Skill Front Entrepreneur Magazine Interviews the CEO of K31 Road Engineering
We talked to K31 Road Engineering, LLC.’s CEO Rainer Piel about K31 Road Engineering, LLC., the leading international road manufacturer, supplier, and construction consultant, with K31 Dealer-Branches worldwide and clients in 46 countries and growing monthly. K31 Road Engineering, LLC. is the original manufacturer and global supplier of K31-APS acrylic co-polymer soil stabilizers for road construction and erosion control and dust control. K31 is also the manufacturer and global supplier of K31-CAP cold polymer modified bitumen to make cold mix asphalt using a simple concrete mixer road repair and full road construction, without the huge expense of an asphalt plant.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Thank you for asking, we are all doing very well. My wife and I already experienced Covid but luckily it only lasted 3-4 days with the symptoms. My elderly parents who live in Miami have been blessed to have avoided being infected by being very careful all this time. But when you have to travel as I do, it’s kind of hard to avoid it.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded or joined this company?
Interestingly enough, I don’t come from a construction or manufacturing background. Back in the early 2000s, I owned a successful real estate company and a Correspondent Lender in Miami catering mainly to the residential market and some commercial as well. As we all know when Lehman’s Brothers collapsed in 2008 that entire industry went down the drain. I made the fatal mistake of thinking that I could ride the wave by paying all expenses until the crisis passed but my miscalculation cost me everything I had to the last penny.
In 2008 I received a tip and traveled to Shanghai, China for a real estate convention in an attempt to resurrect my real estate career. I was fortunate enough to strike a deal with a large company there and we ended up selling a good number of undeveloped land lots in west Florida to Chinese clients as investments. This gave me much-needed breathing room to at least time to plan what I could do with my life at the time.
Then one day an ex-colleague sends me a video of a company in Spain that was promoting new ways of building roads by combining polymers with cement. Don’t ask me why this caught my attention so much, like I said; I knew nothing about this trade and/or business.
I figured if this is happening in Spain I’m sure someone is doing it in the US, so I started researching the subject. To my surprise I found dozens upon dozens of companies doing something similar, some were manufacturing and selling, and a few others actually doing the construction projects themselves.
One thing that stood out was the lack of practical information available online and how this industry kept its procedures as a secret not sharing any information online unless you bought from them.
I tried and tried to seek out someone to teach me the basics without success. Unable to find a tutor or mentor, I was left with no choice but to spend months reading scientific lab tests and trials with different types of chemicals and substances combined to build roads using only dirt. I forget how many times I just fell asleep reading, it can be quite boring as one can imagine.
Now you’re going to think I’m demented for what I’m about to say. After I felt comfortable with the knowledge I had acquired from reading about this industry for 8-9 hours per day for over six months, I needed to experience it in real life.
I searched where this type of technology could be put to good use to benefit the local people and without having to go through a mile of permits and red tape. So one day I jumped on a plane to spend some time in Tanzania, Zambia, Congo, and finally South Africa where this type of construction is much more common than in the US.
Learned a lot by watching how these companies in Africa built more durable dirt roads using cement, fly ash, lime, polymer, and even molasses from sugar cane. Of course, these would start falling apart after a few weeks and months, but it was much better than any traditional method of only spraying water and compacting the dirt.
I even purchased products from some of these companies in South Africa to give it a try for myself and see if I could duplicate what I saw them do. I don’t recall how many roads I messed up and had to redo! But I guess that’s the only way to learn, by making mistakes and improving upon them.
Of course, this turned out to be a very expensive school for me, plus as you can imagine the dozens of times I got scammed out of my money in some of those countries. They would charge for equipment rental and never show up, paid for delivery trucks that never came, stolen tools and merchandise, labor would take off after payment, etc.
After spending almost 4 years in Africa I went back to the US in 2013 to regroup and was totally broke financially by this time. But now I possessed tons of new knowledge and experience about this industry.
