Cleaner Rewind: Industrial Cleaning Company Swells After Decade of Down Economy

See what this industrial cleaning company has been up to since they graced the cover of Cleaner 10 years ago.
Cleaner Rewind: Industrial Cleaning Company Swells After Decade of Down Economy
Thompson Industrial specializes in cleaning under high-temperature conditions such as vacuuming SCRs inside power plants.

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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 Thompson Industrial Services company we featured in the April 2004 issue: “Safety Through Simulation.”


In 2004, we profiled Sumter, S.C.-based Thompson Industrial Services Inc. for its innovative training and safety program. Back then, Thompson’s industrial cleaning service was part of a larger company that also offered comprehensive building construction and related services. 

By 2006, each of the two business segments had become unwieldy, according to Senior Business Development Manager Carl Wise. “We needed to be solely focused on our specialties of industrial cleaning and hydrocutting,” he says. 

The company proceeded to restructure itself into five distinct, commercially independent companies and the industrial cleaning organization became Thompson Industrial Services LLC. Principal Owner and CEO Greg Thompson, along with a few private investors, run the four other Thompson companies. They specialize in industrial construction and maintenance, commercial construction, HVAC and an industrial supply and lubrication company. 

All continue to operate under the strict, “zero incident” safety culture engendered at Thompson. They also have their own dispatch staff, available around the clock for any emergency needs, which compounds customers’ sense of security. 

Still headquartered in Sumter with Christopher Niebuhr as president and COO, Thompson Industrial Services LLC now has 17 other locations throughout the southeast and into the Mid-Atlantic, from Texas to Pennsylvania. 

Innovation is key

Always innovating by staying on top of new cleaning techniques, chemistry and equipment, the company has added many new services in the decade since we first visited them. Customer need has been the primary driver of new technology adoption. 

Thompson provides a comprehensive array of hydroblasting services from 12,000 to 40,000 psi, and high volume to 1,200 gpm per pump. They also offer extensive vacuum and chemical cleaning services, as well as specialty applications such as cryogenic (dry ice) cleaning, to offer an alternative for customers who require a no-waste technique. 

The use of ultra-high-pressure waterjet cutting comes in handy when, in the course of a cleaning project, tanks or process lines need to be safely cut to enable maintenance or removal. This “cold” or encapsulated spark method provides access in a much safer way than torch cutting, when the material on the other side of that steel or concrete (or the atmospheric environment itself) might be flammable, explosive or combustible. 

Thompson acquired a few companies with specialty services that allowed them to expand their service offerings. One such acquisition gave them the proprietary FINFOAM product and service, ideal for cleaning between the close-tolerance, delicate fins of air-cooled heat exchangers (“fin fans”) in refineries and petrochemical plants. 

“It was a natural fit for us, and we knew that with this technology, we could grow our business inside our existing geography,” Wise says. 

Evolving to serve the market

The geography consideration follows customer request in importance, regarding adoption of new tools and services. Company executives and managers are actively involved in deciding whether any proposed growth is a good fit for the existing territory. Everyone is free to initiate conversations, and they all evaluate new equipment and services. The sales and marketing department determines whether the potential new service will be a viable complement to existing offerings, creating efficiencies and economies of scale. 

“Ours is such a tightknit group that we know if it’s going to make sense or not for our customers,” says General Manager Jeremy Knight. “By the time we present to the executives, it’s pretty much gotten approval by everyone on the ground.” But that doesn’t mean each decision isn’t put through a rigorous research stage. 

“It’s not a formal process — more organic — an open think tank concept,” he explains. “We look at capital investments, safety aspects and go from there. 

“We’ll start with a small test group of employees who concentrate on getting the most information about the new technology as possible. They will work with industrial cleaning manufacturers, suppliers and our own research and development personnel to develop the tools and equipment we use.” 

Hands-on automation design

Thompson has its own design group that develops technology specific to its needs. The company has participated in designing many automated high-pressure waterblasting tools, because it’s physically impossible for a person to hold some of them by hand while staying out of the danger zone. 

“In the very near future, all of the cleaning industry will be heading toward automation. There’s a lot of emphasis today on this particularly in the refinery and petrochemical industries,” Knight says. “We work closely with StoneAge Tools and Jetstream of Houston to modify their designs, as may be necessary for our customer’s specific needs or applications.” 

Thompson’s newest such apparatus is designed for 40,000 psi cleaning of refractory in smelting boilers. “From a safety standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to take a live lance or water gun out of employees’ hands, anything that can minimize their hazard exposure,” Knight says. 

Various manufacturers, including Guzzler Manufacturing and Vactor Manufacturing, build the company’s 95 vacuum trucks, which aids in training. 

“We try to keep everything consistent throughout or company so when our equipment operators go from one location to another, they are operating the same equipment,” Wise says. 

This very hands-on development process has evolved with the company’s confidence in the crews of solidly trained, knowledgeable and experienced professionals it has built, now numbering around 900 employees. 

“We have a formal training, certification and documentation process,” Wise says. “Technicians come into our central Sumter or other regional training and testing facility to go through that process. They learn the right way the first time.” 

Solid marketing support

The firm understands that a large part of creating success with new services and technologies is approaching the marketing and promotion of those new offerings with as much dedication and energy as they expend in their development. 

