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Walter P. Smith, Helical Pathfinder
by Pat Haffert
Danbro Vice President
If there were a Helical Hall of Fame, I believe Walter P. Smith would be in it. I will elaborate on the many reasons, but like so many pivotal players in the history of a given subject, Walter’s outsized influence on the development of the helical industry is the confluence of talent, timing, and teamwork.
Walter was working for Atlantic Equipment Company in the late 80’s and, in that endeavor, had already made a significant life and career-altering experience when he married Jeannette in 1989. Behind many a “helical hero” is a helical better half and this was very much the case with Walter and Jeannette. She brought her skill set as a Mechanical Engineer to the table and played a pivotal role in their pioneering helical journey.
In 1989, Walter saw an ad in the trades and responded. Turns out the gentleman heading up the company was an old acquaintance of Walter’s, Bill Edwards, and in short order, Walter joined the newly-formed Civil Construction Division of the A. B. Chance Co. At the time. they had one new distributor in the Mid-Atlantic/Northeast territory, few installers, and most people couldn’t pronounce “helical”, let alone define it. For the next twelve years, Walter helped contractors and engineers learn the applications helicals serve in the deep foundation industry and assisted them to better understand when and where to use them.
Helicals date back to 1836, but ultimately fell out of favor with the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution advancing the use of alternative pilings. Albert Bishop Chance, who ran the local telephone company in Centralia, MO, patented the no-wrench anchor, based on Inventor Alexander Mitchell’s original helical concept. He used them in tension to stabilize telephone poles and as the Telephone Industry grew in popularity, so did Chance helical anchors. In the 1980’s, Chance formed the Civil Construction division and turned their attention to compression applications after a successful tower support in the Great Dismal Swamp. Enter Walter as the newly formed division turned its attention to the use of helicals in compression. Walter entered as the company struggled to produce the first-generation underpinning bracket. “It took some fine tuning,” Walter related, “but trial and error ultimately led to success.” While the piles themselves worked well in most soil situations, the terminations needed to be developed to open up new applications and grow the business. “The Engineering Department deserves a lot of credit Walter stated, Don Bobbitt, Lee Goen, Gary Seider… they would come up with the designs and I would provide feedback from the field as to what worked and what needed refinement.”
In addition to the UP bracket, Walter contributed to the development of angle terminations for battered walkway piles/anchors, the beam seat bracket, and the mooring termination. Each new termination helped to expand or develop another application for helicals.
In addition to the right hardware, it became apparent to Walter that to grow the use of helicals, they needed to gain the acceptance of the engineering community. His second greatest contribution to grow this business was a concentrated effort to educate and convince specifiers and geotechs that helicals were a valuable tool. “My first attempts did not go well,” Walter remembered. “I would just get up in the front of the room and talk. I recognized I needed visuals, so I developed transparencies illustrating my points and demonstrating the various applications through actual jobs we had done.” “You tell them, and they won’t remember, but, if you tell them and show them, they get it." I started to see the nodding heads and could tell from the questions that they were absorbing the material. As specifiers and Geotechnical engineers became more knowledgeable, their confidence in helical technology grew and so did we.” The uses expanded to include tiebacks, underpinning existing structures, new construction piles, walkway piles, and boat anchors.
The Certification process was another important step in raising the comfort level of GCs and Engineers. Jeannette would often accompany Walter in the field and was a fixture at the Installer Training Sessions. She would assist Walter in the training sessions and, on a few occasions, helprd test-takers with learning disabilities. She took the test herself many times and provided feedback to help refine the training manual. In addition to her engineering background, Jeannette was an excellent judge of character and helped me to decide who we should trust with a new distributorship. “On one occasion, I spent half the day in the field and home office of a “would-be” distributor, Knight Construction in West Virginia. Later that evening, we were having social time at the end of the day. I was called away and when I returned, Mr. Knight complimented me by stating “I learned more from your wife in twenty minutes, than I did from you all day,”
Walter left Chance in 2000 and spent the next three years with GeoStructures before returning to the helical world with Danbro Distributors. Danbro was another of Walter’s original new distributor recruits (in addition to hundreds of new dealers), who, through their growth, helped to put helicals on the map. Danbro had grown from the Eastern PA/South Jersey to handle the entire Northeast and MidAtlantic States. Danbro needed a seasoned hand to help manage the growth. Frank D’Angelo’s original mentor now became his right-hand man. “Walter had taught me everything I knew about helicals and was a natural choice. He was an invaluable asset as he had hands-on experience in virtually every aspect of the helical business. I could send him anywhere to handle any facet of the work and he knew exactly what to do with little input and no supervision. "Customers loved him, plus he could train new hires, freeing me up,” Frank recalled.
Fittingly, Walter trained the two men it took to replace him: his nephew, David, in lead generation and Danbro’s field support specialist, Nick Gill. He also was an invaluable asset to Pat Haffert in Marketing do to his vast experience and creative instincts.
However,all good things come to an end and Walter and Jeannette decided to retire at the end of last year. They were feted at a dinner in their honor by family, friends, and co-workers on December 28, 2018 in Philadelphia. In an emotional farewell, Frank D’Angelo thanked his friend and mentor, stating that everything he knows about the helical business, he learned from him and that there would be no Danbro Distributors without Walter Smith – a speech many other distributors he recruited could have made.
Walter Smith came to the helical business at a critical development period with the only nationwide manufacturer at the time. With his timing, hard work, insights, talents, and collaborative spirit, he helped to invent, grow, and develop the helical world into the mature business it is today. That is why I believe that if there ever is a virtual “Helical Hall of Fame” Walter P Smith deserves a well-earned place of honor.
Jeanette - Frank - Steve - Walter
3700 South 26th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19145