“My PC210LCi was an investment, but it’s been worth every penny”
Leaving the stability and familiarity of a secure position to open your own company is a big step. For Jason Kuester, the decision to start Ground Zero Services in 1999 was based on a combination of things.
“I could feel that it was the right time,” recalled Kuester, who is President of the Courtland, Minn.-based company. “I was a supervisor at my previous job and put in 100-hour weeks with lots of Saturdays and non-stop phone calls from jobsites. I figured that if I was going to work this hard, it might as well be for myself. I always had the drive to open my own business, but I finally felt like I had the knowledge and confidence to pull the trigger.”
Kuester’s company cut its teeth early on with small maintenance and excavation projects. As it continued to plug away and build a reputation, the company flourished. Then, with momentum behind it, Ground Zero grew by 20 percent through the recession of 2008.
“We hit our stride in 2007, and when the economy tanked, contractors wanted to work with quality companies they could trust,” noted Kuester. “Budgets were tight, and we were able to finish on time and under cost. We were fortunate to team up with some good contractors on large projects.”
Today, Ground Zero employs 30-plus people and tackles large earthmoving projects in the $1 million range within a 60-mile radius of Courtland. At a jobsite in New Sweden, Minn., the company performed the excavation for an 800- by 800-foot holding pond for which it moved 100,000 yards of material.
“We want to move the big dirt,” explained Kuester. “Jobs like that one are great because we’re set up for them. However, we still remember where we came from. We continue to handle the $400 window digs, plus we’ve added paving, aggregate and other services to our offerings.”
Being the owner also allowed Kuester to act on opportunities that he sensed were available in the market. At the top of his list was acquiring an aggregate quarry.
“I had always believed that owning aggregate was the key to sustained success in this industry,” noted Kuester. “Once I had my company, that was a priority. With our own material, we can control the quality of the product, and we don’t have to wait for it. It allows us to eliminate the middleman on many excavation and road construction projects.”
Ground Zero acquired its first pit in 2007 and opened a small screening and crushing operation. It expanded in 2011 with the addition of a second facility and began doing massive crushing for road jobs. The firm added its third site in 2015 – a wash plant that makes concrete sands.
With a trio of pits, the company moves a total of 500,000 tons of material a year, ranging from encasement sand and three-quarter-inch wash rock for sewer lines to inch-and-a-half crushed rock, riprap and Class 5 aggregates. Ground Zero’s facilities crush and recycle concrete and asphalt as well. Altogether, the aggregate operation keeps a fleet of 17 semitrucks busy throughout the year.
“The aggregate and crushing part of the company accounts for approximately 30 percent of our work annually, which is equal to our earthmoving division,” said Kuester. “Once we added those elements, it took us to another level. It makes us a lot more appealing to customers since we have so much control of our quality and time lines.”
Kuester seeks out projects that combine his earthwork and aggregate divisions. Ground Zero performs initial excavation to ready a site for utility installation, removing material from the location either to another jobsite or to one of the firm’s pits. The company brings its own material for road construction and will perform paving.
“Everything goes hand-in-hand,” detailed Kuester. “We do it all except make asphalt, although we typically work with those companies. We sell them aggregate and buy the asphalt from them. It’s worked well for us.”
Another decision that Kuester needed to make when he started Ground Zero was how to build his equipment fleet. After initially picking up inexpensive used equipment to get started, he was able upgrade his fleet as the company grew. To accomplish that, he turned to Road Machinery & Supplies Co. and Sales Rep Jeff Bistodeau.
“We compared equipment, and it was apparent that Komatsu was the best option for us,” recalled Kuester. “The equipment is great, and the support that we get from RMS and Jeff has been even better. They treat us like we’re their largest customer.”
Ground Zero’s Komatsu PC210LC excavator exemplifies the reasons why Kuester continues to choose Komatsu products.
“We bought our PC210 two years ago, and it’s been a workhorse,” he reported. “We can dig footings, load trucks and perform mass excavation. Komatsus are quick and responsive, and they always work. The other thing we love is their fuel efficiency. We can load trucks all day and not have to fill up with fuel. It’s unbelievable.”
In addition to the PC210, the company also has three Komatsu D65PX dozers and a D85EX dozer.
“The dozers provide amazing visibility, and they have a lot of power behind them,” stated Kuester. “They have air conditioning, quiet cabs and a smooth ride. In the old days, you’d get off a machine and be lucky to make it to your truck because you were so exhausted. Now, I feel like I can still do other things after working all day.”
Ground Zero also uses four WA500 wheel loaders in its quarries and a GD655 motor grader.
“The loaders can really move some material; they are awesome,” said Kuester. “The GD655 has been one of our favorite machines. It’s like Komatsu took all the stuff an operator could dream up and applied it to the machine. The view to the blade from the cab is unbeatable, and the automatic-style transmission is always in the right gear.”
Kuester trusts RMS and Bistodeau’s advice when it comes to machinery. “Jeff does a great job of getting us the right machine, whether it’s a sale or rental. We rent a lot of machines, mainly articulated trucks for the summer season. Jeff and RMS have always been honest and recommended equipment that made sense for our business.”
The first of many
The future is now for Ground Zero’s equipment fleet as the company purchased its first Komatsu intelligent Machine Control piece, a D51PXi dozer, in September.
“I ran the D51PXi at Komatsu’s Demo Days in Cartersville, Ga., and I wanted one as soon as possible,” stated Kuester. “Jeff got us the dozer and RMS Technology Solutions Expert Chris Potter did a training with our operators on the technology, and they picked up on it quickly.
“We used it at the holding pond project in New Sweden for final grade and side slopes, and the results were amazing,” he added. “In the short time we’ve had it, we’ve been impressed. The operators love it. It’s what we hope is the first of many intelligent Machine Control pieces.”
Kuester knows that the success of his company in the years to come will rely largely on his employees.
“We have terrific people here, and they are the reason we’re at this point,” Kuester shared. “From the employees in the field to our management staff, we’ve got a great group. We take pride in treating our people well – with pay, vacation, nice equipment and everything. We listen to them, and I wouldn’t ask them to do anything that I wouldn’t do.
“We’re at a good size right now,” he said. “We have the flexibility to handle a lot of projects and still keep that small-company feel. I know the people who work here personally; we finish on time and have complete quality control. We’ve built our reputation on that, and I’m proud of it.”