May 21, 2012You’ve heard of successful spinoffs in television: A component of the original show that is created separately and becomes successful in its own right. In the construction industry, there is a successful and highly respected pipe relining and inspection contractor that fits this mold — Visu-Sewer Inc.
Based outside of Milwaukee, Wis., Visu-Sewer was born out of a general contracting company as a way to tap into the pipe inspection and maintenance niche opening resulting from new installation. Ernie Alexander was the driving force in getting the fledgling company off the ground and that he did.
Visu-Sewer initially concentrated on sewer inspections and sewer cleaning. As the trenchless market opened up, the contractor did the same, embracing grouting and later pipe relining as main components of its service offerings. Ernie Alexander led the company until stepping aside in 2003 and handing the reins over to his son, Keith, who along with his brothers Doug and David, has been a part of his father’s company since his teen years.
Today, Visu-Sewer sits on 10 acres in Pewaukee, Wis., and its main facility stretches 28,000 sq ft (the original building sat on just one acre). More than just a contractor, Visu-Sewer also leads the industry through its work with NASSCO, advocating the issues, training and education sewer contractors need to succeed. The company’s history with NASSCO dates back to both organizations’ early years and their partnership continues to make the sewer inspection and maintenance industry strong and vibrant.
Visu-Sewer is a second-generation, family-owned pipe relining contractor whose roots run deep in the underground utilities construction industry. Based 30 miles west of downtown Milwaukee, Visu-Sewer started out doing pipe inspection and sewer cleaning and later grouting work. The contractor incorporated pipe lining into its stable of services during the late 1980s, with fold-and-form and later cured-in-place pipe (CIPP), the latter of which has been the focal point of its business since 1994.
Visu-Sewer’s beginnings are found in the company Super Excavators, a general contracting company founded by Ray Schraufangel, father-in-law of retired Visu-Sewer president and founder Ernie Alexander. Super Excavators entered the construction industry in 1954, concentrating on underground utilities work such as water and sewer installations. Today, the company is recognized for its work in the utility tunneling and excavation arenas. By the mid-1970s, Schraufangel and Ernie Alexander felt another area of underground utilities was worth exploring, separate from Super Excavators.
The idea was to establish a company to address a specific niche in the new installation market for pipe inspections and sewer cleaning. Ernie Alexander and a core group of employees from Super Excavators, investing in their new venture: Visu-Sewer. The year was 1975 and Ernie Alexander served as the managing partner and president of the company.
“They just saw the niche to fix existing problems in new installations and the need for inspections,” says Visu-Sewer president Keith Alexander. “We started out doing cleaning and CCTV on the maintenance side, along with grouting. Grouting was used to stop water infiltration in new installations.”
During the first few years, Visu-Sewer focused almost exclusively on sewer cleaning and inspection work. These were the formative years for techniques such as hydro-jet flushing and CCTV inspection. During the 1980s, the company expanded to include rehabilitation services, such as chemical grouting, sliplining, manhole lining and fold-and-form lining. As the company grew in services, it also expanded geographically with full-service offices opening Minneapolis/St. Paul and satellite offices in Dayton, Ohio, and Houston to monitor its large scale SSES projects.
In 1994, Visu-Sewer joined the National Liner Group, using its CIPP method of relining. “Today, we are a full-service underground maintenance and rehabilitation contractor,” Alexander says. “We do the service work, the grouting of mainlines, manholes, lateral connections, manhole rehabilitation both cementitious and epoxy along with CIPP work.”
The company started out with just a handful of employees and the work they followed was relatively local. Today, the company employs approximately 140 workers and actively bids on work in the Dakotas, Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois and parts of Indiana. To date, the company has completed more than 7,500 sewer system inspection projects. Since 1984, Visu-Sewer has opened offices in Minnesota, Chicago, Iowa and Jackson, Miss. Many of the employees have been with the company for their entire careers.
