Entrepreneur Kim K. Lewis has built and sold many businesses in a career that started right out of high school. Lewis admits that he never had a desire to go to university, instead he had a desire to build businesses and that is what he did.
So how did this man from rural Canada come to helm LiquiForce Services? It was a series of fortunate events that started “innocently enough” as Lewis puts it, when a local town needed a contractor to do some sewer cleaning work. One of the town officials turned to Lewis, whom he already knew, and suggested he be the man to tackle the project.
“My sons were in high school and ready to go to university and I always had a dream of working with them,” Lewis says. “I was looking at it as, ‘What can I build that I can get myself involved and be involved with [my sons], otherwise they’ll probably go to school, move away and be long gone.’”
Based on the fact that he recently sold a business and had nothing else in the works, Lewis agreed to tackle the sewer cleaning, based on the premise of building something he could do with his sons. He bought a sewer truck and went about cleaning the systems. From there, Lewis got into the inspection realm — also at the suggestion of the town — and eventually that grew to the trenchless rehabilitation company many people know today.
In those early stages, LiquiForce was Lewis with Darcy Warren — a friend with sewer work experience — and another crewmember served as the technician and Lewis’s sister, Mary Beth Everaert, was the controller. Warren now heads the LiquiForce research and development department and Everaert remains in the same position today. The company itself has grown to approximately 110 employees, most of whom are in Canada, with plans to add about 130 in the next five years.
Today, Lewis’s three sons are actively involved in the day-to-day operation of LiquiForce. Jeffery Lewis serves as president, Kim M. Lewis is vice president and sales manager, overseeing large projects in Canada, and Christopher Lewis is charged with sales and promotion and works in all aspects of LiquiForce’s development across Canada. Completing the family connection are Lewis’s brother, Bradley Lewis, who leads the LiquiForce machine shop and his nephew, Jason Everaert, works with Kim M. Lewis. Matt Bernath, a cousin, works closely with Warren on new equipment builds.
“I’m really thankful for the place we are in the industry. I couldn’t have always said that. This is a slow son of a gun and I scratched my head for a long time,” he says. “Right now, I am tickled to death to be in the industry that I am in and working with all of the people I am with.”
Growing an Industry
As the company looked to tackle these early sewer repair projects, Lewis realized that the industry — trenchless specifically — was primitive in terms of cohesiveness. There was no common language when discussing sewer defects.
Together with some cleaning and inspection counterparts in Ontario, Lewis took to the United Kingdom, and the collective returned to Canada with the WRc sewer condition classification system in-hand. With this information, they were able to train their people, other companies, municipalities and engineering societies on what was happening in the sewers, allowing a move to the rehabilitation phase.
“There was no industry,” Lewis says of that time. “There were some plumbers running around trying to fix things. There were guys with trucks trying to clean catch basins and sewers and there were a few people — very, very few, like one or two — running around with cameras trying to stick them in sewers. Beyond that, for the rehabilitation stage or to work with the engineer, be it a city engineer or an outside engineer, there was no language. There was nothing to really say what is going on.”
That legwork paid off and Lewis helped to bring the coding process to not only Canada but all of North America, working with the National Association of Sewer Service Companies (NASSCO) on what would become the Pipeline Assessment Certification Program, better known as PACP.
In addition to defect coding, Lewis took a serious look at the technologies available in Europe and worked to bring them to Canada and grow LiquiForce. Through trial and error, Lewis and his colleagues found what worked, what didn’t work and, through research and development investment, they found out why.
“That was in 1987, and probably within the last five years, trenchless technology has gotten a real jump and is being accepted now,” Lewis says.
One of Lewis’s first forays into trenchless work came about when a major Ontario municipality was looking to perform spot repairs on broken sections of a line. Lewis brought some of the technology available in Europe — some of it worked and some of it didn’t. Lewis and his colleagues took what didn’t work and adjusted it until it did, thus creating the LiquiForce research and development department.
“We searched the world and everywhere we could to find what was available and what had worked in the past and what was in the point of transition and what was being tested,” Lewis says.
In speaking with Lewis, it doesn’t take long to realize he is a champion for his business, as well as the industry as a whole. And now that there is increased collaboration between the industry and academia — with institutions like the Centre for Advancement of Trenchless Technologies (CATT) at the University of Waterloo — and technologies are now proven to work, Lewis sees this as a fun time to be in the industry.
R&D at LiquiForce
One of the key reasons LiquiForce got to where it is today is a heavy investment — millions of dollars since the company’s inception — in research and development. It is an area that Lewis says sets his company apart from others.
“R&D is a very, very critical part of LiquiForce. The first thing customers ask is, ‘What’s new?’ They always want something new. They are looking for a better way,” he says. “How can we bring better, newer and longer-lasting products and technologies to the market? That is what R&D does as a team — 24/7 research into what customers wants, what cities need now and in the future.”
He credits Warren with heading the department and continuing to work with the customers to find solutions that will, ultimately, save taxpayers money. LiquiForce not only continually improves its product but also invests in research and development of the installation process.
