Thursday, November 19, 2020

An Interview with the President of Linked Equipment

Recently I found an Off-Site construction company in Arizona that does some unique things with containers.

Linked Equipment is that unique company and their President, Mark Pike, was recently interviewed by one of my newest contributors, Bobby Olander.

Here is the interview he had with Mark Pike, the Founder and President of Linked Equipment.

Mark Pike, President of Linked Equipment

Bobby Olander:  Let’s get started finding out a little about the modular building industry and how you got started in it. 

From Bussing to Buildings 

Mark Pike: I started a charter bus company in 1986 and ran it through 2009.   In 2004, we were fortunate enough to earn a contract with Fort Bliss a military base in El Paso, Texas. President Bush had just commanded bases to deploy troops for the war. We were contacted by them in 2004 and by 2009 our little 20 bus company grew to 60 buses running full time.  

The Colonel of the base didn't have the support for the fast growth the base was experiencing and contracted us to help build some modular buildings. We wanted to succeed in this endeavor so said “yes” and brought in refurbished units to serve as container restrooms, storage, offices, and living quarters.  We placed them in the field where the troops would have easy access to everything.  They were rugged as hell, went up quickly, and could serve as a temporary or permanent structure as needed.  The base was not as concerned about cost, but these were also the most cost-effective way to go as well.  We started building then and found we were good at it and enjoyed it.  That's how we got our start constructing modular buildings from ISBU containers.  

By 2010 our charter bus company had developed a lot of experience and background in modular building, especially utilizing shipping containers as the building blocks for modular facilities. In 2012, I started Linked Equipment.  We started out selling equipment because that's where my background was. We sold a lot of light towers, equipment, trucks, things of that nature when we got started.  Always on the side we were doing these modular buildings from shipping containers.  The sales from the equipment definitely helped us get the modular building business up and running.  

Eventually, the modular building business continued to grow, until we stopped selling individual equipment in favor of finished buildings.  During that period of time, we built a lot of storage containers. We also built restrooms, offices, mostly what we would consider simple builds. 

In 2015-2016, the cannabis industry started to emerge, and we were fortunate enough to get several contracts to build labs for vendors in the cannabis industry (mostly in Washington).  Once cannabis was made legal in California, business really took off.  To date we have more than 50 labs under our belt with labs in Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Michigan, Oklahoma, Missouri, Florida, Hawaii, and Jamaica.  We have been very fortunate that way. We have really expanded this past year.  We have gone from making a couple hundred thousand a year to being on track to close with $5 million in sales this year.  

Several Interesting Builds:

Bobby: Tell me about some of your more interesting or challenging builds over the years. 

Mark: Restrooms for a Ghost Town with no Electricity, 

There was one build where a gentleman came by our offices four years ago asking for information about off the grid restrooms.  He was considering buying a ghost town in Wickenburg, Arizona.  We talked and I didn't think too much of it until two years later when he came by again, and he said, “remember me. I actually bought the facility, and we'd like to move forward with the restroom.”  We designed the restroom as we did most of our restrooms and were finishing it up for delivery.  At this point he let us know that they had no power up there.  They were planning to bring a few generators to run the facility, but the restroom itself would have no power.  Then he asked us, “can you make this restroom work?” 

We accepted the challenge and were able to create something that was well built and could also operate without regular power.  We went with all DC, basically running off of batteries. So, we pulled in an engineer to help us with the design and were able to design the electrical panel, which was all DC (kind of similar to what you would use in an RV or boat) and we place that on the outside of the building. We ran all LED lights, and revisions to make it functional and sturdy.  

We went with tankless waterless urinals and added some pumps to feed water into two main tanks providing for the whole restaurant.  It actually worked out really well!  Then we hooked up a battery charger to the panel, and he had a row of batteries down below the panel.  

Before his events, he'd bring in a generator and put them on charge for seven to eight hours and they were ready to operate all day for visitors. 

Self-contained Restrooms for a Mining Company

We did another restroom that was all self-contained for a mining company up in Nevada.  That was a 40-foot building with 8 tanks (4 for freshwater and 4 for blackwater). They had pumps both black and fresh).  

So, they put this thing down there, way down at the bottom of the mine.  We added pumps for both fresh and blackwater tanks and ran a hose from a truck to their subterranean restroom weekly to pump in fresh water and extract the wastewater. They hooked up a generator to it, and that thing (as far as we know) is still running today. 

We love these custom builds because we could do prefab all day long. But people have these unique needs, and they need someone of our caliber to go make this happen. I mean, a DC or self-contained subterranean bathroom. I don't think most people could design, build, and deliver buildings that remain operational after years in challenging environments the way we do. Again, the industrial caliber equipment and building methods we use give us an edge.  

Oil Fields and Barges

We have shipped units everywhere.  We shipped a couple of them to an oil field.  After the workers were out in the oil fields all day, they wanted to clean up before they went home. They were able to come into the building where they each had their own lockers and could shower before going home.  We put another on a barge for the crew. Our container builds are tough making it possible to bring to bring basic comforts into harsh conditions.   