“We basically started from scratch,” Alexander says. “We had two or three guys when we first began. The first employee we hired in August 1975 — Ron Fenney — is still with us and runs our Minnesota office. Our turnover is low, which is key to our success. We have a number of employees who have been with us for over 20 years.”
In many ways, Visu-Sewer and the trenchless rehab market have grown up together, each maturing in knowledge, innovation and reputation. With the strength and momentum of the rehabilitation industry, Visu-Sewer has been able to take advantage of the opportunities that an aging underground infrastructure has offered, particularly in recent years. Alexander has been a part of that maturation, starting at his father’s side in 1989 and before that, with his grandfather at Super Excavators. Over the years, Alexander has worked in all facets of Visu-Sewer, and is joined in the family business by his brothers Doug, a field superintendent, and David, a project manager and estimator.
With success, comes expansion and high expectations and though Visu-Sewer has experienced both, company officials have embraced a steady and conservative mantra when deciding where and when to expand its presence. Visu-Sewer vice president of sales and marketing John Nelson has been with the company for 20 years in various roles and has witnessed the steady and almost methodical rise of the company as a leader in the sewer inspection, maintenance and rehab markets.
“We look to expand our reach every few years, making sure our last expansion is in place and operating effectively before moving on. We’ve grown not only our staff but our service offerings. Seeking out new techniques and refining the old ones keeps us in the top tier of service contractors,” Nelson says.
Alexander explains their expansion plans this way: “There’s no one pushing us to grow and we grow when it makes sense. You cannot rush success. In the nearly 10 years since Ernie [Alexander] has retired, we have steadily increased in size over the years.”
Keys to Its Success
The success of a company can be quantified in many forms from its bottom line to its industry reputation to the quality and experience of its workforce. In the case of Visu-Sewer, it’s a combination of those plus intangibles handed down from the company’s patriarch to his sons who lead today. Alexander and Nelson credit the leadership and philosophy of Ernie Alexander for the work ethic followed by Visu-Sewer employees today — business comes first and the rest will fall into place.
“Early on, Ernie [Alexander] established a solid foundation for the company and passed his vision and values on to his children. Keith has built upon this foundation, kept the same core values but added his own vision. Honest, self-effacing leadership are the hidden tenents at Visu-Sewer,” Nelson says. “If you are a manager, one day you might be asked to present to a group of wastewater operators and the next day you are putting on a safety harness to be lowered into a 75-ft deep manhole. I don’t know many companies whose president and vice president are so active at all levels of the operation. In fact, it’s not uncommon on any given day to find Keith and [vice president] Phil Romagna crawling out of a manhole at a jobsite. This unassuming attitude results in a high level of respect within the staff and organization.”
Alexander says that abiding by the company’s core values is not an option but simply how they do their business. In fact, those core values are printed on the back of Visu-Sewer’s business cards. “Our biggest thing is sticking to our core values. They’re on the back of our business cards: Responsiveness, Dedication, Integrity and Reputation,” he says.
Simply put, what makes them different is what makes them great, Nelson says and one of things that he believes sets the company apart is the amount of experience of its workers. “Each of the managers started in the field and worked their way up through the ranks. Thus, we have a tremendous amount of practical and historical knowledge within the staff. It also provides us with a keen understanding of the challenges a construction crew faces each day. This experience and high level of project understanding also brings value to our customers. When they call, they know we can help. They also know that if we do not offer the proper solution, we will direct them to someone else who does, even if they are a competitor.”
Alexander concurs with that assessment but takes it one step further. “It’s our people and our approach that makes us successful when taking on difficult projects. We do not bid from behind a desk. We’re out in the field and talking with our customers, the end-users,” he says. “We find out what the real problems are and determine if there is another way to look at solving the problem …We have persevered over the years and what we do is take care of our No. 1 asset — our people.”
The economy of the last few years has played a pivotal role in how companies have managed their time, revenue and workers. Managing and maneuvering in the economic quagmire we’ve been experiencing takes perseverance and leadership, as well as a strong vision as to what is important. In the case of trenchless technology, it’s the municipalities and government (federal, state and local) recognizing the need to address the deteriorating infrastructure that lies under their feet and their watch.
