The idea flowed from a conversation with his dad. Bill Solomon would come home for the holidays and talk shop with his father Jim Solomon, who worked for a Caterpillar dealer in Oklahoma. Bill had grown up around heavy equipment but spent 15 years in sales and marketing at Johnson & Johnson. His introduction to the pipeline industry came from those talks with his father. Inevitably, the problem of injuries on the jobsite would always come up.
A common cause of injuries was from loading and unloading pipe, from the yard to the trailer to the jobsite. Traditionally, sidebooms used chains, slings and hooks to secure pipe. Solomon says that people were getting hurt or even killed by getting caught in the way when a load shifted.
“My question was always, why did they do it that way? Did they ever think of doing it differently? It seemed to me obvious that they needed a way to do it differently to solve the issue of people being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says. “You had to get away from chains and slings and hooks.”
From there, Solomon’s idea grew into a plan to form a company that focused on a safer way to move pipe. Landing on vacuum lifting technology as a solution to pick up pipe from the top and not damage the coating, he left Johnson & Johnson to start Vacuworx in 1999.
At first, it was only he and his wife Christy, who worked tirelessly with him in the early days as they attempted to crack the pipeline market and build the Tulsa-based company for the future. Now, Vacuworx enters its 20th year in business with 48 employees in the United States and a global presence.
Getting a Lift
The pipeline market was the initial target for Vacuworx lifters. However, the industry isn’t always quick to adopt new technologies. Taking the product from an idea to something actually used in the field took a lot of convincing.
“For a lot of people working in the pipeline industry, they’re creatures of habit,” Solomon says. “They found a way to make it work, and that’s the way people did things since the dawn of time, so to speak. That’s the way my granddaddy did it, the way my daddy did it, so that’s the way I’m going to do it. Getting them to change took at least three years.”
Fortunately, an opportunity arose around 2002-2003 in the form of a major big-inch pipeline crossing the middle of the United States. This also coincided with the introduction of a new kind of coated pipe.
“It gave us an opportunity to show contractors a new way to handle pipe, in particular coated pipe,” Solomon says. “We were able to show how we could handle pipe without damaging the coating, because it was clear that chains, slings and hooks would not be kind to it.”
Solomon demonstrated the capabilities of the Vacuworx lifters and allowed contractors to experience it themselves.
“From the beginning there were a lot of skeptics,” he says. “People didn’t understand how vacuum worked, how strong it was, the physics of it and how safe it would be. But they knew they had to do something different.”
Solomon had to adopt a “never give up attitude” to get the pipeline industry to accept vacuum lifting technology.
“We were diligent in terms of staying in contact with customers who had projects,” he says. “We never let go because I felt we had very good solution for what they needed. We were just very persistent.”
Just like when Solomon would talk to his father back home, once he started talking to the contractors, the same problem with injuries would crop up. Now, he had an answer.
“All you had to do was spend some time with contractors, start sharing stories and people start talking about how so and so got hurt,” he says. “My whole answer was, what if you had a product that would get people out of those situations? Let people get out of the way and let the equipment get damaged instead of the person.”
In some cases, Solomon would even let contractors use the Vacuworx machine for free.
“I would say, here, try it for yourself,” he says. “If you don’t think this is a better way to do it, then I’ll come and get it. If you like it, keep it, and I’ll send the bill.”
Once the contractors used the vacuum lifter, Solomon says it usually didn’t take long for them to see the benefit.
“Once they used it on a project, they saw that they didn’t need to have people by the load,” he says. “They could put them where they were needed, and they saw the speed and efficiency of the machine. For a lot of contractors, it was a very easy decision.”
That doesn’t mean there wasn’t resistance.
“Some people thought that maybe it would take jobs away,” Solomon remembers. “We had some product burned and destroyed, or mysteriously put in a tree, but that was all education. We worked with the unions, and they all agreed that it really does get people out of harm’s way.”
Despite facing skepticism and people questioning what he was doing, Solomon says he always had one key person in his life who supported him: his wife, Christy.
“The early years were pretty meager,” he says. “It’s interesting when you think about financing. I went around to different business people, went around to all the banks, and people said, ‘What is it, now? Who else does this?’”
When Solomon explained that nobody else was using this technology, he found that nobody would lend him money for it. He ended up maxing out credit cards, using their house as collateral, cashing in his 401(k) and other savings to finance the company.
“There was a sense of knowing that it would eventually be adopted,” he says, “but we were all in.”
Solomon’s previous experience with Johnson & Johnson turned out to be helpful in starting a company that served the pipeline industry.
“I always had lots of ideas,” he says. “Eventually, I learned a lot of skills about running a division. I had no idea that the wonderful skills and talents I learned in those years would help in building this company called Vacuworx. It prepared me very well, from growing a product from an idea to building a company and building an industry.”
Seeking the right technology to safely lift pipe without damaging the coating, Solomon looked far and wide.
“My thinking was that it had to be something that would not go all the way around the pipe,” he says. “It had to work simply, easily and not make a mark. And then, it had to be affordable.”
