JETTING TO THE TOP

Gradall Industries isn’t a manufacturer that is satisfied with just having a growing position in the sewer cleaning and excavating markets that it serves through its Vacall brand. The New Philadelphia, Ohio-based company has its sights set on broader success in which its products maintain the top position in those markets.

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Gradall Industries has a big vision and big plans for its Vacall product lineup that includes products for sewer cleaning and hydro excavation for the utility and oil and gas sectors.

With a relatively short history, the Vacall brand has made inroads in the market since it was purchased by the Alamo Group and placed under the umbrella of Gradall Industries Inc. Its presence in the sewer cleaning and utility excavating markets through its products such as the AllJetVac Sewer Cleaner and AllExcavate Hydro-Excavator have established the Vacall brand as a key player in both — and in the minds of company officials, the sky is the limit for their success. More and more bright red Vacall products are dotting the infrastructure landscape, they say.

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Company officials exude confidence when describing their products, company philosophy and how their customers — contractors and municipalities — have come to respect and expect the high quality and performance of the equipment. They say the market is taking notice and that the Vacall brand is starting to take market share away from long-established sewer cleaning equipment manufacturers. Long-term goals include dethroning competitors from that top perch and company officials are confident they will succeed with its Combination Sewer Cleaner and AllExcavate high pressure jetting and vacuuming line.

“Our products are durable and are designed to run round the clock and are easy to maintain,” says Gradall Industries president Mike Haberman, a 25-year veteran of the company, of Vacall’s sewer cleaning products. “We try to supply high-quality machines better than anyone and do it at a competitive price and stay ahead the competition. And we stand behind it.”

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With regard to its AllExcavate high pressure jetting and vacuuming line, company officials are excited about the future of these machines and the markets they can impact. Launched two years ago, the AllExcavate line is suited for traditional utility work but is also designed for use in the booming oil and gas sector. Haberman says that Gradall relied on its extensive engineering experience in excavator hydraulics in developing this product line.

Today, Vacall’s customer base is split about 50-50 between contractors and municipalities but company officials see the tide turning toward municipalities in the coming years as cities look to upgrade their sewer cleaning equipment and increase their efforts to clean their underground infrastructure.

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The Vacall brand is peaking at just the right time in terms of the economy and its presence in the market, making company officials excited about their future.
“We are an unusual company at Gradall Industries,” Haberman says. “We’re an old company with an old history and yet we are brand new. This market is starting to recognize the value we bring to it, which maybe hasn’t been available from a different source for a long time. I think that gives us a lot of opportunity for growth. We are genuinely excited about it.”

Always a Buckeye

The Gradall name goes back to the early 1940s, when the company specialized in making excavators — specifically the first hydraulic excavator of its kind. Though Gradall has transitioned through several ownerships over the last 70 years, its main focus of manufacturing a telescopic boom, truck-mounted excavator hasn’t changed. Another constant has been that the Gradall plant has remained in the small town of New Philadelphia, Ohio, about 70 miles south of Cleveland.

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Gradall Industries Inc. was formed in 2006 when Texas-based Alamo Group acquired the Gradall manufacturing facility, as well as all equipment, machinery, tooling and intellectual property associated with well-known Gradall excavator product line. Alamo re-established Gradall as a stand-alone business, continuing to design, manufacture and sell its excavator products.

But also in 2006, Alamo acquired a small but financially struggling company based in Birmingham, Ala., that would give Alamo its foothold in the environmental and industrial sewer cleaning industry — an area that the company wanted to explore. Alamo purchased a company named Clean Earth, which manufactured sewer cleaning equipment, jetting trucks, hydro-excavators and industrial vacuum loaders, and quickly renamed it Vacall, tying it to the Gradall name. The move put two distinct brands under the Gradall Industries moniker and roof.

Alamo quickly moved the operations to the Gradall facility in New Philadelphia and re-named the brand Vacall. Manufactured side-by-side at the 460,000-sq ft facility with its 320-member workforce, the two brands continue to flourish and grow, with the Vacall line projected to surpass its Gradall sibling in revenue over the next few years as the sewer cleaning market continues to prosper, company officials say.

“You literally cannot tell the difference between the fabrication, welding and painting operations until you get to assembly. This is a single-source manufacturing facility for both products,” Haberman says. “And we firmly believe that Vacall will be a larger piece of our business than the Gradall from a revenue standpoint” due to the growth potential of the sewer cleaning market..

