Chris Brahler has been on a search for trenchless technology nearly all his career. Though he didn’t know what to call it at first, trenchless methods of underground construction have always been his goal. Now, with TT Technologies, Inc., Chris has found the solutions to many of the problems he has faced.
In 1974, Chris was employed by Condux International in its cable plow division. The new plow was a great innovation to bury phone and power cables efficiently. When the plow came up road crossings, however, open-cutting the roadway was the only alternative available. Such disruptions washed away many benefits of cable plowing.
Chris believed there had to be another way. He set out to search for an alternative to tearing up highways with trenches.
Piercing tools had made their first appearances by then in North America. Chris came across the German firm of Tracto-Technik, which had introduced a new piercing tool that demonstrated straight shots under roads and canals. Tracto-Technik also was looking for distribution candidates in the west, so their searches coincided.
(Above, l-r) Larry Gross, pipe bursting product specialist; Rick Bissonette, service manager; and Mike Patton, customer service manager, examine the winch unit for pipe bursting.
The concept of “trenchless technology” was difficult to communicate in that era. Chris explained: “I made a presentation to the Condux board of directors and mentioned the term “trenchless technology” and they didn’t have a clue as to what I meant.”
“We explained what our problem was and that we were trying to go underneath roads without digging them up,” said Chris. “They thought that was OK, but they didn’t know the word “trenchless,” and they didn’t really know for years.”
Company management understood the concept well enough to enter into a business arrangement with Tracto-Technik in 1975 to represent its products in North America. The expanded product division became know as Vibra King.
The Grundomat piercing tool was the initial trenchless product brought to the market by Vibra King. In retrospect, Chris said, “The piercing tools has been the mother lode of our business.” But it wasn’t as simple as that.
After placing a few tools in North America, they discovered that the piercing tool needed to be retrofitted to conditions on this side of the ocean. “We entered into an R&D program with the Germans,” Chris recalled. “Together we simplified the earlier design, increased the power and improved the serviceability.”
Following six years of development, test marketing and product testing, Vibra King relaunched the piercing tool in the early 1980s for a second time in North America. “We got a specific tool to the North American market, which indirectly wound up being lower-cost,” said Chris. “We accomplished two things in the redesign–got a better product and brought our costs down substantially so we could compete. That’s been critical.”
Since the inception of the Vibra King relationship with Tracto-Technik in 1975, Chris Brahler has been involved with trenchless technology. Now he is the president and CEO of TT Technologies, the successor company to Vibra King.
Chris began working for North Star Concrete Products, the parent company of Condux International, during his college years at Governor’s State University in Illinois. After getting a degree in marketing and business administration in 1974, Minnesota-based North Star invited Chris to join them as a management trainee. Chris is fond of recalling that he graduated, accepted the job, got married and moved to Minnesota all in the same month.
Upon completion of the program, Chris was appointed as the general manager of the Vibra King division, which also included Condux International. He continued in that role until February 1991, when the decision was made by North Star to focus on its core businesses (mostly concrete products and the trenchless products distribution was sold back to Tracto-Technik.
The Vibra King division employed about 25 people at the time of the sale. According to Chris, they were confident that the trenchless market was going to continue to grow.
Though at first Chris did not plan to transfer to the new company, a few months of consideration made the option attractive for him and the majority of the Vibra King crew. By May 1991, TT Technologies was launched from quarters in Aurora, IL.
Tracto-Technik was started by Paul Schmidt in 1962 in Lennestadt, Germany, with the patented invention of a Tracto-drill, a device for the extraction of drill bits. Grundomat piercing tools were developed in the early 1970s, and the Grundoram pipe ramming tools began production in 1980. Grundocrack pipe bursting tools followed soon thereafter.
Tracto-Technik offers a broad line of products, including the Grundodrill directional boring systems. The company holds more than 200 patents on products and components of construction equipment, most of it trenchless. According to Chris, Tracto-Technik is Òclearly a leader in trenchless technologyÓ in Europe.
Founder Paul Schmidt died in 1994. His family still holds the private company, with the Schmidt children–Wolfgang, Jochen and Carola–now in charge of operations. Tracto-Technik has worldwide distribution with more than 50 dealers and distributors. TT UK, Ltd. in England and Tracto-Techniques in France extend marketing, sales and service to those countries.
TT Technologies is a U.S. corporation owned by its employee investors and Tracto-Technik. The company manufactures and distributes Tracto-Technik products, with exclusive rights to the technology for the United States, Canada and Mexico. According to Chris, TT Technologies is a “stand-alone entity that has to produce.”
Chris said that the company imports critical components from Germany, but manufactures about 40 percent of the parts and accessories used in its products. “We can make the heads or tails or any of the accessories domestically. You can’t get that steel here; there’s only one place that makes our steel, so we would have to import it from Europe, as well.
“Our marketing is tailored toward the completion in North America, which is definitely a lot tougher than in other parts of the world,” said Chris. “The Germans find that our people and contractors give them probably more stimulating ideas.”
“We get the advantage of global eyes and ears, because Tracto-Technik has operations in so many different countries.”
With the formation of TT Technologies in 1991, the company also moved to Aurora, IL, a Chicago suburb. Many of the former Vibra King staff also made the move.
Key to present operations are: Dave Holcolmb, a 20-year veteran employee who is now the vice president; Mike Schwager, pipe ramming/bursting product specialist; Rick Bissonette, service manager; Brian Matson, national sales manager; and Mike Patton, customer service manager.
Gena Brahler, Chris’ wife who holds an accounting degree, agreed to help after the move on a part-time basis. Her role has grown, however, so that Gena now works full time as the controller.
