In-Depth With 2017 Trenchless Technology Person of the Year Jim Rankin
March 8, 2017Jim Rankin has spent the better part of his adult life working in the horizontal directional drilling (HDD) industry. He has watched the industry learn to crawl, then walk and now run — and he has been a part of each of those steps, shaping the machinery that makes it go.
His imprint is on Vermeer’s first directional drill, the D7 Navigator — released in 1991 — and what has followed has been a professional life of invention. Over the course of his years with Vermeer Corp., Rankin has worn many hats relating to the trenchless technology and HDD markets, including project manager, engineering manager, HDD product manager and applications manager. Today, he is the product quality and reliability field engineer, working his strengths of being in the field with customers and dealers.
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The holder of 15 HDD-related patents and described by his peers as the “HDD guru,” Rankin has earned the respect and admiration of an industry he openly acknowledges he had never heard of when he started working in it — that is how new HDD was to the world at the time. He hasn’t just been a part of the HDD ride over the years but has been at the wheel helping to steer it to its present-day status.
For all of his inventiveness and design-wizardry, Rankin is also a champion of the next generation of trenchless technologists and thrives in his work as a mentor to many. He has tirelessly volunteered his time to help organize NASTT’s successful annual Educational Auction at the No-Dig Show, whose proceeds support NASTT educational initiatives — even if that results in Rankin donning wildly creative attire for the event’s annual costume contests.
For all of his contributions to the trenchless industry, Jim Rankin is the 2017 Trenchless Technology Person of the Year. His reaction to his selection left him humbled, overwhelmed and emotional. “It is a great honor to be chosen for this award by industry leaders who have received it before me,” he says. “The process is amazing. I never dreamed that I would be chosen. When I walked across the high school stage, I never dreamed this would be me someday. I have had such a supportive network that has helped me get here and I would never take credit for everything. I was at the right place at the right time and it worked out for me. Vermeer has been so supportive and innovative, which has made it a great company to work for.”
Growing up on a small Iowa farm, Rankin’s journey has taken him across the globe and back, something that surprises even him. He never thought he would ever leave Iowa and today, he says, he has accumulated more than 2 million miles of flying over the course his 40-year career with Vermeer.
Rankin was raised on a farm near Reasnor, Iowa, where his family (parents, a brother and two sisters) and he raised dairy cows, cattle and hogs, as well as corn and beans for feed. “If you closed your eyes when you drove through it, you’d miss it,” Rankin says of his hometown. But it was living near this small burg that Rankin’s passion for fixing things and solving problems was founded.
Growing up on a farm, no one was afraid of getting their hands dirty and fixing things on your own was part of the daily drill, whether it was farm equipment or the family car. “My Dad was always really handy and we always made and/or fixed a lot of things because, [growing up,] we did not have a lot of money,” Rankin says. “He was a tinkerer and he loves doing the same type of things I love doing — just trying to make things better and fix stuff up.”
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The mid-1970s was a rough period for the agriculture industry and farming. His father wanted Rankin to learn a trade after he graduated high school, so he went through an intensive air conditioning and refrigeration program in Omaha, Neb. Returning home, his father then suggested he find work in town for the winter and that brought Rankin to Vermeer in Pella, Iowa, in December 1977.
He started out his Vermeer career doing various jobs, mostly involving welding, and by 1982, Rankin joined the company’s engineering department, assigned to the Special Projects (SP) Group. The group was tasked with exploring and developing an unknown technology and method called horizontal directional drilling.
“HDD technology was in its infancy when I started into it and not a lot was known about it,” Rankins remembers. “Pat Weiler, who headed up the Special Projects Group, called me into his office and told me he wanted me to watch this machine run that was called a directional drill. He asked me, ‘Do you know anything about it?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ I had no idea what it was.”
Rankin was dispatched to North Carolina to watch a competitor’s drill being run to install power lines underneath the driveway to the emergency entrance of a hospital, following Hurricane Hugo. “I can remember that it was a 140-ft bore and it took two days to do it,” he says.
His initial thoughts of this newfangled technology had him at first wondering if he wanted any part of it, as the method and drill appeared to be quite complex and complicated. He also wasn’t sure what Vermeer had planned for this type of technology. But as he attentively watched the power lines being installed, he started seeing ways in which to improve the drill being used. He took those ideas back with him and got to work on Vermeer’s first directional drill.
Vermeer legend has it that Rankin drew the first line on its first-ever directional drill and he confirms this historic fact, although his description is a bit more tempered. “I did draw the first line of the drill,” he says. “I sat down behind a computer and started drawing lines.”
For the record, the first two lines drawn were 1/2 in. and 144 in., he says.
Within months of that first drawn line, the D7 Navigator was built. Rankin describes this first unit as “quite large by the day’s standards” at 7,000 lbs of pullback, which by 2017 standards is called a compact drill.
