Climbing the Ladder

Georgia contractor gives employees a path to success that feeds its own growth in the hydroexcavation market

Climbing the Ladder

The Southern Hydro Vac team with the fleet of GapVax units and a Cat 259D compact track loader.

To deliver better value to customers, Southern Hydro Vac relies on a two-pronged strategy aimed at maximizing productivity and equipment uptime: investments in technologically advanced equipment and comprehensive training that helps employees fully utilize the equipment’s capabilities.

That approach has helped the hydroexcavating and industrial cleaning company, based in the city of Powder Springs on the outskirts of Atlanta, record double-digit annual revenue growth since it was founded in 2003. Moreover, it allowed the company to dramatically expand its geographic service area during that time from just Georgia into Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee. Its primary customers are energy and telecommunications companies, developers and general contractors, and manufacturing facilities, says Guy Rimoldi, president of the company.

The growing acceptance of hydroexcavating as a safer alternative to mechanically exposing underground utility lines certainly didn’t hurt the company’s growth. But its expansion — reflected in a jump from two hydrovac trucks in 2003 to 13 today and from four employees to about 40 now — wasn’t just a case of lucky timing.

“Our success stems from much more than being at the right place at the right time,” Rimoldi says. “We developed a training and mentoring program that produces employees who can utilize our equipment, innovations and technology in ways that deliver superior value to customers.

“We evaluated the industry and recognized a need for better production and employees with superior training. Our training includes learning how to identify soil types, which affects what kind of wand operators use. It’s one thing to have the technology in place, but it’s a whole different matter to train employees so that they know how to maximize that technology.”

Growing demand

Industrial and sewer cleaning contractors interested in entering the hydroexcavating market might take some cues from Southern Hydro Vac’s approach. The seeds of the company were planted back in 1986 when Rimoldi and Ed Morgan, now the firm’s chief financial officer, established a site-development business called Earth Development.

The company did site grading and underground utility work. As hydroexcavation became more popular, the company increasingly relied on subcontractors because it didn’t own trucks with that capability. So when businessman Tim Coleman approached the duo about creating a hydroexcavating company, they seized the opportunity and jumped right in. (Coleman passed away in 2013, leaving Rimoldi and Morgan now the sole owners of the company.)

“We started with only two trucks (made by GapVax) and the business grew from there,” Morgan says. “Tim already had a list of clients because he had run a hydroexcavating company before. And a lot of local municipalities were putting hydrovacuuming into their project specs.

“We’ve had a steady annual increase in gross sales of 12 to 14 percent, even during the recession. Energy, communication and construction companies kept finding practical applications for the hydrovac industry. All that came into play and fell into place.”

Trained for productivity

A central component of the company’s business model is a comprehensive employee training program. Thorough training enables truck operators to maximize the productivity of the machines they work with on a daily basis, as well as work safely, Rimoldi says.

“Superior equipment and well-trained employees are basically our whole business model,” he notes.

During the company’s early years, training took as long as two years. Now it’s down to about 13 months and covers all phases of hydroexcavating, including how to drive and operate a truck, OSHA excavation and confined-space training, learning about different soil types and the best hydroexcavating techniques to handle them, power-safe training provided by local utilities (which covers how to work safely near structures such as electrical substations), how to flag and manage traffic, and CPR.

The training is provided by in-house experts and outside groups such as OSHA and utilities. Each level of in-house training also requires employees to spend a certain number of hours at various tasks out in the field before they achieve certification, Rimoldi says.

“After a trainer says an employee has put in the required hours and mastered the skills, then another trainer comes in and gives the employee the test,” he says. “It’s a good checks-and-balances system. … We want a different person than the trainer to do the testing. They come in with a different set of eyes. Our goal is to make sure our employees are the most productive hydrovac operators possible and that they also understand the possible dangers and follow safety protocols.”

Aside from minimizing the risk of injuries and keeping insurance costs in check, the training provides another benefit that’s critical to employee retention: a clear, well-defined path to career advancement and higher pay. Employees can aim for nearly 20 different levels of certification and get corresponding pay raises every time they take another step up the certification ladder.

“It offers a transparent path for employees to move up in the company,” Rimoldi explains. “They’re tested every step of the way. We have four dedicated trainers who go out on the trucks and train guys as they come through the ranks. Their titles change and pay increases every time they get a different certification.”

Earning employee loyalty

The training program helps employees more easily adopt the company’s operating and business philosophies. It also boosts company loyalty because employees appreciate that the company is investing in their future. “As employees move ahead and make more money, they buy into the program,” Rimoldi says. “They become experts in their field, which makes them more valuable. And at some point, if they’re aggressive enough and stay with the company, they can become trainers.”

Employee turnover in the hydroexcavation industry is common enough, given the rigors of the work. “It’s very labor-intensive,” he says. “And when you’re in Georgia, with 90-degree F heat and humidity, it’s really hard work. So you have to do something to make employees feel good about the team they work with and money they make.”

Furthermore, it’s expensive to keep recruiting, hiring and training employees who eventually leave. As such, higher pay and a structured career path offers workers a big incentive to stick around, Morgan says. “They take a look around and decide to stay because they know they can make more and more money as they move up each level.”

In addition, Rimoldi points out that employees benefit from a sense of accomplishment and earn the respect of fellow workers as they advance.

