Creativity and pipelines are perfect match for Geoff Connors.
Which brings us to Geoff W. Connors, president and founder PipeSak Inc., a company that manufactures products specially designed to offer your pipeline a comfortable and safe resting place. The company is headquartered in London, Ontario and also has an office in Houston.
Connors, a native of Canada, graduated from the the University of Waterloo with a Bachelor of Applied Science and a degree in civil engineering. The 58-year-old father of five and grandfather of two worked for Union Gas for several years and it was during the construction of a natural gas pipeline that it occurred to him that there had to be a better way of holding down pipe than with cumbersome concrete weights.
He subsequently invented the geotextile pipeline saddleweight. His latest innovation for which he is applying for worldwide patents is an intrench support system called the PipePillo[TM].
In this interview, Connors discusses his career, his company, and his industry.
P&GJ: Where are you from originally and what were your interests as a young man?
Connors: I'm originally from Sarnia, Ontario, Canada--which is one of south-eastern Canada's energy hubs. My interests as a young man involved sports of all kinds and cars.
P&GJ: What motivated you to find a career in the energy industry, in particular pipelines?
Connors: My initial motivation for a career in the energy industry came from one of my early employers--Union Gas (UG). UG owns and operates a large natural gas transmission network. They hired me right out of university to help them design and build large-diameter natural gas transmission pipelines. My early days with UG were exciting times. I was given a lot of responsibility and I learned a lot in a short period of time.
P&GJ: What is the history of PipeSak and how has it grown through the years? What is your business strategy, and how has that evolved over time?
Connors: Great questions! Back in the late '80's, I used to order a lot of 14,000-lb. concrete set-on weights for 42-inch and later 48-inch OD pipelines. These weights were large, expensive and difficult to place. With our corrosion department's general dislike of concrete set-on weights, I thought there must be a better way. While in a pipe mill/coating plant I noticed the fusion bond epoxy (FBE) powder came in one-ton bags! I wondered--could I make a seven-ton bag to replace concrete for our new 42-inch pipelines? The PipeSak geofabric saddleweight weight was born.
The geotextile fabric pipeline saddleweight (GPW or GFW) is a very strong, water permeable bag made exclusively from materials designed for underground use (geotextiles). GPWs are typically used for onshore pipelines in areas exposed to water or groundwater. Groundwater forces can create extremely buoyant environments for freshly buried pipelines --often causing them to float right up through any backfill. When the GPW bag is filled with local sand or gravel and placed over a pipeline in a straddling fashion, it ensures the pipeline stays put. One critical component of a good GFW, and the reason I developed this style of weight, is its ability to allow cathodic protection currents an easy path through to the pipe.
Since UG was not set up to market products, they allowed me to patent the idea. By 1998 my "side job" had grown to a point where I had to leave UG and start up PipeSak Inc. As the pipeline construction industry has grown, so has PipeSak--and more specifically the bag weight industry.
P&GJ: What is your business strategy and how has that evolved over time?
Connors: We were basically a one-product company for almost 16 years. Things were pretty straightforward (other than our continual battle to fend off companies infringing on our patents). With our growth, however, came more opportunities to expand our product offerings. Our business strategy is to continue to be an active and growing member of the worldwide pipeline community by providing engineered and worldclass products at competitive prices through engaged, confident and happy staff.
P&GJ: what was your biggest challenge in starting PipeSak?
Connors: Our biggest, initial challenge with the PipeSak was industry acceptance. Pipeliners are notoriously conservative with a justifiable skepticism of anything new. It was a tough struggle to convince the industry to try something new ... no matter how much better it is for long-term pipeline integrity. Our director of sales, Robin (Rocky) Seils tells me he is having a similar struggle with our newest product for pipeline support, the PipePillo[TM].
Our other big challenge early on was money! It is amazing how banks won't touch you with a 10-foot pole when you are starting out--and when you don't need them as much, they're all over you!
P&GJ: What is the most difficult part of providing pipeline support or buoyancy, and how competitive is this business?
Connors: Pipelining has always been a cyclical business (luckily the peaks and valleys are trending upward these days), so it has always been difficult to keep inventories at an optimal level. The industry is quite competitive and I do sometimes worry that we are all in a fight to the bottom when it comes to price! PipeSak is able to stay away from this battle somewhat--always keeping our focus on supplying safe, quality products.