One of those developments — and where Lewis sees his business growing — is the truly trenchless lateral replacement method. Working with the Canadian federal government and Ontario’s Provincial Government for the last three years, LiquiForce developed its prep from the main (PFM) and line from the main (LFM) processes. Both are totally trenchless methods for working on laterals from the main to the home.
With these processes, crews go in through a manhole, inspect the lateral, ream out materials like roots, calcite and other solids, measure so the liner is an exact fit and then — still working from the manhole — install the new 50-year design life lateral without any digging. Lewis also credits it as the only all-trenchless system in the world to repair laterals. There is no trench required and all of the work is completed from the manhole.
Lateral work is the largest part of LiquiForce and the area where the company holds the most patents. It’s also the area Lewis sees the most growth over the next five years.
“We thought it (what became the PFM and LFM processes) may be impossible,” Lewis says. “But working with specialists and technology from across North America, we got the system working and proven and this is leading to our Canadian expansion.”
But, like any successful company, LiquiForce isn’t putting all of its eggs into one basket. The PFM and LFM processes are part of a three-pronged approach to solidify the company’s position as a totally trenchless business.
LiquiForce continues to promote and grow the SpectraShield system, a spray-applied liner system that is capable of repairing manholes, lift stations and other underground structures. LiquiForce is the exclusive licensee of the process in Canada.
Rounding out the strategic triumvirate is project management. In recent years, municipalities have called upon LiquiForce to tackle large, multi-year and multi-faceted projects. To that end, his son Kim M. Lewis is working with major municipalities throughout Canada to line up these large long-term projects.
“They take quite a bit of time and there are so many pieces, and you have to work with various departments in the municipalities,” says Lewis. “It’s very aggressive growth but it is controlled and planned and we already have, as an example for next year, work in hand to meet our budgets, which are aggressive.”
It’s this growth of multi-year projects that Lewis says will allow LiquiForce to add offices in Eastern and Western Canada in the near future. Today, LiquiForce has its headquarters in Kingsville, Ontario, and an office in Ancaster, Ontario; its U.S. division is in Romulus, Mich.
“We’re in the throes of opening the (Western) office right now. My son Chris is out there right now and we are working on locations to work from out there,” Lewis says. “It’s apparent that, at this point, our next office will be Edmonton. I know there is a lot of work going on in the trenchless industry in Edmonton and Calgary, also Saskatchewan and Manitoba.”
This coast-to-coast reach is exciting for Lewis who, continually referred to today’s trenchless industry as being in “fun times.” And, having regional offices is part of what makes LiquiForce more of a large-scale family than a well-oiled business machine.
The LiquiForce Family
Lewis started LiquiForce to be with his family. The name of the business fittingly came about at a dinner table conversation with his wife Helen, his sister was there at the start and Lewis views his employees as a family.
“We are in the people business and we are in the leadership business and we spend an awful lot of money on training people, whether it’s family members or whoever it is,” Lewis says. “We are all about growing people because we know that when we grow people, we will grow the business and we will be able to properly help our customers.”
He credits much of LiquiForce’s success to this focus on the employees. The company makes sure to hire people who care and Lewis firmly believes that with the right people in place, the products will be developed and the customers will come and the business will grow.
As they say, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” and Lewis happily reports that for 2013-2014, the company was on track to see a 58 percent growth in the business and its five- and 10-year plans project continued growth at 25 to 35 percent per year.
“We have a company motto: Do what’s right. And that sums the whole thing up,” Lewis says. “No matter what we are faced with, whether it’s good or bad, you do what is right. In the face of any pain it may create, you do what is right for the customer and in the end that is a very freeing thing that is allowing us to get all kinds of work right now.”
LiquiForce employees have room to grow and Lewis makes sure the company hires people who fit the LiquiForce culture and live the “Do what’s right” motto. The employees reap the rewards of their hard work in many fun and exciting ways. For example, in 2011, the company took its employees and their families (about 151 people in all) to Disney World and there is another Disney trip plan in place for 2017.
He also highlighted a recent phone call from an Ontario resident. The caller relayed a situation that they saw unfold in front of their home. A person in a wheelchair was in distress and a LiquiForce manager and his crew saw the same situation, jumped into action and helped the wheelchair-bound person.
“We’re not trying to be do-gooders. We are just doing what is right. That’s what our clients and customers expect,” Lewis says. “If you do the right thing long enough, there are rewards.”
And those rewards include continued growth of LiquiForce’s business and by extension the trenchless industry as a whole. LiquiForce’s strategic plans call for the company to be the leading totally trenchless rehabilitation company in Canada.
“I am really thankful that the industry has grown and that we as contractors have been successful in growing an industry because without that, we wouldn’t have anything to do,” Lewis says. “Within the last five years, it’s become a fun business. For many years, it was just a whole lot of work to stay alive in this industry because it was such a small industry.”
As for Lewis, family involvement remains foremost on his mind. He turned 65 last October and the oldest of his nine grandchildren headed to university in the fall. He sees the grandchildren as the next generation of intellect that will help LiquiForce grow.
“I’d love to work with them,” he says. “God willing that I am alive and here to see that happen. We are working toward it aggressively now.”
Mike Kezdi is assistant editor for Trenchless Technology.