From Harleys to Hammers
The story of HammerHead does not start with piercing tools, pipe burstingsystems or HDD boring bits. Instead, it begins with the unmistakable growl of aHarley Davidson engine. Co-founders Rob Crane, vice president of factoryservice, and Steve Wentworth, vice president of engineering and advanced productconcepts, originally worked for Harley Davidson. (Crane was an experimentalmechanic; Wentworth was a product design engineer.) During the last six years oftheir employment with the company, both of them also raced bikes on amateur andprofessional racing circuits.
It may sound like the perfect job, but the friends wanted more. “We hadreally nice positions at Harley that most people would be envious of having,”says Crane. “However, there was nowhere else for us to go at Harley at thetime.”
The solution would come in the form of a trenchless tool. In 1988, Crane’sfriend (and soon-to-be fellow co-founder) Jon Haas contacted him with aninteresting proposal: applying his engineering skill not to a motorcycle, but toa trenchless tool. Crane discussed the idea with Wentworth, and the three met totake a look at the piercing tool that Haas was using at the time. Upondiscovering that the tool could not even be taken apart, Wentworth, Haas andCrane decided that they could apply their skills to building tools that wereeasier to use and maintain than the ones that were on the market at the time.Thus in 1989, HammerHead was founded in Oconomowoc, Wis., where it is stillbased today.
It was a surprisingly easy transition for the two engineers. “Both Steve andI worked on fasteners at Harley Davidson, keeping things tight and keeping themtogether for quite a long time,” says Crane. “We changed a lot of Harleyfasteners.”
“Virtually our entire careers were spent making things durable,” saysWentworth. “Not just durable in the sense that they would wear for a long time,but durable so they wouldn’t break. That skill transferred easily, 100 percent,over to construction equipment. It was amazingly similar.”
The trio may have had quality products, but that would do them no good unlessthey could sell them. Haas, however, had a plan. He was familiar with VermeerMfg. and was sure that his company’s product would be a good match for it. Butit would take some convincing. “When Hammer-Head first met with Vermeer, Vermeerhad never handled a piercing tool before,” explains Payce Reynolds, director ofHDD with HammerHead. “I would say the team — Jon, Rob and Steve — understoodthat Vermeer could not have any problems with this product. The key to gainingmarket share was to have the Vermeer organization have a product they couldcount on.”
Fortunately, HammerHead could ensure a quality product, and Vermeer couldalso count on the start-up to be a troubleshooter and problem-solver as well.“If there were any problems, HammerHead developed a reputation early on oftaking care of it above and beyond what would be considered standard for theindustry. It made it very easy for Vermeer and for its salespeople to sell theproduct with confidence, knowing that if there was ever an issue, even two orthree years down the road, that HammerHead would stand by it if it was a knownissue and somehow work together to make it right for the customers.” Impressedwith both the company’s products and policies, Vermeer signed a long-termagreement with HammerHead in October 1989.
It wasn’t long before the partnership started seeing results. “In 1990,Allied was number one in the United States in piercing tools,” says Reynolds.“At the time, they were probably running 60 to 65 percent of the marketshare…That was our best estimate at the time. The overall market was probablyrunning around 3,000 tools a year. Piercing tool technology had been around forquite some time. The design had originated in Europe and had been used in someform or another for many years without much advancement in innovation.
“The moment we got started taking a look at that product and making it lowercost, easier to maintain, with a longer productive life and everything else, ittook the major players by surprise. We immediately gobbled up market share from1990 to 1995. Our volume literally doubled every year during that time frame. Ithink it forced everybody else to immediately jump-start their product, pourmore money into research and development and keep up with the pace that weset.”
Building a Brand
Building a brand namewhile starting a fledgling business takes a great amount of dedication,planning, organization and personal strength, but sometimes it also takes alittle something extra. Something like T-shirts. Lots and lots of T-shirts.
“Literally 100,000 T-shirts,” says Reynolds. “One year alone we gave away70,000 T-shirts with the Vermeer and HammerHead name on them. That was our wholemarketing scheme; we did virtually no advertising.”
“We took a page right out of Harley Davidson’s branding strategy, make a coolshirt and have your customers advertise for you,” says Crane.
“Our literature was sparse, but every customer knew the HammerHead namebecause they wore the T-shirts. It was unique,” states Reynolds. Not onlyunique, but fitting. Innovative concepts and a dedication to quality have beenat the heart of the company since the beginning, and it is these tenets thatbrought HammerHead its success.
As with any endeavor, success for HammerHead did not come effortlessly. Bothfounders and employees alike know that to keep their top spot, the company mustcontinue to uphold its reputation for both superior products and qualityservice. “The company is really engineering driven,” says Reynolds. “At anygiven point, we’ve run anywhere between three and five times the industryaverage as far as sales dollars dedicated to research and development. For manyyears, we were pushing 30 percent of our sales dollars toward it, and even nowwe’re pushing 15 to 16 percent. The industry average is only 3 to 5 percent. Theresult of that is that you have a 15-year-old company with 50 patents and wellin excess of 70 different products, including an innovative self deploying winchdesign, active head piercing tools, HDD rock tooling and accessories, and manydifferent models of pipe bursting and ramming equipment.”
“Vermeer’s reputation for customer service and support allows HammerHead tohave an absolute dedication upfront to be innovative,” says Crane.
