Donny Beaver shows one of his latest products, the MuddKill, an idea born from solving the problem of gas field workers tracking mud into another invention, a vacuum air shower that removes fracking sand particles from the workers.
Donny Beaver’s clothes ruffle and his hair flies about as he gives a demonstration of his mobile air shower to clean fracking sand from gas field workers. A high-speed vacuum whisks the particles into a filtering system in the portable, self-contained unit.
Donny Beaver, with sons Troy (left rear) and Josh, has been an entrepreneur since childhood, founding several businesses.
By Anya Litvak / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Carl Cohen, co-founder of Bellwood, Pa.-based HalenHardy LLC, wakes up around 4 a.m., he has about five emails from his business partner, Donny Beaver.
Troy and Josh Beaver, Donny's sons, rise an hour later. They have a dozen messages in their inboxes. By sunrise, their father has gotten through four hours of work. He's shot off dozens of business ideas, or little barbs, and will spend the rest of the day reacting to people's responses.
"I have this bewitching 2 to 5 [a.m.], when the world's mine," Mr. Beaver said. "I pull out all my notes from the day before, re-read emails, pull out napkins" where ideas have been scribbled.
"That's when I can think best," he said. "That's when I can pontificate, and nobody responds so I think I'm smart for an hour."
After 50 years of starting new companies, 2013 was still a "helter-skelter" year for Mr. Beaver. "That's the first year of just about every enterprise I've ever started," he said. "It's like bumblebee in a jar. You're really not sure how many times you'll bump up against the glass."
His newest business is devoted to cleaning dust in industrial settings. Its main product is a mobile air shower designed to blow silica sand off oil and gas workers' clothes so they don't track it off the field. But like most of his ideas, there are spinouts and hedges along the way.
"We call it the business plan of the week club," he said.
The dust shower idea came to him, predictably, when he was talking to clients of his other business, a fly fishing resort in Spruce Creek, Pa., called HomeWaters. There, Mr. Beaver heard his oil and gas guests complaining about silica sand exposure -- the danger of inhaling the superfine grain sand used to prop open fractures in the shale. It took him back to his days at Sermac Industries, an industrial cleaning company that Mr. Beaver ran in the early 1980s.
He'd been looking to get a better hook into the region's growing shale gas business, and silica seemed to be the best match for his talents. That was in May 2012.
HalenHardy launched in January 2013, and soon Mr. Beaver recognized that silica exposure is a huge issue in construction. So the focus of the company, and its potential clientele, is still an ongoing discussion, often in the wee hours of the morning.
All companies like to paint themselves as innovators, Mr. Beaver says, but only about 2.5 percent are willing to risk testing out a new technology. Another 15 percent will sit on the sidelines and watch the guinea pigs complete the trials, then adopt it. The rest will follow suit once something is proven.
"It took us about three months to truly identify who the innovators are" for testing the silica sand shower, Mr. Beaver said. And there's no art to that. "You poke them all in the eye. You build this database of 150 companies that should want to do this" and whittle it down based on who responds.
All along the way, hedges are built into everything.
In some cases, Mr. Beaver was seeing oil and gas companies receptive to the idea of the shower but not willing to take a chance on it until they knew how big the problem was. That's how HalenHardy ended up with an advisory business, which is expected to start making money before the product side.
While reading the proposed silica sand regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Mr. Beaver and his sons noticed that blocking off access to certain areas of the well site was the most effective way to limit exposure to workers not directly involved in transferring sand.
"We said, maybe we could come up with something to keep people the heck out," Mr. Beaver said.
Hence, another hedge was born. In a matter of several weeks, the team spun out a company called HeckOut that makes banner barricades -- they call them bannicades -- which could be moved around on site to block access. Already, Troy Beaver has posed for a video showing how easy it is to install one of the contraptions, and the official launch date for the merchandise is Jan. 31.