At the end of June, TT Technologies completed a move into expanded facilities a few miles from the original plant. Its new home provides 50 percent more space and there is room to grow at the new site. TT Technologies has immediate plans to expand to 40,000 sq. ft, and ultimately expects to grow to more than 70,000 sq. ft. In addition, the site provides demonstration and testing grounds, an important element lacking at the original site.
Marketing in N. America
A training room is under preparation, too. Chris said, “That’s so critical, especially in the areas of pipe ramming and pipe bursting. There are so many people that we have to get up to speed on knowledge. Not just the product, but the uses, and where and when and how.”
The marketing of piercing, ramming and bursting tools in North America has not been handed to TT Technologies on a silver platter. Each market required its own learning curve to build it to its present levels. “We learned a lot of lessons early on,” Chris said. “I’m a firm believer in making sure that everything works. The product has to be right; there’s no exception to that. But that’s almost the easiest part. The people on the support and training side are mandatory. That makes or breaks you.”
Chris explained that the technique and system of applying the tools to a range of soil conditions has required the largest effort. “To make the product is easy. But developing the techniques so the applications work successfully in a vast array of soils is the tricky part!”
Over the years the TT Technologies staff has accumulated the expertise to apply the tools effectively. “Today, probably our biggest strength is that we have people who have been with us, some for over 20 years. They now have the piercing and ramming experience to really feel comfortable,” said Chris.
As it did with piercing tools, the ramming market required six to seven years to be viable. The TT staff started to present the concept to the engineers through personal contacts. “We had to get the work created for the contractor. He isn’t going to use a rammer unless there is someone saying that the method needs to be or can be used on a specific job,” said Chris. “You’ve got to pull it through all those layers before a contractor can be a potential customer. We had to relearn how to do a lot of things differently in our soils to meet the needs of customers.”
“We also had to offer ramming as a complementary process to auger boring, not a competitive product. Contractors now understand that auger systems often are helpful for cleaning soil out of rammed casings.
“Getting engineers to take a risk, to try a new method has been our challenge. It’s a heck of a lot of hard work, but it’s also a lot of fun!” said Chris. “Today, we can see that ramming is growing. The demand is starting to increase, and it’s not as tough a sale as it was six years ago.”
Pipe bursting, which came to the market more recently, has been the same way, reported Chris. TT Technologies was one of the first in North America to be licensed by British Gas for the use of the pipe bursting process. “We’ve stayed focused on our prime product areas. Now we see ourselves actually extending the market for pipe bursting and the other areas,” said Chris. “Our people are pushing the limits of the technology to the point that we’re ahead of Europe today in bursting. Dramatically so.”
Bursting records have been established in North America for total footage, longest runs, diameters used and types of pipe burst. Chris reported, “We have had over 50 foreign visitors so far this year alone, taking them to bursting sites. They’re just amazed at what some of our customers and our people have accomplished.”
In 1995, the 30-in.-diameter pipe burst at the University of Virginia was a first. Now Chris reported there are jobs being awarded for bursting 36 and 48-in. concrete pipe and pulling in PE pipe, which they expect to be doing in the latter half of ’96. The size and weight of pipe pulled in changes the parameters on a job, which is a hidden challenge, said Chris.
Similar records in pipe ramming have been set. The firm has rammed 60-in. casing up to 500 ft. “Five years ago, 150 ft was a long run. Today it’s common to do 350 to 400 ft,” said Chris. A new rammer recently introduced is capable of 80-in. diameter rams. Chris expects to see some 72-in. pipe ramming done within the year.
TT Technologies’ experience in market development has led it to move carefully toward introduction of the Grundodrill directional drill in North America. In Europe, Tracto-Technik’s sales have boomed for the unique directional drills which are fitted with percussive hammers. The company has built a factory solely for drill production, which is virtually sold out.
TT Technologies is positioning itself strategically in terms of service and manufacture of the popular drill. But even more important, according to Chris, is that the drill must be specialized product that will satisfy a niche of the North American directional drill market. “We want to have a special niche market. We don’t have to be the biggest; we just want to be effective and run a good little company,” said Chris.
In the meantime, the TT Technologies staff has consulted with Tracto-Technik engineers to produce a “global model” of the drill that incorporates more of the American design. The new headquarters facility will enable TT Technologies to manufacture and assemble the drills for domestic distribution, though that is not expected before another 12 months. The company wants to have the staff trained as well as the facilities to provide the service and backup support for the sale of directional drills.
A casual observer may conclude readily that Chris Brahler thrives on work. He admits that he works long and hard, but he points out that the rest of the staff also does. “For the first five or ten years, I knew we would all be very busy,” said Chris.
The Brahler family includes daughters Jennifer and Sarah. The 15-year-old Sarah will be a high school sophomore this fall, while Jennifer, 20, will be a college junior. They are as busy as their parents, Chris said, but the family tries to make time for a vacation every year.
Chris enjoys golf, which he also played on high school and college teams. These days don’t allow much time for golf, so convention opportunities to play golf are always a highlight, said Chris.
Staying focused on the business has been a good philosophy for TT Technologies. Their record-setting strides in piercing, ramming and bursting tools are admirable for a young company. Its staff’s prior experience through Condux and Vibra King are more representative of the confident company that has earned its stripes the hard way.
Chris Brahler’s search for trenchless technology has come a long way in over 20 years. “I’ve fought the battles of educating the public on the benefits of trenchless technology,” said Chris. “We welcome every effort to develop the trenchless industry through education, promotion and training.”
“Now it’s kind of like a fever. Everybody’s got the fever for trenchless technology!”
If it’s a fever, Chris and TT Technologies are ready to provide the cure!
Paul Miller is the editor of Trenchless Technology. Photo credits : Brian Maciej, Lime Valley Advertising, Inc., Mankato, MN.
by Paul J. Miller
Trenchless Technology, July 1996, Pages 24-27