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A Grip On Success

Admin LaValley
Wednesday, July 03, 2013

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Entrepreneurial spirit\drives LaValley IndustriesA few years ago, Jason LaValley took the biggest risk of his life. He quit his job, sold his house and poured his entire life savings of $50,000 into an idea he had scribbled on a piece of paper.There was no need to jot down a backup plan. LaValley’s idea has since evolved into a multimillion-dollar company, LaValley Industries, that employs 20 people and helpsboost several businesses in Bemidji, Minn. LaValley, a 35-year-old Bemidji High School graduate, freely admits he had no formal business or engineer training when he began developing the DECKHAND® pipehandling system, the company’s trademark product. He came up with the concept while working as a horizontal drilling superintendent in the pipeline industry. One night in 2005, LaValley was at a muddy job site in Texas when a pipe rack support failed and crushed a crew member’s ankle. LaValley returned to his hotel room that night thinking of ways to help his crew be safer and more efficient. He stayed up feverishly sketching the design for a hydraulic arm attachment for excavators that could precisely maneuver large pieces of pipe around a work site – even in the harshest conditions. He immediately faxed a copy of the design back to his father in Bemidji. “My dad called me up and said, ‘What is this? Chicken scratch?’” LaValley recalled. With a brief explanation, the LaValley family took the drawing into the garage and began constructing a prototype. From that point forward, LaValley put every dollar he had into the DECKHAND®. “There was a time when I was two or three house payments behind and creditors were calling me every single day,” LaValley said. “If I wouldn’t have had the support of my wife and family, I would never have made it.” With a functioning prototype, LaValley borrowed $1,000 from his uncle for fuel to drive down to a work site in Florida for field testing. The contraption was like nothing the  Crew had ever seen before, LaValley said. “Even when it broke down, they welded it back together just to keep it on site,” LaValley said. “When you've got a customer fixing your tool to keep it on the job, that means you've probably got something.” Building the business With positive feedback, a revived LaValley took his idea to the Northwest Regional Small Business Development Center on the campus of Bemidji State University. There he met with the center director Jorge Prince in his first month on the job. “I thought somebody had to have already done this somewhere in the world,” Prince said. “I spent a good amount of time doing patent searches before I realized that this was an entirely new concept.” Impressed with the product, Prince helped LaValley put together a business plan and financial projections to obtain a loan. But faced with the economic recession, there were few banks that would listen. After countless rejections, Security Bank USA in Bemidji put faith in the two homegrown entrepreneurs with a $260,000 small business loan. Shortly thereafter, Prince was all in with LaValley, joining the company as partner and chief financial officer. “I knew from the day I met Jason that he had a passion and he was willing to put everything on the line,” Prince said. “To be a really good entrepreneur isn’t the same as being a good inventor. It requires an all-in commitment. That’s a really hard thing to ask of people, but it was never a problem for Jason.” In the meantime, LaValley continued to make improvements to the product. The latest generation of the DECKHAND® has a single modular head with a series of interchangeable arms for directional drilling, pipe handling and utility pole handling. The DECKHAND’s® claw-like grippers can rotate an 80-foot pipe in a 360-degree pattern, safely controlling it even when covered in snow, ice or dirt. Specialized protective padding on the arms helps secure the pipe without compromising its coating. Besides the DECKHAND®, other industry options for loading and stacking pipe are chains or a suction-based lift system. Both present challenges, Prince said, noting that they need clean, dry surfaces and no wind to work properly. “So much of this work happens in the muck, in the mud, in the rain, in the dark,” Prince said. “If the excavator is running, our tool is running.” Staying in Bemidji Just as the DECKHAND® was hitting the market, LaValley and Prince had big business knocking on their front door. Enbridge was constructing a pipeline outside of Bemidji and was willing to test the product on site. Soon enough, an international distribution deal with PipeLine Machinery was signed and the company began churning out products for crews as far away as Australia. To keep up with growing demand, the company purchased a 25,000-square-foot building with 10 acres of testing grounds in Beltrami Electric Cooprative’s servie area in 2011. LaValley Industries also owns the building next door, which it rents to Melrose Metalworks, a company that completes the machining work for the DECKHAND®. LaValley said almost all of the company’s machining, welding and powder coating is contracted out to businesses in Bemidji. With customers across the world, LaValley and Prince said they could have located the company anywhere. But it was important to keep their roots in Bemidji. “We really believe we’re going to do something great here,” LaValley said.