Industry: Energy & Enviro
Products: Environmental monitoring equipment, plastics, and unmanned aerial services
Manufacturing is in CEO Jeff Popiel's DNA, and his growing products and plastics business is planting seeds for a new generation of companies.
Geotech Environmental Equipment has come full circle -- and then some -- in its more than 60 years in business. "In 1956, it was a machine shop," says Popiel. Popiel's father and uncle initially bought Leonard Bolt and Die as an investment.
Then President Jimmy Carter signed the Clean Water Act in 1977. "The geologists at the U.S. Geological Survey at the Federal Center in Lakewood were required to test water, but the equipment didn't exist to do it," says Popiel. "My uncle and dad [Jerry Popiel and Wes Allbritain] had ideas to make it better."
And the geologists liked their ideas -- they were building water-testing gadgets themselves. "Because they were geologists, they wanted to kick rocks and test water, not assemble things," says Popiel.
The Geotech name was born in 1978, and the machine shop was spun off as a separate business, and for 30 years the company's bread and butter was environmental testing and monitoring equipment for companies like CH2M.
Then the Great Recession happened. "We had excess capacity because of the drop in our core business," says Popiel. "We looked for customers that could use the parts we could make. It challenged us to do the same thing on parts acquisition. We came out of it with a stronger local network."
Geotech also came out of with a much more diverse business. "We looked at our business model differently. We don't have to make exclusively environmental monitoring equipment," says Popiel. "We'll make anything that fits our skill set."
Today the company, based in northeast Denver, has a booming sub-brand in Universal Plastics, a 2005 Geotech acquisition that makes extruded plastic tubing for a variety of applications. Universal's local clients include Vestas, Carefree Colorado, and Hoopologie. "We're servicing other local manufacturers," says Popiel.
Geotech further diversified when it acquired drone manufacturer Leptron in 2015, a move designed to pair unmanned aerial systems with existing environmental monitoring clients.
One key to Geotech's diversification, says Popiel, has been "learning how to Google better." More targeted searching and search-engine optimization (SEO) helped Geotech find more local partners and customers both. The end result? More local manufacturing jobs. "They aren't going to China," says Popiel.
The company has been based in a 125,000-square-foot facility, a former car dealership, in north Denver since 2006. Growth has been "steady," says Popiel. The staff has increased from 89 in 2009 to 122 in 2017.
Productivity is up since the move to a Lean mindset in 2008, Popiel says. "Everyone wants to participate in the culture of the company and offer ideas to improve," he says. "I don't have any more votes than anyone else. That's huge."
Innovation is also an integral part of the company culture, he adds. "It's not one big thing, it's hundreds and thousands of little things. Chasing one big thing, that's where a lot of companies fall apart."
Challenges: "Hiring people with the right skill set and mindset that see manufacturing as a career," says Popiel. "This is where the state and the city are coming in, trying to rebrand manufacturing."
Opportunities: "The biggest opportunity for us is to continue to find local firms we can make parts for," says Popiel. "We can re-shore jobs and bring manufacturing back."
Needs: A higher-education pathway for manufacturing. "That could change everything," he adds. "I would pay employees to get a manufacturing degree -- I don't want them to get an IT degree. Now that they've taken the trades out of the schools, we need to create a career path for the kids who can't sit still."
Sales growth for Leptron is another need. Popiel says the latter's services are popular, but he wants to sell more drones outright.