Weapon of war, remade
You could say Bob Barrett and Al Ruckman really nailed it when they recognized a commercial use for the British military’s surplus nerve gas launchers, secret military technology declassified a few years after an international agreement in 1975 that called for a stop to the use of chemical weapons.
It’s one of the reasons the Colorado Mesa University School of Business last week bestowed on the second-generation enterprise, GeoStabilization International, the 2016 Entrepreneur of the Year award.
The duo’s journey started about 15 years ago when they discovered the technology behind the launchers turned “swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks,” transforming a weapon of mass destruction into a leading edge, life-protecting solution for dangerous landslides around the world.
Their discovery, the “soil nail launcher,” was initially innovated by a British company during the 1980s, but the company had no success marketing the tool and was eventually bought out by another, which abandoned it, Ruckman said.
Working in the private sector for a regional contractor after decades working with the Colorado Department of Transportation, Barrett and Ruckman, always researching, learned about the launcher and traveled to Great Britain to look it over.
“We went over to Wales to take a look,” Ruckman said. “It was in a 400-year-old animal shelter ... with a thatched roof. It was there in pieces and parts — parts spread across tables, things that looked like coffee cans and all kinds of sensors and such.
“We looked at it and said, ‘Sure, that looks good to us,’” he recalled with a chuckle. “And so we went to the company we were working for, but we couldn’t persuade them to buy it. We decided we really needed it, so me and Bob bought it. We mortgaged everything.”
Though Ruckman continued to believe his employer would eventually relent and buy the launcher for what he and Barrett had invested, the contractor repeatedly turned them down.
“They just flat didn’t want it. I can’t tell you why. I don’t have a clue,” he said.
Eventually, a job in Rio Blanco County came up. It was a complicated geo-hazard situation presenting an ideal opportunity to demonstrate the use of soil nails. When their employer passed on the contract, Barrett and Ruckman took the plunge, formed their own company, Soil Nails, Inc., made a bid, and completed the job successfully.
“It was the biggest risk I’ve ever seen him take,” said Ruckman’s daughter, Kim Ruckman-Wright, the family-owned company’s chief administrative officer.
Over time, the business hired many more experienced and innovative geologists and geo-technical engineers to use the launcher, along with modified drills and crane baskets, to mitigate landslides and stabilize slopes. The design and mitigation services provided by Soil Nails proved so successful, a second company, GeoStabilization International, was launched.
Today, GeoStabilization employs more than 250 geo-hazard mitigation experts who work on projects around the nation and in Canada. A New Zealand firm also pays royalties to use the technology.
Barrett and Ruckman secured initial patents for their nerve gas launcher modifications about a decade ago and, with the help of many talented technicians and engineers, continued to modify and improve the design. New patents for soil nail launcher improvements are currently pending, Ruckman said.
The launcher drives 20-foot-long steel nails with serrated tips into unstable soil. The nails have repeatedly proved effective on difficult terrain, supplying a permanent fix for collapsing hillsides. The fix is delivered quickly, normally at about 50 percent of the cost of traditional methods, according to a review of the process published earlier this year in The Professional Geologist.
“The launcher uses 4,000 pounds per square inch of air. All the energy is on the tip” due to a type of mechanical collar that surrounds the serrated tip and captures the energy of the compressed air, Ruckman-Wright said.
“The nail hits the ground at about 220 mph and shocks the soil away. Then it collapses back around the nail, so we get the same bond strength as if we drilled. It’s the shock wave that pulls the nail into the ground.”
The current record for soil nails driven in a single day is 248, about 225 more than competing companies can manage using different technology, he said.
Soil nails are applicable in just a fraction of the geo-hazard mitigation jobs GeoStabilization takes on. A large inventory of technology that includes more than 30 drills and other more traditional geo-hazard mitigation tools makes the company agile and able to bid on all jobs, said Barrett’s son, Colby, the company president.
In 2008, Colby Barrett and Tim Ruckman built on the foundation provided by their fathers and formed GeoStabilization International, considered by many industry analysts to be “the leading geo-hazard mitigation company in North America,” Colby Barrett said.
The sons enjoy talents “very complementary” of each other, Barrett said.
“(GeoStabilization) take(s) a totally different approach to fixing geo-technical hazards,” he said. “What I mean by that is ... we come out at the problem stage, right after the landslide happens and (are) able to design, construct, implement and warranty a full-service solution that’s usually using newer, innovative technology.”
Ruckman and Bob Barrett first worked together starting more than 45 years ago during their employment with the Colorado Department of Transportation, which was known as the Highway Department when they started in the 1960s.
Barrett served as chief geologist for design and construction of Interstate 70 across the Rocky Mountains, while Ruckman helped design and supervise construction of fabric walls for the final link of Interstate 70 built through Glenwood Canyon between 1980 and 1992.