Efficiency’s the mother of invention
Sunday, April 23, 2006 7:00 AM
In 1996, Tom Carpenter of Ankeny didn’t set out to establish a business that in 10 years would generate $6 million in annual revenues and become the foremost erosion and sediment control contracting business in the state. Carpenter, a specialty contractor for area developers at the time, simply wanted to finish a trenching job and get a fabric silt fence at a housing development installed with some degree of efficiency.
It was August, the rain clouds had been stingy that summer and the clay had been baked hard in the cruel heat. “Thirty seconds in, I thought, ‘This is the stupidest thing I have ever done,’” Carpenter recalled. Frustrated, he gave up on the trencher and returned to the old standby used by farmers to cut furrows. He hitched a tractor to a one-bottom plow and made short work of the job, doing it better and more efficiently than he could have on the rented trencher.
That winter, he scoured junk yards for spare parts, welded them together and created what he calls his own “better mousetrap,” a piece of equipment that would become the first Tommy Silt Fence Machine and change industry standards. Carpenter said he ran it past seven Iowa Department of Transportation engineers – “very conservative people,” he said – and all pronounced it a vast improvement, so he began perfecting his invention and obtained a patent for the product that would launch Carpenter Erosion Control.
Soon, contractors throughout Iowa and Minnesota were using the machine. It set a new industry standard, and Carpenter avoided seasonal layoffs and kept his employees busy in the winter manufacturing the Tommy Silt Fence Machine.
Carpenter, it appeared, had found his niche. He’d graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in business in 1974, but drifted between industries for several years. He worked in commercial real estate, banking, advertising and landscaping before he and his wife, Pepper Ricci, decided the Tommy Silt Fence Machine had tremendous potential and “decided to jump into the erosion control business.”
Carpenter’s company started out on firm financial footing with development of the Tommy Silt Fence Machine because Carpenter brought in a local angel investor. “A lot of start-ups struggle because they’re not properly capitalized,” he said.
That’s how Carpenter Erosion Control was born, but Carpenter’s ingenuity wasn’t limited to one invention. He’s written a book, “Silt Fence That Works,” an industry bible of sorts. He went through the rigorous process to become a certified professional in erosion and sediment control – one of about 20 people in Iowa to earn the distinction – and began inspecting construction sites and helping contractors with their pollution prevention plans.
All of that left his business well poised when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came to town in 2004 and, through its state partner, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, began cracking down on developers and builders for a failure to comply with sections of the Clean Water Act of 1970. That legislation requires that sediment be retained at its source of origin. To accomplish that goal, the rules require contractors to develop a Storm Water Pollution Protection Plan, which typically would call for silt fences to hold sediment in place and other methods to prevent erosion until permanent groundcover can be established.
That’s Carpenter Erosion Control’s past. It’s bright – the company has been profitable since its inception, Carpenter says – but dull, perhaps, in comparison with its future.
He’s invented another product, ScourStop, that commercial real estate professionals like Chris Murray can’t stop raving about. ScourStop is a heavy-duty plastic mat installed at a culvert outlet to protect against soil erosion. Vegetation grows through the holes in the mat, making it an aesthetically pleasing alternative to rock riprap. Once the vegetation has grown, ScourStop is hidden from view and the groundcover can be mowed.
Murray, executive vice president of Denny Elwell Co., an Ankeny-based realestate development company that developed the business park where Carpenter’s company is located, predicted the product will cause a paradigm shift in the industry. “This will really revolutionize the market and make riprap virtually non-existent,” he said, adding out his company will use ScourStop on most of its development projects.
“It’s aesthetically appealing, but also effective in preventing wash-out,” he said. “It allows you to take space that would not be counted as green space.”
Carpenter says, and Murray agrees, that ScourStop is also more effective at preventing erosion than riprap, which can move under strong pressure and take soil with it, and will last longer.
Testing at Colorado State University, using cumulative 30-minute duration flows of 8, 12 and 16 feet per second, confirmed ScourStop mats mechanically protect the soil from scour. The product was found to withstand more than double the allowable flows for riprap, which Carpenter said “completely blew out” in strong velocities of 16 feet per second.
Today, Carpenter won’t speculate specifically on how far the new product might propel his business. “I have a hard time going there,” he said, “but ScourStop has the potential to be huge.”
The product is so important to the business’ future that Carpenter has hired Tim “Pete” Peters as vice president to oversee the day-to-day operations of the business, which employs about 35 full-time workers, so he can concentrate on product development and marketing. Carpenter hopes to introduce the ScourStop in 10 major markets this year, including fast-growing areas on the East Coast.
Peters likes the entrepreneurial culture at Carpenter Erosion Control and hopes to nurture and retain it as the company matures. “So many companies grow, but don’t capture the culture of what got them here,” said Peters, a restaurant manager for most of his professional career. He handled a couple of turnarounds and then decided to apply his skills in other industries.
“It’s a challenge to keep companies in that entrepreneurial phase as long as humanely possible,” he said. “If you analyze every single thing in the world, it’s just not as much fun.”
Peters also appreciates the fact that Carpenter’s innovations have had a positive effect on the environment, even if stewardship wasn’t the inventor’s primary goal.
“It was purely entrepreneurial,” Carpenter said. “I was challenged by the problem. I want to use my time most efficiently and effectively.
“With the trencher, that was going to cost me a lot more work. With ScourStop, I saw a huge problem. The [erosion and sediment control] industry had been going for a while, but nobody was doing anything about it.”
Carpenter approaches problems scientifically, which sets him apart from many of his competitors, and thoroughly tests his products before taking them to market, Peters said.
“If you look at, all of [Carpenter Erosion Control’s] products may be to lessen work, but in every single instance, it has impacted the environment positively,” Peters said. “Competitors approach it from trying to be environmentally friendly, but the product didn’t get them there because they didn’t start with a scientific approach. We don’t want to market claims we want to market substance.”