Snelson Companies opened its doors in 1946 as a small family-owned plumbing and heating business in Sedro-Woolley, WA. Frank Snelson, Sr. opened and ran the business with his three sons, Frank Jr., Jack and Bill. Bill, the youngest of the three, took over for his father in 1957. By 1966, Snelson was among the top hundred mechanical contracting firms in the U.S.
In 1990, Bill Snelson sold the company which was then owned and managed by Ed Shannon and Brian Ganske, two well-recognized names in the pipeline industry. In 2012, the company was acquired by the PLH Group, a holding company that is part of Energy Capital Partners, and Greg Gapinski was named president, leaving a job as senior vice president of CH2MHILL. The holder of a bachelor of arts in Business Administration, Management and Finance, he and his wife, Debra, have three grown children.
In this insightful interview, Gapinski talks about joining Snelson, some of the goals he has set, and the plans to expand the firm’s geographic boundaries.
P&GJ: You’ve had a 25-year career in the energy industry. How did you initially get involved in the business?
Gapinski: I was actually working for a defense contractor in the ’80s as a project contracts engineer when I interviewed with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (Alyeska Pipeline Service Company). A VP asked me a question that changed my career. He said, ‘I know you have some options, but do you want to be in a field that you have to wait for your boss to retire to get a promotion? Or, do you want to work in an industry that will hand you all the responsibility you can handle and keep giving it to you as long as you perform?’ I thought it over and accepted their offer, moving to Alaska, thinking I’d stay a couple years. We finally left Alaska 25 year later. And that question held true the entire time.
P&GJ: Is there one person whom you consider your mentor?
Gapinski: The one person that shaped my leadership style and who I learned more from was in the late ’90s at Alyeska. Bob Malone was president and I was sort of his chief of staff. I shadowed Bob for almost two years and learned more about handling crises, motivating people, challenging the norm, and creating expectations for an organization than I would have in 10 years on another job.
P&GJ: What led you to join Snelson Companies in September 2012?
Gapinski: I was with CH2MHILLmanaging pipeline construction for joint venture projects in Russia and Kazakhstan when I was contacted about the position of president for Snelson. I was actually in Russia when Mark Crowson, the PLH CEO, offered me the position.
P&GJ: What are some of the goals that you’ve set since joining Snelson?
Gapinski: When I joined Snelson we had very distinct divisions. Pipeline, Integrity and Distribution. Each had its own processes, project work and estimating systems, so the organization had distinct siloes. We were very geographically focused on the Pacific Northwest.
My first goal was an initiative called “One Snelson,” getting people working together and establishing standardized processes, project controls, estimating, and support functions. The vision was an employee could go from location to location, from division to division and all the tools, programs, reports, estimating and internal controls would be consistent and clear. This is almost 100% in place and has made us a stronger company, enabling us to expand our geographic boundaries.
Another goal was to expand our bidding geography. We had primarily focused on the West Coast and didn’t bid aggressively east of the Mississippi. We are now starting to do that. While it is a very focused effort and primarily this first phase is to educate new clients on who we are, the emphasis is to expand our client base and be acknowledged for the size organization we are and to promote our extensive experience in constructing large-diameter pipelines, performing on mountainous terrain, and our experience in integrity pipeline programs.
P&GJ: How would you describe your leadership style?
Gapinski: I like being surrounded by people with confidence that don’t look for approval on everything they do day-to-day. Senior people need to take charge, be accountable and make decisions. People don’t own the issue or the problem if you make all the decisions so they need to be invested in their decisions and in the company, and know they’re contributing to the organization’s success. My style is to work with my direct reports to establish expectations, and then monitor their progress. Hold them accountable for their performance, advise them on issues when they need it, but not second guess them on their day-to-day activities or decisions.
I also like to brainstorm but I have to be careful. I might throw out a bunch of “what if we…” and the next thing I know one of those has taken on a life of its own. I remind my people my ideas aren’t always to be implemented, they are just to get the conversation going, and if the idea sounds crazy, say so.
P&GJ: What are some of the changes that have occurred since the acquisition by the PLH Group?
Gapinski: The changes from private ownership to a holding company or in our situation, a private equity group, are always impactful. The equity company infused the organization with capital for equipment and infrastructure investment, and built up our fleet of owned pieces of equipment which allows us to be more competitive on some bids.
