malzahn blacksmith

Family Ties: Fifth Generation Continues Ditch Witch Success

Not very long ago, American towns and cities depended on specialized craftsmen to make the tools necessary to construct, repair and maintain the manmade structures that held their growing communities together. One of the most important of these craftsmen was the blacksmith, who forged everything from door hinges to carriage wheel hoops.

tiffany sewer howard and ed malzahn

Ditch Witch CEO Tiffany Sewell-Howard and company founder and chairman of the board Ed Malzahn.

In 1902, a blacksmith named Charlie Malzahn moved to Perry, Okla.,to provide such services to the town. Little did he know that years later, his example would inspire his grandson to start a company that would provide contractors with the machines and equipment they needed to change towns around the world — a company later to be led by his great-great granddaughter.

That company is The Charles Machine Works, best known today as DitchWitch. Even as it has expanded to become a contender in the international market, its tradition of family loyalty continues. In December 2003, Ed Malzahn, company president and chairman of the board,handed over CEO duties to his granddaughter, Tiffany Sewell-Howard, who represents the fifth generation of the Malzahn line — beginning with Ed’s grandfather — to run the family company.

“My grandfather had a blacksmith shop in downtown Perry, which is about a mile and a half from the plant,” says Malzahn. “My grandfather started before the state was a state — it was Indian Territory and was being opened to settlement when my grandfather came here with his skills as a blacksmith and started a blacksmith shop.”

As was (and still is) common in many family businesses, Malzahn’s father continued in the same tradition, becoming a self-taught welder and machinist. As the oil industry began to grow, the Malzahn blacksmith shop evolved into a machine and service shop specializing in the machines used for oil drilling. Like his father before him, Malzahn grew up watching and learning the tricks of the trade — tricks that would serve him well in later years.

“[My father] continued with an oil field machine shop, and that’s the area where I grew up — in an oil field machine shop,” recalls Malzahn. “My parents thought I ought to be more than just a welder and machinist, so they sent me to school to get an engineering degree.Coming out of that, I started off seeking employment somewhere else. My parents talked me into coming back to the shop. This gave me a springboard to do things — to make tools for people who needed things.”

Combining his engineering knowledge and skills as a machinist,Malzahn provided tools for oil field workers. However, his career would soon take a surprising turn that would forever change his business.According to Malzahn, it all began when a local plumber was having difficulties finding someone to dig trenches for him. While these trenches needed to stretch from a customer’s yard to an alley where the main line was located, the job did not necessitate the use of a large trenching machine. This inspired Malzahn to scale down one of these large machines to make it more suitable for less intense jobs. While it was needed by many contractors at the time, Malzahn initially didn’t look far beyond his first customer.

“Just the challenge of making something in answer to this plumber’s problem — and not really thinking much beyond solving local needs of that sort. One thing led to another, and we got one that finally worked,” says Malzahn. Once he finished the project, he decided to look beyond Perry to see if such a machine would be popular elsewhere. What better way to test that theory than to advertise in a popular magazine?

“I ran a 1-in. ad in Popular Mechanics magazine — as I recall, itcost me $8,” he says. “Of all things, I got an inquiry from a guy in California. I actually shipped a machine to California. I wasn’t too skilled in how to get payment for those sorts of things, and it took him a while to pay for it, but he did. Thus was born the idea of the business.”

Through Thick & Thin

The first Ditch Witch machine was built in 1949. It was an impressive achievement, but Malzahn was already looking toward solving another problem — going not only through yards, but under them. The main problem was the need to go under paved areas such as driveways or small roads, and the solution came in the form of a trencher attachment called a Roto-Witch. The device, which would be fitted to a trencher,would rotate a length of pipe fitted with a special tip that would allow it to be drilled horizontally through the ground to its destination. As crews continued to use the technique, Malzahn and his crews continued to find ways to refine and adapt the technology for broader applications.

ed malzahn

Ed Malzahn digs a 4-in. wide trench with his original trencher, the Model DW. This trencher was invented to solve a plumber’s problem of digging trenches with a pick and shovel. This started the industry as we know today. Photo was taken in 1949

“It was just sort of one thing after another. We made attachments that would go on our trenching machines not long after we made our trenching machines. By the late 1950s, we had tools that would drill horizontally — certainly not guided with the sophistication that later became a practical way,” says Malzahn. “A lot of that experience came from our experience in the oil [drilling] industry, knowing how to drill holes vertically and how to scale down basic ideas of that concept fits into horizontal drilling.

“The guidance became a real problem,” he continues. “Early in the 1960s, we began to develop beacons and monitoring systems in a very elementary way to at least know where the device was. [Location and guidance] were developmental over the years.”

The process of refining the technology continued through the years,with feedback from customers being an important part of the development process. Sewell-Howard explains that the development of machines and tools doesn’t just stop with the company, but goes on to effect the industry as a whole and vice versa.

