Indiana’s Midwest Mole thrives on the tough jobs, while keeping an eye on growth opportunities.
Backing down from a challenge has never been an option for the staff at Midwest Mole.
That mindset was put in place when the company was founded 35 years ago and still holds true. With jobs ranging from basic utility locating to auger bores near a hospital with varying ground conditions, there is no shortage of tough jobs.
“We’re always up for a challenge; we’re always interested in looking at things,” says David Howell, senior project manager. “We want to be known as a quality contractor that people call when they do have a tough job and it needs to be done right.”
Midwest Mole, based in Greenfield, Indiana, has grown to over 90 employees. It operates throughout the Midwest, and in and around Washington, D.C., performing services that include directional drilling, tunneling, hydroexcavation, sliplining and auger boring.
“As new technologies have come about, we’ve always been the ones to evaluate and see how we might be able to offer those services as well,” Howell says. “As the trenchless industry has grown, so have we.”
BUILDING A FOUNDATION
Len Liotti was working in the tunneling industry for Affholder Inc. when the company decided to get out of the auger boring business in Indianapolis.
Liotti saw a void in the market and knew he could fill it with the experience he had. In 1982, he started Midwest Mole as an auger boring and conventional tunneling company. Now his son, Dan, and an employee who worked his way up the ladder, Jason Miller, own the company.
The company saw big growth between 2000 and 2008. The recession then took hold and a small retraction occurred, but the owners weren’t going to let that stop them. “We looked at new areas we could work in and that’s how we got into the Washington, D.C., area,” says Howell. “That’s been a good move for us. We keep one to two crews busy year-round there and we’re looking to continue to grow that market.”
While expanding its coverage area, the company also added new services to compliment the auger boring and tunneling side. “As the projects came around and the needs grew in the area, we added services,” Howell says.
Directional drilling has been one of the biggest areas of growth. It accounts for 15 to 20 percent of the company’s revenue. Crews operate five Vermeer directional drills, from a 7x11 up to a 100x120.
Hydroexcavation was added to the mix 10 years ago as a way to keep crews safe while auger boring and directional drilling. For that work, the company uses two Tornado Global Hydrovacs units.
“We’ll use the hydrovacs extensively on directional drilling job sites and at times on tunnels to carry the material away,” Howell says. “Most of the time, though, we’re using them to pothole for utilities so we make sure where the utilities are prior to crossing them.”
In fact, Midwest Mole’s policy is that crews will not cross a utility without seeing it with their own eyes. “We want to make sure we are doing everything as safely as possible,” Howell says.
DRAWN TO CHALLENGES
Even though Midwest Mole has expanded its menu of services, the company still does what it was founded on with several auger boring and tunneling jobs a year. That is where some of the toughest work comes from.
“There’s definitely some tough jobs that we’ve done out there,” Howell says. “The challenging jobs are definitely frustrating, but they have some good opportunity for us to show our capabilities and expertise at problem-solving to our clients.”
The company handled one of those tough jobs earlier this year at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where crews were auger boring for new pipes. “We had some very tough ground conditions on that project,” Howell says. “Some of the auger bores were mixed-faced conditions where you have soft ground and rock combined. Having to bore through that can be extremely difficult.”
Crews went into the project being told that the rock strength in the area was in the neighborhood of 12,000 to 15,000 psi. However, when they encountered the rock, some of it was close to 25,000 psi, or higher. “We had to rework some of our tooling, and it took additional amount of time to get through,” Howell says. “We ended up doing a lot of modification to our equipment for those jobs.”
Crews drilled pilot holes with rock equipment and followed those with the larger auger boring machines to stay on target and maintain line and grade.
The company’s auger boring equipment ranges from homemade gear to boring machines from Barbco and American Augers. Midwest Mole also has boring machines built in the 1960s and 1970s that are still in operation. “An auger boring rig is a pretty resilient piece of equipment,” Howell says.
Midwest Mole often has to think of creative ways of attacking the challenging jobs. The company recently wrapped up a joint-venture project where crews had to cross the Des Plaines River in Joliet, Illinois. A 112-inch rock machine had to be used to bore under the river, which is built up like a canal with the river sitting higher than the surrounding area.
