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From Skis to Clearing Trees, Mass. Native Founds Hunter Excavating

Hunter Kaltsas’ life has gone full circle; a full circle dug in the earth by the excavators he runs.

Mon September 23, 2013 - Northeast Edition
Jay Adams

Hunter Kaltsas takes a break on trees his crew removed.
Hunter Kaltsas takes a break on trees his crew removed.
Hunter Kaltsas takes a break on trees his crew removed. For Hunter, the need to cut timber did not stem from the devastation caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011. Crews work on the new commercial building dedicated to Hunter Kaltsas’s late mother at the Stratton Mountain High School. Hunter Excavating finishes work on a lake in Londonderry, Vt. The company offers a very important service to deal with the challenges of forests and timber in the mountains. Kaltsas fleet runs 16 to 20 pieces of equipment.

Hunter Kaltsas’ life has gone full circle; a full circle dug in the earth by the excavators he runs.

Kaltsas, the owner of Hunter Excavating Inc., just broke ground on a summer project on a new arts building dedicated to the memory of his late mother on the spacious grounds of Stratton Mountain School, a private high school academy run by his father, the headmaster.

It is fitting that he has returned to the secondary school he attended as a teen, the school that his mother loved, because it was in high school that Kaltsas first saw bulldozers outside his cafeteria windows. The excavators dug up the asphalt while sparking his interest in that kind of work.

“I remember being in high school, and there was a large construction project going on right outside the cafeteria window, and instead of focusing of what was going on in school, I focused on what was going on outside,” said Kaltsas. “During any break I had in the school day, I’d watch the men work and sort of fell in love with the machinery.”

Kaltsas founded Hunter Excavating Inc. in 2005, but he is not typical of the construction workers who started after the Great War, or who learned at the knees of their father, grandfather or uncle. Kaltsas’ father is a retired attorney and his mother was an interior decorator.

Kaltsas had his first lesson running equipment as a teenager. A friend, Josh Applegate, was working on an excavation project and needed a bulldozer operator.

“He asked me if I wanted to come run the bulldozer,” said Kaltsas. “At that time, I had never even run a farm tractor. I went and worked for him for three weeks and ran a D61 Komatsu.”

A native of Concord-Carlyle, Mass., his family moved to Stratton Mountain, Vt., when he was 13 for ski racing.

“My father retired from being a lawyer and became headmaster of a local ski resort school, Stratton Mountain High, a private high school. I went to the school and was a ski racer at the time,” said Kaltsas.

Later, Kaltsas attended the University of Vermont, studied natural resources and skied on a team. Soon he enjoyed the mountains for entirely different reasons.

“I just remember picking up the operator portion of the machinery and feeling like I really excelled at it. I really enjoyed it and I didn’t want it to stop,” said Kaltsas. “It was at that point, it all came together.”

Running an excavator through ledge at 7,000 ft. (2,133.6 m) above sea level was the easy part. The hard part was telling his father what he planned to do with his life.

“I don’t think he was too excited. He probably thought I was kidding,” said Kaltsas. “At one point, I was driving home on weekends to run machinery, going to school, and also training for the ski team. It was quite a balance to do everything.”

Kaltsas began Hunter Excavating with one employee — himself.

“In 2005, it was just me and one excavator that I bought. Every year, it kind of built up, a few more machines, a pretty steady increase of employees and machinery.”

Nearly nine years later, he has 11 full-time employees. His first job with his fledgling company was clearing a building lot for a man named Joseph Wagner. Wagner was referred to him by one of Kaltsas’ friends.

“He actually was an accountant, and is now my accountant. He is the reason why I am incorporated,” said Kaltsas. “He got in touch with me, I did the job, and he asked me questions like, ’What are your goals?’ ’What are you doing with your company?’ He formalized it, made this all real and he still guides me through [financial] decisions.”

Hunter Excavating’s array of services includes excavating — full home site development foundation to finish work, septic tanks, drainage solutions, land clearing, landscape contouring, grading and pond construction, recreational trail construction (for snowmobiles, etc.), driveway construction and grading, demolition, pond dredging and snow removal.

Hunter Excavating has performed commercial projects such as water mains and utilities, road construction, land clearing, site preparation and demolition.

In addition, the company offers a very important service to deal with the challenges of forests and timber in the mountains.

“I have a full fleet of mechanized forestry equipment. We have a Feller buncher, a machine tree cutter. And we have two Grapple skidders. They pull the trees that the feller buncher cuts and bunches,” said Kaltsas. “The skidders grapple the trees to a log loader that has a slasher, which cuts the trees and a slasher-delimber, then loaded up on a log truck to head to the mill.”

For Hunter, the need to cut timber did not stem from the devastation caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011, the storm that flooded Vermont, washed out roads, bridges and highways and caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage.

