At 52, Dan Liotti already has nearly 30 years of experience in the world of trenchless construction and has spent the better part of his entire life around the trenchless industry.
“I really grew up in the business through my father. My father started in the trenchless business in the 1960s with Armco Steel. He took off his shirt and tie as a sales engineer and signed up with Armco’s Underground Division,” Dan says. “He learned from the ground up by working in the field. This is how I learned and it has allowed me to succeed in this business.”
Dan still marvels that he has built strong professional relationships today with the veritable list of trenchless icons such as Tom Iseley, Maynard Akkerman, Bob Affholder and others, who he looked up to as he learned the trenchless business. Once thought of as mentors, he is now good friends with many of them. Once the person who asked the questions, he is now the mentor for those who seek snippets of his trenchless knowledge.
Growing up, Dan knew he wanted to work with his father. The Indiana native literally grew up in the trenchless construction industry, fascinated with every crevice of it. He got his first taste of the construction industry at an early age, eagerly tagging along with his father to jobsites and maintenance shops. He has photos of himself climbing up on equipment when he was 10 years old and holds memories of handing tools to mechanics.
Becoming a part of the trenchless fabric was in his blood, as he says: “It’s really the only thing I knew.” Dan has given back to the industry by actively participating in industry-related associations such as the North American Society for Trenchless Technology (NASTT) and the National Utility Contractors Association (NUCA), serving on the board of directors for the former and assisting in the development of trenchless manuals with the latter.
Midwest Mole projects have been recognized for excellence by numerous associations. In 2007, a project at the Indianapolis Airport was awarded the Trenchless Technology Project of the Year for New Installation and other projects have also received Honorable Mention awards, most recently in 2014.
CEO of the company since 2012, Dan has tirelessly worked to maintain the level of respect and professionalism that his father — who passed away in 2010 at age 76 — carved out in the trenchless industry. His passion for the industry and his excitement whenever a cutterhead is exiting a bore hole or a machine is coming into an entry pit hasn’t lessened one bit.
“It’s amazing and gives you goose bumps,” Dan says. “That excitement of seeing all that work and effort and technology coming to fruition on each project…That still excites me.”
For all of his accomplishments and contributions to the trenchless industry, Dan Liotti is the 2015 Trenchless Technology Person of the Year. His selection caught him off-guard and virtually speechless. “It’s an incredible honor to receive this award,” Dan says. “There are so many incredible people in our industry and so deserving.”
Len Liotti started out in construction in the 1960s as a sales engineer with Armco Steel, which at the time was the largest specialized boring, jacking and tunneling contractor in the United States. Armco built its own boring equipment back then, hydraulically powered machines that could install gravity sewer casings under a highway, hitting its target on line and grade. Watching the bores being constructed, Liotti was amazed at the work and realized the incredible future he was witnessing. He later joined tunneling contractor Affholder Boring and Tunneling Inc. (owned by trenchless pioneer Bob Affholder).
By 1982, Liotti was ready to strike out on his own and he founded Midwest Mole, becoming a small auger boring operation based in Indianapolis. The company started out auger boring, pipe jacking and grouting; however, it later added more trenchless disciplines such as microtunneling, pipe ramming, hand mining, guided boring and horizontal directional drilling. The diversity allowed the contracting company to attract customers and rapidly grow into one of the leading Midwest trenchless contractors.
All the while, Dan was at his father’s side, watching and learning. He has vivid recollections of joining his father on Saturday mornings at jobsites when he was about 10, climbing up onto equipment. He also would “assist” the mechanics in the Affholder shop by handing them tools as they worked on equipment, helping Dan become an equipment junkie at a young age. As he became older, he started to work on jobsites as a laborer.
“This is where I really had a chance to learn about equipment,” Dan says of that time. “I’ve always enjoyed equipment and it was cool to be out on these jobsites when I was a kid, being with the crews.”
He studied civil engineering at the University of Purdue, with an eye toward joining his father’s Midwest Mole company after graduation. Dan was a sophomore in college when Len Liotti started Midwest Mole. He worked for his father during his summer breaks between 1981-1984, mainly on auger boring crews — an education in of itself.
“Only one summer break in my life did I not work for my father [in some capacity],” Dan says. “The summer between my junior and senior year at Purdue, I interned at IBM in Raleigh, N.C., in its construction liaison division.”
It was your basic desk job. The opportunity proved to be interesting for Dan, allowing him to use his computer technology skills. “I remember learning how to use the Lotus 1-2-3 Excel spreadsheet,” he says, laughing about the then “cool” technology of the 1980s.
Even before he finished his degree at Purdue, Dan knew where he wanted his career to take him. When he did obligatory interviews with companies, he says he felt bad for just going through the motions. “I felt like I was wasting their time. I always knew I was going to join my Dad,” he says simply.