P&GJ: You recently applied for a patent for a device called PipePillo. What is its function, and what other technologies have you developed?
Connors: The initial intent of the PipePillo is to provide in-trench pipeline support in rocky areas while limiting the amount of shielding to cathodic protection currents. It's the first 'engineered' product for this use and replaces spray in foam pillows, sand bags and sand piles.
PipePillo's use has also evolved to offer some great, safe applications outside the trench as a low-level support for pipelines during the stringing and welding phases--offering a less labor-intensive option to wooden skids. Additionally the PipePillo has been used to support piping for aboveground, temporary cooling stations; pipe storage yards; and by shop welders looking for an easier way to support piping assemblies in fabrication yards.
P&GJ: What are some of your other achievements that you are proud of?
Connors: My two oldest children, Ryan and Meghan, both work in the business--basically growing up with PipeSak these last 18 years. Along with our director of sales, Rocky, they keep PipeSak running smoothly, enabling me to work with our engineers on new innovations for the pipeline industry.
P&GJ: What are some of the pipeline projects you worked on before and after starting PipeSak?
Connors: Before PipeSak, during my days with UG (division of Spectra Energy), I worked on some of the largest diameter natural gas pipelines in North America (48-inch OD). These pipelines basically stretched across southwestern Ontario transporting natural gas to and from underground storage.
Since starting up PipeSak, we have supplied weights all over the world--from a 42-inch OD pipeline in the moors of the UK, to 48-inch OD water pipelines in Mexico and a 56-inch OD pipeline in Trinidad & Tobago. Eighty percent of our work is in the U.S., with PipeSak Inc. completing work on EPCO's Acadia pipeline and, most recently, on Enbridge's Flanagan South.
P&GJ: How would you describe your leadership style?
Connors: I would say my leadership style could be described as 'loose'. I try to keep an entrepreneurial spirit alive with all my staff- so we can keep on finding ways to help build safer pipelines.
P&GJ: What changes have you seen in the pipeline business in recent years, and are operators, many of whom are somewhat new to pipelines, expecting more from their service providers.
Connors: In recent years we have seen owning companies push more and more of the purchasing of large-ticket items (like pipeline weighting) over to the pipeline contractors. This certainly puts much more of the risk in the pipeline contractor's lap. At PipeSak we have a team of on-staff engineers available to assist our clients in developing solutions that best fit the pipeline design requirements.
We are also constantly working with owning companies to make sure their pipeline support and buoyancy control specs are up to date. In my experience, well-engineered and thought-out purchase specifications are a critical component to ensuring that only quality products are used during pipeline construction.
P&GJ: As one who actively participates in the pipeline construction process, what is your perspective of the business? Will we see more oil and/or gas pipelines? Do you think that if Keystone is blocked, that it will have a negative impact on future pipeline development?
Connors: Great question! There has been a lot of negative press surrounding pipelines in recent years due to a perceived increase in spills and leaks. The resulting environmental/political concerns have definitely impacted the approval process for new pipeline construction, most notably Keystone. At the same time, North America is seeing a boom in energy production--and that energy needs to be transported.
Since the delay of Keystone, we've seen a large shift in the way oil, gas and other products are moved, relying more and more on our nation's railways and highways. We're starting to feel the effects of this shift, with major train incidents such as the explosion in Castleton, North Dakota, the derailment in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, and the derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec--which killed 47 people--just to name a few.
While pipeline leaks can obviously be serious and damaging events, railways and highways often run directly through major urban centers where any accident can be catastrophic. Pipelines always have been and always will be the safest, most efficient way to transport energy--by a huge margin.
P&GJ: What do you look for when you hire an individual and what are your favorite questions to them?
Connors: I look for someone with energy and an inquisitive mind--someone who will question the status quo a bit and always wonder if there is a better, safer way. PipeSak is a successful company because we don't shy away from challenges--we embrace them. That's the type of mindset we look for in our employees.
One of my favorite questions is actually pretty boring, "what do you feel you could contribute to the company?" I like to hear creative, honest answers, not the standard interview responses. The culture at PipeSak is very 'engaged', from our receptionist right on up. Anyone can (and does!) walk into my office with an idea. We want employees that embrace that culture and are up to the challenge.
By Jeff Share, Editor
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|Title Annotation:||Q&A: Executive Profile|
|Publication:||Pipeline & Gas Journal|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2014|
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