May 17, 2016The Flowtite name in pipe circles has been known for more than 40 years — with more than 100 million ft of pipe installed around the world. Making its mark in North America was a challenge early on; a challenge that the fiberglass pipe manufacturer has successfully met and overcome through patience, innovation and commitment to the product.
The company that Flowtite is today is a far cry from the one in its early years, which was on the brink of obscurity in North America. Arriving in 2003, times were tough for the company then known as Amitech USA. After being acquired by Thompson Pipe Group in 2008, the company worked to turn its fortunes around with a new name and a renewed and strong commitment to producing high-quality pipe products through its team of experienced pipe professionals.
Today known as Thompson Pipe Group-Flowtite (Flowtite), the Zachary, La.-based company has seen considerable growth in the number of employees since 2003. The company manufactures 12- to 96-in. diameter fiberglass pipe, with plans in the works to construct a facility in the Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, area to produce 156-in. fiberglass pipe, which can be currently imported from other Flowtite facilities.
Yep, things are definitely looking up for the Flowtite brand in 2016. And its company leaders couldn’t be happier with the direction the company has taken over the last eight years. Flowtite today is being used on trenchless projects including sliplining, microtunneling, pipe jacking, pilot tube microtunneling and two-pass tunneling.
“When we took over the Flowtite facility we made additions to the staff and also made significant upgrades to the production facility,” says Mike Leathers, Thompson Pipe Group executive vice president. “We now have the experience and wins under our belts to compete. The key to our success now is that we have hundreds of jobs put into place and well more than 1 million linear feet of pipe that has been manufactured and put into place out of this plant.
“Additionally, the pipe market is more global and many engineers and some contractors have a great deal of experience with Flowtite from various locations.”
Flowtite director of engineering Jeff LeBlanc has been with the company since 2004 and is in the unique position to have experienced the lows of the early years, as well as the highs of the last few. “About 10 years ago, approximately 15 percent of our business was in trenchless,” LeBlanc says. “Now the percentage of our business is significantly higher. That is attributed to our product development and product availability.”
The company entered the sliplining market in 2007 and in 2013, the Flowtite jacking pipe product line launched, which feature a more robust, thicker walled product that can handle the pushing forces needed in microtunneling and pipe jacking applications. Next up for Flowtite is the pressure pipe market, which is becoming a focus of the trenchless market in recent years.
Saudi Arabia-based AMIANTIT brought its pipe manufacturing company Amitech USA to Zachary, La., in 2003, trying to capitalize on the amount of microtunneling work projected to take place in the City of Baton Rouge, which, at that time, was under a U.S. EPA consent decree to rehabilitate its sanitary sewer collection system. The facility — located within minutes of Baton Rouge — produced the Flowtite fiberglass pipe, as well as the Meyer polymer concrete pipe.
“The reason we got into to trenchless technology is because fiberglass products are used in sliplining, microtunneling and pipe jacking,” LeBlanc says. “But we didn’t have a product geared toward trenchless. Sliplining was a natural place to start. When you get into the larger diameters of 48 in. and larger, it’s very limited in the products you can use. Since fiberglass products can be much larger diameters, it’s a very good market for the products. We started with slipline applications in 2007 by developing a product to fit that market.”
Though Amitech USA came to Zachary with high hopes of finding success, the company struggled to find a place in the market, for a multitude of reasons. Among those reasons, Leathers says, was the inability to counter the post-9-11 environment, as well as handle the cultural differences. After five years, AMIANTIT decided enough was enough.
The timing was perfect for Thompson Pipe Group/Ken Thompson Inc. (KTI), headquartered in Rialto, Calif., which was looking to expand its product line. KTI believed in the Flowtite and Meyer polymer concrete products and became the successful bidder for the North American rights for those products.
After the acquisition in 2008, its new parent company took steps to improve the products’ branding with a company name change from Amitech USA to U.S. Composite Pipe South (and today known as Thompson Pipe Group-Flowtite). The parent company also invested in overhauling the entire company operations from the people to the product line.
The transformation has been complete, with Flowtite firmly established within the trenchless circles as an option for microtunneling, pipe jacking, sliplining, pilot tube microtunneling and two-pass tunneling projects.
“I’m not going to say the transformation has been night and day but there’s been significant difference in acceptance of organization in general, which also comes with acceptance of the product,” LeBlanc says. “The basis behind it is also the change in the culture within our organization and our view toward being a construction partner with the contractors we work with.”
That last statement — that Flowtite views itself as a construction partner with its customers — is a philosophy embraced by the Thompson Pipe Group management and throughout its companies. LeBlanc believes that philosophy is a key component of Flowtite’s success, seeing the relationship between manufacturer and customer as a team rather than a seller and buyer.