The D7 drill was publicly demoed at the 1991 ICUEE Show and two years later, the D4 drill made its debut there — Vermeer’s first self-contained Navigator system. The D24x40 drill was unveiled at the 1995 ICUEE Show, a drill that is credited for propelling Vermeer into the trenchless market. Today, Vermeer manufactures seven maxi drills and seven utility drills.
Rankin marvels at how much has changed since that first directional drill was designed and built. Back then, he says, everything was much slower, bigger and more cumbersome in relation to operating and performing a basic bore. Innovations over the years have made directional drilling a much more widely accepted option for utility installation. Software has played such a critical role in the technology’s development from locating to steering to pipe loading.
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“Electronics and self-containment [rigs] are the two most important advancements the HDD industry has had,” Rankin says. “You think 25 years is a long time but not for a business or industry. It moves fast and the innovations [for trenchless technology] started rolling with it. The past five years we have seen the electronics improvements be more of the focus. I believe machine automation and the locating function were most important to capitalize on, which save costs by taking labor out of the equation.”
His work has led him to nearly every corner of the world, including China in 2006, where he assisted the startup operations at Vermeer Tianjin Mfg. Rankin was instrumental in getting this manufacturing facility off the ground. How many countries has Rankin been to? He says it’s probably easier to list the ones he hasn’t been to.
Trenchless Associations and Education
Beyond his work in HDD design, Rankin is also known for his active involvement in industry associations, in particular NASTT, of which he served for six years on its board of directors. He has also spent countless hours helping to organize NASTT’s annual Educational Auction.
Rankin enjoys the networking and sharing of knowledge through these groups, including the Australian Pipelines and Gas Association, Australasian Society for Trenchless Technology and International Society for Trenchless Technology, as well as the relationships they forge, both professionally and personally.
“Building relationships is what it’s all about,” he says. “It’s about knowing people and shaking hands. It’s about listening to problems and then applying them to offer solutions. Not only that, but taking those problems and putting them into a solution.”
It’s also the education that the associations bring to the forefront, which further advances the industry by providing the next generation trenchless professionals with the know-how and experience they need. Mentoring is something that Rankin appreciates the value of, pointing to the mentors he’s had along the way, such as Pat Weiler, Pete Rozendaal and Mark Van Houwelingen.
“I’ve always believed in education, even though I’m not a degreed engineer myself. I like sharing my knowledge and experiences. Talking through problems is how things happen,” Rankin says. “My wife, Jeanette, and I have enjoyed taking students under our wings and helping them understand what is going on at the shows. We keep in contact with them after the shows to help them succeed in the industry. We have seen so many just blossom from being involved with the No-Dig conference and we’re proud of the fact that we had something to do with that.”
Rankin has been a cornerstone in Vermeer’s assent to becoming a leader in the directional drilling market and after more than 25 years of being a part of this dynamic market, he still loves it and, even more so, the possibility of what is next for the industry. “What’s driven me is the need for innovation,” Rankin says. “It was a new frontier [when I started] and there was so much innovation that could be done, so much to advance on. That’s what drove us to get up in the morning and work on [building Vermeer’s first directional drill]. We thought outside the box. We would design, build then take the drill to the field and run it with Vermeer dealers and customers to understand what improvements could be made.
“I love the interaction with dealers and customers in the field and love hearing their issues. My passion is to help make Vermeer dealers and customers of Vermeer be successful so Vermeer can stay successful,” he says.
There have been a lot of takeaways from his illustrious trenchless career but when asked what was one thing he learned early on that he applies to his work today, the man who turns 60 years young later this year, says just one word: Listening.
“You have to listen,” Rankin says simply. “You can’t be the one driving the conversation. The customer and dealer are the ones out there doing the work, seeing it happen. You have to take what they have told you and apply it and come back and make it work for them.
“I see myself as a person willing to listen to the customer or dealer in the field and bring that information back to [the drawing board] and try to make changes and improvements.”
A favorite quote that Rankin heard his dad say over the years lends itself to the art of listening, he says: “Sometimes it is better to keep your mouth shut and thought a fool than to open it and verify that you are a fool.”
He and the love of his life Jeanette have been married for nearly 20 years and when not seen at the various trenchless events, in the summer they enjoy spending time on their boat on the Mississippi River with her son Justin and her daughter, Jenifer and son-in-law Jessup, and Jim’s daughters Joni and son-in-law Dave, and Jerrica and son-in-law Andy, as well as their six grandchildren (with No. 7 due in late March).
Rankin also enjoys woodworking in his time outside work. “I love working with my hands, a trait I picked up from my parents early on. I have to take what’s inside my head and put it through my fingers,” he says. He has built an array of projects for his family, including cabinets, quilt racks, toys such as a rocking horse and rocking elephant, and a baby crib.
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Jim Rankin will be formally recognized for this highly prestigious honor Monday, April 10, at the NASTT No-Dig Show Kick-Off Breakfast at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Washington, D.C.
He will be presented the award by Trenchless Technology publisher Bernard P. Krzys.
Sharon M. Bueno is managing editor of Trenchless Technology.
Tags: Awards, Iowa, March 2017 Issue, NASTT, Vermeer