2008 Trenchless Technology Person of the Year: Maynard Akkerman

Some people search their whole lives to discover a career they love and want to do every day. Whether the quest involves flip-flopping between jobs or pursuing different degrees, people invest months and even years finding what they are meant to do in life.

Fortunately for Maynard Akkerman, president and owner of Akkerman Inc. and Trenchless Technology’s 2008 Person of the Year, his career found him at the ripe old age of 8 and has kept him on his toes ever since. A passion for the trenchless industry first grasped Akkerman when he witnessed his father succeed with his first tunnel boring machine and it hasn’t loosened its grip yet.

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“I saw the business work through my father and I never looked at anything else,” says Akkerman. “I always knew this industry was for me. I truly believe that trenchless work is safer, less disruptive and therefore more beneficial for mankind.”

With that passion for the business and inspiration from his father, Akkerman pursued a career in manufacturing trenchless equipment. Forty-some years later, Akkerman is still enjoying his vocation, running his own company and contributing to the flourishing trenchless industry.

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As a trenchless professional, Akkerman is revered by many and his work has not only made his own company successful, but has aided in numerous trenchless projects all around the world. These contributions have made him an ideal choice for Trenchless Technology’s Person of the Year — a title he truly appreciates.

“I’m so honored to be selected for this. There’s an impressive list of people who have received this honor before me, so I’m humbled to be a part of it. It’s a great industry and I’m glad to be in it,” he says.

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Growing Up Trenchless 

Akkerman’s trenchless career path began early on, when he was a young boy in Brownsdale, Minn. Akkerman’s father, Don, worked as a contractor for his own utility construction business. While Akkerman observed his father working on his trade, Don’s interest in the field began to rub off on his son.

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“When I was 8, I could remember my father working on a machine and testing it. By watching my father do his work, it had a strong influence on me and how I saw the world and what I wanted to do,” says Akkerman.

As a teenager, Akkerman began working for his father during summer vacations from high school. After he graduated in 1973, Akkerman went on to work for his father full-time with the pipe jacking crew. There, he gained hands-on field experience by working with the equipment on more than 100 pipe jacking projects. Also in 1973, Akkerman’s father established Akkerman Mfg., becoming a manufacturer of pipe jacking equipment while maintaining operation of the contracting business. When not working with the pipe jacking crew, Akkerman was assisting with the manufacturing of equipment.
In 1987, Don decided to concentrate on the contracting business and sold the manufacturing operation to Maynard and his wife, Robin. At the time of the purchase, they changed the name to Akkerman Inc.

Becoming the Boss

As head of Akkerman Inc., Akkerman was responsible for the daily operations and continued growth of the company. As a manufacturer of tunnel boring machines and pipe jacking equipment, the company flourished under Akkerman’s wings.

Today, Akkerman Inc. manufactures four distinct lines of trenchless equipment, reports sales in most of the 50 states and abroad, as well as employs 75 full-time employees.

This past year, six of the company’s top 10 customers were international. Akkerman Inc. is still the premier manufacturer of slurry microtunneling systems in the United States, thanks to Akkerman’s persistence on implementing the line of equipment.

Akkerman credits the real-world experience he gained from working for his father and the lessons he learned on the jobsite for helping him succeed in the business.

“My father’s leadership was an inspiration to me and his principles are still at the core of Akkerman Inc.

In addition to being highly innovative, he had a high level of admiration for the skills and integrity of his staff,” says Akkerman. “My past work has provided me with a lot of insight. I build on the knowledge I gained experientially from working on hundreds of pipe jacking projects.”

Akkerman continues to learn about new advancements in the market. “I travel to active jobsites and attend as many conferences as I can,” explains Akkerman. “It’s very beneficial since I get to see things that others are doing and get to see these things actually working. Productivity on jobsites influences the manufacture and innovations in our equipment. We learn so much from these site visits and shared insight from our customers.”

Akkerman asserts that the success the company celebrates today is a result of the employees who make up the thriving business, as well as the strong relationships with repeat customers.

“Our success is largely due to caring, dedicated employees who are always willing to go the extra mile,” says Akkerman. “I know it’s a tired cliché, but it’s the truth here. We’re also fortunate enough to work with successful customers that have returned their loyalty. We don’t just sell the machine and never talk to the customer again — it’s a constant reciprocal flow of communication.”