In the course of testing out the air shower unit, the team worried that mud dragged from the gas field would muck up the grates and filters on the floor, so they tested a series of brushes that could scrub it away. It's now its own product, called MuddKill -- yet another little hedge.
"It's a series of small products that are an investment of $500," Mr. Beaver said. "It's sort of a combination of a hedge and a window."
Entrepreneur born and bred
Donny Beaver grew up in Bellwood, a small town in Blair County. His father was a banker, but also an entrepreneur. He owned a chain of 5 and 10 cent stores in Central Pennsylvania and several restaurants.
Mr. Beaver, denied an allowance by his parents, began weeding gardens, picking fruit, washing walls and mowing lawns.
By age 10, he'd racked up some regular lawn mowing clients who, in the winter, would translate into snow shoveling clients.
"That pretty much took me through all of high school and I realized I was making more money than all my friends," Mr. Beaver said.
He'd take his earnings to his father's bank and exchange them for rolls of pennies. Then he'd scour the coins for rare mints.
"I'd trade the money I earned for money that was worth more than money I earned," he said. That was to be his college fund, he thought at the time.
His junior year of high school, Mr. Beaver started a fly tying business, arranging feathers, fur, tinsel and thread onto hooks and selling it on consignment at local gas stations and hardware stores.
He went to the Wheaton College near Chicago with plans to become a surgeon. On the side, Mr. Beaver started a business cleaning office buildings, paying his employees, other college students, under the table.
By the time he "barely graduated," his company, Beaver's Professional Services, had about 100 part-time employees and had diversified into magazine deliveries and snow shoveling.
The surgeon route was abandoned.
"I couldn't help myself," he said. "I'm hard-wired this way."
Mr. Beaver and his new wife, high school sweetheart Pam, returned to Bellwood in 1975, and Beaver's Professional Services came with them.
"It seemed like I was settling in on these two things -- jobs no one else wanted to do and working outdoors. I just started building on this idea that everybody seems to shy away from the messy problems. That was always my shtick -- hand me your crappiest problem and if I do that well, you're more likely to give me your second to crappiest."
Mr. Beaver's sons were babies when his company, New Pig Corp., was getting off the ground. They grew up listening to stories of travels to Alaska, where New Pig's absorption socks helped clean up the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Mr. Beaver raised his sons the same way as he was raised.
"Let me show you where your allowance is," he'd tell them. "Here is a broom, or here's envelopes that need stuffed. They basically started out doing that swearing they'd never, never have a career working with me."
Short-lived threats. Josh Beaver, who is now 33, entered the family business right out of high school, working in grounds and maintenance at Paradise Ranch, a deer ranch in Julian, then progressing to sales at HomeWaters.
Troy Beaver, 29, boomeranged into the business. He went to college, then law school, but having graduated in December 2010 when the market for new lawyers was lackluster, he went to work with his father at HomeWaters. In three month's time, he decided this was what he wanted to do.
There's no clear division of labor at the Beavers' handful of companies -- they also own a printing shop and real estate interests -- but it's widely agreed that Dad is the idea man; Josh is on the practical, operations side; and Troy is somewhere in between. Pam Beaver tried working in the family business once but quit after three weeks, her husband said.
At 61, Mr. Beaver has begun going to retirement parties. But it all seems somehow foreign to him, like something only other people do.
On more than a handful of occasions, Mr. Beaver has sold businesses that he'd poured his heart and soul into without much sentimentality.
"It seemed very natural to me," he said. "To me a business was no different than a contract or a job. It's a link in the chain, it's not an end to itself."
For him, it's about ideas, of which he has drawers full of post-it notes and Excel spreadsheets, and those don't disappear at a certain age. At least they haven't yet.
Mr. Beaver is a classic entrepreneur, Mr. Cohen said. "He is exhibit A. He is the definition. This is not a person that could do something other than entrepreneurship."
Next up: Julie Peterson found that running a business franchise suited her lifestyle.
Anya Litvak: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1455
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