When you are at the top of your game, you strive to reach even more soaring heights. That’s where Vadnais Trenchless is today and the contractor continues to look for ways it can improve and expand even more on the high-quality microtunneling services it provides to clients across the United States.
Vadnais Trenchless may have started out a small open-cut utility contractor 60 years ago, but today it is a microtunneling-focused powerhouse that generates $60 million to $75 million each year. The company is considered a pioneering contractor in microtunneling circles and its primary leaders — Paul Vadnais and Dan Schitea — icons in the field.
Headquartered in Vista, California, Vadnais Trenchless primarily works in the western and southwestern United States but has done projects — big and small — all over the country, including Alabama, Colorado, Nebraska, Florida, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin. Vadnais also has regional offices in Sacramento, and Houston, Texas. If it’s the right project for Vadnais, they will go to wherever the project is to get the job done.
Acquired by Primoris Services Corp. in 2014, Vadnais Trenchless has the financial backing for any job it wants to go after; however, its true foundation is not the financial support behind it but the people who do the work day in and day out. These crews are backed up by the company and its 13 microtunneling machine fleet, ranging from 15 to 120 in. in diameter and a multitude of separation and support equipment.
“Our success is about our people,” says Vadnais Trenchless vice president Dan Schitea, who has been with the company for 23 years. “Paul [Vadnais] has driven this ship relentlessly. He’s always had the vision. He’s passionate about what we do and this has led to creating a culture where we keep a lot of our people, key people like operators, supervisors, superintendents, the critical people who keep the thing churning.”
Paul Vadnais talks simply about the success of his company. “Our philosophy is simple. We stick to what we know works. We know what our crews and equipment can do in almost every conceivable condition and we stick with what we believe the risk is worth.
“I have a very optimistic outlook on where we are going,” Vadnais says. “A lot of it has to do with our reach and that we’re not confined to one geographic area of the market. A lot of smaller, regionalized companies may have trouble in the future but we are looking to expand our menu of services”.
He notes that with the entire family of Primoris companies, Vadnais Trenchless can also assist on projects involving pipe jacking, auger boring and tunneling. “We are also entering the Direct Pipe market,” Vadnais adds.
Originally founded by his father Ed Vadnais as Vadnais Corp. in 1959, the company specialized in open-cut utility contracting — building water, sewer, water and sewer pump stations and storm drain installations for municipal clients. Paul went to work for his father as a teenager during the summers.
“I was raised in the business and I enjoyed it,” Vadnais reflects, noting that he started at the lowest level of the company and slowly worked his way through the ranks as a crew laborer, equipment operator and foreman. Once he graduated from Santa Clara University with his bachelor’s of science degree in business management in 1978, he returned to the family business full time as a superintendent and project manager. By 1985, he was named operations manager.
Ed Vadnais retired in 1989, selling the company to his son, who was just 33. “I had worked my way from the bottom to the top and had done virtually every job myself somewhere along the line,” Vadnais says, giving him keen insight and perspective into how the business was run, as well as the industry they worked in.
After taking the company’s reins, Vadnais made a bold step to expand into heavy rock trenching in the late 1990s. The new venture was called V2 Trenching LLC and provided trenching services to clients in the United States and overseas. In 2001, V2 expanded into the Middle East countries of Qatar and Oman. Four years later, V2 was acquired by an Omani investment group.
Vadnais’ first steps into microtunneling was in 1993, at a time when microtunneling was barely thought of as an option in the United States. The project was in Orange County, California, for the Santa Margarita Water District, involving the installation of 24-in. VCP over 1,200 lf in three drives. Vadnais used a rented microtunneling machine from Iseki to do the job. Its second microtunneling milestone followed two years later in Santa Barbara County, crossing the Santa Ynez River with two 60-in., 800-lf drives using its Soltau (now mts Perforator) microtunneling machine. Vadnais installed its first three caisson shafts on the job (Side note: To date, the company has installed 19 caisson shafts up to 35 ft in diameter and as deep as 125 ft).
While microtunneling was a popular trenchless method overseas during the 1990s, the application didn’t enjoy a similar reception in the United States. But Vadnais liked the technology and believe it had a future in the United States. He was looking for something that would set Vadnais apart from his competitors. Adding microtunneling to its offerings, would allow the company to diversify at time of a tightening economy, with a recession looming. Vadnais took the plunge and it paid off.
“Microtunneling was just starting when [we] got into it, maybe three or four years in the United States,” Vadnais remembers. “Not much had been done. I was reading about it and it intrigued me. We were looking for something to differentiate us from other open-cut guys … We were in the infancy of the industry that, in my view, could expand quite a bit.”
