Virginia contractor moves beyond plumbing and drain cleaning, adding hydroexcavation to be a one-stop shop for his customers.
A small business doesn’t successfully grow its services for almost four decades without doing something right. Next year, Wayne Norman will celebrate 40 years for his Virginia company — Capital City Services. How has he succeeded? By doing things right.
“He is a no-nonsense, honest individual, whose middle name is integrity,” says Thomas Arezzi, Capital City Services’ director of business development. One might discount such praise from an employee. However, Arezzi got to know Norman when Arezzi was a property management company manager in Richmond, Virginia, and overseeing 10 properties. Norman and his company were his go-to resource in utility emergencies. He says Norman never misled him then about whether he could do a job and treats every customer the same way today. “So I have a unique perspective. I worked with him before I worked for him.”
Norman was born in eastern North Carolina before gravitating north with his family to Shanghai in eastern Virginia. He ended up in the Richmond area where he eventually launched his plumbing and drain-cleaning business before adding heating and air-conditioning services and then storm sewer and sewer services. This was the beginning of an open-ended business plan. Here’s the plan: The company takes on whatever kind of work Norman decides to pursue.
In other words, Norman not only wants things done right, he’s very open to trying new things. “These jobs were all opportunities and challenges that came up, and nobody else was doing them,” he says, simply. So he undertook them. Successfully. His willingness to consider new business challenges subsequently led Capital City Services to offer culvert and pipe cleaning, underground utility locating, and hydroexcavation.
A GROWING MARKET
Norman’s first stab at hydroexcavation was 20 years ago when he contracted to uncover a line on the grounds of Richmond’s 13th Judicial Circuit Court. The digging needed to be accomplished neatly so Norman employed an industrial vacuum unit and water. Being Norman, he got the job done, of course, but soon switched to combination sewer cleaning rigs for his pressure digging. Two years ago, he upgraded to a Mud Dog 1600 hydroexcavator (Super Products), a 16-cubic-yard unit on a Peterbilt chassis with a 2,000-gallon capacity water tank.
“Hydroexcavation is a growing market for us,” Norman says. “The more utilities you put in the ground, the more you need a hydroexcavator.” Norman himself is apt to be where the rig is excavating. He’s not an office executive. That’s him in whiskers and a red hard hat on the Capital City Services website. “I’m in the mud,” he admits. “The joke is, once you step in it, you can’t get the smell off you. I do enjoy the work.”
Hydroexcavation contracts account for 25 percent of the company’s projects, according to Norman, with thrust boring and pipe bursting pulling in another 15 to 20 percent of the work.
Three years ago, he purchased a Pow-r Mole Trenchless Solutions PD6, which can install a pipe either by directional thrust boring or pipe bursting, with its plunger pushing ahead underground at a rate of up to 7 feet a minute. Norman uses it for both bursting and thrusting tasks.
He described a recent pipe-bursting job that was performed in a setting of close tolerances: “It was 600 feet of 8-inch terra-cotta pipe and another 500 feet of 4-inch PVC and clay pipe. Some of the pipe ran under the plant. Seven utility lines crossed the pipe we had to burst and replace. Seven. We had a 1/4 inch of clearance between those pipes and the utility lines. One 1/4 inch.”
He calls the precision project a “very good job with a lot of challenges.” Asked if the dicey conditions of the project might also have been described as a headache, Norman dismisses the thought. “Some people call them opportunities.” He recalls another pipe-bursting project at Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg when he replaced a 4-inch PVC waterline buried 30 inches deep. It required following the diagonal plane of the pipe next to a retaining wall. He used high-pressure air to excavate a working area for his Pow-r Mole Trenchless Solutions PD6. Again, the overall challenge was welcomed by Norman.
Capital City Services eventually expanded its array of services further to include water treatment plant maintenance and repair, camera inspection of pipes, and turnkey project management of pipe installations. That’s a partial listing. The company also fixes leaky pipes, does point repairs on stainless steel pipes, injects foam to seal bad joints, performs historic restoration work, repairs lift stations, dredges ditches, and — come winter — is on call to remove snow from parking lots.
“I didn’t really plan to expand into any of those areas,” Norman says. They were just opportunities that arose and he took advantage of them. “I’ve always wanted to be able to solve problems. That’s the only staple in all this: We solve problems. Throughout the years, we’ve built a reputation on that. Our company slogan is, ‘Solutions only experience can provide.’ That’s how we work. If we can’t do it right, we aren’t going to do it.”
GETTING EXPERIENCE AND EQUIPMENT
Advertising a company’s experience is only possible after acquiring experience, of course, which Norman did over 39 years by mastering an array of utility-mechanical-industrial tasks. He was asked how he characterizes his company now that it certainly is not the plumbing shop it started out as. He pondered the question. “I’m licensed as a general contractor, but I don’t know how to answer that.” He does acknowledge that being a full-service, many-services company is a “good hedge” against downturns in any one segment of company business. “Doing so many specialty services has helped us a lot.”