“It’s a lot like the roads and bridges,” Alexander said. “We all know the state of the roads and bridges in this country and huge, vast amounts of money are invested in them. With the underground, we have the same situation, except we don’t see it and there’s just a small, select group of people who deal with it on a regular basis. Underground infrastructure needs attention. Government agencies need to put money into it or it will have major consequences later down the line.”
That’s why Alexander is an advocate of the education of everyone involved in the industry — from workers in the field to the design engineers to municipal and other government officials. Knowledge is power, Alexander says.
“Especially on the design side,” he explains. “It’s the proper education and use of the proper products in the right spot: structural, corrosion or inflow-and-infiltration. It’s key for designers to know and understand the problems they are addressing so the correct technology can be selected for repair. Efforts to select the correct solution is imperative to the success of any project and it takes time to investigate the true issues to make the correct technology determination.”
To that end, Visu-Sewer remains an active and relentless participant in NASSCO, serving as a partner to the organization that came of age about the same time as Visu-Sewer. The two have been steadfast advocates for contractors in the sewer inspection and maintenance industries, keeping members abreast on key issues that affect their industry, as well as educating them on the latest trends, technologies and training.
“NASSCO is about contractors working together,” Alexander says, himself a former NASSCO president (2004). “It’s so important to work hand-in-hand because it’s all positive. We all have the same goal and it comes down to educating on a broad scale across the base to support our market.” (For more on the Visu-Sewer/NASSCO relationship, see sidebar.)
Alexander is looking to the future — a believer in always moving forward, not back. He knows that history is important but he has set his sights on the big picture and what will keep Visu-Sewer in business for years to come. “I don’t spend a lot of time looking back. We’ve done a lot of growth internally. We are going to grow when it makes sense and it fits in with our core with what we do in service and rehab,” he says. “We will be in position to take advantage of opportunities and synergies working with other companies and partnerships as we move forward into the future.”
Sharon M. Bueno is managing editor of Trenchless Technology.
Visu-Sewer & NASSCO
Visu-Sewer and NASSCO are two entities that just belong together. They both came of age during the same time period and have grown in stature and reputation together, playing integral roles in each other’s histories.
It’s no coincidence that the two share similar philosophies about the sewer inspection and maintenance industry as they have worked hand-in-hand the last 35 years to make their industry stronger. In fact, Visu-Sewer holds the distinction of being the only company to have three NASSCO presidents: Ernie Alexander (1985), Keith Alexander (2004) and John Nelson (2012).
“It is obviously a great honor for our company,” says Nelson, who was named 2012 NASSCO president at its recent convention. “The list of NASSCO past presidents reads like a who’s-who of our country’s top sewer service professionals. It also speaks volumes as to Ernie’s and Keith’s commitment to the industry, as those who have served on boards of trade organizations know well of the time and financial commitment these positions require.”
Visu-Sewer’s commitment to NASSCO runs deep, as company founder Ernie Alexander started working with the organization at its inception and continued his participation until his retirement in 2003. “Ernie participated in with NASSCO very early on,” Keith Alexander says. “Back then, it was a support network as it is today but it’s at a much higher and different level. Ernie was about bettering the marketplace and educating people. That is why he became involved and why we stay involved today.”
Over the years, NASSCO has tackled issues that are important to their members, such as the ban on chemical grouting, safety equipment produced for its camera manufacturers and styrene issues facing its CIPP contractors. “In the past decade, NASSCO has transformed into the leading organization for contractors to unite with suppliers, municipalities and engineers to solve the nation’s sewer infrastructure problems,” Nelson says. “NASSCO has always been an unselfish place where contractors connect to exchange thoughts and ideas …It is also a think tank for innovation, as many of the systems and techniques used today to inspect, maintain and rehabilitate sewer systems were originally spawned by its members.”