How One Idea Changed Pipe Handling on HDD and Pipeline Jobsites
Jason LaValley spent his professional career on horizontal directional drilling (HDD) jobsites. He’s worked as a general laborer, a human deckhand and, later, superintendent of his own crew. He has seen many things during that time.
But after one terrible night in December 2005, he made a decision that would change how drill pipe would be handled on a jobsite, thereby making HDD work safer and more productive in the process.
“We were working a job that was 24 hours a day and in the middle of the night, it was raining. And, sure enough an accident happened,” LaValley remembers. “A drill pipe stack collapsed onto one of our crewmembers, and he broke his ankle.”
Luckily, in this particular instance, it wasn’t worse.
Shortly thereafter, it hit him: There has to be a better and safer way to handle drill pipe. Being from northern Minnesota in “lumberjack” country, he connected the two industries and quickly sketched on a hotel napkin an excavator attachment that would handle pipe similar to how wood is lifted in the lumber industry.
He didn’t know it yet but LaValley Industries was born that night, forever changing an industry in the process. That was 16 years and several game-changing products ago.
Today, the Bemidji, Minnesota-based company is sprawled across 90 acres of land and a 45,000-sq-ft production facility — a far cry from the 1,800-sq-ft rented facility in its early days. Beyond its two signature products — the Deckhand and Tonghand — LaValley Industries has developed many other equipment pieces for the HDD, pipeline and utilities markets. The company has also expanded beyond its North American borders.
Additionally, there are the three other companies LaValley, along with his partners Jorge Prince and Craig Larson, have created: LVI Supply, Idea Works for entrepreneurs and Evolve Creative, a full service marketing agency.
And all of this grew from LaValley’s original hotel room sketch and the hard work that took place in his garage to make that sketch a reality.
“We are taking people out of harm’s way, and in the process it created a more efficient job place, which is something that is very neat about our products,” LaValley says. “Not only are we creating a safe jobsite but a faster and more productive jobsite.”
Once LaValley made his sketch of the lifting excavator, he faxed it to his dad, Roger LaValley, and simply asked: Would you like to start a business? The LaValley family has always championed an entrepreneurial spirit, and his dad was up for the challenge. They enlisted the welding services of Jason’s grandfather, Marvin Larson — and Craig Larson’s uncle — and set up shop in Jason’s garage.
LaValley Industries was founded in 2006 — the year after LaValley’s late night sketch was drawn. The attachment’s name was the Deckhand.
“The first [Deckhand] prototype was developed out of my garage with my dad and grandfather,” says LaValley, who would help out when he was home from projects from his day job. “When I’d come home every month or so, we’d spend the weekend together out in the garage with whatever we could get our hands on initially to construct this mechanism… We finally got it to the point where it was ready to be tested, demoed or rented.”
The moment of truth came in 2007. LaValley’s employer rented the attachment for a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, gas project. The jobsite’s excavator was disassembled, with the bucket removed and replaced with the Deckhand attachment. The reaction and result?
“My dad simply said, ‘Well, what do you know? The damn thing works!’” LaValley remembers.
Jorge Prince, CFO and a partner at LaValley Industries, first met Jason LaValley in 2007. Together, they worked on developing a business plan to present to financial institutions to line up much needed financing to get the company off the ground. They were met with skepticism and a lot of nos.
Prince notes that LaValley had quit his day job and sunk his family’s entire life-savings into this company. Jason’s wife, parents and other family members were all helping. Financing was necessary to keep afloat. “This was a garage-built, proof of concept product, not an actual engineered product,” Prince says. “We were able to find one bank and one bank only willing to take a chance on us.”
2008 was a turning point for LaValley Industries as most of the year was devoted to engineering the product to be a fully functional production model. 2008 was also a year of realization — the realization that it needed expand its target audience outside of the immediate HDD circle. Why? At that time, the economy was slumping at what was the start of the Great Recession and companies, including LaValley, were struggling. The Deckhand was originally designed just to work with drill rod. But an opportunity presented itself, opening the company to a new market and significant success.
Enbridge’s Alberta Clipper pipeline was under construction between Hardisty, Alberta, Canada, and Superior, Wisconsin, and came right through Bemidji. Prince says the arrival of the project was perfect — and the company went for it in pitching their product to this market. “Jason realized that [the company] needed to become more multi-purposed because the HDD market was on the downside. We weren’t sustainable as just a single type of attachment,” he explains.
The Deckhand was retooled to work with different arm types in order to handle the mainline pipe. The new attachment was demoed on the Alberta Clipper project and caught the attention of several key companies in the industry, including Volvo, Caterpillar and John Deere. At the beginning of 2010, LaValley Industries signed its first distribution deal for the Deckhand with Pipeline Machinery International, a Cat dealer that specifically works with pipeliners. In 2013, LaValley signed an alliance partnership agreement with Vermeer. Other distribution contracts followed.
