By Starrla Cray
LESTER PRAIRIE, MN When people come to work for Lester Building Systems, they tend to stay.
“We have a little over 100 employees here in Lester Prairie and the surrounding communities, including construction crews,” said human resources manager Bob Schwade. “Of those, 34 have been employed for 30 or more years.”
No one else has been there quite as long as Cliff Hedlund, however.
This year, he’s celebrating 50 years with Lester Building Systems.
“They treat me good, I like the people, and I like the company,” Hedlund said.
He’s thought about retirement, but hopes it won’t happen anytime soon.
“You’d miss something you’ve been coming to for 50 years,” he said.
It seems that the people at Lester Building Systems would miss him, too.
“We’re very proud of Cliff,” Schwade said. “He’s a good person who cares about others and cares about the company.”
Way back when
Hedlund grew up in Silver Lake, and started his career in the housing construction industry.
At that time, his uncle worked at Lester Building Systems, and invited him to join the team.
“The going rate was $1.20 per hour,” Hedlund said. “I had carpentry experience, so I got an extra nickel.”
Later on, he was transferred to the night shift, which he did for 10 years before switching back to the day shift.
After he got married in 1972, working nights became tough, he said.
Hedlund and his wife, LaVerna, now have four adult children and 11 grandchildren.
Two of their children, Holly and Chad, have separate houses on the family property in rural Watertown. Their other daughter, Lisa, lives in Mayer, and their other son, Jim, lives in New Germany.
Jim also worked for Lester Building Systems for a while, but Hedlund has him beat for experience.
Jack of all trades
“I was a jack of all trades,” Hedlund said. “I was never in one area.”
One project Hedlund worked on was the original Guthrie Theater, which opened May 7, 1963.
“We built all the framework,” Hedlund said.
At Lester Building Systems, structures are custom-designed to meet each customer’s desires.
They are sold and erected by nearly 150 independent, locally-owned dealers.
In some states, however, including most of Minnesota, building sales and construction services are provided “factory direct” by Lester Buildings.
Lester Building Systems also constructed panels for the Canterbury Park (formerly Canterbury Downs) racetrack in Shakopee in 1984.
“That was one of the bigger ones we worked on,” Hedlund said.
Another of Hedlund’s favorite projects was the Lester Prairie School District gymnasium.
“It was exciting to work on the 100-foot box beams,” he said. “It took 25 guys to make these beams. That was a challenge.”
Hedlund also helped build a ski lodge in New York.
“I’d like to see that once,” he said.
Hedlund isn’t part of the construction crew, so he doesn’t typically visit the project sites.
However, he did have the opportunity to travel to Texas and Arkansas about four years ago.
“That was one of the better deals,” he said. “I got to see how lumber was actually made at the plants.”
Hedlund had been chosen to train their lumber supplier how to operate a new Holtec saw.
“I used to run that saw here,” Hedlund explained.
Still going strong
Currently, one of Hedlund’s tasks is to transport lumber with a forklift.
“Now, the challenging part of my job is making sure to bring up the right grade of lumber,” he said.
Hedlund said he needs to have a second knee replacement soon, but is grateful that his health has been “fairly good.”
He’s also able to withstand the cold quite well, and doesn’t mind driving the forklift in all kinds of weather.
His free time is also spent outdoors, with fishing in the summer and winter, and deer hunting in the fall.
“I only need one shell a year,” he jokingly tells co-workers.
Hedlund gets along well with fellow employees, and has worked with some of them for decades.
Woody Prehn, Ernie Bruckschen, Jim Gierke, Don Wacker, Ken Maresh, and Ron Fischer have all been at Lester Building Systems more than 40 years.
Decades of dedication
“We try to recognize long service,” Schwade said, explaining that the company celebrates anniversaries in five-year increments.
“They get to pick out a gift from a catalog, and we do a recognition dinner,” he said. “Last year, we also took them to a play at the Chanhassen Dinner Theater.”
When employees hit the 20-year mark, they also get a special cake and coffee celebration.
Schwade has been with Lester Building Systems since 1990. Before that, he was part of Butler Manufacturing Company, which bought the company in 1986.
Lester Building Systems was then purchased by Lester management in 2004.
Company president John Hill, who was part of that group, has been with Lester Building Systems for 31 years.
Originally from Kansas City, Hill had previously been a plant manager in Virginia.
“This is home now,” he said.
For many Lester Building Systems employees, the company has been a major part of their life.
“We’ve had good years and bad years, fat years and lean years,” Hedlund said, adding that he hopes the company can continue to be successful for many years into the future.