2007 Trenchless Technology Person-of-the-Year: Chris Brahler

Chris Brahler is passionate about the trenchless technology industry. He loves to talk about it, research it, educate others about it and find new and exciting avenues to employ it.

As president of TT Technologies, a world leader in trenchless underground construction equipment and technology, Brahler is in the perfect position to do just that. Enthusiastic and energetic are words that come to mind when listening to him talk about the different aspects of the industry, whether it is
a new product, a market trend or the development of a new course offering through NASTT.

Brahler refers to his enthusiasm about trenchless technology as “catching the fever,” and he has no hesitation in spreading it to others. His dedication to the industry — which he entered during its infancy — and his tireless energy to educate municipalities, engineers, construction students and contractors has garnered him the utmost respect and admiration of his peers, who consider him a true champion of the trenchless industry.

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He actively participates in several industry associations, such as NASTT (of which he serves as vice chairman), Power & Communication Contractors Association (PCCA),Distribution Contractors Association (DCA), American Gas Association (AGA), Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA) and the regional chapters of NASTT to name a few, while also sitting on sub committees within those associations, such as the Cross-bore Committee with NASTT. He has also tapped several of his key personnel to serve in various capacities with these associations, viewing their participation as critical to the overall success of the industry.

Those who know and work with him point to his outstanding leadership and unwavering commitment to an industry that he has helped develop over 30 years through product development, such as TT Technologies’ relationship with the Gas Technology Institute (GTI) with which they have collaborated on research and products. His goal is to leave the industry in a better position than when he started in it. So in Brahler’s mind, whatever he can do to get theword out about the industry, he’s your man.

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He’s also a humble and unassuming leader who would much rather discuss the successes and accomplishments of others than bring attention to himself. He prefers to be out in the field or in the shop — something he advocates to everyone as a key to success — rather than sitting behind his desk.

“I recommend that we get as many people as we can to jobsites — and not for an hour or two, but for two or three days. I learn things every time I go to a jobsite or talk with a customer,” he says.“I find it so refreshingly valuable. It keeps me centered and grounded because those customers and engineers who spend time in the field are pretty darn smart. It’s hard for everybody to do that, but it has probably paid the biggest dividends, if you can find the time.”

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For all of his contributions to the trenchless industry — from its fledgling years to its status today — Brahler has been selected the 2007 Trenchless Technology Person of the Year.

To many, Brahler is a clear-cut choice for this recognition. “The first time I met Chris [Brahler] was at the No-Dig 1994 conference in Dallas.The one thing that stood out about Chris was how much energy this man had and how much he listens to what you have to say,” says 2007 NASTT chairman Piero Salvo,P.E.,M.Eng.,of WSA Trenchless Consultants. “He quickly assessed the situation and directed me to one of his colleaguesfor further information. I remember him following up at a later date and that reinforced my opinion of him even more.

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“I have had the pleasure and opportunity of working with Chris on the current NASTT board and some special projects with NASTT.His commitment to NASTT and the trenchlessindustry is very contagious and is greatly appreciated by his peers. In his tenure as an NASTT board member since 2005, he has brought a great sense of leadership and enthusiasm to our group.”

Getting Started

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Brahler began his career in the construction industry during his high school and college years, spending his summers working for concrete pipe plants. He studied marketing and business administration at Governor’s State University in Illinois,paying his own way and working full-time during his final two years.Looking back on that experience,he says that “working through college probably gave me more insight into what I liked to do than anything else.”

He began working forNorth Star ConcreteProducts while still in college. After graduating in 1974, the Minnesota-based company hired him as a management trainee.“I graduated, accepted a new job, got married and moved all in the same month,” he reflects, chuckling.

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After he completed thetraining program, he was assigned to one of North Star’s subsidiaries, Condux International, in its cable plow division, which at the time was an innovative way to bury phone and power cables.However, once a cable plow project reached a roadway, open-cut was the only alternative to cross it.

Brahler knew there had to be a construction method or tool to cross the roads or highways that left them undisturbed — he just had to find it.“It just didn’t make any sense to me that you would plow in a mile of cable and then have to dig up roads to continue the project,” he says.“We were looking for a way to go under the roads. At the time, there wasn’t a lot out there in piercing tools. We were trying to find a product that we could make or import in order to solve that need for the customer and not dig up the road.” His pursuit of this alternative method led him to the German company Tracto-Technik, which was looking for a distributor of its piercing tools in North America. Who could have known at the time that Brahler and Tracto Technik would be connected some 30 years later? Condux officials entered into a partnership with Tracto-Technik in 1975 to represent its products; the expanded product division was named Vibra King.

