Iowa’s Save Our Sewers has grown by specializing in manhole rehab and providing a more cost-effective approach to city’s problems
Diversification drives growth for many companies, but Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based Save Our Sewers has taken a different approach. The company focuses on one service, and does it well. Specializing in manhole rehabilitation hasn't hindered the company's growth. Instead, it's quite the opposite.
“I’m now doing about 10 times the revenue I was doing in year one. Basically my business has doubled every year,” says company owner Brad Steenhoek.
And in the process of growing his business, he’s helped municipalities more effectively address their manhole issues.
Branching off the stimulus
Steenhoek started Save Our Sewers in 2010, but he was already familiar with the industry, having sold utility products like concrete pipe and precast manholes going back to 2002. That background helped him notice the opportunity that arose when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was enacted in 2009. Municipalities geared up to spend the extra dollars on infrastructure rehab projects, and Steenhoek says he thought it was a good time to stop selling new products and establish a service business instead. At that time, he hadn’t yet planned on developing a niche with manhole rehab specifically. He just knew rehab was the direction to go.
“Having worked with DOTs and various cities, I knew a lot of the work was going to be redoing existing infrastructure rather than building things from scratch, and that’s why I got out of what I was selling. There was going to be more retrofit work than new projects,” he says.
The same month the stimulus package was signed, Steenhoek attended what is now called the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport Show in Louisville, Kentucky.
“I truthfully went to Louisville trying to find something that was different than what everybody else was doing,” he says. “I went to that show with a checkbook and line of credit, and determined what I wanted to do.”
It was at that 2009 show that Steenhoek had his first exposure to the Mr. Manhole rehab system and realized that might be the niche he was seeking.
“Everyone has manholes and everyone has issues with them,” he says. “Companies that are mainline rehab contractors typically do not do structural rehab work, so I knew manholes were pretty much a slam dunk. With the stimulus and all the mill and overlay work that would be occurring, there would be a big need for manhole rehab on the chimney area.”
Following the show, Steenhoek spent several more months doing research, eventually purchasing the Mr. Manhole system and the rest of his equipment later in the year. By February 2010 he had incorporated as Save Our Sewers.
Challenges of niche work
Although Steenhoek knew there was a big opportunity in manhole rehab, there were still challenges getting his young company established.
“Having all your eggs in one basket and being a highly specialized contractor, the biggest challenge was that a lot of my potential customers were self-performing this work with their own crews and equipment. My competition was basically my customers,” he says. “I had to prove to them that I could do it better and at a lower cost than what they could.”
Steenhoek spent a lot of time in the beginning on education, doing demonstrations of the Mr. Manhole method for municipalities and engineering firms to show them how reliable and cost-effective the system could be. Over time he gained a foothold in the market.
“There are a lot of municipalities now that have seen the Mr. Manhole tool, and they’ve seen the rebuild process and the materials that go along with it,” he says. “It’s sometimes the only thing they’ll allow because it’s a standardized process with good raw materials. There was no standardization with how a lot of these guys were doing it before. It was just find whatever you can in the back of your pickup truck, throw it on the ground and pour some concrete or asphalt around it.”
The Mr. Manhole process uses a dry-cut saw that runs on a standard skid-steer or track loader. It cuts a circle through the road surface surrounding the manhole frame and is able to cut from 44 to 58 inches — 28 to 72 inches with the aid of adapters — up to 48 inches deep. The cylinder strength of the ready-mix pour is all that is needed once the manhole is rebuilt.
“Round holes are a structurally superior design versus a square cut around these manhole frames and covers, and it uses less material and looks better,” Steenhoek says. “You do the work and you pour it. There are no internal chimney seals, no epoxies or coatings. It kind of sells itself. Once an engineer sees it, it’s an attitude of, ‘Wow, where has this been? Why isn’t everybody doing it this way?’”
Since that initial startup and education phase, Steenhoek has largely relied on repeat business. He has established relationships with firms that regularly use him as they move among various communities to do projects.
“They take the specs and just apply it to the next community,” Steenhoek says. “It’s been a sort of snowball effect where I started off small, but now I’m having a hard time just keeping up with the work that specifies Mr. Manhole.”
Mr. Manhole isn’t the only process Save Our Sewers employs, but Steenhoek estimates that it ends up handling about 90 percent of the company’s workload.
“All of my men are PACP, MACP and LACP certified. When we open up the lid, we already know what’s allowed in the project specs and then we can determine the best rehab method based on the NASSCO training we all have,” he says. “The only thing consistent in this business is how inconsistent every manhole is put together. There are no two manholes alike.”
Big project in Ames
An Ames contract the company took on in October 2015 showcases how much Save Our Sewers has been able to benefit from focusing solely on manhole rehab. Aided by past experience using the Mr. Manhole method effectively in the city, Steenhoek was the choice when officials decided to do a large-scale project.
The contract called for 421 roadway manholes and another 100 in grassy areas. Thanks to a fairly mild winter that didn’t have too many workdays missed due to snow or rain, Save Our Sewers had the contract wrapped up in May 2016. And Ames extended the contract when Save Our Sewers came in under the bid amount because of savings on concrete use.
“Because of the savings of going circular versus a rectangle or square structure, we were way under on our concrete usage,” Steenhoek says. “We saved about $200,000, so they extended it from the original bid quantity and we did about 650 manholes when it was all said and done.”
The complete project finished at the end of June 2016, well under the yearlong timetable Ames officials wanted to adhere to. Save Our Sewers ran two three-man crews with Steenhoek working between them. The Mr. Manhole method was used, as well as other processes and systems like chemical grouting, the Pro-Ring from Cretex Specialty Products, and Riser-Wrap (GPT Industries). East Jordan Iron Works out of Michigan supplied manhole frames and covers.
“It was a full-blown rehab,” Steenhoek says. “After setting up traffic control, and getting everything cut, rebuilt and poured, there were times we did up to 11 manholes a day. The average was about five or six a day.”