Diverse environmental services company offers a hydroexcavation service arm that’s providing the company with significant growth opportunities.
Environmental services company TPM Group was founded in 1991 on the business of excavating and removing underground storage tanks. Today, hydroexcavation is becoming an increasingly important component of a diverse business that prides itself on delivering service from project concept to completion.
TPM President Eddie Hanks was introduced to the fine art of excavation at age 14.
“My older brother CK was an entrepreneur from birth,” says Hanks. “He was a good mentor. He was mowing lawns, raising chickens and selling the eggs in the fifth grade. In 1978, Kentucky was making a huge infrastructure commitment to supplying rural water. The government was putting in water mains, but installing the service lines was the responsibility of the property owner. CK bought an old Ditch Witch J-15 trencher, and I learned how to use it in the field behind my house. I offered an attractive price for my labor and my brother then subcontracted the trenching work to me.”
Hanks established Hanks Construction of Bowling Green in 1986 and operated it while completing a degree specializing in business organization and communication at Western Kentucky University (WKU). “I was doing small commercial and industrial projects including demolition, concrete removal and installing sewer and other utilities. I offered packages to take care of everything from the foundation down. I had two employees, but still had more work than I could handle, so I would sometimes get up at 6 a.m., work until 8 a.m. and then take a break for a 9:15 a.m. class.”
Classes concluded in 1989, but Hanks couldn’t collect his bachelor’s degree without finishing his internship. “I couldn’t put the business on hold and go back to school,” he says. “So in 1991 I bid on the steam tunnel replacement contract at WKU and wrote my internship on that.”
Hanks recalls talking to his father about “ivory tower” consultants who design a project and then bring in the technical know-how to perform the actual work.
“My dad advised me that I needed to bring more value to my service by becoming the consultant and also delivering a service,” he recalls. “That would also maximize the value of my construction equipment assets to allow for a better return on investment.”
Hanks saw a business opportunity following the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Regulations Pertaining To Underground Storage Tanks in 1988, which required owners to either upgrade or replace their tanks over the next 10 years.
“I became state certified to work on underground tanks, hired a geologist and a hydrologist to handle contaminated soil remediation and groundwater issues, and established TPM Environmental Services in 1991, alongside Hanks Construction, to provide a more precise technical service,” says Hanks. “From that point on I realized that I needed to provide a full range of offerings to my customers, from concept to completion.”
The company’s first hydroexcavator was purchased in 1994 — an Aquatech Jet/Vac.
“We didn’t realize its importance when we bought it,” says Hanks. “We were using it for clean-outs of publicly owned treatment works, vacuuming out clarifiers, cleaning lift stations and jetting. It wasn’t officially a hydroexcavator until we purchased a hydroexcavation reel attachment. That allowed us to perform hydroexcavation for all of the fiber optic lines that were being installed for companies such as Level 3 Communications, for which we took on a six-month potholing contract.”
TPM opened a second office in Nashville in 1995, about an hour’s drive south of Bowling Green, and a third office in Louisville earlier this year.
Today, the company has consolidated all of its operations under the TPM brand and employs 42 people. Its diverse offerings include hydroexcavation, emergency environmental response, environmental consulting and services, industrial cleaning, underground storage tank removal, plant maintenance, demolition, drilling, aviation fuel tank fabrication, industrial water treatment, and waste management. The expansion was anything but random — each business helps to complete a full project cycle using in-house resources.
The basic service area covers Kentucky and Tennessee, but contracts have taken the company as far afield as Virginia, Arizona, Florida, Alabama, New Jersey, Michigan and Louisiana.