“The concern with that project was that we could hit a fissure and the water from the river would flood our pit areas,” Howell says.
To address that concern, crews conducted a preliminary pilot hole using a directional drill with a rock hammer attached. The pilot hole went across the crown to make sure there were no fissures. Workers built a valve system attached to the wall of the shaft, so if they hit water during pilot drilling, they could stop the water and grout the cavity shut.
“We never found water, so that was good,” Howell says. “We do enjoy the tough jobs and at the same time, those are typically the projects where the more risk you take, the better the growth opportunities are for your revenue. But also, the more risk you take, the more money you could lose if it doesn’t work out.”
SELECTING THE RIGHT METHOD
Midwest Mole doesn’t limit itself to the tough jobs. Team members also look at designs and talk with engineers anywhere to come up with the right approach to certain jobs, even if not in the company’s territory.
“We offer that to all engineers, just to give us a call and tell us what kind of job they have going and what they’re trying to do,” Howell says. “Then we can look at that from a constructability standpoint and let them know what different options are out there and what may be the best option.
“If someone uses an incorrect methodology and the job goes bad, then it gives a bad name to that methodology when in all actuality, it just may not have been the right one for that project. Those are the types of things we’re trying to change out there.”
A big reason the company can make those recommendations and take on the challenging jobs is that its employees have the experience to handle many situations. Midwest Mole’s two superintendents and all the foremen started as general laborers.
“Some people have a desire to grow into more of the office or that type of role,” Howell says. “Most of the guys do stay in the field and they want to grow within the field, like going from being a laborer to a foreman on a project, all the way up to a superintendent.”
Company co-owner Jason Miller is one of those who started as a laborer.
“He started in the field and then came into the office and has worked his way up to the president now,” Howell says. “He definitely has a good understanding and feel for what the crews deal with. We try to do the best we can to take care of the people who really make up Midwest Mole and make it successful.”
Workers in the field aren’t dedicated to just one skill set.
“All of our crews, with the exception of our HDD guys, are cross-trained to a degree to do anything from a tunneling job to an auger bore to a slipline,” Howell says. “They can do all those different operations.”
It’s important for the company to have cross-trained employees because work comes in waves. At one time there could be multiple auger boring jobs, and other times no boring but plenty of tunneling jobs. Directional drilling, though, is a constant. Crews work in that area about 90 percent of the time because there is so much of it.
“We’ll bring new employees on as laborers and try to get them out on various jobs so they get the hands-on experience learning from the guys who have been doing it,” Howell says. “We try and get them exposed to as many different methodologies as we can to try and grow them and train them to eventually take on more responsibilities.”
FOCUS ON THE FUTURE
Focusing on the company’s core services will remain a priority, but Midwest Mole management keeps an eye out for new markets.
“We’re going to see where the market needs additional contractors and where those opportunities might lie for us,” Howell says. “We’re always looking for smart growth opportunities in markets that are maybe underserved.”
The company doesn’t want to grow to just make revenue; the goal is to be profitable. “There’s no reason to do double the amount of work for the same profit,” Howells says. “You want to do more work for more profit, not the same profit. We have to make sure we get jobs that are right for the company, that we’re going to be successful at.”
Putting together complimentary services
When performing trenchless installations, a company can add supplementals without adding a lot of expense.
Midwest Mole has done that ever since the company was founded. Beyond its main services of auger boring, directional drilling and tunneling, the company does rehabilitation work.
“They’re very complementary,” says senior project manager David Howell. “Most of our auger bores and tunnels we’re already usually threading a carrier pipe of some sort inside of those. So for us, the rehabilitation services are just basically the same thing, but we didn’t put in the original tunnel lining.”
The company offers sliplining and spiral-wound lining services.
“We’ve done spiral-wound PVC linings before, and we’ve done spray-on cement linings or geopolymers,” Howell says. “We use all different types of products for the sliplining, depending on if it’s a sanitary sewer or a storm sewer, and depending on the shape of the structure we are rehabbing.”
Midwest Mole has worked on fiberglass and PVC pipes as well as HDPE and steel.