Forty-plus years ago, Don Kelly owned a fence building company and never had thought of becoming a utility contractor. However, he had a friend who installed and maintained telephone lines and kept urging Kelly to enter that business. After a period of time, Kelly investigated the opportunity by contacting a referral provided by his friend.
“My first job in 1973 was taking down aerial plant, taking down cable from poles and sometimes removing the poles,” said Kelly. “It really went well, and soon we were working in several states — we had one job with 700 miles of removals. In 1976, we got our first contract on our own — all previous work had been as a subcontractor.”
In 1976, Kelly’s company took its first job installing outside plant, setting poles and stringing cable in Russellville, Ark. Business steadily increased, and Kelly weathered a temporary slowdown in early 1980s when it was necessary to trim the workforce and reduce the equipment fleet.
Kelly was committed to aerial plant construction and had often said he would never get into underground work. “We watched crews placing cable in the ground.” he explained. “With what was involved in underground work and the cleanup that was required, I wondered how they were making any money.”
However, colleagues and customers kept urging Kelly to make the transition to underground because that was where an ever-growing amount of telecommunications cable was going. In 1988, Kelly made the plunge into underground work.
“From the beginning,” said Kelly, “we’ve been committed to plowing. In the areas we work there is a lot of open country and direct burial by plowing is faster. It greatly limits the amount of restoration compared to open-cut construction. We never really had much call for trenching.”
Kelly crews used big vibratory plows pulled by dozers.“In 1992 or 1993,” he said, “we added a rock saw to get through hard rock conditions, a Ditch Witch HT100. We’ve used it all over the country and it’s still in operation today.
Kelly still is committed to plowing, but the type of plowing equipment has changed.“We still use vibratory plows pulled by dozers,” he explained, “but there are more and more areas where we aren’t permitted to use them. Steel tracks tear up roads and some work areas are too small to use them.”
Kelly has shifted to quad-mounted vibratory plows with four track components in which wheels would be on a standard four-wheel drive tractor.
Rubber tracks take the machine across highways and streets without damaging paving and over both rough terrain and improved areas.
“Our plow fleet now is about half quad machines,” said Kelly. ”We’re running six Ditch Witch RT115 quad models,” Kelly said.
To keep pace with changing client needs, Kelly purchased the company’s first horizontal directional drilling (HDD) equipment not long after starting to do underground work. “The benefits of directional drilling applied to telecom are obvious,” he said.
Today, Don Kelly Contractors is heavily involved in HDD.
The company owns four drill rigs, including three Ditch Witch models: a JT3020 All Terrain, which is capable of drilling through hard rock, JT2020, and compact JT922 used primarily for drops for going under fences, walks and driveways.
“Many of our projects today require directional drilling, but we prefer to keep our equipment investment low,” said Kelly. “We subcontract a lot of HDD work, and we can do that because we have very good subcontractors to do the quality work our clients expect.”
Kelly also subcontracts HDD jobs for water and other underground installations. The company no longer does aerial work and subcontracts those portions of his contracts.
Kelly said his company has built a solid business serving the numerous small independent telephone companies in the region, many of them clients since he began doing telephone work in the 1970s.
“We built their systems, and then have master contracts for maintenance and repair,” he said. “We have established relationships that are mutually beneficial to our clients and us. For example, there is a family-owned telco in Seneca, Mo., that operates six exchanges. We’re currently placing 15 miles of fiber for them; doing all the work, then maintain the systems after they are up and running. When a new home is built, we bring service to it.”
While these independent companies provide basic telephone services, they no longer are “telephone” companies — many constructing and operating fiber networks that bring fiber directly to each customer, providing high-speed Internet and data services that are superior to what is available than those in other areas, where fiber hasn’t yet reached end users.
In addition, a growing amount of fiber construction is placing fiber-to-the-tower (FTTT).
“Right now, we have three projects that requires a total of 45,000 ft of boring,” said Kelly.
Kelly Contracting is very much a family business. Don and his wife, Jan, have nine children. Six are currently employed in the company: Twin brothers John and Housten, recently become part owners of the company, and are both vice presidents. Younger brothers Clayton and Austin (work full-time with crews in the field). Daughters Carrie and Bridge handle all the payroll, human resources, and safety responsibilities.
All the kids give equal credit to their mother, Jan, for the company their parents have built together. “Mom is the glue that holds everything together,” said Housten Kelly.
What have been the keys to success for Kelly Contracting? “All credit goes to God,” answers Kelly. “From the time I got started, I’ve always believed in treating people right, and we should always go the extra mile to serve our clients. We’re committed to do every job right the first time.
And to do that takes good people. We have excellent employees. I hear other business owners complaining about not being able to find good help, that’s never been a problem us. We have many 15- and 20-year employees.”
Jeri Lamerton is public relations manager for Ditch Witch.