Keeping Underground Infrastructure Watertight
Hamilton Kent Inc. manufactures and supplies rubber watertight sealing systems and components such as seals and gaskets to ensure underground storm, sewer and water pipes remain watertight. Preventing underground infrastructure from leaking or absorbing unwanted water can stave off pollution, sinkholes and massive repair bills, explains company president and COO, Bernard Grégoire.
Storm pipes collect runoff from rainfall and discharge this water in streams, rivers and lakes. Keeping these pipes watertight can prevent erosion which in turn can prevent sinkholes from developing on roads. “When you see roads falling apart, a lot of time it is due to the pipe not being watertight underneath it,” states Grégoire. “The rubber seals we sell are used between sections of pipe installed underground,” he says.
Hamilton Kent (HK) also makes expansion seals for bridges and pavement, as well as products for sealing manhole connections, at manufacturing plants in Toronto and Tennessee. HK’s services include design, development, production, quality assurance testing, warehousing and shipping of their broad spectrum of products. Manufacturing processes include compression and injection moulding, extrusion, and fabrication. The end-goal is to make underground collection and conveyance systems watertight, durable, sustainable and inexpensive to maintain.
Grégoire says HK performs an important public service. He points to sanitary sewer pipes, which transport wastewater from bathrooms, kitchens, etc. to wastewater treatment facilities. Making sewer pipes watertight prevents leakage that could contaminate the environment.
At the same time, a watertight seal means groundwater accumulated during rainstorms does not enter into the sewer pipes. When extraneous water enters a sanitary sewer pipe, called inflow and infiltration (I&I), it is transported to a wastewater treatment plant. There, the rainwater is processed just like sanitary water, an expensive process, even though it should not have been in the sewer system in the first place, says Grégoire.
HK also sells gaskets for pressure pipe systems which transport potable water. The main goal here is to prevent leaks, thus saving municipalities expensive repairs and protecting our valuable water resources.
“Any system that is completely watertight will be more economical for the owner, whether it’s water pipe, a sanitary system, a storm pipe or what is referred to as combined sewers,” says Grégoire.
In a combined sewer system, wastewater and rainwater are collected and transported together. These systems, primarily found in older cities, can overwhelm wastewater treatment plant capacity during heavy rain events. These events result in overflows into public waterways and even residential backups. Municipalities that experience these events are being targeted by US Environmental Protection Agency.
Hamilton Kent’s watertight solutions for manholes include a product called The Lifespan® System, a watertight, corrosion-resistant manhole access frame, cover and adjustment-ring system. Lifespan® essentially creates a watertight seal between road and manhole, preventing rain from entering the sanitary sewer system from the top of the manhole, explains Grégoire.
Hamilton Kent was founded in 1943 in Kent, Ohio, which is where the firm gets the second part of its company name (the origins of the first part of the name are somewhat shrouded in corporate legend). HK began by making rubber products for World War II. Once the war ended, the firm shifted to making rubber gaskets for concrete pipe systems.
The company opened various sales offices over the next few decades, including one in Toronto which became a manufacturing plant in the mid-1970s. After changes in ownership, Toronto also became the company headquarters. This location still serves as the HK headquarters and the primary manufacturing plant, along with a second facility located in Winchester, Tennessee.
A decade ago, housing starts were robust. Then, the recession hit and housing starts declined, and they still haven’t recovered to post-recession levels. However, Grégoire says the company has rebounded well from the recession of 2008 to 2009.
Hamilton Kent’s sales are closely tied to housing starts (underground pipes of all kinds form a huge part of any new housing development). According to information from the U.S. Census Bureau, privately-owned housing starts in July 2005 stood at 2,042,000. In July 2016, by contrast, there were 1,211,000 privately-owned housing starts.
HK does not sell directly to municipalities, towns or other government agencies. “We sell to companies who manufacture pipe. We may sell the concept of watertight underground infrastructure to the cities, but that’s not who buys the gaskets from us,” he says.
Prior to the recession, Hamilton Kent was doing a fair amount of business in the U.S. southeast, so the company opened a new plant in Tennessee. Tennessee was chosen because of the availability of affordable labor and its central location for shipping to most of the US. The City of Winchester was chosen because the company found an existing industrial facility that could be retooled to make HK products.
Between the two plants, the company has “roughly 150” employees at present, says Grégoire. Last year at this time, the company had 145 workers in total.
He doesn’t expect to see a huge leap in personnel anytime soon, as the company recently implemented a lean manufacturing initiative. “We started [going lean] a couple years ago and a lot of the growth we have experienced has come through improvements and efficiency,” he states.
Partly as a reflection of the focus on lean, Hamilton Kent wants new hires “who are willing to accept change, because the business and manufacturing environments are changing fast nowadays … people have to be willing to be more flexible than before. When you look at lean manufacturing implementation, people have to be willing to work as a team and willing to adapt to change.”
While both Hamilton Kent plants are ISO 9001-2008 and 14001:2004 certified, Grégoire regards this more as a commitment than a bragging point. Maintaining ISO certifications involves discipline, documentation and hard-work, he points out. The firm would rather endeavor to adhere to ISO principles than show off by “putting a big banner on the building saying that we are ISO certified,” adds Grégoire.
Safety is also a big issue at Hamilton Kent—both for workers and the environment at large. “Safety is always our first subject of discussion at weekly management meetings. Any incident happening in the plant is reported to me; it goes straight to the top. We’re extremely conscious of our impact on the safety of our people and the environment … we have a very stringent corporate safety system that our owners appreciate,” he says.
As for the bigger picture, the company remains focused on its mission, which is built around “protecting the environment by supplying a very high-quality product,” he adds. To add to the spirit of environmentalism, Hamilton Kent has also put a new emphasis on product innovation, organic growth and using customer feedback for future development.
For promotional purposes, HK uses social media and email marketing and has a presence at major industry trade shows, but primarily relies on its technical and sales support and solid reputation to attract new customers.
The company is eager to expand, particularly into global markets. “We consider ourselves a North American company with some sales internationally, which is outside of North America,” says Grégoire.
The overall state of the economy is one of the biggest challenges currently facing the firm. “The level of construction activity in the market is probably not going to return to 2006 levels. The housing bubble led to overbuilding in the early 2000s. The pendulum went too high; then it went too low. Now it is correcting and that’s why we are looking at organic growth. We cannot just count on growth from housing starts. We have to take control of our growth,” he states.
During the recession, HK retained its most skilled, longest serving workers. Many of them are still with the firm, and Hamilton Kent wants to make sure it has new employees in place when these veterans retire.
In terms of the future, “Our main focus now is to grow geographically and grow organically with the expansion of our product line. At this time, we’re trying to grow in our core business. We’re not going to start to producing seals for the automotive industry. We’re not in that market. We want to stay focused on what we do best.”
That said, HK is open to expanding its customer base. “Our goal is to grow within the infrastructure market. This could involve slightly different areas than what we do now and slightly different projects—railroads, tunnels, more bridges. It could be infrastructure as a whole—civil engineering work,” says Grégoire.
Grégoire has a common-sense message he wants to convey. He urges government officials to invest in “good, watertight underground infrastructure” now rather than skimping on such financial outlays. While stingy budgets might save money in the short-term, lack of spending could mean costly repair bills in years to come, warns Grégoire.
“It’s always an issue with government: do you pay a little bit more upfront to save the money in the long-term? I think this is happening, not just only in water infrastructure, but in [other infrastructure] as well,” he states.
The future appears to be bright for Hamilton Kent as the company directs its efforts into areas most valued by its customers, and innovates in ways that will be beneficial to cities, municipalities and the environment.