“There has been growth of the Flowtite product over the last 12 years and a lot of it is because of our customer support and our involvement with our contractors. We’re not just a pipe manufacturer. We view ourselves as a construction partner,” LeBlanc says. “It goes to the level of commitment that we have to the projects with the customers, as well as our activities on the jobsite with our field services. We also work with contractors to provide solutions when the project parameters or scope change. We believe that is what sets us apart.”
Leathers and LeBlanc also attribute the long-term success of the company to the company’s sales team, who are able forge the all-important relationships and trust with all of their customers. “We understand the installation side of things, as well as the manufacturing,” Leathers says. “Due to our superior manufacturing, Flowtite can be customized easily in various lengths and ID and OD needs, plus handle higher grouting pressures and temperatures.
We are able to analyze every job and look at it from an integrity standpoint, asking ourselves: Is this something we should be involved in? We require our direct sales force to not only be educated and knowledgeable about our products and the markets but to also have relationships across all three influencers: owner, engineer and contractors.”
The Trenchless Market
The trenchless market has become a prime market for the Flowtite products, with the expectation being that 2016 could be the best year the company has had in a decade of operation. LeBlanc and Leathers are impressed with how the market’s evolution has mirrored the advancement of the technologies and equipment used on the projects, with the upward trajectory continuing. “We love pipe jacking and the technology and it’s come a long way. The costs have come a long way and now there is more emphasis on social costs,” Leathers says. “Trenchless is a very important part of our business and it will continue to be.”
Leathers and LeBlanc love what they are seeing in the trenchless market in terms of growth and expansion; however, they are also both quick to note that to sustain that growth and expansion, education of all involved is essential. “The state of the market is constantly evolving,” Leathers says. “You are seeing more and more horizontal directional drilling. You are seeing people push the limits on s-curves and jacking loads and limits. You are seeing more and more technologies as far as the actual microtunnel machines.
“The key to the success and growth of the trenchless market is owners and designers understanding an emphasis, going in and saying that trenchless is an option,” he says. “If you want to provide us with a bid for open-cut, that’s great. If you want to provide us with a bid for trenchless, great. We’ll compare the two and may decide that if trenchless is more expensive or less expensive, as well as social costs.”
LeBlanc concurs, adding, “Engineering and understanding of all the options is a key challenge. Currently, there are only so many experienced microtunnelers. There are only so many engineers who really understand the trenchless options and understand that trenchless can be competitive from a price standpoint. It is important that the owners are aware of the products that are available, but it really starts at the engineering level.”
One area of the trenchless market that has been on the rise in recent years is in the rehabilitation of pressure pipe, which Flowtite sees as a market segment with untapped potential. The growth in this area has also resulted in the company competing with all the different types of pipe or lining systems.
“With pressure pipe, we are competing with ductile iron, steel, PVC and pre-stressed concrete pipe,” Leblanc says, making this market a highly competitive, resulting in everyone bringing their “A” game when it comes to pitching their pipe to potential customers.
LeBlanc says it is critical that the company stay on top the latest technology and standards and to that end, the company actively participates in various industry tradeshows and associations, including ASCE, ASTM, AWWA and the Southeast Chapter of the North American Society for Trenchless Technology (SESTT), as well as hosting Webinars and presenting technical papers. The company is also an industry advisory board member for the Trenchless Technology Center at Louisiana Tech, participating in the center’s Municipal Forums across the United States.
LeBlanc further notes that the company serves on committees that write, review, update and/or adjust the pipe standards for the industry.
“We try to stay connected and have as many touch points so that when people have a challenge in the utility world, they think of coming to us for solutions,” Leathers says.
Flowtite, like all companies, has its eyes set on what’s next for the company and the industries they serve. In the short-term, the company is looking to make inroads in the rapidly growing pressure pipe market, as well as getting the new Dallas/Fort Worth facility built and up and running. The production equipment for the new facility has been delivered and ground has been broken in preparation for this state of the art Flowtite manufacturing facility. The long-term goal is simple:
“Our long-term goal is to develop the fiberglass market for pressure pipe applications. [Fiberglass] already has a market for sewer applications, both for open-cut and trenchless,” LeBlanc says. “And this means improving on some of the (pipe) standards are already written, such as AWWA C-950 or the ASTM standards for pressure applications. We sit on committees that review and make adjustments to those standards and manuals. Flowtite already exceeds many of the more stringent European standards. There are many lessons learned and areas that need specification improvement.
“Flowtite is honored to be considered the greenest, most environmentally friendly pipe product available,” he says, adding that Flowtite is “bringing this global innovation to North America.”