Midwest Mole was in its infancy when Dan came aboard full time. The company was then led by Len Liotti and his wife, Jane. Sadly, Jane Liotti passed away in 1987, after a courageous battle with breast cancer. Dan began his career learning the business from the ground up, doing a little bit of everything. He worked in the accounting department early on and then moved to the shop, becoming shop manager, a position that allowed him to spend hours working on equipment. He later did project estimations and was in charge of field operations.
He purchased the company from his father in 2002, becoming its president. A lot has changed since the early years in terms of the scope of work Midwest Mole performed to the number of employees and pieces of equipment — everything got bigger. In 2012 Dan promoted long time employee Jason Miller to president and Dan took on the position of CEO to allow him to back away a bit from the day to day operations. Dan contributes Midwest Mole’s growth to the dedication and hard work of its employee’s. Dan is a true believer in one his father’s quotes: “You are only as successful as the people underneath you.”
“When I started in the office in 1985, we had three or four crews. Today, we have 15,” Dan says. “My father cut his teeth on auger boring but we’ve done anything and everything associated with new installation.”
Dan has worked with the leading manufacturers of the trenchless methods the company employs, such as Vermeer, Akkerman, The Robbins Co., American Augers, Barbco and Michael Byrne, as well as Digital Control, Baroid and CETCO. “We have 30 years of equipment we’ve purchased over the years on 13 acres [of Midwest Mole property],” he says.
He has also actively worked with a few of the leading trenchless and utility construction associations, offering his time and expertise to further the work of trenchless technology. He was involved with NUCA early on, and assisted in the development of its trenchless construction and soil compatibility manual. He is a past board member of NASTT and remains a member of its Midwest Chapter.
“I was approached about 10 years ago that there was an opportunity to become a [NASTT] board member and was told it will be one of the greatest things you will be able to look back on in our industry,” Dan says. “And he was right.”
Working with the various associations and manufacturers allows Dan the chance to continue networking with industry, as well as partnering on incredible projects. He has also formed lasting friendships, such as with long-time good friend Maynard Akkerman, president and CEO of equipment manufacturer Akkerman Inc., Brownsdale, Minn.
“My company has had the privilege of working with Midwest Mole over the course of three generations. First Len Liotti worked my father, Don Akkerman, followed by our partnerships and now our businesses are embarking on their generation of family ownership.”
Over the years, Maynard and his wife, Robin, formed a long-standing friendship with Dan and his wife, Laura, and the four have traveled extensively around the globe and have shared many milestones in their lives and families. One of the many qualities he admires in Dan is his “strong Christian faith and moral integrity.”
Hard to believe — even to himself — but Dan is approaching his 30th year in the trenchless industry (in May) and he notes how incredible the evolution of the industry has been. From the speed of projects to the technology used, the industry’s trajectory has exploded upward. Over the years, Dan has worked with many who are considered trenchless innovators and experts, including Dr. Tom Iseley, who recently returned as executive director of the Trenchless Technology Center (TTC). Iseley first introduced Dan to the HDD method.
“Years ago, [Iseley] took me to Chicago to visit a company that was one of the first ones doing HDD there,” he reflects. “It’s mind-boggling how HDD is done today, with the self-loading rigs, locators and the overall speed of the jobs.”
“Today, the trenchless industry is a massive industry,” he says. “It’s come from the days when Armco pioneered the industry and the words ‘trenchless technology’ didn’t exist to today, where we have tens of thousands of people in the industry, great associations like NASTT and conventions such as the No-Dig Show and others, engineering firms that concentrate on trenchless design, academia that teaches our industry along with the great publications such as Trenchless Technology.”
Circle of Life
Married for 27 years, Dan and Laura have two sons, one of whom is in the Midwest Mole fold. Their eldest son Brian, 25, has worked at Midwest Mole for the last two-plus years as a project engineer after earning his degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Purdue. Their youngest son Mike is still in school (also at the University of Purdue), studying industrial management.
“You have to have a good support system to be successful,” Dan says. “Laura has just been an incredible support to me. Construction is a tough road, with early hours and travel and you add in trying to raise a family. She has been a blessing. As they say: Behind every good man is a better wife.”
Trenchless technology has been very good to Dan and his family, personally and professionally — and he wouldn’t have it any other way, looking forward to what the future brings. “It is an absolutely amazing industry. Some of my best friends are people who I have met through my business,” he says. “The future is limitless. There is going to be a huge increase in the investment of our infrastructure and our industry is going to take a larger and larger piece of this work. With the increased focus at some of our colleges on trenchless design and construction, these young engineers are going to design more work to build and also continue to invent new ways to perform work.”
Even though he’s no longer the “young kid” in the industry, Dan still has that young kid reaction to deciphering and solving a challenging problem. “Every job is different. It’s exciting to try to figure out the best technology to use to complete a project and then see it working in the field just the way you envisioned it,” he says. “While it can be very stressful when a job is not going well, it can be exciting to take your past knowledge and work with your team to try to find a solution that you are not 100 percent sure if it’s going to work and see the project come to completion.”
Sharon M. Bueno is managing editor of Trenchless Technology.