After looking at various technologies around the world, Solomon discovered vacuum lifting was the only thing “making any headway,” thanks in large part to engineers in The Netherlands. However, there were other challenges Solomon had to solve to make vacuum technology work on a pipeline jobsite. Luckily, timing was on his side.
“The nice thing was that there were a number of other innovations that were coming along at the same time,” he says, “to the point of when we asked how do we generate power, lo and behold, there were very small engines available. When it was, how do we create suction, well, pumps were improving. We had to make it self-contained. We brought all these components together from all over the world, from Asia to Australia. There was a lot of trial and error, but we eventually settled on the right combination.”
Growing Large to Small
It may seem logical to start smaller and work your way up, but that’s exactly the opposite of how Vacuworx has grown its product line.
“We started with large diameter because that was what kind of projects were going on,” Solomon says. “Once we gained success with the contractors, if they had another job, it led us to a variety of sizes, down to smaller sizes.”
Vacuworx lifters are self-contained, with lugs that can handle a variety of vacuum pads for different size pipe. Solomon stresses the importance of having the right pad for the pipe.
“The whole reason we developed our product line was because of safety, or the lack of safety,” he says. “Safety is foundation of this product line. It’s important that the pad fits properly.”
While there is no limit on the diameter size that the Vacuworx lifters can handle, the top end weight limit was originally 20,000 lbs. As pipe has gotten bigger, so have the weight limits on the machines, with 25 metric tons now being the largest of the RC Series models.
“It all comes down to the host equipment that the lifter will be attached to,” Solomon says. “Our customers are trying to match the pipe diameter and weight with the right equipment they need from us, to go with the right equipment they’re already using or need for a job. There’s no need to spend more money than is necessary. That’s really what grew into our mantra. It’s a faster, safer, smarter way to handle materials.”
Lifting the Community
Throughout his career in the pipeline industry, Solomon has found ways to give back to the industry and to the local community around Tulsa. Not only is he an active member of a number of pipeline and related associations, but he also established the Tulsa Pipeline Expo in 2009 (later renamed The Pipeline and Energy Expo).
The event started as way to share the 10-year anniversary of Vacuworx with customers and employees. Although, the official month of anniversary is May, the celebration kept getting postponed.
“It was put off until October, and we wondered who would come,” Solomon says. “By then, we had become members of the Pipe Line Contractors Association, and it was amazing the number of Tulsa companies involved with similar work.”
Solomon decided to highlight these companies and show that the rich heritage of oil and gas in Tulsa is still alive and well.
At that first year’s event, Solomon found another way to give back.
“During that time, we would have a dinner,” he says. “I had the guys in the shop make little oil derricks to use as centerpieces at dinner, and it just clicked in my mind. I announced that each centerpiece is available, with an opening bid of $100. We’ll take the highest bid at each table and raise money for charity.”
That’s how the Eagle Gift Foundation was formed. The nonprofit organization raises money to promote educational programs to protect vulnerable children and adults and lend a helping hand to those who are down on their luck.
“If you want be part of something bigger than you, then why don’t you start with your own backyard, the local community,” Solomon says. “It doesn’t always take money. Sometimes it just takes time. Go lend a hand. If we’re having success, then how can we make the local economy better? The more vibrant our local economy, the better we all are.”
Celebrating 20 Years
With Vacuworx entering its 20th year in business this month, Solomon reflects on how the company has grown.
“We started with two, me and my wife,” he says. “We didn’t know what we could afford, so we rented a small facility and contracted out a lot of work. I did a lot of work myself. Eventually, we moved into a 10,000-sq ft building, and we were able to hire a few employees a few years into it. Now, we’re in a 100,000-sq ft space, with 48 employees in the United States. But I still feel like a new kid on the block.”
He feels humbled by the customers who have returned again and again for Vacuworx products. If imitation is the best form of flattery, Solomon can look around and see his impact in the other companies that have entered the vacuum lifting space.
“Other competitors try to mimic what we do,” he says. “That just means we have to continue to innovate and get better.”
Vacuworx also continues to grow. The company is currently hiring more people, and it soon will be opening the new Vacuworx Technology Institute, which will expand training capabilities and foster new product development.
“I know there are a lot of people interested in developing the workforce,” Solomon says. “This will allow us to bring all those resources together so that we’re not all trying to recreate the same wheel.”
Meanwhile, Vacuworx is expanding its market footprint. On April 18, the company announced a partnership with Ditch Witch to distribute its vacuum lifting machines on a global scale.
Despite all the growth and expansion since 1999, the core of Vacuworx’s business remains the pipeline industry.
“I see the pipeline market as an excellent one to be in for years to come,” Solomon says. “Energy is going to be an important factor for growth of communities throughout the world, and it’s still going to be oil and gas. There are many communities in need of rehabilitation, and that will mean new opportunity for pipelines. I see this year being strong and robust, and I’m pleased that the current administration believes in the strength of the industry as being important for the overall health of the country.”
Bradley Kramer is managing editor of North American Oil & Gas Pipelines. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.