LaValley Industries also started constructing a product line to include larger models of the Deckhand to handle larger mainline pipe, which became the Deckhand L and Deckhand XL. Things were happening and it was at this point that the company made its move to its current 90-acre campus and started adding more employees.
HDD product specialist and partner Craig Larson — who had been LaValley’s longtime boss at his previous employer — joined the company in 2012. Larson had been involved here and there since the beginning, but finally made the leap to joining the LaValley team with both feet, seeing the full potential that LaValley Industries had.
Although the initial reaction from contractors about changing how they load pipe was unsurprisingly skeptical, the product’s safety and practicality factors won them an opportunity with a customer base. LaValley and Prince wanted to grow the company even more and add more products — and for that they needed Larson’s help and nearly 30 years of industry expertise.
“Nobody likes change except those people trying to make the changes,” Larson adds, and in this instance, the advocate of change was LaValley Industries.
“With anything new in pipeline and HDD, it’s a difficult market to get involved in and get them to buy into something new,” LaValley says. “But because we had the industry experience in working with them and distribution agreements that gave us industry recognition, we were able to get our foot in the door. It wasn’t easy. We had to prove it to them.”
Today, LaValley Industries does most of its work in North America — with its location in Minnesota central to both Canada and Mexico. The company’s customer base is spread between three sectors: HDD, pipeline and utilities. International sales are ramping up with distribution contracts in Chile, Colombia, Australia, England and the Netherlands. The Deckhand has seven different models in terms of the size of the head units, based on the size of excavator, with dozens of different arm combinations to handle everything from drill rod to mainline pipe to utility poles.
In 2015, LaValley Industries introduced the Tonghand, an exit side attachment to handle pipe coming in and out of the hole to manage the tail string of the HDD. This attachment was recognized with New Product/Innovation awards from IPLOCA, NASTT and the Pipeline Industries Guild.
“Our footprint is ever growing and we are becoming a global company,” Prince says. “The Deckhand and Tonghand continue to be our signature product lines, but we are in the process of launching and developing others. We are starting to grow beyond just those two legacy product lines.”
With the current downturn in the pipeline market, the LaValley team turned its focus on product development for the HDD market, returning to the company’s roots. The company recently unveiled its EMPOWER line of efficient power production technologies with the EMP40 generator and PitPump tandem unit to handle the need of the growing volume of cuttings coming out of the hole. Instead of multiple pumps, just the one is needed. “It’s always about efficiency and cost control,” Prince says. “We continue to put our tools forward not just as a way to be safer but to be more efficient and cost-effective for your job.”
Larson notes that there are more HDD companies in the industry than ever before. “What’s interesting is that some of the HDD companies that are here now were not here five or 10 years ago and are being launched by people who came from other HDD companies,” he says, such as LaValley himself. He notes that together, he and LaValley have more than 55 years of industry experience and are field guys, like those they market to.
And it’s that industry experience that the LaValley team points to when talking about their success. “Why would you buy our products? Because we’ve been in your shoes,” LaValley says. “We are industry professionals and we coined the term, ‘For Drillers, by Drillers.’ I’ve been the human deckhand and understand the wants and needs of the industry as it relates to serviceability of those products.”
LaValley Industries has its eyes on the future and future innovations. While the pipeline market is struggling right now and likely could be for the foreseeable future, the HDD market remains steady and stable. LaValley says his team is gearing up for the next wave of innovation for both of these areas.
“All the industries we are in are ripe for innovation,” Prince says. “Everyone wants to find ways to be more environmentally conscious and ways to be more efficient. There is tremendous opportunity in electrification on a lot of equipment in trenchless and pipelines. For us, we believe this will be the next wave of innovation that’s coming, and we want to be at the forefront of that wave.”
The key to staying abreast of what these markets crave is staying active in the various industry associations, such as DCA, PLCA, PLCA-CN, IPLOCA, NASTT, APCA and the Pipeline Industries Guild. Staying active within these organizations keeps the LaValley team at the forefront of industry trends and critical information pivotal to how they approach their business.
What also sets LaValley Industries apart from other companies is their “all-in” mentality and a team committed to excellence in producing high-quality products and service. Larson, Prince and LaValley attribute the company’s success to its employees, who share their passion for innovation and thinking outside the box to developing a product.
“We have a very committed team here. Not just committed to service but committed to bringing high-quality products to market,” Prince says. “Jason quit his [day] job and invested his life savings to launch this company. You can’t be any more all in than that. That’s the mentality we have maintained throughout all of our advancements and products. When we do something, we are all in.”
LaValley concurs with that assessment. “We’re a pretty tenacious group. When we set our sights on a goal, we go hard right to the end,” he says. “We’ve created a family culture at LaValley Industries and have worked hard to accomplish goals. The most valuable part of our company is not our products but the people, employees and customers we have.”