“One of the things that’s become interesting for me to watch evolve in the trenchless industry is the involvement of a lot of pieces to that system. It’s not just the directional drill. There’s a lot of effort put into the downhole tools and the drill pipe and the vacuum systems, automation and electronics that are integrated,” says Sewell-Howard. “With directional drilling, it’s not just a trencher putting in a trench; it’s a whole process and a system that we’retrying to accomplish for the customer. There’s a lot of input that we get from all of those different elements from the customer, whether it be for the downhole tools and drill pipe or how the electronics or automation could be more effective and simpler to use. There’s a lot of input from a lot of different directions that help us to keep refining the application, which is kind of fun to watch. I didn’t get to watch the initial evolution of the trencher — I’m getting to watch the evolution of where directional drilling is going.”

Part of watching the evolution of directional drilling is watching the evolution of the market itself. The trenchless boom years of the late 1990s, followed by the market’s downturn just a few years later,hit many companies hard, including Ditch Witch. Malzahn says that the slowdown affected his company substantially, especially given the rush on machines and equipment that had preceded it.

“The rush the industry had with regard to trans-continental fiberoptics and the competition that went into that to be first reallyartificially built up and sparked our industry to answer thoseopportunities,” says Malzahn. “Certainly, when that shut the valve offall at once, that made some difference. Long distance fiber-optic meantthat there had to be a connection in the urban areas. We could respondto that too. Volume-wise, it shut the valve off on the largedirectional drilling industry.”

Fortunately, the business was able to take the hit. Sewell-Howard states that during these difficult years, Ditch Witch saw its business reduced by almost half. Even then, she and Malzahn refused to abandon their trenchless division, instead devoting the company toward research and development during that period.

“We never chose to abandon it because we saw this as more of a cyclical kind of event. In fact, we continued to do research and development during the downturn,” Sewell-Howard explains. “We saw the technology continue to be of value as the economy came back around. We chose to believe it would be a core piece of our business going forward, so we continued to make investments even during the downturn.”

Loyalty Counts

While it was the company’s decision to stay with the trenchless market, it is clear that Ditch Witch could not have weathered the storm if not for the loyalty and innovation of its customers, dealers and employees. Malzahn says that Ditch Witch’s employees are one of the company’s most valuable assets.

malzahn blacksmith

This is the original site of the Malzahn Blacksmith Shop in downtown Perry, Okla. Gus Malzahn (Ed Malzahn’s uncle), left, and Charlie Malzahn (Ed’s father). Photo was taken in 1913.

“We have a fairly large staff of development engineers in both electronics and mechanical systems,” says Malzahn. “To have a wide display of products that meet an industry means that you’re not in a high volume industry of any particular unit. Not that any unit is special and made specifically for customers, but we make a lot of products. Consequently, we’ve always had a fairly large staff of developers, engineers and activities as we see opportunities with our customers. This is a continuing part of our business.

“Another one of our valuable assets is our dealer organization that we have built up over the years,” Malzahn continues. “We know the customers personally, many of them, but our dealers see them on more of a regular basis. Our dealer organization is a very valuable asset in helping us supply the needs of our customers, because they vary from area to area. As parts of the United States are urban or rural, and the various climates and physical activities, each area is different and we have to respond a little differently. The dealer organization has been a big help in that.”

According to Sewell-Howard, the dealer organization has also helped to encourage brand loyalty by supporting their customers, the end users. This brand loyalty, combined with the growing need for machines that could handle trenchless products, helped the company become a significant presence in the directional drilling market. Customers who came to expect quality and support from Ditch Witch became willing to try the company’s new machines and technology, even going so far as to try out new devices before they hit the market. Dealers are also given extensive training on parts and service in order to assist a customer who may need help in the field.

“From a training perspective, our focus is probably more on the dealer training. We bring a lot of people in through the factory from the dealer organization to train on sales, on parts and on service,because one of the biggest pieces in the HDD market is the ability to support products in the field,” says Sewell-Howard. “It’s not that easy to just pick one up, bring it into the shop and work on it; you need to be able to support it in the field, so we have a lot of focus on training our dealer organizations so that they can take care of the customer in the field at the moment of need. That’s where a lot of our focus is.”

This attention and focus has obviously paid off. In addition to having a strong presence in the North American trenchless market, Ditch Witch has also made a name for itself in about 100 countries, according to Sewell-Howard. As the gas, water and wastewater industries continue to discover the advantages of trenchless applications, Sewell-Howard believes that Ditch Witch will continue to experience the success that has been a hallmark for so long, thanks to its commitment to research,development and quality equipment.

“I don’t think we’ll ever be satisfied. We’re always going to be looking for what that next idea is, what that next solution is to what the customer is now trying to overcome,” says Sewell-Howard. “[The trenchless] market to me is still very young, and there’s a lot of opportunity for further development, further idea generation, not onlyfrom us, but from other people who are participating in this industry.”

No doubt Ditch Witch will continue to pioneer solutions for the global community — after all, it’s in the family.
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