Vacuworx Global poised to expand heavy lifting business
BY ROD WALTON World Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 05, 2013
2/05/13 at 6:48 AM
Local production facilities are vital to the economy.
That giant sucking sound may carry more jobs to Tulsa over the next few years.
Vacuworx Global, a homegrown company started by Bill Solomon 13 years ago, has found favor with many contractors for its equipment - lifting machines that use massive suction power to move heavy objects ranging from sections of pipeline to concrete traffic barriers and steel plates.
The company employs 48 people locally and has operations as far away as Europe, South America and Australia.
"The next 10 years should be phenomenal," Solomon said from his offices at 10105 E. 55th Place. "Our goal the next three years is to double our size in sales."
Solomon hopes to expand the company's hold, so to speak, in water services such as utilities and treatment plants. Pipelines are still the bread and butter of Vacuworx, but there's room for growth with road construction, runway improvement and all kinds of infrastructure that can be moved safely without hooks and cables and workers standing guide underneath the heavy objects.
Vacuworx added 100 customers domestically in 2012, sales director Shawn Lowman said. The company's high-powered lifters are now at work moving pipeline around on the Keystone XL project throughout Oklahoma.
Oil and gas pipelines accounted for about 72 percent of Vacuworx's business last year, while water services was 20 percent. The company's planners believe the latter will grow as Vacuworx vertically integrates its sales offerings for a variety of industries.
"We believe there is a revolution coming in how to handle road barrier systems," Lowman said.
The Vaculift system developed by Solomon and his colleagues has a wide menu of options, from the first-ever EC-6 to the big-job RC 20 to the most recent MC-3. The number refers to how much tonnage a machine can lift, while the engineering crew bases its power capacity on an equation involving the weight of the targets and the altitude of the work site.
Algebra works, in other words.
"That stuff we said we'd never need. ... Well, actually, we kind of do," Lowman said.
Solomon slowly developed the idea of the vacuum lifting systems over a lifetime as both a veteran of the corporate world and the son of a heavy equipment expert. His father worked with Caterpillar and later at Albert Equipment in Tulsa, while Solomon spent years helping develop orthopedic products with Johnson & Johnson.
He quit the giant manufacturer in 1998 and moved back to Tulsa, starting Vacuworx one year later. He moved the shop around several times over the years, from east Tulsa to Broken Arrow to the current spot after a reorganization in 2005.
It took a while to convince contractors that air, or the absence of it, could grip heavy metal pipelines and sheets and move them around in a safe and cost-effective manner.
"I took my 401(k), the mortgage out of my home, 20 credit cards charged to the max and bet it all on this deal," Solomon said. "It took three years to live through wondering if we were ever going to make it."
The phone finally started ringing, with the big break coming early last decade for work that Alliance Pipeline needed performed in the U.S. and Canadian Rockies.
Vacuworx also puts on the annual Tulsa Pipeline Expo and helps sponsor the Chili Bowl races, using the events to show off its equipment. However, "It was word of mouth that really sold the product," Solomon noted.
The growing Tulsa Pipeline Expo, now planning its fifth go-around in August, was originally conceived as a way to attract clients to Vacuworx's open house. The event now showcases pipeline-related companies statewide.
Some of the lifters' components, such as a Subaru engine, are made elsewhere. The majority of elements, however, are done within Tulsa. Vacuworx does its machining, assembling and, if needed, rebuilding out of its headquarters. The company is still small enough that it takes a zero-tolerance approach to every part of its vacuum lifters.
"Safety is not negotiable, and failure is not an option," Solomon said.
Original Print Headline: Tons of opportunity
Rod Walton 918-581-8457
Vacuworx Global owner Bill Solomon stands near a demonstration of the company's vacuum-powered pipe lifter. STEPHEN PINGRY / Tulsa World
Sam Warren works on a new vacuum-powered pipe lifter Friday at Vacuworx Global. STEPHEN PINGRY / Tulsa World