SIX years ago, investment banker Jaqueline Outram and her brother-in-law Scott Baggs, a commercial fencing contractor, were looking for a career change.
While searching for business ideas they came across a US-developed technology that allows for ‘trenchless’ pipe replacement.
Following extensive research on the technology and a trip to the US, Ms Outram and Mr Baggs decided to secure the patents and introduce the concept into Australia through their business, RePipe.
Three years into the venture, RePipe has experienced an average 30 per cent growth in turnover, worked with WA Gas Networks, the Water Corporation and Mirvac, and won the AMP innovation award and the Yellow Pages social responsibility award at the Telstra WA Business Awards last month.
Ms Outram said it was her childhood memories of the disruption associated with traditional pipe replacement that prompted the search for a less invasive and safer way of replacing pipes.
“I’d grown up in a house with the old vitreous clay pipes and I had flashbacks to Saturday nights with mum digging up the garden trying to get tree roots out of the pipes and not wanting to replace the pipes because it would ruin the petunias,” she said.
“So straight away, I knew Australia needed this ... and we could see real potential to have a business where we could take this technology and use it for any pipe.”
Ms Outram said RePipe’s technology eliminated 95 per cent of excavation normally required, and allowed for the replacement and upsizing of underground pipes through using ‘keyholes’ as opposed to digging a trench.
“We put a keyhole pit at either end, push a cable through the existing pipe and attached to one end of that cable is a bursting head, which is pulled through the pipe and breaks and disperses it into the existing ground; the new pipe is pulled through at the same time,” Ms Outram told WA Business News.
Ms Outram said RePipe’s ability to install a brand new pipe and upsize it if needed, set it apart from other pipe replacement businesses.
As part of their business strategy, Ms Outram and Mr Baggs decided to target all customer segments for their pipe replacement services, including the utility, commercial, industrial and residential sectors.
“Generally what you will find in our industry is that plumbers will take care of home owners, civil contractors will take care of utilities, and commercial plumbers will take care of the hospitals,” Ms Outram said.
“But instead of providing a broad range of services, we wanted to find a way to replace underground pipes for any pipes and become underground pipe replacement specialists.”
When RePipe started operations in January of 2008, it was given a kickstart after being approached by WA Gas Networks to work on a substantial gas mains replacement program.
This forced Ms Outram and Mr Baggs, who were working as project manager/CEO and technology operator/COO respectively, to employ more staff to work on the project.
“We started with five staff for the WA Gas Networks job and we employed people we knew were very good at field work, so they were generally ex-miners and we even put on a fellow from the rally driving industry, because we wanted a hand with the risk management side of things,” Ms Outram said.
In April 2009, property developer Mirvac approached the company to replace the pipes relating at its apartment developments behind at Burswood.
Ms Outram said the position of the pipes under main roads meant traditional excavation and trenching methods would have been both costly and time consuming.
“We just put a keyhole pit on either side and didn’t have to disturb any of the road or natural surroundings ... we started the job on a Monday and by Wednesday it was done,” she said.
In addition to being a more efficient method of pipe replacement, Ms Outram said the RePipe technology and method was safer and often less expensive than traditional trenching methods.
“With other equipment you’re at the bottom of a six-metre deep manhole, it’s dark and when you’re dealing with that much pressure, it’s a very dangerous situation; but once our equipment is installed everyone is out of the pit and it’s a far safer option,” she said.
“Also, if you’re going to trench, you have to replace the roads, the highways and the buildings, and those extra costs are added on top.”
However, running the business has not come without its difficulties, and Ms Outram cited the steep learning curve required and marketing RePipe’s services as some of the biggest challenges.
“The most challenging thing for us over the last three years has been proving not only the brand new technology, but the two of us being completely brand new to the pipe industry, so that has also been a challenge,” Ms Outram said.
Now, the pair’s main focus is to expand RePipe’s marketing campaign and venture further into the residential pipe replacement market.
“In the last 12 months we have started to educate home owners, but how do you describe this process to a home owner, because they don’t want to hear that you are going to go out there and burst their pipes,” she said.
“So we’ve found we have had to invent two or three languages for each market segment, and for home owners we call it ‘re-piping’.”