Talking Trenchless

Although the New Year has just begun, Akkerman observes that the industry will continue to do well in 2008. Despite the rumors of a recession throughout the United States, the trenchless market is expected to have a bright outlook.

“I think the trenchless market is strong and very vibrant. It’s a great time to be in this industry,” says Akkerman.

“We don’t see any kind of downturn in business and we’re looking at another strong year in sales and leasing.”

To continue to thrive as an industry, Akkerman predicts that more new installation and rehabilitation products and technologies will pop up in the market to accommodate the needs of failing infrastructure throughout North America.

“We’re going to continue to see more new installation methods and technologies. As our country expands, the infrastructure must expand to accommodate growth. Trenchless is a great solution to keep that infrastructure working.”

Industry Involvement
When Akkerman isn’t busy with the day-to-day operations of the company, he takes part in learning about and promoting the industry through NASTT.  The Society has offered an outlet for trenchless professionals to meet, connect and catch up on the latest advancements in the industry.

Akkerman Inc. has been a charter member of NASTT ever since the Society’s inception in 1990. The company, often represented by Akkerman himself, has participated in seminars and conferences put on by the organization — allowing Akkerman to gain a deeper understanding of the industry.

“My involvement broadened my awareness of the trenchless industry,” says Akkerman. “You don’t always see what’s going on around the country, so NASTT brought things to my attention. I met individuals who are important in the business and who I could learn from.”

Akkerman also appreciates the networking opportunities NASTT has to offer. He mentions that through the events the Society hosts, he has been able to meet professionals in the industry and stay in touch with acquaintances. The organization provides opportunities for Akkerman and others to introduce those interested in trenchless to the industry and its enthusiasts. Akkerman served as a board member for NASTT from 1994-1998.

Educating others about the trenchless industry is a core aspect of NASTT. Akkerman hopes that the organization and its members can continue to spread the word of the industry and attract students to it by increasing awareness at schools and offering a well-rounded trenchless curriculum.

“I am constantly surprised when talking to young civil engineers and they report they have not been exposed to trenchless applications during the course of their studies,” says Akkerman. “Twenty years ago, education was our focus and it still is today.

“I hope that our industry can work together with universities and colleges, especially with engineering programs, to develop a better trenchless curriculum. Most schools do not have a strong trenchless program. I think a knowledge in trenchless would make a huge difference for the future.”

Akkerman also credits the NASTT scholarship program as being a driving force in engaging students in the industry. By offering scholarship opportunities, students are able to get involved in trenchless education, receive assistance for schooling and work to become the future leaders of the market.  

In addition to his involvement with NASTT, Akkerman was also a contributing member to a standards committee for the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) for microtunneling.

He was named the 2003 Most Valuable Professional by the Gulf Coast Trenchless Association (GCTA). Additionally, he has a long-standing rapport with the National Utility Contractor’s Association (NUCA) and Underground Construction Association of Society of Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration (UCA of SME).

Looking Ahead

As Akkerman Inc. celebrates its 35th year in 2008, Akkerman continues to look toward the future of both the trenchless market and the company. Taking to heart the drive his father once had for the business, Akkerman understands that although the trenchless market is small, it’s always progressing.

“In 1977, my father said: ‘You’re in an industry that very few people are involved in. You have an opportunity to become an expert in this industry and make an impact.’”

With that notion and looking back on the past 40 years, Akkerman pushes ahead to 2008 with excitement for what can be accomplished within both the industry and his company.

“I’m proud to be in an industry that is so dynamic and constantly evolving. We’re celebrating 35 years at Akkerman Inc. and yet there’s so much more to be done,” says Akkerman. “There’s many people to educate and projects to be completed. The potential for trenchless is huge and that’s what has always excited me about it. The industry has been held back because of lack of awareness, but now people are seeing the technology and how it can work. I think we’re just now gaining momentum.”

As for keeping Akkerman Inc. a family business when Akkerman decides to step down, the hopes are high to continue on as a family-owned company.

“Robin and I have been blessed with three children, Derek, Justin and Andrew. It’s uncertain if any or all of them may take part in the company.

“We’ve had several family discussions and agree that we want it to remain in our family, but if not, that’s okay. If the company stays in the family, I’ll be happy. If not, I’d still be happy — just as long as the company goes on and stays true to its roots.”

Pam Stask is an assistant editor of Trenchless Technology.