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Haberman makes that last statement based on what Gradall Industries sees in a resurgence of equipment purchasing in the sewer cleaning market and how the Vacall products fit in that market, which in the past has been dominated by a few brand products.

“Sewer cleaning by municipalities is increasing,” says vice president of Vacall products Bill Petrole, who joined the company two years ago after more than 25 years in the industry. “A few years back the market slowed tremendously. Municipalities were cleaning their sewers but they weren’t buying equipment. Sooner or later they will have to replace what they have. What this does is create a two- to three-year lull time and then all of a sudden they will start buying again. We are at that point.”

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Petrole also points out the competitiveness of the sewer cleaning market and how he believes Vacall stacks up to those that have been on top for so long. “Sewer cleaning is a very competitive market and there are several old-line, top brands out there,” he says “Our machines are heavy-duty and are easier to maintain. We are actually transitioning more from the contractor [customer] and appealing more to the municipal bases. We are getting some fairly large cities that are changing their fleets to Vacall that in the past have used other products.”

Today, Vacall products are used throughout North America, including Mexico. They are also used in Central America and sold in South Africa and the Pacific Rim. South America is also a market company officials are looking at for expansion.

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What a position to be in to have both your brands to be so strong in two competitive markets. “Both the Vacall and Gradall brands are critical to our success,” Haberman says.

Key Products

The success of Vacall has been the design and manufacture of two key products: the AllJetVac Combination Sewer and the AllExcavate high pressure jetting and vacuuming system. The AllJetVac comes in two models (the P and R Series), both of which use jetting action and vacuum power to efficiently open clogged sewer lines of any size and perform needed maintenance. The AllExcavate is a relatively new product to the Vacall line, introduced just two years ago at the Pumper and to perform excavation around water, sewer, gas and utility lines, as well as other critical excavation tasks.

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The AllExcavate framework and design draws on Gradall’s extensive experience with excavating and hydraulic engineering, the latter since 1951. Gradall has long been known for its excavator units, which were first invented to compensate for manpower shortage on road repair projects during World War II. The first hydraulic excavator of its kind, it could be mounted on a truck for efficient movement and it had a telescoping, tilting boom that could accommodate the need for fine grading and sloping. The DNA in these units can be found in Sewer Cleaning units, which embody the electronic joystick control and other electronic controls found on the Gradall excavators.

“We have an engineering base that quite frankly that maybe nobody else in the industry has. Some of the things that we developed for our excavators translates to our Vacall product line and vice versa, such as we have been using single-engine technology on excavators for 15 years so it was very natural to carry that over to [our hydro-excavators],” Haberman says.

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Haberman credits Petrole with bringing the AllExcavate to market. “Bill really took us into the all-excavate market and that market fits our product very well,” he says. “It’s a very tough application, from a temperature and work standpoint. The all-excavate market is very large in Canada and is starting to grow in the United States. We believe we have the most heavy-duty, strongest and best machine in that market.”

Petrole describes the AllExcavate as an all-weather machine, which allows it to work year-round, with greater suction capabilities due to the size of the vacuum source, which carries its own water. The line has two models: one for utility work and the other for oil and gas. “It’s a heavy-duty digging machine that can be used to dig trenches or to locate underground utilities before you dig,” he says. “For oil and gas, it can safely expose underground infrastructure, clean frac tanks and vessels, clean drilling rigs and prepare surface areas for tie-in installation and repair.”

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Petrole notes that Vacall has its oil and gas machines working in Canada, Alaska, south Texas and areas of Pennsylvania and Ohio, where the shale market has just exploded in recent years. “Shale requires a lot of our equipment,” he says, adding that when the AllExcavate was developed, this market was targeted for its use.

Success Breeds Success

What does Vacall point to when explaining its success in such an established market as sewer cleaning? Haberman says it has to do with the company sticking to what it does best and not deviating from being a manufacturer.

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“It’s a matter of sticking to your core values and really what your core competencies are,” he says. “We are an engineering-driven company and we have a vision of what Vacall should be. That vision is the most heavy-duty machine on the market. That vision is the machine that is designed to be the simplest, easiest from a manufacturing standpoint.”

Petrole also attributes Vacall’s success to not trying to compete with itself by being more than just a manufacturing company. “We don’t compete against our customers,” he says. “We’re not going to create our own rental company or be a distributor. We are not going to be in the industry other than as a supplier. You have to know what you do well and we engineer products very well.”
“We believe we are the most technology driven and we believe that we are a step ahead of our competition,” Haberman says. “And that’s where we want to stay.”

Sharon M. Bueno is managing editor of Trenchless Technology.

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