Demand for specialized hydroexcavation services propels T-Rex past its competition.

Eight years ago, T-Rex Services had 20 employees. At the beginning of 2013 that number had swelled to 105 and they’re now around 140. The largest hydro and vacuum excavation company in Texas, the T-Rex fleet of trucks has grown from just a dozen three years ago to 40 today, with more units on the way.

“We are a hydroexcavation company,” says Marketing Director Karl Lassberg. “The majority of our work is related to the oil and gas industry in some way.”

“Hydroexcavation is being more widely accepted and recognized as an integral part of any major construction project,” adds President Brad Davis. “There are opportunities that didn’t exist even five years ago and we think the market will keep growing.”

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Racing sponsor lights the fire

The T-Rex concept began many years ago when a Canadian firm approached NASCAR driver Bobby Hillin Jr. about sponsoring his car and sent him a video of the hydroexcavation process. While his father ran the Longhorn Racing Indy car team, the family is from Midland, Texas, and has ties to the oil industry. “He had never seen hydroexcavation before,” says Lassberg. “He always wanted to start a business and when he retired from NASCAR in 2000, hydroexcavation was still rolling around in his head.”

While it has been popular in Canada since the 1960s, it was just starting to spread south and was not common in the Gulf region, according to Lassberg. “He literally picked up the phone and started calling people and had to do a lot of client education. People hadn’t heard of the process.”

Early on, T-Rex had a diverse mix of customers including commercial construction, water utilities and others that needed nondestructive utility locating. “It was timed well with the fiber-optic work as people realized the cost of striking and repairing them,” notes Lassberg. “We caught that market at a good time.”

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That helped fuel the early growth, and over the years the demand in the oil and gas industry grew to the point that it now makes up the majority of the company’s client base. “The lion’s share of our work is oil and gas, mainly pipelines but also in the production field and into the refining business,” says Lassberg. “I’ve found myself not having to explain hydroexcavation as much. Everyone seems to be aware of the technology at this point. We’ve seen a move from digging with backhoes to a lot of companies requiring hydroexcavation as a safety precaution on the front end, especially since 2009. Owners and engineers understand the safety importance and cost-added value and specify hydroexcavation in the budget.”

The natural gas boom has also impacted the company favorably. “It’s been a surprise; it came on really strong very quickly. Especially in south Texas, we’ve seen a huge influx of work across every level.” Along with pipelines, Lassberg says, “The refineries are growing to process more incoming liquid natural gas and the storage facilities are building more tanks.”

Vacuum excavation has also increased in popularity for cathodic protection to control pipeline corrosion, so the company has developed some tools to install that equipment from the surface to reduce excavation needs and keep people out of danger. “We can dig down using vacuum excavation to locate a pipeline nondestructively, use the tools to install the CAD weld and backfill the area. We can have a smaller crew and don’t need one piece of equipment carrying a backhoe and another with shoring equipment. You also aren’t putting anyone into a confined space,” Lassberg notes.

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Some of the cathodic protection work has involved pipelines as much as 16 feet deep. “You can imagine the size of hole you would need and the shoring that would be required to put a person that deep. It might take a day or two with vacuum excavation, but it’s extremely cost-effective with a much smaller environmental footprint compared to a huge open dig.”

Lassberg has also noticed a change in the clients who are hiring T-Rex. The company used to mainly work at the direction of industrial and commercial contractors, but now hydroexcavation is often part of the original project specs. “The big oil companies are starting to contact us directly,” he notes. “We have to navigate each company differently. It’s always interesting as to who is calling us, whether it’s an engineer, the project manager on the 35th floor or the project superintendent working in the field out of his pickup truck.”

Still more potential

Kaplan became CEO when he purchased T-Rex in January 2013 after a career in various fields, including manufacturing, distribution, food service, carwashes and a few others. He says he got into hydroexcavation because of the prospects for growth. “I was excited about the industry and the reputation that T-Rex and the management team had created,” says Kaplan. “I thought I could help take the company to new levels of growth.

“Will it double again in four or five years and double again in the next five years? I don’t think that’s outside the realm of possibility,” Kaplan adds. “What we see from a competitive point of view is a lot of people getting into the business. Construction companies are adding it as a service they provide directly instead of using a subcontractor. The other thing we see is more companies expanding geographically by adding second and third locations and new companies starting out with three or four trucks. The industry is growing, but the competition is growing and there are a lot more competitors than there were even three years ago.”

T-Rex already has multiple locations. Along with the Houston headquarters, there are facilities in Dallas, Midland, San Antonio and the “Golden Triangle” (Southeast Texas, Beaumont, Port Arthur). While Lassberg had expected to have expanded to more locations in more states by now, that hasn’t been possible. “The market where we are based grew so much,” Lassberg says. “New equipment planned for other markets ended up being required here in Texas.”

Kaplan says he planned to add more locations when he purchased T-Rex and still expects it to happen. “We do plan to open in other locations and are evaluating where that should be.”

He expects 2014 to be the year that T-Rex either opens a new office in East Texas or another state, such as Oklahoma or New Mexico, or expands its footprint by acquiring another company. Managing such growth, Kaplan notes, requires a sound infrastructure and strong management team. “At the direction of our president, Brad Davis, we are building a deeper management bench so if we open a new location we’ll be able to support it.”

Lassberg adds that being a company that does vacuum excavation exclusively has helped. “Hydroexcavation is very much a trade. It’s a simple process, but it can be quite difficult in execution,” he says. “This is what we do. We’ve seen people get into it thinking it’s just jetting water into the ground and sucking it up.”

More than once, he says, T-Rex has been called in to clean up a mess left by someone who thought they could do the job with a jetter and a vacuum. “The idea is to use less water and more vacuum so you don’t make a mess. That’s the kind of thing we see in an industry that is growing quickly. There’s a lot to be said for experience, training and knowing how to dig through different soil types in different environments. We serve different markets that may require something special, but we have a good template, 12 years of experience and we have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t. We don’t stray far from what we know.”

Lassberg recalls his early days at T-Rex eight years ago when he would answer the phone, set up jobs and order supplies. “We did some of everything back then. I remember sitting with Bobby and hearing him say, ‘If we can just get up to six trucks a day!’ It seemed so far away at the time. It’s been fascinating to sit here and watch the company grow.”

Today, about 36 T-Rex trucks are on the road on any given day, with most of the fleet coming from GapVax. “We’re hiring operations management, sales and people to work on the trucks,” adds Kaplan. “We’re pulling people off trucks into supervisory positions. We’re investing in our technology in a pretty big way. So we have a lot going on here.”

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