Advancement isn’t limited to fieldwork, either. Sometimes fieldworkers move into administrative positions if they show leadership potential. As examples, Rimoldi cites two fieldworkers, one who became a service coordinator and another who stepped into a marketing role. “In the old Wild West days, lack of transparency (regarding career advancement) may have worked,” he says. “But times have changed. Millennials think differently.”

As another retention effort, employees receive health insurance, including company-paid premiums (for just the employee, not family members), a 401(k) retirement program, and profit sharing, Morgan says. A benefits package like this sets Southern Hydro Vac apart from competitors and helps the company attract quality employees. “That’s another reason our business is growing,” Rimoldi says.

Effective equipment

Southern Hydro Vac regularly reinvests in newer equipment in order to minimize on-the-job downtime. When a truck hits about 20,000 hours, it gets traded in for newer technology.

“We have to give customers the confidence that our trucks will be productive while on the job,” Rimoldi says. “A lot of times, our trucks are support pieces that work in conjunction with other companies, so if our machine goes down, it stops the entire production. We don’t want to be ‘that’ contractor.”

The company owns 12 GapVax HX-56 hydrovac units built out on Peterbilt chassis, plus one Kenworth. Each truck features a 15-cubic-yard debris tank, a 1,000-gallon water tank, an air-injection Hibon Inc. (a division of Ingersoll Rand) positive displacement blower, a Giant Industries water pump (19 gpm at 2,900 psi), and a 25-foot telescoping boom. Southern Hydro Vac also owns a GapVax MC 1510 combination sewer truck equipped with a hydrovac package; it features a 10-cubic-yard debris tank, a 1,500-gallon water tank, a Hibon positive displacement blower, and a Giant Industries water pump (80 gpm at 2,000 psi). “It’s primarily a flushing (jetting) truck, so it has a larger water tank and a smaller debris tank,” Rimoldi says. 

To keep equipment working, the company operates an in-house maintenance and repair department with three full-time employees and four service bays. The technicians typically work second shift to ensure the hydrovac trucks are ready to roll out around 5 a.m. daily, Rimoldi says.

The company also carries a full inventory of repair parts, and sticking with one hydrovac truck manufacturer helps the department run more efficiently and cost-effectively. “When the trucks are all the same, you can buy parts in bulk,” Morgan points out.

While there’s definitely a cost to carrying parts inventory, the ability to utilize the fleet to its fullest capability outweighs the expense. “It’s all about how many up hours you get out of your truck annually and the amount of billable hours, versus the ownership costs,” Rimoldi explains. Moreover, in-house repairs also help employee-retention efforts because no one likes to come to work and find his or her rig isn’t working. “Our trucks don’t limp in and limp out,” he says.

Room to grow

Morgan and Rimoldi expect continued growth for Southern Hydro Vac. That could include opening up facilities in strategic locations in other states to reduce travel-related expenses. “We see great potential in the hydrovac business and would like to duplicate our business model in locations in the Southeast,” Rimoldi says. “Once you get to a certain volume, it only makes sense to duplicate it in another location to reduce travel costs. Savannah, Georgia, or Montgomery, Alabama, is a long way to go for work. Companies are willing to pay (for the travel), but it would be better for customers if we could be closer.”

The company also plans to keep diversifying its customer base by exploring creative new ways to use hydroexcavation technology. For example, during construction of a new concrete runway at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 2015, workers had already installed a significant amount of rebar when heavy rains rolled in. Crews couldn’t pour concrete into the rebar framework because of the underlying mud, so Southern Hydro Vac workers figured out how to run their vacuum hoses through the rebar to remove the mud.

“That saved them a tremendous amount of money,” Rimoldi says. “We’re always looking for new and different businesses that can use our trucks and services. We’re always exploring different ways to work our trucks and utilize our team.

“We absolutely love this stuff. It’s all we think about — it’s what we do.”

Unique ‘soil’ conditions complicate hydrovac project

While Powder Springs, Georgia-based Southern Hydro Vac routinely takes on difficult projects, Guy Rimoldi, company president, can easily point to one that was particularly challenging: a 1,500-foot-long fiber optic line upgrade in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, performed for a major national telecommunications company in 2012.

“It was a pretty interesting job,” Rimoldi says. The path of the fiber optic line was so congested with other underground utility lines that the city wouldn’t allow a mechanical excavator to expose them.

The job required considerable resources, including three hydrovac trucks and 20 employees working 18 to 20 hours a day for about six weeks. Work started on June 20 and finished on Aug. 8, one week ahead of schedule. The path for the upgraded line ran right down St. Philip Street, directly through the middle of the College of Charleston campus, a busy area, he points out. Moreover, the job had to be finished before the next semester of school started.

The job became even more challenging due to the unique “soil” crews had to contend with. “As we excavated down the street, we found the remnants of an old canal that once was used for marketing merchandise before there were streets,” Rimoldi says. “When it was abandoned, people filled it in with everything they could find: rocks, bricks, anything and everything. That’s what we were digging through, plus all of the college’s steam lines, other fiber optic lines, and water, gas, and sewer lines. But we never broke an existing utility during the project.

“We wove our way through all of them, up and down and over and around. On a job like that, you have to sort of feel your way through it to find the correct the path.”

Intense planning was critical to the project’s success. Plans included job safety analysis, developing waste-disposal cycles and figuring out how to route trucks depending on traffic patterns at different times of days. “You don’t want guys standing there, waiting for a truck to come back from a landfill,” Rimoldi says. “Logistics are paramount to the service value you give to the customers.”


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