Mike Morehouse started Davids Hydrovac with nothing to his name – except a supportive wife, a strong mentor, technical knowledge, and unshakable belief in himself.
Five years ago, Mike Morehouse had $18,000 to his name, a couple of credit cards, no job, a pregnant wife and his back, as he puts it, up against the wall.
Today, Morehouse and his wife, Heather, own the thriving Davids Hydro Vac in White Bear Lake, Minn. The name alludes to the David-versus-Goliath mentality that spurs Morehouse on. The company runs four Vactor HXX PD hydroexcavation trucks, employs 11 people and is so busy that the Morehouses planned to buy a fifth truck in 2014.
Clearly, a lot can happen in five years. Morehouse’s rise from unemployed hydrovac truck operator to successful business owner shows the power of determination, confidence, work ethic, business moxie and a supportive spouse — not to mention the good luck of befriending an influential benefactor in Jack Doheny, founder and president of Jack Doheny Companies.
“I feel very fortunate and blessed that I was able to put all this together,” says Morehouse, 34. His business serves customers in Minnesota and throughout the Upper Midwest. “When I started out, I was 29 and didn’t have a pot. I was at a point where I needed to make something happen.”
Morehouse’s wild ride began in 2009 when he lost his job after a dispute with his employer. Through business contacts he knew about some work coming down the pike and decided to strike out on his own. He landed a contract to do utility-line locating for an energy company on a pipeline project in northern Minnesota.
The bad news: He didn’t have a hydrovac truck. The good news: When it looked as though he might land the contract, he took a friend’s advice and contacted Doheny, a 40-year veteran of vacuum-truck equipment sales, rental and service.
“Tom and Jack Doheny were instrumental in getting me started,” Morehouse says. “My business wasn’t even incorporated yet, but Jack took a liking to me. We threw a rental agreement together in two weeks. I had to borrow money from my family and didn’t even know how I’d pay for fuel. But I knew I had to go big and risk it all. If nothing else, I felt confident in myself because I knew I was good at what I do.”
Doheny says, “Mike knew what he was doing and knew the business well. Hard work doesn’t scare him. Plus, I was raised in Minnesota, and I know the work ethic people have there — they don’t mind getting their hands dirty — so I didn’t consider it a big risk. Even over the phone, I could tell Mike was a straight shooter.”
Used vacuum trucks are hard to come by quickly, but Jack Doheny Companies had just taken in a rental hydroexcavator (a 2007 Vactor HXX PD) that would be ready in seven days, just two days before Morehouse was to start work on the pipeline project. So after using an online service to incorporate their company, he and Heather flew to Michigan to pick up the truck and drive it back home.
“We were in such a hurry because I had to be in Bemidji, four hours north of the Twin Cities, in less than two days,” Morehouse says. “While Heather was filling out paperwork, people from Doheny were helping me grab everything I’d need. Then they gave me a slap on the rear and we hit the road. About eight hours after we got home, I was headed for the job site.”
Ups and downs
The four-month-long pipeline job went well, but after that, work became scarce, and when Morehouse couldn’t make the lease payments, he had to give the truck back. “Taking that truck back was the worst feeling in the world,” Morehouse says. “I felt like I’d let everyone down.”
But after Morehouse found a job as a jetter-truck operator at a Wisconsin-based company, he got a call from another power utility that had heard about him through word-of-mouth. The company was dissatisfied with its hydroexcavating contractor and wanted to hire Morehouse. “Jack had told me that if I ever needed anything, I should just give him a call,” he says. “So I did and we went through the whole thing all over again in August 2010.”
After that job, things slowed up again, but Morehouse kept passing out business cards and making contacts, and soon he was receiving steady work. “The exposure I received from working for that power company was key,” he says. “All it takes is one person who notices you do good work to go tell someone in the construction field that there’s a hungry kid out there busting his tail.”
Business quickly grew, and Morehouse leased a second truck in March 2011, a third in June 2012 and a fourth in March 2014. Making the payments still was difficult, but he increased cash flow in 2012 by finding a bank willing to finance the three trucks he owned at the time. That made his monthly payments more manageable.