“No, years before, in 2006, I bought a 1978 Clark Ranger cable log skidder. I bought it for $13,500. It was an old-fashioned hunk of steel,” said Kaltsas. “I ended up taking it to my neighbor’s garage and basically rebuilt it with the help of friends. We painted it and put original decals on it. We began working it, and making money with it.”

Excavation in Vermont shuts down during the winter.

“I bought this skidder to keep the cash flow moving by logging,” said Kaltsas. “Pretty much from there, it [my business] kind of turned into a passion for [using and owning] different, unique types of equipment. I ended up buying this fleet of forester equipment over time.”

The former ski racer, with the natural resources degree, leans on his own resources when things break down.

“I think I’m pretty handy to begin with. I kind of have this mentality that I’m going to figure it out, or I’m going to get it done. If I get blocked or need help, I’ll find someone and drag them up north to the machine to get help,” Kaltsas said.

Most of the time he doesn’t have to go past his own repair shop.

Longtime employees include supervisor Stuart Rudkin, a former NCAA golfer, with experience in Connecticut construction. Top operator and foreman Louis Pare, operator Larry Wyman, and excavator Warren Roberts each have more than 30 years of experience. Operator Mark Roy joined Hunter six years ago and operator Brent Bills joined Hunter last winter.

In addition, there is a dedicated team of equipment operators, dump truck operators, laborers and mechanics.

“Without Brian Stowell knowing how to fix equipment on the fly, we’d be in trouble, said Kaltsas”

“We’re always put up to pretty tough challenges, working in the mountains, building roads to working sites at different houses, different buildings, access roads to the top of the mountains,” said Kaltsas. “I think one thing we specialize in is that most of my men have been working in the mountains most of our lives. We are a different breed.

“Most of the older guys who have been up here, have been working pretty much their whole lives doing this work,” Kaltsas said. “I think that a huge piece of my success is the people that I hired. Everyone works very, very hard and each guy is very unique and adds a different twist to the jobs, in order to have everything rolling along.”

Kaltsas believes the people matter the most in this type of business.

“My advice is, ’The people you hire are everything.’ It’s who you surround yourself with that makes your company. I have high-end clients who ask for specific operators because they enjoy having them working on their property. I have relationships with these people and they also have relationships with operators and continue to have them improve their properties.”

In addition, Kaltsas recognizes the importance of strong relationships with the customers. Their satisfaction with the job can determine whether there is more work.

“Word of mouth is probably 98 percent of why this all has happened. We do a job, and it leads to two more, and we do those two, and it leads to four more,” said Kaltsas.

Unlike many other small excavating firms, Hunter Excavating has not been hampered by the economic hardships that began four years ago.

“Honestly, we have grown up very fast and not seen a hiccup from the economy. I think my biggest challenge now is the balance of it all. I still bid jobs, but I’m getting to the point, where there is a lot of overhead and the challenge now is balancing a bigger company out,” said Kaltsas.

“When it was me and just a couple of guys, it was easier than having a full-time secretary and a full-time diesel mechanic; ordering new parts every day; figuring out who to hire to keep up with everything we have. I started by doing the estimating, the invoicing, the equipment repair. I was doing everything. Every year, I do a little less of everything, and get to the work. The biggest challenge to me is not the economy, but keeping up with how fast we’ve grown,” said Kaltsas.

His fleet now runs 16 to 20 pieces of equipment.

“It’s amazing how much energy needs to go into keeping that much equipment moving and actually making money at it,” said Kaltsas. “Actually, running the equipment is the good part. It’s the other stuff that’s tough,” said Kaltsas.

Hunter excavating is currently involved with several projects. The work performed at his alma-mater hits very close to home.

“It’s an arts center building that is actually dedicated to my mother, who passed away a couple of years ago. We’re doing the digging for it. We’re in the backfilling phase right now,” said Kaltsas.

Hunter Excavating is involved in another large project for the Stratton Mountain Resort.

“It is five river, stream crossings, arch culverts and we’re doing three bridges on the golf course, over the most part of two summers. Due to permitting, we started on this two days ago [late August]. We will try to have it done by next summer,” he said.

Other Hunter Excavating projects include a building for the new Londonderry Town Garage to accommodate service for its trucks, graders and equipment.

“We do just about all the water and sewer work for the municipality in Stratton. Whenever there is a water main break, or that type of emergency, we are always the first call,” said Kaltsas. “On top of that, we do a fair amount of work for the Stratton Fire District, who is a very good client of ours.”

Even his father has come around to favor his work.

“He’s very impressed, I think. It took some time to show him that I could make a life out of it, but he is definitely supportive,” said Kaltsas. “The people we work for always tell him how good a job we’re doing, so he’s always happy.”

Headquartered at 2218 Rte. 100, South Londonderry, Hunter Excavating Inc. has two adjoining properties housing two shops — one for heavy equipment repair, and the other for truck repair.

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