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The Grundomat piercing tool was the first trenchless product brought to market by the new company.After the initial success of selling the tools in the United States,Vibra King discovered that the tool needed to be tweaked to work well over here. Together, Vibra King and Tracto-Technik initiated a joint R&D program to reconfigure the tool for use in North America.The tool was successfully relaunched in the early 1980s.

During this time, Brahler was appointed the general manager of Vibra King and served in that role until 1991 when North Star made the decision to focus on its core businesses involving concrete products. The trenchless products division was sold back to Tracto-Technik, which wanted Brahler to lead the company. The offer was made more attractive with the opportunity for Brahler and his family to return to Illinois.The new company — later renamed TT Technologies — was launched in May 1991 in Aurora, Ill., a suburb of Chicago that continues to be its home base.

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Brahler remembers those days as being on the cusp of the trenchless explosion. Piercing tools were popular and pipe ramming also was finding its footing. Pipe bursting was just emerging, as was horizontal directional drilling.

“We were feeling our way in those days,” Brahler says. “And literally the piercing tool was the tool that became the mother lode business in the early years because there was such a need. Once we had a piercing tool that was working and going straighter and was more accurate than others at the time,we were able to show people that it was a viable method. But that took a lot of engineering calls, meetings with city officials and then a lot of education of customers. You had to create the market. … In those early years, your development years were critical.”

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Today,TT Technologies is an industry-leading manufacturer of piercing and pipe ramming tools. It also manufactures horizontal directional drills, pipe bursting tools, as well as bentonite pumps and tuggers. But the company’s core businesses are the piercing and pipe ramming tools. Brahler’s company also includes a top-notch training facility for its customers and staff.

His wife of 33 years,Gena,is also a part of the business,joining her husband in the office when they made the move back to Illinois.Today,she serves as the company’s chief financial officer.“I only wanted her to come in for a few hours a week until we could find somebody,”Brahler remembers.“Over the years, with me traveling as much as I do and with her degree in accounting and her natural operations abilities, she’s been an outstanding plus.We initially didn’t want to work together because we didn’t think it would work out, but it has worked out just wonderfully.”

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Today’s Market

Brahler has seen the highs and lows of the market and is in a select group who can say they have seen where the industry’s been and caninfluence its future.“It’s a totally different market today from when we started,” he says. “There is much broader acceptance and understanding of what trenchless is today.”

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What he also understands is that theneed for continued education is critical to the future success of the trenchless industry. Brahler points to the volume of turnover and retirement among contractors, public works employees, etc. “We are finding that the need for education has not declined. If anything, it has grown,” Brahler says.

And that’s where Brahler extensive involvement in trenchless industry associations comes in — another passion of his.“It’s very important to be involved,”he says. “In fact, [TT Technologies] assigns different individuals at the company to various associations, such as PCCA, DCA and the like.”

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Brahler says groups like NASTT are a vital component to the industry. “Thisgives you an arena where you get engineers, municipalities, utilities, contractors, etc., to talk about technology, methods, what’s right to help the customer save money and at the same time give them a better product. NASTT is a great forum for exchanging ideas with engineers and end-users,” he says.

“[TT Technologies] still spends more time today putting on brown bag lunches at engineering firms or sessions at various communities and cities. … The bulk of our staff participates in the Trenchless Road Shows and the seminars put on by the regional NASTT chapters.”

Brahler was humbled by his selection as the Person of the Year.“It’s very much an honor and it is very much appreciated,” he says.“I’m not one for drawing much attention on myself. It’s more fun to talk about the good people and the associations we have. Initially I was extremely surprised about this because there are so many other great people out there.”

After more than 30 years in the trenchless industry,Brahler feels blessed to be a part of this exciting industry.“I am passionate about the industry,” he says.“We call it ‘catching the fever’ and once you believe in this industry, everyone gets extremely passionate about it.Almost all of our people have become extremely passionate about spreading the word.

“It is a privilege and an honor to be a part of the trenchless industry and to work with all the great people worldwide who are promoting and using trenchless technologies.We work in a great industry. It’s very vibrant. Construction equipment to me 30 years ago tended to be a little stodgy. But this whole trenchless arena of pipe cracking, pipe bursting, HDD, ramming and piercing is an arena that has become truly exciting. Once people understand that, they probably think we are overzealous, but the net result is that you don’t have to cut down a hundred oak trees in a neighborhood to replace their sewers.

“I work hard to promote the industry,” Brahler says,“and it’s fun to be a part of it.”

Sharon M. Bueno is managing editor of Trenchless Technology.

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