Adding Hydrovac and Directional Drilling Keeps Company Thriving

Ontario industrial cleaning company adds hydrovac and directional drilling services as a way to keep growing and remain profitable.

Adding Hydrovac and Directional Drilling Keeps Company Thriving

Brass Inc. co-owners Adam Riewald, left, vice president and chief financial officer, and Adam Connaghan, operations manager. (Photography by Vanessa Tignanelli)

First, the company name — Brass Inc. It does not allude to fittings in a hydroexcavator line. When the company was founded 18 years ago, it didn’t even offer hydrovac services. Some link the name to Ontario’s Clanbrassil neighborhood, but that’s a stretch. Adam Riewald suggests that brass being an alloy of multiple metals fits Brass Inc. because it succeeded only after multiple starts.

In the end, Riewald settles on this explanation for the name: The word “brass” implies “big and bold. That seems to fit.” And it does. Headquartered in Utica, Ontario, Brass Inc. is a growing multiservice company that operates big hydroexcavation trucks (which the company helped design) and manages its workforce in innovative ways.

The firm was founded in 2000 as an industrial cleaning firm. Riewald’s father, Frank Riewald, was a school teacher who founded the company to increase his income. He taught in one of Ontario’s numerous private Christian schools, and he wanted his children to attend the school. However, he couldn’t afford it.

His answer was to become an operator of an industrial cleaning truck — the only operator, that is, of a one-truck company. His entrepreneurial genes kicked in when he realized he could make more money if the company was his. Consequently, he approached the person who owned the truck and, with partners, bought the rig and the company.

The rest isn’t quite history. Disagreement about the direction of the new firm came to a head and the partnership was dissolved. A second stab at building a company around the vacuum truck failed for the same reason. Brass Inc. was Riewald’s third and ultimately successful venture, a company that has diversified its services and grown into a major player in the Ontario underground utilities marketplace.

“It came down to him wanting to do better for his family,” Adam Riewald says of his father. “He was from a family of dairy farmers and, as the youngest son, sometimes would get the work of his brothers handed down to him. He developed a strong work ethic.”

A NEW MARKET

Once Brass Inc. found its footing, it strode ahead, building up its industrial cleaning customer base over eight years by focusing on 23 steel manufacturing plants in the province. Then Frank Riewald saw another opportunity: The vacuum truck he operated to clean up spills, pressure wash equipment, hot wash-clean industrial surfaces and restore hazardous confined spaces was not altogether different from hydrovac mobile units employed in underground utility work. In 2008, the company entered the underground market.

The firm’s “underground utility solutions” was at first solely hydroexcavation work. Brass Inc. crews labored to daylight hidden utility lines, pothole and expose broken utility pipes and connections, trench for lines, and punch out holes for utility poles. In 2015, Brass Inc. added horizontal directional drilling to its portfolio of solutions.

“We found that directional drilling goes hand in hand with hydroexcavation work,” Adam Riewald says. “For just about every drilling job we had, the customer also needed a hydrovac. There’s a synergism.” Brass Inc. equipment operators are cross-trained so that when a job shifts from one piece of equipment to another — that is, when excavating or trenching is too disruptive — trained hydrovac operators can support the project by steering a drill head from one open-air area to another.

In the last couple years, Brass Inc. has broadened its lineup of services even further to include dewatering and dredging of stormwater ponds and lagoons. The work involves evaluating a body of water, assessing the body’s sediment, and mechanically or hydraulically removing unwanted material.  

Unsurprisingly, underground utilities solutions are Brass Inc.’s dominant business component. They also constitute its fastest growing service. The proliferation of underground gas, water and telecom lines combined with the already cluttered state of much of the province’s subterranean utility landscape steadily builds demand for the service.

JOINING THE COMPANY

Adam Riewald joined Brass Inc. five years ago. At that point, his entrepreneurial father became a silent partner — remaining as CEO but venturing off into real-estate work. Adam Riewald joined Adam Connaghan at the helm of the firm. Connaghan is co-owner and operations manager, first partnering with Frank Riewald 10 years ago when the company entered the hydroexcavation market. Adam Riewald is co-owner, vice president and chief financial officer.

“My dad always wanted me to work with him,” Riewald says. “He would ask and I always would say no. My idea was I had a vision of going into investment banking, into hedge funds eventually. So I went into banking and did commercial loans with small and midsize companies that needed money to continue in business or to expand.”

His work with small businesspeople opened his eyes. “I’d ask them simple questions, like about profit margins and company goals, and I found a lot of small-business owners don’t have that knowledge,” Riewald says.

From his bank work with the small companies, watching how they operate, recognizing the strengths and demands on them, Riewald came away with greater understanding of how to help run a company. “So Dad again presented me with an opportunity to work for him and this time I said yes,” he says.

Adam Riewald’s arrival coincided with the beginning of the company’s expansion, especially in underground utilities work. Under his guidance, Brass Inc. is maturing into a full-fledged turnkey company. It principally is doing so as a hydroexcavation/directional drilling subcontractor, working with general contractors that interface with municipalities across the province. Some of the subcontract work is on long-term contracts. Other work is picked up independently.

