To say you have worked in any industry for nearly your entire life is not something everyone can say and literally mean it. RapidView LLC CEO and founder Rex Robison is one of those who can.
His foray into the ever-growing business of sewer cleaning and inspection began when he was just 10 years old and he would accompany his dad, Dick Robison, on cleaning jobs after school. His dad owned a sewer septic and industrial cleaning business and also did residential sewer cleaning and septic system installation.
“I’d ride with Dad in the trucks every day after school and we would go unplug septic tanks,” Robison says. “I kind of grew up in that industry.”
That early introduction to sewers led Robison to start his municipal and industrial services company in 1991 while he was still high school — because he wanted some extra spending money —and it has blossomed into one of the leading pipeline inspection companies in North America. Not too bad.
RapidView LLC is headquartered in Robison’s hometown of Rochester, Indiana — a few hours north of Indianapolis — with a 45,000-sq ft manufacturing facility that stocks about $4.5 million worth of spare parts and inventory. A new addition is planned for some time in 2020.
“We’ve had just a tremendous amount of growth since 2004,” Robison says.
Coincidentally, 2004 is the year in which Robison’s company partnered with IBAK Helmut Hunger GmbH & Co. KG — the pioneering and global leader in pipe inspection cameras — to market and sell its CCTV pipe inspection camera systems in North America. This partnership has proven to be a boon for both companies, expanding both. The two companies have also recently collaborated on pipeline analysis software that will be NASSCO PACP certified; this technology is expected to be unveiled during the first quarter of 2020.
Joining Robison at RapidView is his wife, Kris, who has been chief financial officer since 2000, and longtime friend Matt Sutton, who has spearheaded sales and marketing since 2003. Together, the trio has catapulted RapidView to leadership positions in the market with pragmatic, yet proactive business growth over the last 15 years.
Kris Robison notes that the company has grown “10 times the size in both sales revenue and staff” over the last 10 years — something Rex Robison is more than proud of.
“From where we first started, which was me and a buddy part-time [in high school], I would never have fathomed that we’d be where we are at today. My Dad taught [me] everything he knew. I definitely would not be where we are at today without his knowledge and wisdom,” Robison says.
Robison had planned to go college and study mechanical engineering. In fact, he was accepted to several schools. Funny thing happened to that plan: it was turned on its ear, propelling him in an entirely different direction that would become his professional passion.
Robison started his own sewer cleaning contracting company while still in high school. He graduated mid-term his senior year and bought his first inspection camera and sewer cleaning jetter — he was off and running.
“Pipe inspection was fairly new at the time,” Robison says. “Being that I was 17 and living at home, I had the ability to keep reinvesting back in the company. After my first year, I really exceeded my own expectations and everyone else’s so I decided to continue down this career path. I never made it to college.”
He switched the company over to inspection camera sales and repairs in 1999, becoming the national distributor for a camera system manufactured in Europe, as well as opening a repair center for its customers. By 2003, RapidView decided to break from this particular camera maker and look for another partner.
“The company had been bought out a few times and with each of those buyouts, the quality [of the product] plummeted, development plummeted and we couldn’t get spare parts,” Robison says. “Our customers got upset.”
It was time to move on. Enter IBAK.
As the largest and oldest CCTV camera manufacturer in the world, IBAK is a name known and respected in CCTV circles. When Sutton and Robison looked for a new camera partner, IBAK was the company that first came to mind. Their timing could not have been more perfect.
“IBAK had always stayed in Europe,” Sutton says. “But they had recently hired someone to be in charge of developing foreign markets.”
By October 2004, RapidView became IBAK’s North American partner. Today, RapidView covers all of North America and the Caribbean Islands and has 31 dealership locations and 18 authorized service centers. Together, they offer a full-line of pipeline inspection systems from battery-powered push systems used for home laterals or industrial pipelines to portable tractor systems you can take into someone’s basement. They have mainline systems, a lateral launch system and high-definition (HD) systems for large and small-bore pipe. The most advanced system is the Panoramo systems, which are 3D optical scanners for both manholes and pipelines, giving users a Google Streetview-like image.
“Our goal is always to bring new technology to the market,” Sutton says. “Whether that is a $50,000 portable system or a $150,000 truck system.”
So, what has been the secret to RapidView’s continued success? The leadership points to the company’s overall strong ethics when it comes to customer service and business but it also acknowledges the team that is in place that demonstrates those ethics each day.
“One of our core principles is to treat every customer fairly with the same respect and expectations. Every customer is important to us. No matter their size, they are treated the same. That serves us well to be successful,” says Kris Robison. “As we build our team, we try to recruit good, quality employees who have strong ethical values that are the same as ours. We’re located in a small, rural community yet we’ve been able to surround ourselves and build our team with talented people who share the same values as we do. Pretty much everybody in the company are friends and do things together outside of work. One of our main objectives when we recruit new members is to make sure they fit into the company culture.”
