Murphy Pipeline Attributes Growth to Education

With an emphasis on education, Florida’s Murphy Pipeline helps new trenchless technologies gain a foothold.
Murphy Pipeline Attributes Growth to Education
The Murphy Pipeline team includes, front row, from left, Rooster Williams (site superintendent), Daniel Lopez, James Roberts, Johnny Turner, Joshua Vasquez Morales, Roberto Vasquez and Austin Williams; middle row, Mike Lopez, Frankie Hernandez and Ricardo Nolasco; top, Miles Opacic.

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Andy Mayer got his first taste of pipe bursting and Swagelining at the age of 16 while working as an engineering apprentice for British Gas. So when he arrived in the United States two decades later to do the same work, he was surprised by what he found.

“A country as big as America was still putting 30-ton excavators with 4-foot buckets in subdivisions to install 6-inch pipe. It didn’t make any sense to me,” he says. “With my knowledge and background, it quickly turned into a no-brainer. There was an opportunity for trenchless technologies in the U.S., hence Murphy Pipeline was formed.”

It was 1999 and work was sporadic at first. Gradually, awareness about the technologies grew in the U.S., and Murphy Pipeline Contractors has grown right alongside it. The company’s proactive educational efforts have been key, not only for its own growth but also the trenchless industry as a whole.

“It all comes down to education and working with clients to explain the processes and the benefits,” Mayer says. “It’s taken about 15 years, but what I’ve seen in the U.S. — particularly with pipe bursting — is that trenchless technologies have become very accepted. It’s now gathering a lot of momentum.”

COMING TO AMERICA

With the U.S. trenchless market still in its infancy when Murphy Pipeline started, it has been a steady upward trajectory for the company since. Mayer says it is far different from his experience in England, where the technologies have been well established for decades.

“In England it was what I was brought up in. It was never an emerging market,” he says. “The technology was proven and acknowledged. It was normal practice.”

After completing his apprenticeship, Mayer remained with British Gas for about 10 years, then started his own company, AJM Consults & Engineers. A little more than a decade after that, Mayer found himself being recruited by HammerHead Trenchless Equipment to bring his expertise to the U.S.

“Initially, it wasn’t to start up a business and move here,” Mayer says. “It was to help a Florida contractor break into the market. But I thought pre-chlorinated pipe bursting was being done, and it turns out it wasn’t. People had no idea what it was. There was a huge market potential in the U.S. and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was going to be pretty individualistic in the U.S., whereas going back to England I would’ve been one of many.”

So Mayer made the move, setting up shop in Jacksonville, Florida. While certain trenchless methods were being employed in the U.S., such as directional drilling and pneumatic pipe bursting for the replacement of gravity sewer lines, the growth potential Mayer saw was in the specialties he first learned working for British Gas, particularly static pre-chlorinated pipe bursting to replace pressurized lines delivering potable water.

Targeting an untapped market meant starting out small. It was just Mayer and a few crew members, and pre-chlorinated pipe bursting being a new technology, Mayer first worked with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the American Water Works Association to get the method approved. The method utilizes HDPE pipe that is disinfected and pressure tested above ground beforehand, allowing it to be put into service immediately after the burst and eliminating the need for temporary water services. Early projects were successful and from there it grew, beginning in Florida and then expanding throughout North America.

Now there are about 60 employees companywide among three office locations — Milwaukee, Wisconsin; the Houston area; and the headquarters in Jacksonville. Murphy Pipeline mostly serves municipal customers, and while the primary focus is the U.S., work has taken the company into Canada. Pipe bursting makes up most of the workload — about 80 percent. The company’s other specialties, Swagelining and sliplining, make up the remainder. Murphy Pipeline uses bursting equipment from TT Technologies and HammerHead Trenchless Equipment, and pipe fusion tools from McElroy. Most of the HDPE pipe and fittings come from ISCO Industries and Ferguson.

EDUCATION IS THE KEY

Education has been an integral part of Murphy Pipeline’s growth since the start. Todd Grafenauer, the company’s educational director, leads those efforts from the company’s Milwaukee office.