“One aspect that drew us away from motorcycles and into trenchless was thatthe opportunity for innovation was so phenomenal. It still is,” says Wentworth.“There wasn’t as much opportunity in motorcycles. You pretty much had a tightset of specifications you had to go with, whereas with trenchless, the onlyspecification is to get the job done with quality, cost-effectiveness andreliability.”
Prototypes of new products are put through a series of rigors before hittingthe shelves. Crane’s and Wentworth’s background in testing and analysis led tothe construction of a fixture known as “The Coffin.”
“We have an accelerated durability fixture that we run the tool, monitor theindividual components and make design changes before we ever put the tool in theground,” says Wentworth. “Before we ever put the tool into the ground, it goesthrough 100 hours of testing of accelerated durability.”
“That’s our standard,” adds Crane. “One hundred hours in The Coffin isroughly equivalent to 1,000 hours in the field.”
After in-house testing, HammerHead moves on to field-testing. Throughrelationships with companies throughout the United States, HammerHead sendsprototype equipment to various regions and asks customers to provide them withfeedback. Company engineers then incorporate this feedback into the design. Intime, the product emerges from testing and is ready for mass production.
“Only after all that, the direct response and direct feedback from thecustomer, you finally settle in on a production design and go forward,” saysJeff Wage, HammerHead vice president of sales and marketing.
“You’ve got lotsof time and testing on it, you’ve got lots of feedback and you now haveconfidence in your design,” says Crane.
A sturdy, user-friendly design is only one part of the equation. HammerHead’sowners also know that to keep their business thriving, they must keep theircustomers happy. And in the end, the best way to keep customers happy is bykeeping employees happy, too.
“When we set this whole thing up early in the 1990s, we really wanted it tobe a place where people wanted to work,” says Reynolds. “It was important tomaintain a family-oriented culture. Much like Vermeer treats our company like aninternal division, we treat our employees like part of the family.”
“The neat thing we’ve been able to continue is that there are no set hourshere for anybody except the personnel that cover the phones,” Reynolds explains.“If you’re working in the shop, you can come in at 6 or you can come in at 10,just as long as you get your job done and your 40 hours are in at the end of theweek. The result of that is that we have a crew that, at any given time, will dowhatever it takes to get the job done.”
And Reynolds isn’t kidding. “We had a container going to Europe with a bunchof critical bursting equipment on it. It was a Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m.;they were loading the last piece of equipment on, it was going through qualityinspection and they found that the pump was defective on the unit. I said,‘Well, I guess we can hold the container over or we can ship it without thisunit.’” Even though the unit was critical, Reynolds didn’t want anyone to loseany sleep over it.
Upon his return the next morning at 6 a.m., however, he found that someemployees had done so gladly. “I said, ‘What in the world did you guys do?’”Reynolds recalls. “They said, ‘Oh, we just stayed here all night long.’ This wasjust a couple of employees who on their own stayed all night long and replacedthe pump so the thing could be loaded on first thing in the morning and shipped.Nobody asked them to — they just did it.”
“That’s pretty normal, too,” says Wage. “That sort of event happens more thanonce a month. You just walk out on the shop floor and say, ‘Can anyone do this?’and there’s usually one or two guys who literally get in a truck and leave — noclothes, no toothbrush — they’ll get in the truck and take off with thatequipment. You don’t have to ask them or push them, and they don’t ask anythingfor it. That’s really neat about company culture.”
Moving on Down the Road
When asked aboutthe future of the company and the industry it supports, the HammerHead officialsare optimistic. “We think the world is finally seeing what trenchless offers.It’s not a niche product; it should be a method that’s used as a standard,” saysWentworth. “As time progresses, that’s going to demand that the productscontinue to change, that the methods continue to change. Ultimately, that’swhere we want to be. We want trenchless to be the standard method and open-cutto be the exception. The world is seeing that that’s the right way to go.”
There are several markets within the industry that look promising forHammerHead, including pipe bursting and various methods used for water, gas andfiber-optic infrastructures, but Wentworth emphasizes that the company will notbe limited to any one area. Instead, it will always look to push forward withnew and better opportunities for trenchless products.
“The final opportunity we feel we always have is for us to find innovativeways to do something in a trenchless manner that’s currently done open-cut thatcreates a new market,” he says. “I like to compare the technology of ourindustry to that of arthroscopic surgery. Prior to the advent of arthroscopicsurgical techniques, the only alternative was to open cut. The process wasinvasive and risky, the healing was slow and it left the surface scarred,” saidWentworth. “This is similar to the effect of open cutting to install, repair orreplace infrastructure, the predominant method used today. I want us to designproducts that are simple and cost-effective and that install, repair or replaceinfrastructure safely, unobtrusively and environmentally friendly.”
“One way of doing this,” says Wentworth, “is for us to continue therefinement of our smart hammer technology. Smart hammers, tools that provideimpact force on demand, can be pulled through the ground by any machine ordevice capable of producing tension on a rod string, chain or wire rope. Theresult is a bursting system that does the majority of the work with staticpullback force but has the capability of superimposing impact energy over top ofthe static forces during difficult parts of the burst. Smaller versions couldeven be pulled through the ground by something as simple as a manual winch,making the replacement of sewer laterals very cost-effective. Those are harderand longer-term processes to benefit from, but we believe that it keeps us aheadof the curve, and it keeps us looking at trenchless in a new way.”
Crane sums it up simply, “Smaller holes, less trench.”