Sutton emphasizes that one of the company’s key strengths is its dedication to customer service. “Going into this we realized that the industry has such poor expectations about getting this equipment fixed and having spare parts available that we committed to providing a different level of service, a better level of service than anyone had before. I think we have achieved that,” he says.
The pipe inspection market continues to flourish as more and more cities turn to CCTV to monitor what is happening in their underground pipes. But maintaining and upgrading those aging and rapidly deteriorating water and wastewater lines is not a cheap exercise. Money is needed to address their conditions — a lot of money. According the 2017 ASCE Infrastructure Report Card, it is estimated that a $1 trillion investment is needed to maintain and expand service to meet demands over the next 25 years and more than $105 billion is needed to address water and wastewater infrastructure.
Sutton and Robison see this as the most critical challenge for the pipe inspection and trenchless industry as cities scramble to find the needed funds, as well as ways to do more with the money they do have.
“Even a small town will have $10 million worth of problems and maybe $1 million to fix it,” Sutton says. “We would all, the entire trenchless industry, do better if cities and system owners were able to spend the money they should spend to inspect, categorize, rehab and maintain the sanitary sewer, storm and water systems they already own.”
They both applaud the efforts of organizations such as NASSCO to take on these challenges and helping to spearhead solutions, particularly when it comes to inspection data. RapidView is a participating member of NASSCO’s software vendor committee. “NASSCO has done a phenomenal job in minimizing issues in our market by making data interchangeable,” Robison says. “They are trying to help the customer make a decision and have good data.”
While there are challenges ahead, the future of the pipe inspection market and trenchless industry remains bright, Sutton and Robison say. Trajectory for growth continues upward as more and more cities turn to trenchless methods to address their infrastructure and asset management needs.
“It’s a growing marketplace because of the growing need,” Sutton says matter-of-factly. “There are just so many pipes aging. When you look at the demographic information and information about when the pipes were put in the ground, a lot, if not most, of them are getting ready to fail, if they aren’t already. We know it’s an environmental issue. Cities and towns are taking it more and more seriously every year. We are going to see this kind of work of inspection and rehabilitation and new installation continue to grow.”
Today’s technology allows cities to be proactive vs. reactive when it comes to addressing their systems. The cameras and software available allow cities to do the work with a price tag that won’t break their banks, Robison says.
After being in the inspection business for more than 25 years, Robison still marvels at the technological changes and evolution of products he has witnessed and, in some cases, been a part of. RapidView and IBAK are always in pursuit of “what’s next?” as better technology makes for a better industry, as well as a stronger company.
“This is where we shine the brightest,” Robison says. “IBAK has always been the leader and the inventor of just about every new technology in the industry. They invented the camera system, the first one in the world in 1957. Since then, they were the first to have the pan-and-tilt, first lateral launch, first tractor or robot to drive down the pipe, first [to develop] software, etc… IBAK has more than 350 employees and one in 10 are dedicated to new product development and coming up with new ideas, concepts and testing them.”
Robison remembers starting out using a black and white push camera; color was just starting to be used. Back then, customers were blown away by the addition of video printers on the truck, that they could print and hold a picture in their hand — today they have the thumb drive that contains “miles and miles of inspection data and they can see anything inside the pipe from any angle,” he says.
Now everything is smaller, faster and more dynamic. “We’ve gone from videotapes to now everything is on the cloud,” he says. “It’s been amazing watching the milestones.”
As noted earlier, RapidView and IBAK are teaming on the development of the company’s own inspection software. Robison sees the inspection software market moving closer to developing artificial intelligence (AI). “You’re going to see a shift in that market where you begin seeing automated classification of pipeline defects [and the like] that doesn’t require a user to sit in front of a monitor for hours. That’s where this is going.”
“Our whole reason for doing what we do is to get information to the users,” Sutton says. “At the end of the day, whatever the customer looks at on their computer screen is our end product. That data, that is the important thing to us… to make sure that customer has complete, accurate and great imagery and good geometrical data.”
Overall, RapidView is excited for what’s ahead, whether discussing short-term or long-term plans. “Long-term, I think we will continue to see advancement with the technology as computer systems become more powerful as AI becomes more advanced,” Robison says. “That will be the next major shift in our industry and I love that we are poised to be the leaders in this.”
In the short-term? Kris Robison says the company is poised to continue with continued growth. “I feel as owners that we have a great mix of traits to effectively manage risk vs. opportunity, which has allowed us to grow and further expand into the market with the right opportunities at the right time,” she says.