In a future dictionary, the term “Renaissance man” might be accompanied by a photo of John White. A pile driver mechanic turned inventor, an entrepreneur and patron of the arts, a participant in documentary film, custom motorcycle and historical restoration projects, White has led a varied life.
After White earned an executive- program MBA at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, a writer in the school’s magazine wrote:
“We’re talking about a uniquely American icon-in-the-rough, more rock-and-roll than lute and lyre. A tall-walking bear of a man … [White founded a company that built] vibratory hammers that drive the foundations for the massive structures of modern civilization—skyscrapers, statues, stadiums, oil rigs, wind turbines, bridges. Especially bridges. He’s been enthralled by these abiding symbols of human ingenuity ever since he was a kid in West Seattle, when an old neighbor would regale him with tales from his days flying bombing runs in World War II. ‘He said he could never take out the old Roman bridges in Italy and France,’ White recalls. ‘They were just too solidly built.”
John White’s true north has remained the same throughout his life – to build the best pile driving hammer possible. He’s done it more than once. And he’s not finished.
You started what became a career in pile driving by working in a carnival, didn’t you?
I ran ran away from home at age 13 and joined the carnival. I was given a job repairing and setting up arcade and pinball machines in a tent. I learned the correct way to swing a sledgehammer to set the tent spikes, and that really helped me when I went to work for PACO [Pacific American Commercial Company], my first pile driving job.
The moment I turned 17, I joined the Marines, where I ran a motor pool and repaired trucks. I got my mechanical aptitude from my dad, who allowed me to work with him on all things mechanical. What I learned in the Marines was structure, how a chain of command works. I used that to form my company, but at the time I didn’t realize that.
After the Marines, I used the GI bill to go to South Seattle Community College, but I dropped out. I didn’t have a job, and saw a “Help Wanted” sign at PACO. That was about the time that the Alaska pipeline was finishing up. There were some 3,500 bridges on that project, and it absorbed every pile driver made, from companies all over the world. PACO acquired and sold used equipment. They would go to auctions in Alaska to buy up cranes. But the auctioneers couldn’t get rid of pile drivers, so they forced anyone who bought a crane to take a pile driver, too. PACO was buying dozens of cranes, and when the equipment would show up in Seattle, there would be a load of pile drivers in various stages of disrepair. PACO stacked them up in a yard as scrap.
One day, the owner came out and said, “John, maybe we can make some money with these.” I said, “They’re French, Dutch, German and I can’t read the manuals.”
He said, “I’ll get the manuals translated. You just work on them.”
So I started working with every brand of pile driver known to man. We would rent them, they’d break, and I’d say, “Dang it, if the Germans would just build this part like the French do. The French could build a better jaw, the Germans could build a higher quality ram, and if they’d all get on the same page, you’d have a decent hammer. I didn’t realize I was designing a new pile hammer. That’s when I started dreaming of building my own pile driver. This was back in 1977 to 1983.
How did that lead into the manufacturing of your own pile hammers?
One of the old guys at a German company sat me down and said, “John, I don’t think you should build your own pile driver. I think you should go work for a company that does that and then go make your own.”
That’s straight out of business school, of course. I tell my kids that today.
So I went to work for ICE, International Construction Equipment, out of Monroe, N.C. At that time, Jimmy Carter was president, interest rates were 28 percent, and at PACO, I was super busy. I had 38 machines out on rent. The economy was bad and nobody could buy anything. I was the pioneer in getting the rental fleet of pile drivers going. At that time, many of the big manufacturers – MKT in Dover, N.J., Vulcan Iron Works and others – didn’t rent. They only manufactured, and they went out of business.
I remember saying to myself, if I ever build my own a pile driving company, I’m going to build the largest rental fleet in the world. When times are bad, people won’t buy equipment; they’ll rent it.
ICE sent a guy out to PACO to hire me to help them build a rental fleet. I was making six bucks and hour at PACO. ICE offered
32,000 a year and two percent commission. I was just a young, dumb kid who was overwhelmed with the offer. I had everything I’d ever wanted at PACO, and I could solve any pile driving problem.
But I took the job and became a mechanic for ICE. They didn’t have a West Coast service center, just an office. I went on to found ICE California and ICE Seattle, and became their top sales guy.
Did you build your first hammers then?
No, what get me started was that in 1987, both California and Seattle suffered major earthquakes. Boeing came to me and said we want to earthquake- proof every one of our buildings from Auburn to Bellingham. We need hammers to drive pile inside the buildings. Now, I was selling these ICE vibros that are 12 to 15 feet tall, but the piles are 100 feet long and the ceilings are only 12 feet. I went to ICE said you got to build a very low height hammer. Take the top off the machine. You’re not pulling anything, you don’t need the top suppressor. They said they couldn’t do that.
I made a balsa-wood model prototype of a vibro with a detachable top that was only 34 inches high. I gave it to the owners and said, “This will take over the market.”
They answered, “You’re not an engineer, you’re a salesman, and a good one. Sell what you got.” So I went back to my garage in Seattle and started making my own low-headroom machine. Then a miracle happened!
Every year, Boeing shut down for two weeks to service their machines and let employees enjoy two weeks off paid. I was called to rent a bunch of ICE hammers to them for the two weeks. I wasn’t ready with my prototype.
