2002 Trenchless Technology Person-of-the-Year: Mark Wallbom

Over the past 25 years, Mark Wallbom has developed a knack for reinventing companies. From the college campus to the corporate board room, he’s polished a passion for organizational development, helping struggling companies find new direction and fresh markets.

He’s been courted by corporations from the banking, oilfield and trenchless industries for his talents, and it’s easy to see why. His resume reads like a CEO’s Christmas list: cultivating fledgling distributorships; reviving a division of a $100 million contracting firm; rousing profitability from bankruptcy; goading success where there was only adversity.

Since 1998, Wallbom has encouraged that type of success at Miller Pipeline’s struggling Utility Division, helping to bring this trenchless contracting giant’s division out of 14 years of under performance. At the same time, he’s also expanded his role as a corporate citizen, spearheading the overhaul of the No-Dig Show in 2001. Now, as chairman-elect of North American Society for Trenchless Technology (NASTT), he’s eyeing new ways to get the trenchless industry in lockstep.

His plan?
“I like to use this phrase,” explained Wallbom, who enjoys refining success and experience into simple leadership formulas. “Luck is when opportunity meets preparation. When preparation, meaning education, training and understanding, meets an opportunity — that’s how you grow a business.”

“And I feel that way about the trenchless market — that it will grow when opportunities present themselves and when engineers, cities and contractors have been trained and have the expertise in technologies beyond simple open-cut methods.”

Today, Wallbom pushes education and industry solidarity in the trenchless marketplace, but before his tenure at Miller Pipeline and NASTT he helped build five companies into productive and profitable industry organizations.

Five Steps to Success
Mark Wallbom began his career at the University of Washington in the early ’70s, earning a dual degree in business and psychology after a tour in Vietnam as a munitions specialist and C47 gunner. The curriculum sparked his interest in a master’s program in organizational development, where he studied how change can influence people and business.

“I studied the effects of change within organizations and how to become a change agent and many other dynamics of change — dealing with it, planning for it, executing it, as well as strategic planning and business modeling,” explained Wallbom.

From graduate school, he leapt into the corporate community with First Interstate Bank in Seattle. In three years, he became the youngest branch manager in the statewide banking system. “I wanted to continue my education, and I wanted to learn what makes companies profitable and learn the dynamics of well run and poorly run companies. And I felt commercial banking could provide the best insight,” recalled Wallbom.

Not long for the world of finance, Wallbom was solicited by a local polyethylene pipe distributor called Maskell-Robbins, one of his major lending accounts. They keyed into Wallbom’s understanding of the market segment, and for equity interest and a vice presidential position, they convinced Wallbom to join ranks.

At the time, the company made gross revenues in the low six figures, with only three employees, including Wallbom. Over the next nine years, Maskell-Robbins ballooned its sales to $19 million, establishing six regional offices from Texas to Alaska.

“I think the rapid growth of Maskell-Robbins came from excellent customer service, first off, but also because we endeavored to understand our customer’s problems and then tried to educate them. I think we were more technically competent than our competition,” said Wallbom.

Wallbom sold his shares in Maskell-Robbins in 1987 to buy a troubled fabricator and light manufacturer of oilfield products called CEMCO. He soon found that the company was slowly capsizing, with one foot in bankruptcy and net losses in the high six figures. Unfazed, Wallbom gathered his workforce to plan his way out of insolvency.

“What we did is we got our key people into one room and we did focus groups,” remembered Wallbom. “What skill sets do we have available to us? Other than the intended purpose of the equipment we have, what else can we use it for? What have our customers inquired about in the past that would suggest unmet needs?”

In less than three years, profits were reestablished, new product lines were introduced and the company’s balance sheet was strengthened. Purchased for $3 million in 1987, CEMCO boasted a $7 million net income three years later when it was sold. It was Wallbom’s first company turn-around, but not the last.

For the next four years, Wallbom took up the challenge of managing with Fife Pipe Inc., Columbia, S.C., expanding polyethylene pipe markets for the company in the southeastern United States. It was here that he got his first introduction to the growing trenchless market by selling pipe to directional drilling and pipe bursting contractors.

“I remember in 1992 seeing my first pipe bursting demonstration and calling my boss saying, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this. The possibilities are astronomical. We’ve got to get into this business,'” stated Wallbom.