“The reason we don’t deal directly with a customer is that we only provide services for one part of a project,” Riewald says. “A customer might need aerial work done as well, or cable-laying, connecting up with homes, and we don’t do any of that. We strictly do underground construction work.” That sounds like a former banker who once counseled businessmen about getting in over their heads and ending up in financial trouble.

THE BRASS STANDARD

Brass Inc. has two locations — a main office in Utica and satellite office in Caledonia — with most of its equipment working out of the Utica yard. The company’s underground utility machinery includes a Vermeer D20x22 directional drill plus two comparable-sized Toro drills. Its hydrovac trucks are Supervac and Super Products models, 16-cubic yard and 18-cubic yard units, a mix of straight four-axle trucks and tractor-trailer rigs. The 10th truck in the fleet will arrive in November.

On its website, Brass Inc. commits to “100 percent satisfaction.” That commitment has been tested at times.

“It was a challenging project due to extreme ground conditions (compacted clay and rock) and the added restraint of drilling blindly under an eight-story building,” Riewald says.

The 2017 job ran two 4-inch and two 3-inch water conduits across a site. It required drilling down 8 feet to clear a belowground parking garage and then out nearly a hundred yards. A 16-inch rock reamer was employed.

“No one wanted the job, and we finally took it on. We priced it fairly,” Riewald says, but not profitably. “At one point, even though we knew we would lose money if we kept going, we did keep going and completed the job. If we say we are going to do something, we are going to do it.” As a corollary to that testimony about satisfying customers, Riewald adds that Brass Inc. is committed to telling the truth to clients. “If we make a mistake, we’ll let you know. We won’t hide it, and we probably won’t charge you.” The pledge to customers is summed up in writing in what is termed The Brass Standard.

STAYING SAFE

An equally fierce commitment is made to employee safety. Monthly safety training meetings are faithfully held — all in-house, none by manufacturer reps. Every workday morning sees individual work crews holding what are called “tailboard talks,” in which the day’s potential hazards are recognized and pre-emptively addressed. The company belongs to the Ontario Regional Common Ground Alliance that promotes safe and efficient underground work, the Infrastructure Health & Safety Association, which is dedicated to safety training and auditing, and EUSA, an electrician-focused program that informs Brass Inc. employees about underground electrical utility hazards.

Employee training ranges from how to park giant rigs in the road or on the roadside and how to recognize trenching and shoring hazards to the value of personal protective gear and how to safely operate hydrovac equipment. The focus on safety is fully supported by LiUNA Local 183, reputedly the largest construction local union in North America. All Brass Inc. employees are union members.

GROWING WITH THE MARKET

Riewald has a vision for Brass Inc., unlike some of his former commercial loan customers who never developed a goal. It is of a company adapting and growing with the market. “We are going to expand, for sure,” he says. “We are finding in this market that we are either going to have to get bigger or get out. That’s the spot we’re in. As this market matures, the larger we have to get. And the more we have to become a turnkey company.”

He doesn’t know the number of hydro-directional-drilling companies in Ontario, which suggests they are numerous. “More players pop up every day, a lot of them one-man operations. They come and go. It’s a growing industry for sure. I’m confident about the future. I think we do this better than most of our competitors.”


Need a truck, design a truck

When provincial authorities in Ontario decided to enforce over-the-road rules, hydroexcavation trucks took a hit.

The big units previously could operate on the province’s public highways without being regulated and operators didn’t need to worry about weight restrictions. While new enforcement rules grandfathered in existing trucks in a hydrovac fleet, new trucks had to meet the new standards. It was decision time for Brass Inc.

The company operated a fleet of six quad-axle hydrovacs with 16-cubic yard debris bodies and 1,500-gallon water tanks. “All the trucks are overweight by the standards now being enforced,” says Adam Riewald, Brass Inc. vice president.

So Riewald teamed up with Quebec manufacturer Supervac to design a full-sized hydrovac that still could meet Ontario’s rigid standards. Brass Inc. executives worked with Supervac engineers for three years.

“Adam (Connaghan) was key, along with myself, to building the new truck,” Riewald says. “He provided years of experience operating the trucks and has a great eye for details.”

They wanted a truck with the functional capacity of their existing trucks, yet with reduced per-axle weight. The result is the Supervac Atlas, a hydrovac trailer unit with a 49,400-pound payload spread across six axles. At 31.5 feet, it is not much longer than the straight trucks in the Brass Inc. equipment yard.

The Atlas has a debris tank that holds 18 cubic yards, and a 20 gpm water pump, versus 18 gpm on the trucks it replaced. By November, Brass Inc. will have five of the new trucks in its equipment yard.

“I don’t believe a lot of companies would have gone to the trouble of designing a replacement truck,” Riewald says. “People tend to follow the path of least resistance. Most people would have waited for someone to design a new truck for the market. And a lot of companies would just have gone to a smaller truck. We didn’t want to do that. We wouldn’t have been able to give our customers the same service. We would have been dumping debris more often because of a smaller tank. We decided instead to look outside the box and solve the weight issue.”




Discussion

Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.