Indiana Hydroexcavation Company Jumpstarts Growth After Slow Start

After a slow start in its first year, an Indianapolis hydrovac company has earned respect and experienced big growth thanks to quality work and a dedicated crew

Indiana Hydroexcavation Company Jumpstarts Growth After Slow Start

Michael Stidham, heavy-equipment operator for US Hydrovac, uses a Tornado F4 Eco-Lite on a job in Greenfield, Indiana. (Photography by Marc Lebryk) 

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Some companies boom and fade. The fundamentals weren’t there. By comparison, US Hydrovac seems fundamentally sound, with the Indianapolis company’s core values and best practices aligned for success. Plus, its founder is determined to succeed.

How determined? KP Panchal didn’t earn a dime the first year in business in 2018. His two business partners in the startup — Tyler Vuurman and Dwight Cliff — had other primary jobs, but Panchal quit his job and went all in at US Hydrovac. During the first year, the then-28-year-old Panchal paid two hydrovac truck operators $27 an hour at a minimum of 30 hours a week mostly to sit at home because there were no jobs for them to work.

“We did everything we could to drum up business. We beat the pavement, went to offices and sent out mailers. You can imagine,” Panchal recalls.

He could have become discouraged but didn’t give up, and his persistence finally paid off: A contractor called.

Globe Asphalt, a 90-year-old family-owned company, was paving a school parking lot in Indianapolis. The lot bordered an electric transformer station and the contractor was concerned about what lines might underlay the surface adjacent to it. Panchal’s idle crew went to work, digging down a foot or two and reassuring Globe that there was no danger.

“We had a new customer,” Panchal says. “So we went around saying, ‘Hey, we worked for Globe Asphalt and we could do the same for you.’”

In two short weeks, a second customer, a telecom contractor, called about some hydrovac work on a downtown project.

“That was our first large customer, bringing in $25,000 in revenue,” Panchal says. “Then we got a third customer, and our clients became larger and the jobs more complex.”

Honor thy father

Panchal’s father was a first-generation Indian-American. Panchal himself was born in India, moved to the United States with his family when he was 3 years old and grew up in southern Indiana. His father was a contractor specializing in renovating motels. Panchal learned construction techniques from him.

“I grew up working with him on jobs. At 16, I ran a crew or two. After high school, I worked with him for four years,” Panchal says.

An accident ended that. His father fell off a roof during a construction project and passed away after eight days in the hospital. 

It was a pivotal moment for the young Panchal. In Indian culture, the oldest son becomes the head of the family and suddenly the 22-year-old Panchal had new responsibilities. He decided to honor his father by pursuing a career he had come to enjoy.

“I was good at construction, very good. I wanted to do it professionally, not just a small family-run business,” Panchal says.

He went to community college and then a four-year college and earned a degree in construction engineering and management technology. His aspiration was to become a general contractor. 

After college, he worked for construction companies as an estimator and came to notice something: the increasing use of hydroexcavation on job sites. So he and two college classmates who had noticed the same trend formed US Hydrovac. The first challenge: They needed a vac truck. 

“It’s a funny story, looking back,” Panchal says. “ I located a dealership outside Indianapolis and called the salesman. I got no answer and no response.” 

Getting serious

Eventually, Panchal was taken seriously, familiarized himself with vac technology and rented a Vactor Prodigy, a midsize unit with 6-cubic-yard capacity, and an HXX model with 12-cubic-yard capacity.

By then, Panchal had moved around some, but he returned to Indianapolis to start the company. His return wasn’t just nostalgia.

“We understood the market here,” Panchal says. “It was a market big enough to have demand for a vac company, yet affordable enough to let us get off the ground.”

That was five years ago. Today, the 32-year-old company president is presiding over a mushrooming business.

“When you start a business, you make projections,” Panchal says. “Our projection was we would have five trucks after five years. We have 15-plus vac trucks and four camera units. That blows my mind.”

Twelve are owned outright. The fleet consists of products by Vactor, Tornado (the Canadian brand) and some other suppliers. Panchal became acquainted with the Tornado equipment line at a trade show and bought a 12-cubic-yard truck there. 

“The Tornado trucks are very reliable — they can run extended periods without downtime — and they don’t contain proprietary components so when you do need a fix, you can buy parts off the shelf and complete the fix in-house,” Panchal says.

Expanding services

For the first two years. US Hydrovac offered only vacuum excavation services — on-demand hydrovac digging. (The company can air excavate, too, but the clay soils of the region yield better to water under pressure.) Small and midsize contractors would call on the company as needed rather than maintain their own vac unit. By year three, though, Panchal wanted to expand the company’s proposition.

