Northern Michigan Operations Vice President John Prescott (left) and Regional General Manager Kreg Wyskochil are shown in the dispatch office at Taplin’s facility in Kalkaska.
SCOTT BELLINGER, MOGN Managing Editor
KALAMAZOO, Mich. — The establishment in late 2016 by Steve Taplin, founder of Kalamazoo-based environmental remediation company Terra Contracting, of a group of new environmental service firms, that include Taplin Group and Taplin Holdings, is just the latest chapter in an evolving story of diversification into new markets utilizing common equipment and common personnel that began more than six decades ago when Taplin’s father, Al Taplin, bought a business called A & B Sewer Cleaning for $800.
According to a news release issued late last year by Taplin Group, LLC, the “new” Taplin companies grew out of a rich history in the environmental services industry, bringing with them expertise and a reputation as an industry leader, offering a broad range of environmental services that include energy services, industrial cleaning, underground infrastructure, asbestos abatement, specialty remediation and civil construction.
Taplin Group opened its doors with over 150 employees, with headquarters in Kalamazoo, and additional locations in Kalkaska and Romulus, Mich. and San Antonio, Texas, and has since grown to about 165 employees companywide, Taplin said.
The original family business evolved and grew from cleaning sewer drain lines to industrial cleaning work — using similar equipment, Steve Taplin noted in a recent interview. “In the 1960s, he [Taplin’s father, Al Taplin] found himself working for industry because in those days the septic tank guys were the only ones with pump trucks that could haul waste out of a plant.”
A turning point for his father’s company came when one of his big customers, the Fuller transmission plant in Kalamazoo, wanted to clean all the piping under the plant, Taplin said. “A big company out of Chicago wanted to come in and do that work, and my dad said, ‘Oh no, you’re not,’ and he invested in a “jet truck” to clean the piping using high pressure water.”
With the new equipment at its disposal, the company not only got into industry and industrial services but also found it could do work for cities doing the same thing, Taplin said. In the mid-1970s the company bought its first “TV truck,” enabling it to inspect city sewers and bought even bigger sewer cleaning trucks that could be used in work for cities and for vacuuming up fly ash at power plants and cleaning up pits and tanks at the many paper mills once operating in Kalamazoo.
Residential work was still a part of the business and in the 1980s one of Steve Taplin’s brothers bought the residential business from their father, with Steve and his two oldest brothers staying in the industrial and municipal work, which eventually led to their first environmental remediation work in 1983.
“We had multiple markets, which we were pursuing with common equipment and common personnel,” Taplin said. “This gave us the ability to switch both human and equipment assets from one division to another if work would slow down in one area,” he added.
“We were transporting hazardous waste, providing emergency response services and doing spill cleanups,” Taplin said. Going into the late 1990s, Taplin said the company found itself increasing the size of the remediation work it was doing. “I found myself doing a very large project for one of the paper mills, cleaning up an old landfill that was a contributor to the PCB contamination of the Kalamazoo River. The amount of work that was coming up on the river attracted me to the remediation business, so ultimately, I left the family business.”
Taplin said he and his oldest brother did not agree on where the industry was headed. “He wanted to stay with the more traditional markets — the municipal and industrial markets — and I wanted to do something different,” Taplin said. He started Terra Contracting LLC in 2001 to pursue strictly remediation work.
Terra Contracting grew quickly, Taplin said, hitting almost $10 million in sales in its second year in business. From 2007 to 2010 it was involved in the first two phases of the Kalamazoo River Superfund cleanup. “We were traveling anywhere from New Jersey to just outside San Francisco, Calif., doing environmental remediation work,” Taplin noted. A turning point for Terra Contracting came when it became involved in remediation work on the Enbridge Line 6B oil spill near Marshall, Mich.
“At one point, we had 300 people working on that project,” Taplin said, “we were the first ones there and the last ones to leave.”
Taplin said that in 2012 Terra Contracting had 200 employees, was doing $52 million in sales and had just landed a large contract with a joint venture partner to do work for the federal government on remediation of the Great Lakes. “The financial burden was all on my shoulders and for a company of our size, it was a little bit overwhelming,” Taplin said. “I thought it was a good time to sell the company.” Which he did, at the end of 2012.
Taplin said he signed on with a three-year contract with the company that acquired Terra Contracting and at the end of that period signed up for another four years. In early 2016, Taplin said his employer decided that its goals and his were not in line with one another and let him go. By June of that year he said he had begun the process of offering to buy parts of the company back.
On Nov. 11, 2016 the sale was consummated, Taplin said. What Taplin bought back was all the former Terra Contracting’s industrial services operations, which is now called the Underground Group, the asbestos abatement division, the oil and gas division, now known as the Energy Upstream Division, the pipeline division, referred to as the Energy Midstream Division, and a small remediation business.
“We’re pursuing smaller projects rather than the great big monsters that we used to be pursuing,” Taplin said. Taplin Group does emergency response work though its industrial services, Taplin noted, adding that with the purchase, Taplin Group also took over the former Terra Contracting Kalkaska, Mich. operation.
The work done earlier by Terra Contracting for Enbridge had opened Taplin’s eyes to the possibility of doing pipeline-related work, he said, “And then I just started to think upstream of that.” Taplin said after taking a first-hand look at the booming oilfield activity in North Dakota about six years ago he realized that relationships were already in place in that region, which would make it difficult for an outsider without prior connections to break into the market.
So, he researched the oil and gas industry activity going on in the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan and saw it as a good opportunity to once again diversify and apply the professionalism and background his company already had providing services to other industries to oil and gas — in a location much closer to home.
Specifically looking to locate in the Kalkaska, Mich. area, Terra Contracting established a foothold with the 2014 acquisition from Team Services of Team’s trucking division. Team Services kept the rigs and continues to provide rig work services, Taplin said, adding that Taplin and Team Services remain customers of each other.
According to Taplin Group Regional General Manager Kreg Wyskochil, who works at the Kalkaska facility, located at 1587 Enterprise Dr., the company offers a full line of oilfield trucking services. “We have hot oilers, high pressure pump trucks, winch trucks, vac trucks and tankers, ranging from 150-bbl. to 220-bbl. capacity,” Wyskochil noted.
Taplin also does hot shot work, pipe hauling and equipment moving, Wyskochil said, and can handle site construction, site tear-out and decommissioning work with its excavation division. Taplin Group Northern Michigan Operations Vice President John Prescott, also based in Kalkaska, added that the company does tank cleanings and brine hauling and offers brine disposal services as well.
Wyskochil said, “I find myself telling customers that it’s the same guys that are servicing you — from Team to Terra to Taplin. We have employees here that have been in the oilfield for 30 years.”
After selling the company he founded, helping its new owners expand into oil and gas services, and then buying back parts of the company, Steve Taplin said that in the next couple of years he wants to — borrowing a phrase he said his 17-year-old son would use — “chill.”
“We want to make sure we’ve got good communication between our various divisions and that we’re sharing resources in a conscientious manner,” Taplin said. “Let’s get our fair share, let’s keep the staff that we’ve got there [in Kalkaska] — which are consummate professionals — let’s keep them employed because they do great work. They are second to none in their knowledge of what, where and how to do things in the oilfield. We want to keep those guys busy, use the assets that we’ve got up there, complement those assets with other equipment that we’ve got throughout our network and be ready to service our clients as the needs arise and as the market recovers,” Taplin added.