Idaho Springs, Colorado
Industry: Industrial & Equipment
Products: Tunnel-maintenance and shaft-lining products and services
Co-founders Mary Jane and Kristian Loevlie have brought innovation to tunnel and mine shaft maintenance for four decades running.
"I was living in Europe when I met Kristian, and I'm from here," says Mary Jane. "He was working on underground storage tanks in Norway. His company was the first to develop wet shotcrete."
Back in the U.S., the status quo of gunite and dry shotcrete couldn't hold a candle to wet shotcrete. "I grew up with the Eisenhower Tunnel. They had this archaic process," she continues. "We came over here on vacation and he said, 'The Americans are so far behind us.'"
It follows that the married couple originally started Shotcrete Technologies to change the paradigm for tunnel maintenance in the U.S. They met some initial resistance from the contracting community. "We kind of got laughed out of shows because people didn't think it would work," says Mary Jane.
But the Loevlies were persistent and landed contracts with the New York City Subway and the Henderson Mine in Colorado by the mid-'80s. "We were just the two of us pioneering this process," says Mary Jane.
Kristian says it was not difficult to win converts once contractors realized the benefits of wet shotcrete. "If you're using gunite, you lose half of the material," he explains. "It's very dusty and very labor-intensive."
The end result was higher quality for less money. The industry followed Shotcrete Technologies, which was acquired by a large company in 1988, but the Loevlies' 10-year non-compete clause was ruled null and void within five years.
Innovation continued in the next iteration of Shotcrete. In the early 1990s, Kristian "invented a small robotic arm that can spray concrete 20 cubic yards an hour," says Mary Jane.
The only options for tunnel contractors before its 1992 debut on the market were industrial-sized Swiss and German machines with $1 million price tags, versus $100,000 for Shotcrete Technologies' truck-mounted arm. "When we started making that nimble robotic arm, within three to four years all the big guys were copying us," says Mary Jane.
The company's catalog now includes robotic arms alongside Shot-Tech Nozzles for application and chemical accelerators that improve adhesion and thickness.
Shotcrete Technologies' project list is a testament to its success: Its products are used to maintain the tunnels for the subway systems in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.; the Hanging Lake and Veterans Memorial tunnels in Colorado; and a nine-mile tunnel in Ecuador.
Now that Shotcrete has fully shifted the paradigm for tunnel maintenance in the U.S., its set its sights on the mines. "Lately, we have developed some shaft-lining robots," says Kristian. The technology can line an 800-foot shaft in a single day; legacy technology requires three or four weeks to finish the same job.
"It's one of those tunneling technologies where Kristian has changed the paradigm," notes Mary Jane, comparing the market to that for wet shotcrete in the early '80s.
As it was back then, it's about melding existing equipment with new technologies techniques. "We have really been more of a technological innovation company than a sales company," says Mary Jane. "Kristian's just a natural innovator."
Shotcrete was a pioneer in outsourcing manufacturing: The company has long partnered with contract manufacturers and other vendors in Colorado. One example: SunSource builds the company's robotic arms from off-the-shelf hydraulic components from 130 different vendors in Denver.
"Rather than own the factory we have no business owning, we let the experts do it," says Mary Jane. "We keep an entire welding shop in business in Idaho Springs. . . . Without having a bunch of employees, we probably keep 40 to 50 people employed in Colorado."
While the supply chain is largely local, the market is worldwide. "More than half of our business is exports," says Mary Jane, citing markets from Mexico to Mongolia.
The Loevlies have diversified into real-estate development with a mixed-use project at the historic Argo Mill in Idaho Springs that will include a hotel, housing, and retail space. Entrepreneurialism runs in the family: Their daughter, Annelise Loevlie, is CEO of Golden-based Icelantic Skis.
And Shotcrete Technologies offers a model for small businesses looking to make an impact. "We're a successful small company that has a big imprint in the industry," says Mary Jane. "People love coming to our international headquarters: It's a historic  building in Idaho Springs."
Challenges: Evolving into a new market. "Now, shotcrete is common everywhere," says Kristian. "The challenge now is the race for the mines."
For the shaft-lining business, the main stumbling block is market inertia. "There are contractors in the business used to doing it their way and they've been doing it their way for 50 years," says Mary Jane. It comes down to winning hearts and minds, she adds, and "proving to them that it could change their business."
Opportunities: Shaft-lining products have risen to the same level as wet shotcrete products in the last five years, and Mary Jane sees the trend continuing. "The shaft lining is going to be big."
"To line the shafts, the cost is one to two times more than digging the hole," says Kristian.
For newly bored mines, "We go immediately go down and line the shaft in a week," he adds, for about 20 percent the cost of what can be a six-month-long process.
The market is global. "It's going to go everywhere," says Kristian. Case in point: A South African company is evaluating Shotcrete Technologies' solutions for use at its mines all over the world.
Needs: "Finance and capital has always been a problem," says Mary Jane. "I believe banks don't lend to companies who need it. . . . Bankers have not been our friend."
"We're working on finding partners," she adds, noting that industry expertise is something of a prerequisite. "This is a very complex business."