I’d rented all of the equipment ICE had in Seattle to Boeing for the two weeks. Then Boeing decided they couldn’t shut down and my orders got canceled. At the same time, the Port of Everett got a permit for the Nimitz aircraft carrier dock and called me. They said, “We need all the hammers you can send.”
I sent all my rental hammers to the port. Then Boeing changed their mind.
Boeing’s general contractor was Hurlen Construction, and Mr. Hurlen knew about the low-height hammer I was building. I borrowed a clamp from a contractor, borrowed a power pack, and rented it to Mr. Hurlen.
Shortly after that, he called me to his office and said, “Son, that is a revolutionary pile driver. How much do you want for it? And I want two more.” I said, “Sir, I don’t have any more. I work for ICE.” He said, “You don’t anymore. I’ll pay you in advance. How much money do you need to start your company?”
I threw out a number. One hundred and sixty thousand dollars. He wrote a check for the amount. I quit ICE on January 1, 1990 and started ACE, American Construction Equipment. My logo was the ace of spades.
With an informal line of credit like that, why did you acquire partners?
I was scared to be a sole proprietor. I didn’t know how to start a company. I didn’t have the skills. So I enlisted the help of Dave Nicoli and Ray Town, the owners of a sheet pile rental and sales company in Tualatin, Ore.
Later, Pat Hughes acquired the company, changed the name to American Piledriving Equipment Company, or APE, and I became a minority owner. We had some issues that I won’t go into, but it was a very creative time for me. I had all the resources I needed to invent outstanding pile hammers. We filed and were awarded more than 40 patents.
Pat mentored me. He would say things like, “Contractors pay the people they don’t owe.” The idea was, if you had receivables from a company of 1 million dollars over 90 days, and they need hammers. where do you think those guys are going? They’re going to your competitor, because contractors pay the people who haven’t extended them credit. That was one of many mentoring lessons.
Pat also was responsible for me getting a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business Executive MBA Program.
Pat had married into a very prominent family in the Seattle area that supported the school. Pat had donated money to the school in the company’s name, not in the family as he typically did.
One day in 2010, I got a call on the phone, “Thank you for your donation, please be at the downtown Hilton on Saturday to be recognized.” I didn’t know what they were talking about. I didn’t even know what EMBA stood for.
That event, at which I met the dean of the school and other executives, led to an invitation to enroll in the EMBA program, which I accepted.
I was the Rodney Dangerfield in the class—a community college dropout accepted into a program to which the best and brightest from all over the country applied. But there were top notch professors. One of the them was Bill Ayres, the CEO of Alaska Airlines, who pioneered a class called “Ethics and The Board.” And I learned a lot about finance.
I worked with Pat from 1990 until 2011, when he bought my shares of APE back. He also paid me as part of a non-compete agreement, which resulted in my leaving the pile driving hammer business for four years.
I left APE at about the same time that I graduated from the EMBA program.
What did you do then?
I did other things to keep myself busy. My wife and I acquired a four-acre piece of heaven, a majestic home in Burien, Washington that was in disrepair. I restored the pipe organ, which is the largest private pipe organ west of the Mississippi. Film companies come to film here, and we’ve opened it up for musicians. It’s still our private residence.
It sounds like you expanded your horizons.
In one sense, yes. In another sense, I was miserable from day one, because all I had ever done was work on pile drivers. When that was taken away from, I didn’t know who I was. I was lost. I had to go to therapy.
I had been the visionary and the person who invented everything. During my non-compete, I received many calls asking when I was going to return to the industry, but the non-compete prevented me from doing so. So I went to China and became the head engineer for a company there, keeping busy to get through my depression.
Did you work through the depression?
My four-year non-compete ran out June of 2016. The next day I launched Antaeus. Starting over has been extremely painful, but exciting
You’ve said that you invent when there’s is a problem that needs to solved and no existing way to solve it.
Pile driving is the very first part of big jobs, so one hour of down time on the job—because of hammers that don’t work—causes a major extension of the job schedule. I came out with a hammer early in my career that eliminated 35 hoses. Why? Because otherwise, I’d have to go Prudhoe Bay or some other remote job site and replace blown hoses. Manufacturers were using dozens of different hoses, with no two the same. That inspired me to build a hammer with gun-drilled plates to eliminate hoses.
What inventions are you working on now?
My goal was to build the largest vibro, the Zeus. We just sold one to a Canadian contractor. It’s l arger than ICE’s 200 and larger than the APE SuperKong.
I was patenting something new every six months while I was at APE. Every invention came to me in a dream. The dreams went away after I left the industry. But after I started Antaeus, those dreams started coming back. I have four patents coming out.
It sounds as though you’ve been motivated by inventing, not by money.
Yeah, you could say I was intrinsically motivated. I love pile driving. Inventing something and sharing it is my definition of success. What makes me happy is going out into the field to show people something and having them be stunned by the technology.
I love to be disruptive. I guess it goes back to the carnival days. When I was out there working, people would ask, “Who is this kid swinging a 20-pound sledgehammer better than anyone else?” I don’t think of myself as a great inventor. If you take anyone with mechanical skills and make them work on every kind of pile driving hammer out there, they’re going to end up knowing more about hammers than the average guy
Republished from Marine Construction Magazine Issue IV, 2022