“That’s primarily what my involvement has been since day one,” says Grafenauer, who was introduced to Mayer during one of the company’s first major projects. “It’s the first step we need to do before we can actually work, because human nature is what it is. People do things they’re comfortable with. Why are there communities that only do open cut? Because that’s the way they’ve always done it.”

A variety of different educational methods are used. Grafenauer may travel to a potential customer’s location to do a technical presentation about the trenchless methods. He’ll cover the history of the technology, show videos of work occurring at job sites, highlight actual case studies, explain the technology’s value from a construction and design standpoint, and spend time afterward answering questions. Murphy Pipeline will also hold “open days” at actual job sites and send out invitations so people can see the technology being utilized firsthand.

“We just did this recently for a 10,000-foot pipe bursting job in the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” says Grafenauer. “We invited cities and engineers from around Texas to come and see the technology in action. From that we got a good response and had well over 100 people just standing over the pit, watching crews pull the pipe into place. There’s tremendous value in that because not only do they see the method work, but they can also look at the areas where work has already been completed and see the kind of environment we left behind.”

Grafenauer says an “open day” at a job site is the company’s most effective educational method, and while he can’t put a hard figure on it, there’s a direct correlation between the amount of work Murphy Pipeline gets in a certain area and the number of “open days” that have been held there. While seeing the effectiveness of the technology firsthand may be a significant selling point, Grafenauer says Murphy Pipeline’s educational approach is a multi-step process.

“The ‘open day’ is an important step, but there’s a lot of work we do beyond that I believe is critical,” he says. “Maybe it’s the initial phone call with a potential client. We also get a ton of emails — just basic questions — and it’s important to get back to those people and spend the time to make sure they have the answers they were looking for.”

For contractors who rely heavily on customer education to ultimately sell their services, Grafenauer says it’s important to understand the full scope of what customers need to learn. During Murphy Pipeline’s early years, that meant focusing on the HDPE pipe material just as much as the actual bursting process.

“When I started doing this, before I could even talk to someone about our technologies, I had to cover the kind of pipe we install,” Grafenauer says. “For some communities, the conversation ended right there if they didn’t accept HDPE and were still stuck on installing ductile iron. What’s good to see is there are now some industry groups who are doing a phenomenal job with research and education about plastic pipe, such as the Plastics Pipe Institute. I don’t have to spend nearly as much time educating about HDPE anymore.”

He also says contractors should be prepared to do a certain amount of work up front with no guarantee that it will turn into a profitable job.

“A part of our education process when we’re looking at specific projects is feasibility,” he says. “We spend a lot of time with communities on the front end going through a feasibility analysis — which projects are good candidates, what risks might be present and how can we mitigate those risks. Also involved in that is cost analysis and design guidance. But there’s no guarantee that you’re getting any work out of it. More often than not, it turns into a job. But if it doesn’t, we don’t have any issue with that. That’s what education is. It’s not about getting every job. We believe in the value of the technology and the proof is in the pudding — once you do work for somebody, how often do you go back and work for them? Almost every client we’ve ever worked with has had us back to do more work.”

THE VALUE OF TRENCHLESS

The value of the technology is perhaps best shown in jobs Murphy Pipeline has done in some unique areas. For example, one of the biggest early jobs had the company bursting 25,000 feet of pipe in the Florida Everglades. The pre-chlorinated pipe bursting method was still so new to the United States that Mayer had to bring in workers from England, where the technology was better established, to fill out the crew. They had more than the typical job site challenges to deal with.

“We were just really happy to have a job of that size,” Mayer says. “We had our pre-job meeting and I had all my people there. There were park rangers who went through a list of animals in the Everglades that could kill us. They started with pythons and rattlesnakes, and we were sitting there and our eyes were wide. From there they moved onto crocodiles, caiman and alligators, saying that this was the only place in the world they all existed together, and our eyes grew wider.”

