Peterson Contractors

HOMER, LA., COMPANY SPECIALIZES IN OIL FIELD WORK, BUT TAKES ON A WIDE RANGE OF DIRT JOBS

June 19, 2013

"Reliable, productive, comfortable" Komatsu equipment

In 1962, J.P. “Doodley” Peterson started a small landscaping company in his northern Louisiana hometown of Homer. Prior to that, he’d run a filling station for a decade or so.

“It was just something I wanted to do,” Peterson said of his decision to get into contracting. “All I had was an old Ford tractor and a five-yard dump truck, but I was able to find odd jobs here and there. They kept me busy, and that’s how I got started.”

Odd jobs indeed. One of the projects Peterson took on back in the early years was the relocation of a cemetery that was going to be flooded in the creation of Toledo Bend Reservoir, a huge lake that forms much of the border between Louisiana and Texas.

“There were 135 graves in the cemetery, most of them dating back to the early 1900s,” Peterson recalled. “Because of the sensitivity of it, I had to have a licensed mortician as a partner for the project. This was in the mid-’60s so most of the graves were about 60 years old. The bodies had been buried in wooden boxes, and when I dug them up, basically all that was left were some screws, black dirt and maybe a few bones. So whatever the remains were, I put them in a new box, took them to a different cemetery and put them back in the ground. Like I say, I took odd jobs, just trying to put food on the table.”

By 1968, the business had grown a bit, and when a competitor got in some financial difficulties, Peterson was asked if he wanted to buy that company’s equipment and take it over.

“At the time, I wasn’t incorporated and wasn’t insured, so I was doing mostly small jobs,” he explained. “I wanted to be able to do more, so I bought the equipment and incorporated as Peterson Contractors, which led us to our primary business — oil field construction.

“Even before I incorporated, I was doing some small-scale oil field clean-up jobs, but after incorporating, we were able to get into it in a much bigger way,” Peterson noted. “With more equipment and more men, I was able to start constructing roads and drill sites. And the energy field — gas or oil exploration and cleanup — is still our main emphasis. Of course, when it’s slow, as it is today, we take on any and all types of earthmoving projects. We haven’t moved any cemeteries in a while, but never say never. Like everybody in this business, we do whatever we have to do to stay busy.”

Family business

Today, Doodley Peterson is 82. Many of the day-to-day activities of Peterson Contractors are now taken care of by Doodley’s son-in-law J.W. “Buzzy” Buckner, who’s been with him for 32 years, and his grandson Zack Buckner.

“When I passed 81, I told everybody that I’m no longer responsible for anything I do or say,” Peterson joked. “Just don’t cross me.”

In fact, Doodley still goes to work every day and remains the lead voice in major decisions. He even operates equipment as needed.

“I’m still the president, Buzzy’s the VP and Zack’s our superintendent,” said Peterson. “But frankly, titles don’t mean much here. From me, Buzzy and Zack to all our guys, everybody does whatever needs to be done on any given day. If you can’t do it all, you don’t work here.”

In addition to energy-sector work and other earthmoving jobs, Peterson and the Buckners also own a dirt pit and a sand pit, from which they deliver material to customers throughout the region.

Long history with Komatsu

To do their earthmoving jobs, whether in the oil field or elsewhere, Peterson Contractors turns primarily to Komatsu equipment from H&E Equipment Services in Shreveport. The company has six Komatsu PC200 hydraulic excavators, eight Komatsu dozers (six D61s and two D65s) and a Komatsu WA250 wheel loader.

“I have a long history with Komatsu machines — in fact, I probably had the first Komatsu in northern Louisiana,” Peterson recalled. “In the early to mid ’70s, I was at an auction in Houston. I’d never seen or even heard of Komatsu at the time, but there were three Komatsu track loaders there. I bought one for $20,000 just to try it out, thinking at that price, I can’t go too far wrong. It turned out to be a great machine. I ran it about every single day for four years with no issues whatsoever. From that point on, I was sold on Komatsu.”

“Everybody’s aware of Komatsu excavators,” said Superintendent Zack Buckner. “We think they’re the best track hoes on the market. But our favorite machine is probably the D61 dozer. It’s reliable, productive, comfortable and lasts a long time. It’s also a perfect size for our work. In doing reserve pit closures, there’s not much extra space and our dozer can’t be too heavy. We need a small to mid-size dozer that can move a lot of dirt, and that’s the D61. We also like its six-way blade, which lets us be very precise. It’s a great all-around machine.”

“We’ve found through the years that Komatsu makes better equipment,” Peterson added. “Downtime and repair bills are minimal. For the most part, we’ve just had very little trouble with our Komatsu units.”

Peterson Contractors participated in Komatsu’s No Idle Initiative last year and was highly successful in reducing machine idle time on the job. “We went from 29 percent idle time, which wasn’t too bad to begin with, down to 12 percent, which we think is outstanding,” said Buckner. “We give a lot of credit to our operators for getting fully on board with our efforts. We’ve found the benefits of lower idle time to be significant: fuel savings, extended service intervals and a better-running and longer-lasting machine.”

Peterson Contractors maintains its own fleet but calls on H&E for any significant repairs. “Truth is, we haven’t had many issues, but when we have, H&E has done a good job taking care of us,” acknowledged Peterson. “We especially appreciate the support we get from our H&E Sales Rep Scott Moody. We give Scott some grief sometimes, but it’s all in good fun because we know he’s going to be there for us whenever we need him.”

Weathering the ups and downs

Peterson says the energy sector in which his company specializes is a very cyclical industry — when it’s hot, it’s hot but when it’s not, it’s not. Right now, it’s not. When it’s booming, the company might employ as many as 50 to 60 workers. Currently, about 15 are on the payroll.

“The cycle often seems to be about five years up and five years down,” observed Peterson. “Every business that lasts as long as ours has to be able to weather the ups and downs of the economy. We’ve been able to do that.”

“Looking to the future, we fully expect the oil and gas market to come back, just like it always has in the past,” said Buckner. “When that happens, we have the equipment and we’re confident we’ll be able to find the men to gear back up quickly and take advantage of it.”

In the end, Peterson says it doesn’t really matter to him how many people are on the payroll or the amount of annual gross billings. “I think we’re recognized as a company that does quality work and treats everybody — employees and customers alike — fairly. That’s what’s most important to me.

“I never cared much about trying to become a huge company,” he added. “When I first started this more than 50 years ago, my only goal was to make a living. Whether it was just me or I had 50 guys working for me, it didn’t matter. I wanted to be able to support myself and my family by doing something I enjoy, and I’ve done that. I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish, and as far as I’m concerned, we’ve been very successful.”