It’s an experience he carried over to his next role as president of KA-TE USA Inc., a division of the Swiss-based manufacturer of robotic technologies. The company, having difficulties selling its robotic rehabilitation machinery in the U.S. market, was aching for direction. These robots, cousins of the ones used by CityNet, Silver Spring, Md., to install fiber optics in sewers, could make repairs in 7- to 30-in. pipes using epoxy injection, but carried a whopping $750,000 price tag, fully outfitted.

Wallbom figured that in order to sell this pricey machinery, he would need to prove its viability. So for two years, he focused the company’s attention away from trying to sell the equipment and more on completing projects as a contractor to prove to potential buyers its profit possibilities.

“During Mark’s tenure, contracting turnover increased dramatically and although it was more difficult than any of us had assumed, he achieved a positive operation within two years,” said Dr. Hans Bunschi, chairman of KA-TE, AG.

Industry Overhaul
With KA-TE in the mid-’90s, Wallbom found himself marketing his first “pure, unadulterated trenchless technology.” The idea of working solely with a non-disruptive form of rehab for sewer, water and gas lines intrigued him. So he decided to get more involved, becoming an Industry Advisory Board member at the Trenchless Technology Center (TTC) on the campus of Louisiana Tech University, and eventually joining associations like ASCE/PINS, NASSCO, NUCA and NASTT.

“I really became passionate about everything to do with trenchless technologies,” explained Wallbom. “There’s a tremendous ecological benefit that’s associated with it. In some instances, trenchless technologies may have a higher initial cost, but in the end it’s a better bargain. I felt, and still feel, that using various trenchless technologies has a proven economic value. And I don’t think we’re anywhere close to our potential yet.”

When Miller Pipeline Corp., a major supplier, manufacturer and installer of trenchless technology products, was sold to NiSource in 1997, the company was looking to hire a senior executive who understood the construction industry and had an itch for all things trenchless. The company was looking for someone to spearhead the growth of a business segment, specifically the company’s Utility Division, that had not been profitable for 14 years.

“Mark brought with him a strong background of management and technical skills in the trenchless area. He is recognized as an expert in polyethylene pipe and piping systems along with robotic technology,” stated Dale Miller, chairman of the board for Miller Pipeline.

Wallbom jumped at the chance to work with Miller, overseeing all field operations, sales and marketing, and fabrication and manufacturing activities in the company’s Utility Division. And this division wields plenty of trenchless capabilities, including pipe-joint rehabilitation (external and internal), pipe lining, pipe bursting, pipe reconstruction, CIPP and fold-and-formed PVC, vacuum excavation, directional drilling and manhole repair.

Wallbom began by assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the Utility Division, which meant evaluating performance and pushing accountability.

“Performance is directly related to that which is measured,” explained Wallbom. “Anyone involved with a turn-around needs to understand that it is a team effort. It is the group that must accept responsibility for the future, and when everyone understands the critical role they play in the organization and they see what they can accomplish when they get in lockstep, then great things happen.”

Revenues increased by 42 percent in the last four years, said Wallbom. The success has allowed the division to grow by acquiring two trenchless companies (Griners and SIS) that expand Miller’s geographic base.

And when not concentrating on Miller Pipeline, Wallbom has focused his attention toward the trenchless industry in general. Case in point: He was instrumental in revamping the NASTT-sponsored No-Dig Show in 2001.

“The renaissance we witnessed at No-Dig 2001 in Nashville had a lot to do with the many dedicated NASTT members who got involved,” stated Wallbom. “And this is just another example of what great things can happen when individual members of any organization become a team. We had to go back to our roots and focus on the one thing that NASTT stands for — and that is education.”

Wallbom hopes to bring more education and cooperation to the trenchless industry as chairman of NASTT in 2003. With the market facing an economic uncertainty that it hasn’t felt in the last 10 years, Wallbom is looking to fellow industry associations to pool their resources and work together. He already has plans to brainstorm with Jeff Weitzel of Weitzel Construction, current president of the National Utility Contractors Association, and hopes to do the same with other associations, like NASSCO.

But the real key to making the trenchless marketplace a bigger success is through industry altruism, observed Wallbom. He sees a need for the industry to become more vocal with civic groups, legislators and, frankly, anyone who will listen.

“I think all of the people in this industry at a senior level need to do what they can to raise the collective conscious of decision makers,” explained Wallbom. “We need to build a broader grassroots movement to inform and educate decision-makers about the many advantages of trenchless technologies.”

Keith Gribbins is assistant editor of Trenchless Technology

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