Despite the unusual work environment (one alligator earned the nickname Five O’Clock Freddy for his daily trek across the job site), the project was a success and the largest pre-chlorinated pipe bursting job in the U.S. at the time of its completion in 2003.

“Everglades National Park has some of the most endangered species of any park in the U.S., and when you look at how to replace water main in a park system like that, you need something that is fast and efficient and will significantly reduce the amount of digging you do with open trench,” says Grafenauer. “I think it was a no-brainer for the parks system to use this kind of technology. That was a good project that served as a leaping stone for the company.”

More recently, Murphy Pipeline was involved in another pipe bursting project in a particularly sensitive area. In early 2015, the company wrapped up the latest phase of water main replacement in Arlington National Cemetery. Beginning in 2012, Murphy Pipeline has burst 44,500 feet of pipe in the 624-acre site where more than 400,000 of the nation’s fallen soldiers are buried.

“Talk about an area needing a process that cannot impact the ground or disrupt operations,” says Grafenauer. “Every day there were 25 to 30 funerals.”

Crews stopped work and shut down equipment out of respect whenever a funeral procession passed, but without much advanced warning, it helped that the pipe bursting method produced minimal disruption to begin with.

“We burst in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We burst in front of Kennedy’s grave. Some of the areas we were able to work were incredible,” says Grafenauer. “The value this technology has in an area like Arlington National Cemetery is why we do what we do.”

THE FUTURE

Mayer says his goal when he first came to the U.S. was to build a sustainable business, and Murphy Pipeline is gradually getting there as the value of its trenchless specialties get more exposure. The company is currently adding employees and training them in order to have another crew available for jobs by the end of the year. Mayer says he thinks the trenchless market has grown in recent years partly because of the added exposure everything gets in today’s social media age.

“With social media allowing people to complain to the masses literally with the click of a button, any work going on in the roads has become more visible. And with more of an emphasis on being ‘green,’ that has made everyone a lot more conscious about just digging up a street,” Mayer says. “I think that has pushed the trenchless market to grow a little more than it would have otherwise.”

Still, in-house educational initiatives remain the most important key for Murphy Pipeline’s future growth.

“There are all these companies that will bring salespeople in. We truly don’t have salespeople,” Grafenauer says. “Our main goal is to educate communities on these technologies and the value involved. If we do a good job, it’s a pretty easy decision for them to move forward.”


Putting together the team

When Andy Mayer started Murphy Pipeline Contractors in 1999 in Jacksonville, Florida, he had some challenges he didn’t have to worry about with the first company he founded more than a decade earlier in his home country of England. His specialties — static pre-chlorinated pipe bursting and Swagelining — were commonly used methods in England, but they were new to the U.S. market, so customer education became an integral part of building the business. Attempting to establish new technologies brought another challenge — putting a knowledgeable team together. For early jobs, more experienced workers from overseas were sometimes brought in to assist.

Throughout the last 17 years, Mayer has gradually been able to put together that knowledgeable team.

“I know personally what I’m looking for, but a lot of it is trial and error,” he says. “It’s not easy. We’ve been through a lot of people to get the people we want.”

As Mayer’s expertise began to trickle down to others during Murphy Pipeline’s early years, a process developed to ensure that knowledge kept spreading when more new employees came on board.

“What we’ve been doing is overloading our crews,” Mayer says. “For example, instead of a 10-man crew, we’ll bring more people in and put together a 14-man crew for a job. We’ll pick out guys who we feel can be managers and they all work together. That way, when we need to split the crew later, we have guys who are already educated. The methodology of Murphy

Pipeline gets embedded in one crew to the next. It flows all the way through the company.”

Murphy Pipeline is currently in the midst of one of those cycles.

“We’re looking at increasing the crew preferably by the end of the year, so we’re already bringing more people on in anticipation of that growth,” Mayer says. “It’s all about teamwork, and Murphy Pipeline has a great team. I have some knowledge, but I also have great people behind me. Without them, Murphy Pipeline would be nothing.”



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