radiator on a crawler go down on a job in the Black Hills; yet a Butler service truck out of the Rapid City shop was there in a matter of hours and has us back up and running by the next morning.”
Larson notes that one thing that has changed, though, is the number of obstacles they encounter on the job.
“We’re basically using the same process we used when Dad started the business.” he says, noting that a cable plow, which buries the wire to approximately four feet deep, is pulled behind a crawler tractor. “But there are so many more utilities buried these days that you have to watch out for.”
That’s one reason he has nothing but praise for the Trimble® system on his track-type tractors and cable plows. Not only does the system assist with depth control and guidance, but it allows him to map, within six inches, the location of the line.
“The client can then pull up a map on their computer and know exactly where their lines are located without ever going to the site,” he says. “They can see the whole system from the office. Caterpillar and Butler Machinery just have so much to offer that I don’t even look anywhere else anymore,” Larson concludes. “Service is the most important thing in my business. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s something I’m giving or receiving.”