Parking Lot Stores and Restaurants in California.  

We are currently working on a fun project now for the city of Redondo Beach, California.  They have a parking lot where the city has allowed vendors to set up.  They are looking at three 20-foot converted containers to become a kitchen, a coffee shop, and a beer garden. In one building they plan to setup a self-contained kitchen (similar to the self-contained restroom that we just spoke about).  The second 20-foot container will be turned into a coffee shop. In the third 20-foot container they want a beer garden.  In the beer garden container, they will have a cold storage on one side and can serve out of the other side.   

Transitioning from Simple to Complex Builds

Bobby: After building 50 labs you must really know what you're doing!  They are highly combustible workspaces at best, but I read about them blowing up all the time! With every one of them needing to be perfect, was the learning curve back in the day difficult? I mean how do you do it perfectly starting with the first one?

Mark: Yes, there were some educational builds when we were getting started that were challenging at the time, but gave us the chops we use today.  

We looked at how hard it was going to be to make that transition from just doing storage and other simple builds to those very first labs. I mean, labs have all that safety equipment, and there need to be explosion proof everything and seemed like that would be a hell of a learning curve.  

It was a huge learning curve we had one particular job that kind of helped us hop the fence and get better at it.  We had a little 20-foot lab that had to be approved by the state of Washington. We actually had our engineers put together the plans and then got them approved by the state.  When we started the build, we had to go through subsequent inspections at each stage of the build while the building was happening.

The first inspection went fairly well. By the time, the second inspection happened, the state had changed their requirements and inspector.  The new state inspector traveled to Linked Equipment Headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona to inspect it. He basically threw the plans in the garbage and told us that the old building was not up to code. We had to start over from scratch and it was an expensive education. But at the end of the day, we learned a lot.  We pulled our electrical engineers onsite to help us for four or five months.  We wound up rebuilding the lab from start to finish and passed the more stringent inspection successfully.  After that trial by fire, our crews understood exactly what to do at every step. 50 builds later much of it seems obvious to us, but the initial learning curve for these builds is daunting and the results (if done incorrectly) can be lethal.  

There were some other important changes that we made during that time that made a big difference.  

We changed to a more specialized engineering firm that partners with construction companies throughout the United States.  They are specialized in this work and they have seen everything under the sun.  That experience is why we have them doing all of our engineering and design work.  So, it is perfect every time!  It was definitely difficult in the beginning.  

As we've gotten better, and more states are interested due to legalization.  It is moving forward across the nation, especially after this past election.  We look forward to doing more and more labs.

What Makes Linked Equipment Unique?

Bobby: Having seen other companies out there trying to do the same thing, are there other things that Linked equipment does differently or better?  I mean, certainly your experience in doing these complex builds like DC bathrooms and explosive labs, shows that you have the chops to do that where not everyone could. 

Mark: Oh, “Quality.” Quality is our differentiator.  We get calls frequently, and you know, sometimes we lose jobs because we're not the cheapest company on the block, we tend to use better materials and we don’t skip steps when it comes to safety.  For example, we use metal instead of wood, sheet rock and texture instead of panels.  When you walk into our buildings, it's like walking into a regular office that you would use in any complex. I'd like to think that our buildings are built the same, or better than, most of the commercial buildings we visit.

Bobby: Can you give me an example?

Mark: Sure, for instance, a lot of our competition is still stuck on the old-style barred HVAC systems where they are attached to the buildings. They just blow air through one area.  We've made the move to a split system in which the blowers inside the buildings are all computerized. They have sensors, and so they direct the heater or cold air to the parts of the room that need it rather than an HVAC system that just blows the air out.  I think the split systems are more efficient, they run better, I think you're going to get a longer life out of them. They're quieter and work better.  I can't think of any reason why somebody would want to go to that old style.  We would move up to these new splits now that they're available in the market and we pass that capability the customer. 

Bobby: There are a thousand things to consider (like HVAC) that go into a successful finished build.  Are you saying you put this much thought into everything? 

Mark: Of course! 

