Cleaner Rewind: Unlikely Growth in Down Economy

Aggressive diversification, employee empowerment and commitment to new technology propel New England’s Ted Berry Company
Cleaner Rewind: Unlikely Growth in Down Economy
One of Ted Berry Company's large line inspection units (Aries Titan) performs a critical combined sewer system tunnel project.

We celebrate the continued dedication and hard work of drain cleaning contractors by revisiting companies profiled 10 years ago in Cleaner magazine. Check out the original story on the Ted Berry Company we featured in the October 2003 issue: “Eyes and Ears.”

A decade ago when Livermore, Maine’s Ted Berry Co. Inc. first appeared in the pages of Cleaner, the company was already operating along a family succession plan. President Jim Timberlake and his wife, Linda Timberlake, had taken over when Linda’s father, Ted Berry, retired from the company he’d founded in 1972. The company was already forward thinking, investing heavily in underground locating and pipeline video inspection equipment. Its 13 employees were excited about offering these new services to customers in a 60-mile radius of its Livermore office. 

Ten years later, Berry’s grandson Matt Timberlake has moved into the vice president’s seat from his previous post as general manager along that same plan. The staff has grown to 48 employees working in three service teams — municipal, industrial and trenchless — that now cover all of Maine and most of northern New England. This amazing growth, all the more so because it happened during one of the worst economies in U.S. history, has all been due to a commitment to aggressive diversification of markets and services, an attitude of employee empowerment and investment in carefully chosen new technology and equipment. 

Small beginnings of big change

The underground location and CCTV equipment that headlined our coverage of the company in 2003 has been absorbed into the daily operations of all three divisions, eclipsed by Berry’s subsequent foray into trenchless line repair and rehabilitation. It was a conscious shift in focus, addressing the perils of depending too heavily on the area’s concentration of pulp and paper mills, says Matt Timberlake. 

“Probably 20 years ago, we were maybe 60 percent industrial and 40 percent municipal,” he recalls. “With the culture of industrial facilities outsourcing overseas and shutting down around the country, we focused a lot on diversifying into a really strong industrial/municipal service company, then brought on the trenchless line.” 

Berry’s municipal service group handles cleaning, maintenance and asset management plans, while the industrial service team concentrates on the paper and pulp mills, and hydroelectric and power generating facilities with sludge pumping, water blasting and other facility maintenance work. The trenchless service group, born around 2004, has been built into a substantial part of the business, providing pipe bursting, sliplining, and CIPP repairs to both municipal and industrial customers. Revenues for each segment split out to about a third of total annual billings. 

“Looking back, my father and I realized that getting into the cameras and sewer line inspection was one of the biggest turning points for the business,” Timberlake says. “We cleaned sewers for 29-30 years and did it well, but the camera inspection really opened our eyes up to what’s underground.” He ran the company’s first camera truck right after graduating high school, enamored by the new technology. The many small towns typical of the company’s core service area weren’t using camera inspection yet. 

“We’d go out and do a half-day to two days of this work a week,” he says. “Little did we know the demand would get so high. We got lots of experience and became very good at it. We committed to doing inspections the right way and grew that business to four full-time crews. We originally just thought it would keep us busy between other jobs, but now we’re looking at putting another inspection rig on the road in the first quarter of 2014.” 

Paying attention pays off

Timberlake attributes the growth to having paid attention to the developing technology and realizing the untapped potential of the company’s established territory. “We’re sitting on some of the oldest underground infrastructure in the country. We work on turn-of-the-century systems and they’re not getting any younger, so failures became more and more prevalent. Then in the last 10-15 years, all the studies and emphasis around I&I reduction just made it the perfect time to come in with this proven technology.” 

As they got more calls for underground locating, they quickly saw the advantage in purchasing a combination truck to allow them to do hydroexcavation. This allowed them to take on more urban jobs they’d previously had to turn down, due to the dangers of closely packed underground utilities. 

From there, it was a short jump to moving the combo rig into service with the industrial unit for vat and vessel blasting, fly ash cleaning and similar work. That work also burgeoned, and now the company fields five Vactor combo trucks, a Supersucker industrial vacuum loader (Super Products) and a Guzzler Classic industrial vacuum loader, two dedicated hydroblaster units, five standard and one large-diameter sewer cleaners, five CCTV inspection vans and dedicated inspection rigs from Aries Industries, RIDGID and Envirosight. 

Taking on trenchless

It was also a short leap from pipeline inspection to the addition of the trenchless services it would take to rehabilitate the crumbling pipeline systems they encountered every day. The Timberlakes empowered field service supervisors to make on-the-spot judgment calls and offer inspection customers extended pipeline rehab services. Trenchless technology was still relatively unknown by the smaller municipalities when they began offering it, but was enthusiastically welcomed for the money and headaches it would save in reduced downtime and traffic disruption. 

Once they had some experience under their belts with the trenchless equipment, field supervisors were also encouraged to upsell from single point, on-call repairs to engage the customer in proactive annual preventive maintenance contracts. Timberlake is proud that they’ve never had to employ any full-time salespeople because this process works, but it was a gradual effort. 

“We originally waited for the cities to request a contract. After a few of those, we then approached others to offer the contract idea,” Timberlake says. “We were really trying to transition them out of that reactive stance, and once we could prove the advantage by showing cost savings we had realized for other municipalities, they really embraced the proactive approach.” 

Berry’s trenchless offerings include the Perma-Liner Industries system for CIPP section and point repair, plus lateral lines. They own their own pipe bursting equipment to burst 2- to 30-inch pipe, making them very competitive in the northeast, Timberlake explains. 

“If someone needs any size job, we can respond immediately with our own equipment,” he says. 

His teams work with both HammerHead Trenchless Equipment and TT Technologies equipment. “We’ve done 300,000 to 400,000 feet of work,” he says, and have also graduated into doing confined-space entry jobs, both in municipal and industrial applications. 

He anticipates a strong future in trenchless, since Maine winters are notoriously brutal with frost heave, while aging infrastructure will continue to be an issue. Every spring, municipalities experience a surge of I&I. 

“That problem won’t go away for 50 years because that clay pipe is aging and failing at a stronger rate than it’s being repaired or replaced,” he says. “The technologies and capabilities are there, but the reality is that budgets just can’t accommodate everything that needs to be done.” 

Leveraging differences

As these moves strengthened the company, less healthy and perhaps less perceptive competitors around them folded under the stress of mill shutdowns and fading demand for services that weren’t evolving to meet new needs. Timberlake believes Ted Berry Co. has thrived even through the recession because his family hasn’t been afraid to make the most of its human capital, as well as investing in new equipment. 

“A lot of family businesses fall apart because they don’t use the different perspectives of everyone involved to practice their separate strengths,” he says. “I want to know what equipment is capable of, while my dad asks about maintenance, parts and depreciation. We use that to our advantage. Our business has grown every year since the mid-90s.” 

He doesn’t miss the importance of sound foundational business philosophy, either. “I think we thrive because we enjoy what we do,” he says. “If you don’t, it’s just too hard. There are easier careers to get into than the utility industry. But if you love it and appreciate the people around you, it’s great. If you think maybe you haven’t thanked your people enough, you haven’t. Do it, because you can never praise these people too much who make your business possible.” 



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