Variety of applications
Morehouse enjoys the variety of ways he can wield hydroexcavation technology to solve customers’ problems. One day he might expose building footings for a client who needs to know how deep they’re set. The next day he might excavate in the basement of a giant building, perhaps 300 feet away from the truck. Or do tunnel maintenance. Or potholing.
Davids also excels at emergency work that other companies don’t want or are not equipped for. In one instance, a contractor was horizontal boring under a lake bed in Minnesota to install a natural gas pipeline when a ground fracture released drilling mud into the shallow lake.
To solve the problem, Morehouse and his crew took a 6-foot-diameter, 6-foot-long piece of culvert pipe and set it down vertically over the fracture, containing the drilling mud. Then they strung 400 feet of hose from shore and vacuumed mud out of the pipe. The truck expelled the mud through a decant hose and into a tail ditch, where vacuum trucks from another company sucked it up and hauled it away. “I was just blown away that one of our trucks could pull material that far,” he says.
Morehouse also prides himself on working smarter to cut operating costs and serve customers better. A good example is the network of dumping sites he has established in strategic locations to reduce travel time.
“It’s really hard to find places where you can dump slurry,” he notes. “So whenever I had extra time, I would drive out to farmers and sand and gravel pits and ask if they’d accept slurry. I got a lot of ‘no’s,’ but also received enough ‘yeses’ that I now have sites in and around the Twin Cities metro area. It’s all about time. Time is money, and customers don’t want to pay us to waste time.” He has done the same thing to establish convenient water-refill locations.
Safety is paramount in hydroexcavating, for employees’ well-being and to keep customers satisfied. Davids employees undergo a year of training before they’re allowed to operate a $500,000 hydrovac truck on their own.
“It only takes one incident to cause a lot of problems, so we’re all about safety, safety, safety,” he says. “We might work for power companies and then water-and-sewer utilities and then mainline gas general contractors, and they all have different safety standards.
“Plus there are different ways to excavate soil. Most people think you’re just spraying water on the ground, but it’s a science — there’s a right way to do it. And you also need to know what you can get the truck into and out of. These are big trucks and there’s a lot going on at construction sites. That’s why it takes a year for training. It’s for my comfort level and for my customers. I want our customers to know they’re getting an experienced operator.”
Bright outlook ahead
After operating for five years, Morehouse finally feels established: “We’re here to stay. We’ve got a good reputation, and that makes me want to work even harder. The guys and I all have something to prove.
“When we first started out, there were times when I had to choose between feeding myself or putting diesel fuel in the truck. There were times when I didn’t know if things would pan out, but Heather always supported me 100 percent. We’re a great team.
“And I have to give a big shout-out to our guys. Any business is only as good as its employees, and there’s no way we would be as successful as we are without them. They work really hard and represent Davids in a great way.”
Morehouse expects to sell one of his older trucks and order two more new vehicles this year. He plans to add one truck a year so he has enough capacity to accept more work. “As we grow, we’re getting more spread out geographically, so we risk losing work locally if we send a truck out of town,” he says. “We’re trying to keep up with demand without growing too fast.”
At times, Morehouse looks back five years and is amazed at what’s transpired. But he also remains driven by memories of the lean times. “I worked hard for what we have and I want to keep it going because I remember what it was like without it,” he says. “I really do believe that anything is possible if you just believe in yourself.”
Cat Pumps - 763/780-5440 - www.catpumps.com
Hibon Inc. (a division of Ingersoll Rand) - 888/704-4266 - www.hibon.com
Jack Doheny Companies - 800/336-4369 - www.dohenycompanies.com
Vactor Manufacturing - 800/627-3171 - www.vactor.com
Vansco Electronics - 204/452-6776 - www.vansco.ca
Read how Davids Hydrovac boosts its brand recognition with the help of four identical Vactor HXX PD hydroexcavation machines, "Build Your Brand While Building Your Hydrovac Fleet."