Trenchless Pioneers – Michael Byrne
Michael Byrne got a front row seat to the earliest days of the trenchless technology industry. Focusing on the auger boring and microtunneling sectors, Byrne became an innovator and leader and carved out a well-deserved legacy, which is now in the capable hands of his next generation.
Sadly, Michael Byrne passed away in October 2022, just months shy of his 100th birthday. We spoke at length to his son-in-law Jim Weist and granddaughter Leslie Weist, who have been at the helm of Michael Byrne Mfg. since 2010, serving as owner and vice president of operations since 2018, respectively.
Headquartered in Mansfield, Ohio, Michael Byrne Mfg. is the only auger boring manufacturer that integrates its own gearbox designed for the rugged demands of the underground construction contractor.
Michael Byrne Mfg. was founded in 1966 by its namesake in a garage in Mansfield, making auger boring machines, augers, tunnel shields and cutting heads for the emerging underground construction market. This was a risky move for the entrepreneur — he was fired from his job at Westinghouse, where he had been a senior director for its small products division, and ventured out on his own. Only he wasn’t entirely on his own, as he was married and a father of eight children, who would all be along for the ride.
In those early days, there was no big manufacturing facility or large, comfy offices. Michael Byrne worked out of a garage in downtown Mansfield and used his own pickup to showcase the machines he built, going on cold calls to make a sale.
“He’d put the equipment in the back of his pickup and go out until he sold it,” says Jim Weist. “And then come back and make another. Mike was a trenchless guy but he was also a businessman.”
Leslie Weist adds that her grandfather spent a lot of time of the road early on because the technology was so new and prospective customers needed training on that equipment. “He always stressed how important training the operators and the people who are going to be around the machines was critical to the success of the bore. she says. “He really believed that and it’s still true today.
“He was probably one of the few who wasn’t a contractor first who then got into trenchless manufacturing.” she adds.
Michael Byrne also knew when it was time expand his business. When gearbox maker Crichton Mfg. was going out of business, Michael Byrne purchased the company and brought the manufacture of this critical boring technology in-house, rebranding it Byrne Gear. This move increased his own product line but also brought along the Crichton customer base to his doors.
Also, along the way, Michael Byrne Mfg. added tunnel shield technology to its repertoire of products.
Michael Byrne’s Legacy
The company remains in the Byrne-Weist family and will continue to be. Michael Byrne retired from the industry in the mid 1990s and eventually split his time between the United States and the Dominican Republic. He handed the company reins to his sons Jerry and Terry. Jim Weist joined the company in 1998 and later took over the company in 2010. Leslie came on board in 2018.
When asked about the legacy that Michael Byrne left behind, both Jim and Leslie Weist point to his business acumen and approach to marketing his products. “Mike’s hands-on approach with customers demonstrated how the boring machine could become another profit center for their business” Leslie Weist says.
The Weists also point to the long-term relationships with customers that the company has built over the years — many established under the leadership of Michael Byrne.
Jim Weist notes that his father-in-law never spoke of his legacy in the industry. “His legacy would be expanding the base for trenchless technology as a viable way of doing construction, especially in the early days,” Jim Weist says. “That was his specialty. He was a marketing guy and he expanded auger boring and that method of trenchless through his marketing efforts, making it a mainstream application.”
Trenchless Pioneers is a special monthly series sharing with readers the trailblazers who grew and expanded the trenchless industry.