We did experience some flexibility loss in decision making. Asking for approvals that the “old” organization could approve internally with just a call to the president’s office is a big change for people. The changes that came with the human resources pool of benefits as we were standardized across the country took some time and a lot of personal interaction.
We also had to embrace several initiatives as the PLH Group standardized operating processes, procedures and approval levels. Some of those changes affected us significantly, and others we showed that our Snelson process was strong enough and they were adopted throughout PLH.
P&GJ: Snelson Companies offers a diverse range of services throughout the U.S. In what regions have you been most active the past 18-24 months and what types of services have crews been providing?
Gapinski: Beyond the West Coast, the western states and Texas, we have worked in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania and are beginning to bid actively on the East Coast. In Washington we have distribution and compressor station work and keep a number of crews busy working the Pacific Northwest. In California we’re heavily involved in integrity programs for multiple clients. We also track bid opportunities for large-diameter pipeline construction all over the country.
P&GJ: What changes have you seen in operators in the recent past, since many are relatively new to the pipeline sector?
Gapinski: We see a wide range of requirements in working around the country. Well-established operators have very specific design criteria, processes for construction and safety, and we know what their goals are, i.e., timeliness of completion, safety, and certain project reporting requirements. As we see new operators enter the market, the goals change. Sometimes it’s about the money, other times they want your ideas on cost savings and creativity in construction.
Others are unbending in their contract documents and yet some will negotiate everything in order to get the deal they are after. Risk management is a bigger issue today than ever. Some operators want to risk assess everything and have you price it while others use it to curb their unknown costs and avoid high contingencies in bids.
P&GJ: What about changes in the pipeline contractor sector?
Gapinski: The number of contractors in the business continues to grow. We see more competition all the time. As the newcomers are establishing their spread availability we see the operators driving competition with increased numbers of bidders. We also see more companies doing what we are attempting to do – expand their geographic footprint.
Advances in technology are making companies more aware of the opportunities available while also making for a more competitive environment for operators. The ups and downs of demand do stabilize the market, and the strongest companies with the best history of completion and safety continue to hold their market share. It’s a constant battle to maintain your share and maintain your footprint in the market.
P&GJ: How many employees does Snelson have and who are your main clients?
Gapinski: Our core staff is about 130 personnel and the work crews all come from the unions. We carry our administrative staff, project managers, superintendents, safety, and certain lead field employees year round. We have others that have worked for us for years on a job and are then recalled for the next job. The total employees can range from 300 to 2,000, depending on time of year and how busy we are with mainline work. We have longstanding relationships with Questar, Williams, BP, TransCanada, Cascade Natural Gas, Puget Sound Energy, PG&E, Sempra, Xcel and Southwest Gas. We’re constantly working this area and as we expand our geography, we have been cultivating relationships with many other clients around the country.
P&GJ: How have you seen the focus on safety change during your career?
Gapinski: It’s important to recognize the dramatic improvements in safety throughout our industry. Over the past 25 years the culture of keeping people safe has gone through a metamorphosis unlike anything else we have encountered. We migrated from telling people to “be safe” to understanding the need for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), to better understanding that PPE isn’t what keeps you safe. It’s the approach, attitude, assessment of the job, understanding the dangers, and the desire not only to be safe, but to keep your co-worker safe that really changes a culture of safety in a company and industry and keeps people from getting injured.
P&GJ: What’s your view on industry consolidation?
Gapinski: The consolidation has changed the dynamic tremendously in this industry. There are more holding companies than ever and this has created “team” dynamics that are affecting everyone. Some clients will only let one company within a family of companies bid a job; others have no problem with it. Most large holding companies are double breasted and push the competition internally as well as externally.
Specialty companies as sister subsidiaries create team relationships that provide us with better availability of the resources, but at the same time restrict the competitive aspect of your subcontractor bidding process. This has also created the national approach to bidding; not only are we bidding a larger geography, we see more companies bidding out in our area as well. The constant push to grow drives everyone beyond their traditional boundaries.
Greg Gapinski has been president of Snelson Companies Inc. since September, 2012. His past experience includes senior vice president ofCH2MHILL Energy and Chemicals, Operations and Maintenance Services Business Unit, International Operations. Prior to this, he worked with Arctic Slope Regional Corporation in Anchorage, Alaska as well as Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration, management and finance from Columbia College, Columbia, MO.