Marketing Manager Emily Hept oversees this continually evolving process, in which sales representatives call on customers to explain the new technology and help them learn what’s available. Then the company website — also a constantly developing effort — works in synergy with conventional printed literature, distributed in person and via direct mail to deliver a unified message. 

Sales and marketing personnel attend and exhibit at many trade shows, relating to different materials, equipment and processes involved in the diverse array of industries served by Thompson. These include everything from chemical, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, pulp and paper manufacturing, steel/alloy and food processing plants to refineries, fossil and nuclear utilities, energy sector companies and shipyards. 

Thompson finds that face-to-face direct customer contact in problem-solving mode is most effective. Wise says they take a distinctly consultative stance by asking prospects the difficult questions. 

“What’s the most challenging obstacle you’ve had that you haven’t been able to solve in a satisfactory way?” Wise says. They stress finding unique solutions to clean or cut, effectively and safely. 

It’s all about the people

None of the stunning growth and success the company has had could be done without the solid teams they’ve built. “Our people don’t jump around much,” Wise says. “Usually, when they come to Thompson, they stay. It’s a great company to work for, a great environment that makes you like your work and want to work. Our success in marketing goes back to that, and to the Internet.” 

Appreciating the value of its people, Thompson has an instant employee recognition program. When someone gets kudos from a customer, that news goes straight to the president and vice president of operations, who instantly communicate to acknowledge the good work. The same happens when there’s an issue: top executives immediately work with their team members on site and even directly with the customer to resolve it. 

“Annual customer retention is routinely over 97.8 percent,” Wise says. “You don’t get that by being someone who doesn’t take customer concerns seriously.”

That value extends to every employee at all levels of the company, and performance is encouraged through a carrot-and-stick approach. Fleet Manager Mike Meldrim works to keep CDL drivers in line with DOT requirements. Drivers can be penalized for bad pullovers, but get a substantial monetary reward for having a satisfactory inspection. Thompson also offers safety rewards and an ample pay scale. 

Walking a tightrope

Throughout the company, employees start off in the trenches, but they have the opportunity to advance quickly because of the company’s ongoing growth. That growth wasn’t a given, however, any more than it was for other companies struggling to stay profitable through the recent recession. 

Thompson experienced a downturn in business just after the stock market crash in 2008-09, but fewer than five people were laid off. “We’re basically just a 900-member family, and at the beginning of 2009, our president called the managers together for a meeting and basically outlined what we were going to do to weather this storm,” Meldrim says. “It was a big discussion about what was best for the company.

“We took the right precautions going in, saving where we could on non-critical services so we could retain the personnel. Some higher-paid people took cuts and lost bonuses, but there wasn’t a whole lot of grumbling. I think everyone was just glad to keep their jobs at this company.” 

Wise says employees stepped when the customers started calling again. “They kept the people because — like any good company — we’re a people firm,” he says. “You want to keep your seasoned veterans on staff. We took it on the chin, and kept paying them even when the work wasn’t there, so when the market started coming back, we didn’t have to regroup. We were ready to go with a fully trained, ready-to-work staff.” 

Safety still job #1

Safety remains the top priority for Thompson, as it was a decade ago. This concern goes hand-in-hand with thorough, rigorous training. Wise says the first thing that will disqualify a services company from consideration for a new contract or even initially being considered is less-than-stellar safety performance. “They want proof of your safety program, your OSHA logs, statistics on lost workdays, your insurance modification rate,” he says. 

A mandatory 90-day probationary period for every new employee allows Thompson managers to observe work ethic, time management and communication skills, and lets that person understand the company and its work approach. Generally, everybody that joins the company goes through a minimum three-day orientation that introduces them to the Thompson work process and OSHA regulations, and is monitored and mentored to become a top-notch, safe employee. 

Hands-on training is done with company-certified trainers in the Sumter or Memphis offices. Both have a training module that contains on-site simulations working with the actual equipment they’ll use on the job. Grading for this training is either pass or fail. If instructors feel at any point that potential hires could not safely operate required equipment, they’ll recommend that the person not continue on with Thompson. 

Diversification triumphs

It’s an approach that continues to work for this company that’s so widely diversified within its vertical niche. Chemical and cryogenic cleaning, hydroblasting (standard, ultra-high pressure and high volume), large-volume pumping, wet and dry vacuuming, pneumatic and hydroexcavation, combustible dust remediation, proprietary FINFOAM air-cooled heat exchanger and furnace cleaning, and a growing focus on high-temperature access work contributed to record annual sales last year. 

Professional affiliations with Water Jet Technology Association-Industrial and Municipal Cleaning Association and dozens of industry-specific associations, training organizations and safety councils help Thompson sustain a formidable presence across its markets. 

According to Wise, the company maintains its momentum by separating the opportunities stateside and not stepping over other missed opportunities. “We decide which we should maximize, and how we can best capitalize on each opportunity,” he says. 

The biggest challenge for any such company today, company personnel believe, is automating processes and minimizing safety exposure. They strive to orchestrate, monitor and improve safety, performing about 2,000 audits a month. Thompson’s motto is “Safety, quality, integrity,” Meldrim says. “That’s what we live by.”



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