Stabilizing force: Inventive entrepreneurs cater to customers on shaky ground

Al Ruckman
Al Ruckman
Robert Barrett
Robert Barrett

Phil Castle, The Business Times

        Al Ruckman and Robert Barrett have developed a variety of techniques to help customers on shaky ground — everything from launching long steel tubes into unstable slopes to keeping rocks in place on overhanging cliffs.

The ultimate objective never changes,  though, Ruckman says. “The big thing we’re going to do is solve problems.”

That combination of inventive technology and customer service — along with an unwavering adherence to core company values — have served Ruckman and Barrett well as they’ve overseen the growth of their Grand Junction-based business from a small operation into one of the leading geological hazard mitigation companies worldwide.

Ruckman and Barrett were recognized for their efforts in their selection as Entrepreneurs of the Year. Colorado Mesa University, the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce and Business Incubator Center present the award as part of the annual Entrepreneurship Day event at CMU.

“We’re just very, very pleased,” Ruckman says of the award. But he’s quick to share the credit. “It’s for the company, not just Bob and I.”

Ruckman and Barrett founded what’s now called GeoStabilization International. The company offers a range of services to protect people and infrastructure from such hazards as unstable slopes, landslides and rockfalls.

While GeoStabilization International is headquartered in a former church on 31 Road in Grand Junction, its operations extend across the United States and Canada as well as Australia and New Zealand. The company employs 35 people in the Grand Valley and a total of nearly 230 people elsewhere.

Ruckman and Barrett started the company in 2002 following long careers as engineers working in public sector transportation, including the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Ruckman says they were involved in many projects, including various aspects of the design and construction of Interstate Highway 70 over Vail Pass and through Glenwood Canyon.

The two decided to go into business for themselves, Ruckman says, after researching the potential for using British military equipment to stabilize soil. A compressed air cannon originally designed to launch chemical weapons also could be used to launch soil nails, long steel or fiberglass tubes inserted into unstable soils.

Ruckman says the two were unsuccessful in convincing their employers at the time to try the equipment, so they decided to purchase the equipment themselves and started a landslide remediation company they called Soil Nail Launcher.

The equipment uses air compressed to 4,000 pounds per square inch to launch soil nails 20 feet long and 1.5 inches in diameter at 250 miles an hour, Ruckman says.

The technology offers a number of advantages over the traditional technique of first drilling holes to install soil nails, he says.

When soil nails are launched, they create a shock wave that causes the soil to jump away from the tip, but then collapse onto the tube in a relatively undisturbed state. That results in the same or greater strength than soil nails installed in drilled holes, he says.

But the launcher can install soil nails far more quickly than other methods, he says. While an average of 75 nails can be installed in a day, as many as 250 nails have been installed in a single day, he says. The average for other types of installation is 25 nails a day.

Moreover, soil nail launchers can be installed on different kinds of articulated construction equipment, making them portable and capable of use in remote locations, Ruckman says.

In addition to soil nail launchers, GeoStablization International uses other techniques in solving clients’ problems, including a process in which alternating layers of fabrics and compacted fill material are used to reinforce the earthwork behind bridge abutments, foundations and retaining walls.

Still other techniques are used to mitigate rockfalls, including meshes, bolts and polyurethane resins. Ruckman and Barrett also conducted research to develop barriers that withstand the force of falling rocks.

Given the technology and expertise at its disposal, GeoStablization International can respond quickly to what are often emergency situations, develop a solution in a matter of hours and correct the situation in a matter of days, Ruckman says.

GeoStablization International has been a family operation from nearly the beginning. In 2008, Ruckman’s and Barrett’s sons — Tim Ruckman and Colby Barrett — took over administration as chief executive officer and president, respectively. Ruckman’s daughter, Kim Ruckman-Wright, serves as chief administrative officer.

Promoting safety and protecting the family — members of both the literal families as well as the extended company family — are among the core values to which the business adheres, Ruckman says.

What he called a recipe for business success also includes some other important ingredients, among them the requirements to always do the right thing and ensure the best value for clients. That means if the company isn’t best positioned to solve a client’s problem, it will recommend a competitor, he says.

Success also is a matter of working hard and gaining an advantage through innovation, Ruckman says.

In addition to following those guidelines, Ruckman also advises aspiring entrepreneurs to become experts in the field in which they choose to work, find a niche for products and services and provide them differently and better than competitors and remain willing to take risks.

Ruckman says Bob Barrett likes to cite a proverb: “I wish I was as smart as my customers.” Customers know what they want, Ruckman says. It’s up to good companies to provide it.

For more information about GeoStabilization International, log on to www.geostabilization.com.