The company’s diverse skill set has grown Capital City Services from one employee (Norman) and a stepvan to a dozen employees, an annual business volume of $2-3 million, and a 4-acre equipment yard containing more than 20 pieces of heavy machinery. The variety of equipment attests to the range of projects Norman is willing to undertake. Besides the aforementioned Mud Dog and Pow-r Mole Trenchless Solutions machines, parked in the yard are a pair of Camel sewer cleaning combination trucks (Super Products), two Vactor 2100 sewer cleaners, a fleet of street flush and pumper trucks, backhoes, dump trucks, several trailered jet sewer cleaning units — and the only Microtraxx radio-controlled culvert cleaner operated by a private contractor in Virginia.
The Microtraxx SL 436 is a 10-foot-long, remote-controlled machine manufactured by Rohmac. It has a 1/3-cubic-yard bucket that can lift 1,500 pounds and will pivot 360 degrees on its track undercarriage. It can operate in 4-foot box culverts or 5-foot round culverts. The fumes emitted by its 30 hp diesel engine are not a problem for an operator in a confined space because, of course, the operator is standing outside in the open air.
Norman began employing a Microtraxx in 2005 for a work situation in a culvert under Interstate 64 near Colonial Williamsburg. Ponded water had breached a dam, and the ensuing flooding had filled the double-barreled culvert under the trafficway. Each of the culverts was 5 feet square and ran for 400 feet.
Norman was working at the site with a contractor who experienced ventilation problems — carbon dioxide buildup threatened his workers. When a worker crushed his hand during an early phase of the work, the already frustrated contractor pulled out — and Norman pulled in with the radio-controlled scoop unit. “It took us eight days to clean that culvert with the Microtraxx,” he recalls.
More recently, when a 2016 storm produced major flooding in western Virginia, Norman’s remote-controlled unit was contracted to clean out a debris-filled 6-by-6-foot culvert under an interstate. After the governor declared a state of emergency, Capital City Services stayed in the storm-drenched area for several months, working in moving creek water to clear debris and silt from other culverts.
FINDING OTHER OPPORTUNITIES
Capital City Services also takes on what it describes as “specialty repairs.” For example, the placement of a cap on the iconic milk bottle-shaped corner of the Richmond Dairy building. The cap, or roof, of the unique structure was leaking, so Norman’s crew fabricated a lid out of steel and roofing material, hoisted it up, and welded it in place. Norman sees such one-of-a-kind projects as just another “opportunity” for his company. If there is a downside to the company working across so many kinds of specialty tasks, it is that Capital City Services undertakes fewer stand-alone turnkey project management jobs these days. “Specialty stuff keeps us too busy for that,” Norman says.
The 72-year-old company founder is not slowing down. When he was interviewed, he had just hired two people and was looking for more. Unfortunately, he is encountering the same workforce problem experienced by other U.S. contractors. “I would like to have twice the crew that I have now or three times the crew. But what determines growth is who you can hire to work with you. You need to have competent people, and finding good employees is really difficult. It’s easier to buy equipment than it is to get capable people to operate it.”
After all these years, Norman says he is not losing his desire to stay on the “cutting edge” of technology to find innovative solutions for his residential, commercial and governmental customers. Norman’s latest interest is the use of drones. He believes he sees an application for his company. “We recently had a job at a power plant trying to find a drainline that contained steam and hot water,” he says. “We used our locator and eventually found it, but if we had a drone with an infrared camera, we could have found it in minutes.”
A little bit of this and a little bit of that
Capital City Services offers so many niche services — from environmental remediation to fixing leaking water pipes — that company founder Wayne Norman finds it difficult to identify the most essential piece of equipment in his yard. When asked to do so, he half-seriously responds, “My telephone.”
His difficulty to pin down a key machine lies in the regular usage of heavy machinery across projects. An example is how he frequently resorts to using two key machines to complete tasks: his hydroexcavator and pipe-bursting unit. “I get a pipe-bursting job, and I need a hydroexcavator to expose a pipe or set the pipe burster. I do a hydroexcavation job, and I see a pipe that I need to burst. Not long ago, I had a pretty extensive pipe-bursting job, and I had to hydroexcavate a pit every time I placed the pipe-bursting unit. Some holes were 15 to 20 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 6 to 8 feet deep.”
As a consequence, Norman not only finds it difficult to identify a most used machine, he can’t pin down what type of projects dominate his work schedule. Yes, a quarter of his work requires a hydroexcavator but often in concert with other machinery. “It’s such a mix. We do a lot of this, and we do a lot of that. Recently, we’ve been really lucky to get a job with the electric power company here in Virginia. We’ve been involved with that company a lot. We started off hydroexcavating; then, we did some sewer cleaning for them; then, we did some foam injection on some joints.
“And that’s the way it is. We are all over the place. As soon as I start thinking we are doing a lot of this kind of work, we start doing a lot of that kind of work.”