“I was looking for what other things we could do to complement what we already were doing. I got my PACP certification in year two and we bought a small camera,” Panchal says. “We didn’t use it, but in year three we got good at it and started marketing our camera inspection work. We now have several jetters and cameras constantly working.”

This is where Jake Whitney enters the picture. Vuurman, a childhood friend and vice president of US Hydrovac, asked Whitney to come to work.  At the time, Whitney was scouting schools in pursuit of a doctorate in physical therapy. Persuaded to change his career plans — having two children at home helped convince him to forego more schooling in favor of a job — Whitney was hired to operate the company’s inaugural camera inspection service.

“Within about a year, we got a second unit and I came out of the field completely and began estimating jobs,” Whitney recalls.

The camera inspection division swelled rapidly.

“We went from two camera crews to four in eight months. And then a fifth,” Whitney says. “Right now, I’m running four camera and cleaning crews, but we have six jetter trucks so we could be up to six camera crews soon.”

Last year at one point, the division was operating shifts 24 hours a day.

The company’s CCTV customers generally are a mix of pipe rehab outfits and new construction contractors and include some of the largest firms in the country. The inspection work is in pipes ranging in diameter from 6 inches to 10 feet, mostly sanitary and storm sewers.

The company’s preferred robotic camera and software system is RapidView IBAK, an Indiana product. But Hoosier pride is not why it’s the company’s top choice, says Whitney.

“It’s cutting edge,” he says. “The technology and quality are unmatched. It is like it’s a Mercedes and the others are Fords.” 

The company has on order an IBAK MicroGator reinstatement cutter unit, which combines camera inspection with grinding/cutting of pipeline defects and obstacles. US Hydrovac will be the first company in Indiana to have the state-of-the-art camera/cutter. 

“We can cut all kinds of stuff out of the pipe with this,” Whitney says.

He notes that some liner companies use cutters to open holes in the liner at pipe junctions.

“But the systems they use are not nearly as sophisticated as this. They use a cutter and a separate camera. Ours is both in one.”

Bringing experience

Another key member of the US Hydrovac team is Jon Crews, operations manager. He brought to the company 15 years of experience operating a hydrovac unit, much of it in reclamation work. Panchal offered Crews the chance to join the company as a “truck operator/operations manager” and Crews came aboard. He doesn’t regret it.

“KP has been a great mentor to me,” Crews says. “He took the time to train me and to send me to multiple leadership classes.”

Panchal put together an office team and Crews began to assemble field staff. The company operates today with about 40 employees.

The company now operates from its “fourth and final shop,” according to Panchal. The firm began working out of a 2,500-square-foot facility before moving to an 8,000-square-foot space, then a 12,000-square-foot location. Several months ago, it purchased and moved into an 8-acre property with 40,000 square feet of shop and warehouse and 5,000 square feet of office area.

Crews says the expansive facility mirrors the rapidly maturing operation. The speed of the company’s growth has forced company executives periodically to re-adapt the company structure.

“When you grow so fast, the structure put in place what seems like two minutes ago suddenly isn’t sufficient for 10 trucks. But we’re in a good position now,” he says.

Crews says the company has in place “processes that are sustainable so we can stay ahead of things instead of reacting to them.” It’s all in the “metrics,” he adds, the science of measuring what is happening so decision-makers can make informed decisions.

US Hydrovac has gone from that initial daylighting job in a school parking lot to completing a 10-month-long project in Louisville, Kentucky, where the city’s sewer department was rehabbing a failed 96-inch brick sanitary sewer line. It served multiple hospitals and critical businesses that could not be shut down for renovation. Three trucks and eight people were on the job in Louisville those months, inspecting, cleaning, clearing away debris. The job produced several millions of dollars in revenue for the company.

The company has a “three-P” mission statement that encapsulates Panchal’s idea of what a hydrovac company should be about: preserving the environment, protecting utility assets and preventing service interruptions.

A bold future

The future? Panchal has looked into it and says, with a small laugh, “We want to take over the Midwest.” A bold goal considering the largest hydrovac company in the country is headquartered in Indianapolis.

“We don’t plan on going public,” he says. “No outside investment. We want to be a regional player. My vision is to be an industry leader in the utilities market.”

The main ingredients to reaching that goal are having capable people in key positions (including his wife Anjali, who is the company’s chief financial officer) and building out clientele in different industries and of different sizes.

“Having a few main customers is a recipe for disaster. If everything is in one basket and then the basket goes away, that’s a disaster,” Panchal says.

Panchal doesn’t want US Hydrovac to offer too many services, preferring instead that it be expert in a few things. He already is planning for satellite offices, including in Ohio and Kentucky. And the company founder vows to maintain his focus on people. 

“We are people-centered. We want to make customers’ lives easier and help them solve problems,” Panchal says. “This is a relationship business. When a customer is disappointed, we take that very seriously.”


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