  • If we talk about sub-floors, when compared to plumbing in them, just like at your house there's no difference. I mean, we build these sub floors and put all the piping in there and insulate before we cover it up.  
  • If you look at plumbing, if you look at piping in packs, we like to use packs that are ideal for transporting the containers. It's not rigid. It's not as expensive as copper. I think they are nice things that we use in our buildings that other people wouldn’t think of. 
  • All the pecs are anchored down to each steel to buy form of building.  It's not going to go anywhere and will be there 30-40 years down the road.
  • Pretty much everything is industrial quality whether it be doors, steel studs, or tracking.  We don't use wood. 
  • We reinforced everything.  If we have anything that is wall hung whether it be a toilet, TV, a sink; those are always reinforced. We go back they're usually 2x4 and reinforced the steel studs that are packed there. That creates a lot of strength for whatever's hanging on the walls. 
  • We like to use tankless water heaters obviously; size is great importance with these containers. So, without having a big 50- or 60-gallon water heater there we use these tankless water heaters we hang them on the wall, and they don't take up any room and you know you're off to the races.
  • We use 5/8” sheetrock in fire rated buildings. 
  • If we get into a moisture area, whether it be a shower or something along those lines, we might use green board instead of sheetrock for mold.  On top of that, we put a FRP which is a plastic sheet that goes on the sheet rock, it can be wiped down, it's just, it's clean. It's easy to clean and can be used in hospitals kitchens, restrooms, so it's something we see a lot in our industrial buildings that takes a lot of extra effort, but is totally worth doing that way because of durability, usability, and a better end product for our customers.
  • In every restroom we build we do it just like you would in any industrial restroom, we use metal or plastic stalls and urinal screens, stuff of that nature. Colors can be chosen by the client. So the difference is the restroom you’d experience in a motor home compared to the standard restroom you’d experience in a commercial office complex. 
  • We use a lot of fiberglass showers, that are easier for us to install, plus they last a very long time.  You are not going to get the durability or comfort from other prefab bathrooms.  We done a lot of them for mining and military, and we have actually done lockers for gyms.  
  • In the showers you might have a row of showers and a row of lockers with a couple of benches included. They are more durable and better made because they expect more traffic and use.  Even if parts are a little more expensive this route, it is better for the new owner in the long run. 
  • We use industrial quality floors. We have static free floors have been great for the cannabis industry. Industrial rubber floors have been great in kitchens, restrooms, and stuff of that nature.
  • I think almost all of our lights anymore are LED.  
  • Our electrical panels are the same as you would use at your home or industrial building.
  • When we get into restrooms and showers, we can our attention we can put all ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) through the building.  

Bobby: What's Are You Currently Working On? 

Mark: Due to easing of restrictions around backyard homes (aka ADUs) we have created a small, medium, large affordable home solution and are launching that to get information about these units in front of the right people There's a huge opportunity we believe, where next generation will be able to utilize these buildings for living quarters. And I don't think that a lot of people are concerned about sizes as much as they are about the homes or buildings working, working for them. I think that's going to be a huge opportunity for our company.  As time rolls on here, certainly something that we're working on. 

I think refrigeration units, we've just kind of played around with it a little bit but I think as we move forward, I think refrigeration is going to be a place where people are looking to store products and do it either in an explosion proof atmosphere and or just seeking certain degrees. 

  • You know, whether it be like the Pfizer medicine, I heard the other day is wants to be stored at 80 below.  
  • We've got the cannabis industry, they've made some demands on us in the past, where they'd like to see it 30 below. I know a lot of their machines that they do an extraction.  They're working down to 80 below. 

So those are some of the things that we are definitely going to be working towards and hopefully be able to offer to our plants here in the future. 

Bobby: What’s Next?

Mark: Well, another thing we are looking into is

  • Expandable/collapsible containers for easier shippingWe were talking a company in Las Vegas taking a 20’long building and making it collapsible so when they unfold it, it comes to be about 20 feet wide, ship it down the road, and unfold it. And then all of a sudden, you got a 20x 20-foot building. So those are things that are unique. And I could see in the future how, with proper engineering, you could actually compact these buildings and ship them off, and fold them up right into their full size. When you think about it, it's pretty, pretty cool that you can actually ship something that's smaller than once it gets there and expands within itself. And you know, it doesn't take any more shipping that get up there. So yeah, those are some clever ideas.  
  • We're going to be looking at bringing in outside advisors with experience in different industries that that can offer their expertise into, into our business from something that they've done. I think we're looking at bringing four people on as advisors to help us grow, make sure that the company goes in the right direction. 
  • Another thing happening right now is expansion of our facility in Phoenix, and/or buying a new facility and developing that not quite sure but those are things to get our guys the outdoors into a building where we can create some type of assembly line would be in the future.  
  • Segmenting building solutions by industry would help us have more meaningful conversations with customers in each industry in terms of their unique opportunities and challenges.  Deeper industry knowledge makes us a better vendor allowing us to see challenges and opportunities in each industry.  It means more clarification and accuracy in our messaging to each industry.  
  • We may build the same restrooms for customers in many different industries: defense, Fed, SLED, cannabis industry, healthcare, agriculture, and the rest.  The regulations and requirements for the same building may be very different across different industries.  
  • Our marketing capability to provide better information into each industry will get better and we'll be able to reach more people speaking their industry’s language and provide a more useful solution because we have the additional experience in that industry, and we took the time to learn their language and issues. 

We have buildings all up and down North America, two in Jamaica, even North Africa. We've recently done proposals for Panama, Peru. We're not restricted to any one place to sell these buildings, so there is a lot of interest. 

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