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Out of the Trap

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  • | 8:13 a.m. June 3, 2011
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Entrepreneur. Everett “Buzz” Waid
Company. Sentinel Barriers
Key. Imagination is the key to starting over.

Dan Schnaars Sr. remembers the day Everett “Buzz” Waid cold-called his office in Lafayette, La.: May 28, 2010.

Two days later, Waid was sitting in Schnaars' office showing him a new use for the large bags he manufactures for chemical and food companies: When tied together and filled with dirt, these giant bags could serve as flood barriers.

“It was one of those 'duh' moments,” says Schnaars, president of bag-manufacturer Ameriglobe. “When someone shows it to you, it's like duh, why didn't I think of that?” Schnaars chuckles. They shook hands on a joint venture to make what's now called the TrapBag and to split revenues evenly.

This episode might not be so remarkable were it not for the fact that Waid, 60, was one of the many victims of the residential real estate collapse on the Gulf Coast. Waid's previous company, Fort Myers-based Hydro Rock Co., hit $50 million in revenues with 250 employees in 2006. The following year, Waid had to shutter the underground-utility construction company as residential development came to a halt. “We lost everything,” he says.

“I try to reinvent myself based on the changes in my industry, which almost everybody has to do,” says Schnaars. “But Buzz changed careers.”

While he was growing Hydro Rock, Waid had an idea for protective barriers against floods by creating a bagging system that could withstand raging waters. The idea of making what are essentially giant sandbags germinated after Hurricane Charley swamped his hometown of Fort Myers Beach, which his company helped clean up after the storm. “Everything was flooded from the tidal surge,” he recalls. “If people planned ahead of time...”

Of course, Waid couldn't have timed the launch of Fort Myers-based Sentinel Barriers much better, with record floods in the Midwest this spring. The TrapBag he makes with Ameriglobe might easily be compared to starting a shutter manufacturer in a busy hurricane season.

Waid's bags have prevented flooding in Fargo, N.D., they saved a fertilizer plant along the Ohio River and they reinforced the sharpest curve on the Mississippi River in Louisiana, garnering media attention along the way. “We've been in the New York Times,” he gushes.

In the bag
When Waid's construction company was booming, the Fort Myers Beach entrepreneur quietly worked on the invention that would turn into TrapBag, spending about $500,000 on designs and patent attorneys.

Initially, friends were skeptical. Robert Brown, Waid's fishing buddy and president of GCM Contracting Solutions in Fort Myers, wondered what his friend was doing. “I don't know, Buzz, that sounds a little goofy,” he remembers telling him.

But Brown doesn't doubt Waid's persistence will pay off. “Five years from now they'll be all over the place,” Brown laughs.

Friends and colleagues say Waid doesn't wait to jump into action, whether it's cleaning up Fort Myers Beach or responding to disasters up the coast. It's the same spirit he brings to his new venture. “He took a caravan of people, trucks and supplies to Mississippi and Louisiana,” says longtime friend Nick Cross. “He said, 'Come on guys, we're going up there.'”

Each TrapBag barrier consists of 100 feet of strong plastic bags measuring as tall as six feet. The bags are hung on a rail system that makes them easy to fill with sand or gravel using a front-end loader. A tractor pulls the bags like an accordion while the front-end loader fills a hopper to fill each bag. It costs $140,000 for one mile of TrapBag, excluding labor and freight.

The advantage of the TrapBag lies in the speed with which it can deploy the barrier. A crew of four can install up to a mile of TrapBag barrier protection in 24 hours, faster than any army of ill-trained volunteers could with thousands of ordinary sandbags to cover the same amount of ground.

Flood predictions
Waid says he knows who his customers will be months ahead of time. That's because the federal government forecasts spring floods accurately, he says.

His first customer this year was Fargo, N.D., where the Red River started flooding for the third straight year. The city levies a tax to pay for flood control and paid for the TrapBag to replace a competitor's barrier, which turned out to be less effective wire-cage baskets. “We needed an advocate client,” Waid says.

When the Ohio River began to flood recently, Waid rushed to install the TrapBag around a fertilizer plant, saving the company's building and preventing the pollution of the river.

Further south, the Pontchartrain Levy District in Louisiana installed two miles of TrapBag on the sharpest curve in the Mississippi River.

Now, Waid is off to Seattle where government forecasts show the winter snows will turn into spring and summer floods.

Schnaars credits Waid's salesmanship with recent successes. “Buzz has gravitas,” he says. “It works when we visit potential customers.”

Waid and Schnaars have manufactured 25 miles of TrapBag and they're working on creating a distribution network.

Besides the U.S., other countries could be fertile ground for sales. With 80% of Ameriglobe's bags made in Asia, Schnaars says he could find customers through his network of manufacturers in India and China.

Because flood barriers often must be installed in a rush, Waid says he's talking to national retailers who might inventory and store miles of TrapBag in their warehouses near flood zones in exchange for advertising printed on the bags. “That's the marketing in Buzz,” Waid says.

“Our struggle now is to get the governmental agencies to recognize our product,” says Schnaars. Government bureaucracies are slow and cumbersome, dragging out the sales process. For example, the federal government publishes a 74-page guide on how to fill out an application for the right to sell to it.

Waid and Schnaars are also exploring other avenues for sales. “Now we're looking at redesigning this product into consumer to make low-lying barriers for homes,” Schnaars says.

Both Waid and Schnaars say they're not sure how much business the TrapBag could generate, but the market potential for flood-prone land is obvious.

Waid, a jovial man, turns serious when asked about future sales: “This is going to be bigger than my construction company,” he says.


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