There’s an old Chinese saying about family businesses: “The first generation builds the wealth. The second generation lives like gentlemen, and the third generation must start all over again.”
For longtime trenchless industry heavyweights Michael Byrne Mfg. and Capitol Tunneling, that’s a saying makes them laugh. Each of these Ohio-based, family-run businesses has more than 40 years of interwoven history and success on their side.
What’s interesting about the history of each company — one a manufacturer and the other a contractor — is how similarly they are run in philosophy and style. Must be that old-school business ethic that the founders of these two companies ingrained in their offspring who followed in their footsteps. Both companies started with modest means — the proverbial garage, a pickup and the drive — and have grown into leaders in their respective fields with millions of dollars worth of investment.
What’s also unique about these two companies is that you can’t tell their history without talking about the other. Capitol Tunneling has been a customer of Michael Byrne Mfg. for 40-plus years, purchasing nearly its entire auger boring fleet from the Mansfield company and setting diameter records using their machines along the way. On the other side, Capitol Tunneling was Michael Byrne’s first customer, dating back to the late 1960s when they built some of their tunneling shields.
“As a company, we have done more than 135,000 ft of auger boring in our 40 years, and I would say that 85 to 90 percent of it was done using a Michael Byrne Mfg. product,” said Kyle Lucus, third generation president and owner of Capitol Tunneling. “We have 12 auger boring machines, ranging in diameter from 24 to 84 in. Our oldest machine was purchased in 1974 — and we still use it — from Michael Byrne.”
Michael Byrne Mfg. was founded in 1966 by Mike Byrne in a garage in Mansfield, Ohio, making auger boring machines, augers, tunnel shields and cutting heads for the emerging underground construction market. This was a risky business move for the entrepreneur — he quit is job at Westinghouse, where he had been a senior director for its small products division, to venture out on his own. Only he wasn’t entirely on his own, as he was married and a father of eight children, who would be along for the ride.
And in those days, there was no big manufacturing facility or large, comfy offices. Mike worked out of the garage at his home and used his own pickup to showcase the machines he built, going on cold calls to make a sale.
“In those early days, Mike would get in his pickup with a machine in the back and would take it to show contractors,” said Jim Weist, company president and Mike’s son-in-law. “He was quite the salesman.”
In 1969, Mike moved his company to its current location on Earth Boring Road (very apropos road name) and expanded his manufacturing facilities and capabilities in 1991 to include a 35,000-sq ft building, bringing the total square footage to 50,000.
Like all family businesses, the kids worked for Dad in some shape or form, doing the odd jobs and over time, taking on more responsibility. “At various times, all of his kids were in the pickup, going on sales calls, going to jobs,” Weist said. But it was sons Jerry and Terry, his two youngest kids, who started taking over the day-to-day activities as they got older. Today, Terry is the company’s CEO.
Columbus-based Capitol Tunneling turns 40 this year, but its creation stems from the merging of two construction businesses by Lucus’ grandfather Paul Hanson and Hanson’s longtime friend Oscar Poe — Hanson Tunneling and Columbus Road Boring, which were started in 1960. Now under one roof, Capitol Tunneling focused on conventional hand mine tunneling, auger boring and pipe jacking. Over the years, the company’s services have expanded to include using TBMs for tunneling installations, cellular grouting and shaft installations.
“My father George became involved in the business after my grandfather consolidated the two,” Lucus said. When his grandfather and Poe were ready to retire in 1980, his father bought them out and became Capitol Tunneling’s sole owner and operator. When George Lucus passed away in 2000, Lucus and his brother Noah took over the company and lead it today.
“I have always worked in the business, since I was 10 years old, doing everything from cleaning trucks to cutting grass to painting equipment,” Lucus said. “My younger brother Noah worked for our dad on and off through his teenage years but after college, he came to work in the office.”
Even after he retired, Lucus’ grandfather would often come around the office and walk the shop. Hanson passed away in 1994. “I’d like to think that he as well as my dad would be pleased with where the company stands today,” Lucus said.
Another saying goes: It’s not personal, it’s business. In the case of Capitol Tunneling and Michael Byrne Mfg., that’s sort of a gray area. While both acknowledge that it’s business first and they make decisions based on what is best for their companies, the relationship after 40 years is a personal one to both.
“Capitol Tunneling was one of Mike Byrne’s first customers, dating back to the late 1960s and working with Kyle’s [Lucus] grandfather,” Weist said. “Mike eventually began working with George Lucus and over time, developed a very strong relationship. It’s not that common [in business] that you have someone who’s been with you that consistently for that period of time.”
Mike Byrne, now 86 and still a visible presence at the company he founded, said he and George Lucus would work together on new, larger projects as the bores became larger and larger and that Capitol Tunneling was often the first to purchase the next larger generation of machine. “Kyle [Lucus] has continued that history with the recent purchase of the MB D84-1.5 Extreme Duty Boring Machine,” he said.
Capitol Tunneling purchased the 84-in. diameter auger boring machine in fall 2009 and has since used it on several projects including 220 ft of 66-in. pipe in Marysville, Ohio, and 200 ft of 72-in. in Rockville, Tenn.
“Capitol Tunneling is without a doubt one of America’s supreme underground contractors,” Mike Byrne said, noting that he feels fortunate to have established such a long-standing relationship first with Paul Hanson and later his son-in-law. “What a great person to have as a customer. [George] was a very respected and honorable person who once told me, ‘If you back up the equipment you sell me, you will continue to get my business,’” Mike Byrne said. “We did and he did. We are pleased to say that our business relationship continues as if George was still with us.”
What keeps a contractor such Capitol Tunneling with one manufacturer for so long? Both Weist and Lucus point to the loyalty and service each has shown the other over the years. “Capitol Tunneling is definitely personal to me and Terry [Byrne] because of our history,” Weist said. “It’s always been business but they are good friends. We have a lot in common, both being family businesses and there’s been loyalty both ways.”
Lucus agreed, saying “We established a relationship based on trust and dependability with them. We’ve purchased augers and cutting heads from other manufacturers, but when it comes to the machines and their dependability and the service, all we’ve ever known has been Michael Byrne Mfg. They build a great machine and they treat us right.
“I have lot of respect for Mike Byrne and Terry and Jim [Weist],” Lucus said. “When my father passed way, I was 27 years old. I don’t want to say that I wasn’t ready to take the reins, but I had a lot of learning to do. Any time we had problems or issues with the machines, Michael Byrne Mfg. was right there to troubleshoot them with us and get the problem solved.”
Both of these trenchless companies were founded on the solid business principles of two old-school construction hands who forged a unique business relationship that has resonated more than 40 years. “There’s a lot of good will between the two organizations,” Lucus said. “And there will continue to be.”
Sharon Bueno is managing editor of Trenchless Technology.