TPM operates five vacuum rigs: a Cusco liquid/dry unit with a 3,000-gallon steel tank and Fruitland Manufacturing pump mounted on a Freightliner body; a 1985 Peterbilt semi tractor matched with a 5,508-gallon steel tanker and Fruitland Manufacturing pump; a 2004 Guzzler with a 3,000-gallon steel tank and air knife attachment mounted on a 1998 Ford LT9501 chassis; a 2014 Vacall combo unit with 2,000-gallon debris and 1,500-gallon freshwater galvanized steel tanks and hydroexcavation package mounted on a Peterbilt Model 365; and a 2004 Vactor 2110 combo unit with a 1,600-gallon stainless steel tank, a pair of 1,000-gallon aluminum water tanks and a pair of hydroexcavation packages. Hanks has attended the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport (WWETT) Show for the past five years and purchased the Peterbilt there last year.
TPM keeps hydroexcavators and other vehicles in top shape at its Bowling Green maintenance shop, overseen by a dedicated fleet manager. The shop will handle anything from routine maintenance to major rebuilds.
The company employs four dedicated hydroexcavator operators. “They claim these units, are proud to operate them and take good care of them,” says Hanks. “We have a total pool of 10 drivers who are hydroexcavator trained.”
The company is committed to certification and training. Not only do workers receive regular safety training updates, TPM provides third-party training to outside workers, including hazardous waste operations, confined-space entry, lock-out and tag-out procedure training and first aid/CPR. Some employees also attend dedicated training programs offered by hydroexcavator manufacturers.
VARIETY OF JOBS
“Hydroexcavation currently forms about 10 percent of our business, but it’s a growing segment of what we do,” says Hanks. “A particularly strong growth area for us is working at power plants that are converting from coal-fired power to natural gas. There’s a lot of conversion and plant expansion planned, and the power utilities are going to drive hydroexcavation growth over the next 10 years.”
One of TPM’s largest contracts was completed last year at the Paradise Fossil Plant, a coal-fired power plant operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. “We were performing geotechnical excavation for confirmation of utility locates and footing and load-bearing capacity for the purposes of replacing the existing infrastructure to run the plant on natural gas,” he says.
TPM has also seen interest from natural gas companies who need to uncover lines that are protected by cathodic anodes.
“The magnesium anodes are sacrificial, so in order for the pipeline to receive the continued benefits of protection, the anodes need to be replaced,” says Hanks.
Educating clients about the capabilities of hydroexcavation remains a challenge. Urban areas are more likely to be familiar with hydroexcavation and clients in Tennessee are more likely to be aware of it than those in Kentucky.
“About 20 percent of our calls for hydroexcavation are incoming, with about 80 percent of our business coming from cold calling,” says Hanks. “We generally go out to potential clients with a live demonstration about once a month, but we recently shot a video that will be posted on our website that we hope will replace those trips.”
However, some repeat customers have become particularly savvy about hydroexcavation. “They know, for example, to ask for a hydroexcavator that has certain options and capabilities, such as greater capacity for product removal,” says Hanks.
As with many businesses, the company website and social media are prime advertising vehicles. TPM also advertises with industry associations, such as the Associated General Contractors of Kentucky. However, Hanks also likes the personal touch, frequently setting up booths at trade shows, primarily in Kentucky and Tennessee.
TPM is a preferred environmental contractor and national partner with Servpro Industries. As a result, some contracts take the company out of its traditional footprint — for example, pumping water and sand in New Jersey and New York during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
THE MERITS OF PRE-QUALIFYING
This year, TPM was also pre-qualified by ISNetworld, a resource for connecting clients with safe and reliable contractors.
“For us, pre-qualification is allowing us into places that we couldn’t otherwise go,” says Hanks. “General Motors, for example, requires contractors to have this pre-qualification. Being certified actually has a double benefit — we find ourselves wanting to live up to the level of certification and really performing to a different level.”
Planning for the future, Hanks says he’s set to buy another hydroexcavator to expand the company’s offerings. “Right now I’m debating between a dedicated hydroexcavator and the versatility of a combo rig with a large blower unit,” he says.
For the coming decade, hydroexcavation is set to drive company growth and to expand TPM’s reputation as a do-all service provider.
“When one of our customers calls at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday and tells me that my company is the only one that can take on a difficult hydroexcavation job, it’s not a problem, it’s a compliment,” says Hanks. “We like to be known as a company that can make things happen.”