Vadnais Corp. became a microtunneling-only contractor in 2007, one of a handful of such contractors in the United States at that time, as well as today. The switch full time to this discipline proved to be spot-on as more and more microtunneling contractors fell by the wayside over the years or were swallowed by larger, national contractors. But Vadnais Trenchless remained.
The shift to focus on microtunneling also proved timely; at that time the housing market started to collapse and the economy recoiled. Vadnais’s instinct proved to be correct as the company was now concentrating on microtunneling projects at a time when microtunneling was starting to catch on in construction circles and, as seen today, remains a growing and fruitful trenchless market.
Along Came Primoris
Being a valued part of a huge national corporation was never part of the Vadnais business plan when Paul took over the company. But Vadnais was savvy enough to keep his options open in order to do what was necessary for the company to remain successful and grow even more. Enter Primoris Services Corp., a $3 billion, publicly traded, infrastructure construction firm.
Vadnais was approached by Primoris in 2014 with an opportunity to support its oil and gas pipeline markets. The larger company was no stranger to Vadnais as they had worked over the years with a few companies already under the Primoris umbrella. During the late 1990s, V2 Trenching provided trenching services in the United States to clients that included ARB and Rockford Corp., both part of the Primoris family.
But why did he decide to sell the company?
“We thought it was the right time because in my view, we saw big national [companies] coming in taking people or driving people out of the microtunneling market,” Vadnais says. “The [microtunneling] jobs were getting bigger, the clients more sophisticated. You have to have a lot of financial horsepower to deal with some of these clients. I felt that we would be squeezed out, eventually, financially.”
Vadnais’ decision proved apt. The impact on his company was immediate and he and it have never looked back. “We’ve got the financial horsepower second to none in the microtunneling industry in North America,” Vadnais says. “We no longer are just subcontractors on jobs. We work independently and run our own business. We have all the equipment we need and have 13 complete microtunneling systems — I don’t know anyone who has that. It makes a big difference in our performance in the field.”
He also credits the Primoris team for allowing Vadnais Trenchless to expand into new markets and contribute on other projects that other Primoris companies work on. Most notably, he points to Primoris chairman Brian Pratt, CEO David King, president Tom McCormick, group president-pipeline and underground Scott Summers and equipment manager Ed Hamud. “[They] have been totally supportive of our operations, growth and understanding of the challenges and risks that come with the [microtunneling] industry,” Vadnais says. “Primoris/Vadnais Trenchless aims to be an industry leader for decades into the future while we continue to expand our menu of services for our clients and municipal owners.”
While the number of microtunneling contractors has shrunk over the years, Vadnais continues to standout among those still involved with this trenchless discipline. Beyond its extensive industry knowledge and experience, Vadnais and Schitea points to its record and emphasis on safety. “Our safety culture is second to none,” says Schitea, noting that the company has not had a lost time incident in over six years and maintains an EMR safety rating of 0.53 (“That is unheard of in our industry and every other sector of construction,” he says.)
And the company’s high regard and attention to safety starts at the top — Vadnais has made safety his life’s mission. “I graduated from college [in 1978] and two weeks later my next older brother [Bill] was killed on a [construction] project,” Vadnais slowly explains, with his voice cracking with emotion. “I have focused on safety my whole life.”
The company makes safety training interactive with its employees to keep them involved. “Safety is not lip service,” Schitea says. “We genuinely expect everybody to go home to their families exactly the way they left them in the morning.”
Long-term success breeds more energy to achieve bigger goals. That’s the way it is with Vadnais Trenchless. Schitea attributes the long-term success and future sustainability of the company to its leader, Paul Vadnais. Though he shies away from being the focus of their story, Vadnais is the reason the contractor has flourished all these years. “Paul is a passionate guy and his drive is nonstop,” Schitea says. “I’ve been here 23 years and the number of times is in the hundreds when I’ve talked to Paul first thing in the morning and he’s already been in the office since 3 [a.m.]. He just can’t turn it off.
“Paul is confident and always looking for new opportunities,” he adds. “This spirit and drive are passed down to all of our employees throughout the organization. The message is delivered by [myself and the rest of our management team].”
And he’s not going any where any time soon. “I’ve been here a long time and I’m not going anywhere,” Vadnais says. “Some people think I’m old but I don’t. I plan on another decade of doing this.”
As the microtunneling continues to reach new levels of difficulty and the technology advancing to meet those levels, Vadnais is looking forward to what the next decade in the industry brings.