At that point, I also started consuming huge amounts of content on how to do marketing and how to sell online. For almost 1.5 years I consumed most of the material put out by marketing gurus such as Gary Vaynerchuk, Noah Kagan, and Frank Kern. You’d be surprised how much information these guys put out free of charge on YouTube.
Then sometime in mid-2014 I finally found a factory in the US that would manufacture a product customized to my specifications which would correct all the faults that I experienced with the products I used in Africa. Then on January 14th, 2015 I incorporated K31 Road Engineering LLC in the state of Florida.
I was totally laser-focused on making this thing work and didn’t let anything distract me from my path because I saw the huge potential and open gap in this industry due to the lack of information and of high-quality products that actually worked.
This time, instead of putting the wagon in front of the horse as they say, I developed a system to find clients who needed my product before I manufactured a single drop of it.
With very low-quality video clips I had recorded with my phone in Africa I learned how to put simple videos together and started uploading them to YouTube. Built a website, a Facebook Page, and a LinkedIn page. I followed this with paid Google ads to make sure I was getting exposure. Meanwhile maxing out my remaining credit cards in the process.
It was a rough 1.5-2 year journey getting only small orders that would barely cover the cost of advertising, never mind the countless hours spent putting together videos, articles, etc.
So many times I felt the urge to give up this madness, but my perseverance finally paid off, and sometime in 2017 the marketing attracted the attention of the US Marines, US Navy, and the United Nations which of course lead to larger orders and opened up the future for my company.
Fast forward to today and now K31 has branches in 28 countries and clients in over 46 countries around the world both private and military.
How does your company innovate?
We have pulled back the curtain of this industry creating dozens of videos and articles showing step by step how to use soil stabilization to build roads, dust control, and erosion control using K31-APS vinyl acrylic co-polymer.
Also, we have put out a lot of content on how to work with cold mix asphalt and how to apply it for pothole repairs and to build full roads using K31-CAP polymer-modified cold bitumen.
Wherever in the world I and members of our team travel we always encounter someone that says “Oh you’re with K31! We always watch your videos when we have doubts about building a road”. This never gets old and we are very humbled by the compliments.
Before K31 did this, you’d be lucky to find any information about these subjects online.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Before the coronavirus we were sending our technicians to job sites across the world to train the clients who purchased our products.
But the virus forced us to stay home and record full training videos plus write down step-by-step instructions so our clients could finish their projects on their own.
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it saved a ton of money for our clients not having to cover all travel costs for the technicians, plus saves us a lot of time from having to travel constantly.
Even now post covid we are still using the same training videos, articles, and live video conferences to work with our clients worldwide. Only need to travel to the job sites for a few larger projects.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Leaving everything behind to go to Africa and learn a new trade was borderline madness and it ended up draining me mentally and financially. But as I mentioned earlier, if it wasn’t for these struggles I would’ve never gained the knowledge and experience necessary to bring our company to where it is today.
Of course, back then I didn’t see that the real estate market crashing was the best thing for me. It was ok and I made good money, but I really had no passion for it as I do with the business that I’m currently involved with right now.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis and stress?
To be honest we’ve kept it old school for most of the procedure to make sure that we keep that one-to-one feeling with each client.
However, we do use a CRM to keep our clientele organized, business Gsuite from Google for the company emails. Plus obviously a website and social media plattforms.
Also, live video conferences for training using different platforms.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
We’ve never really paid much attention to our competitors, instead always concentrated in competing with ourselves to improve on everything we do.
But to give you an idea, there are dozens of companies in China and India that manufacture and distribute similar products at a cheaper cost. But still the big government-owned companies in those countries order from K31 for their own projects.
I think this speaks volumes of the quality of our products and the way that we always do business versus the competition.
Your final thoughts?
Yes, I could’ve easily given up at any time and either gone back to real estate or gotten a job, so never ever give up on your goals and dreams regardless of what others around you may be telling you.
You can always adjust the journey as you learn but never change the final goal. Don’t forget that overnight success usually takes a few years.
All of us at K31 wish you all the best at whatever it is that you set yourself to accomplish.