CCCT sat down with Matt Aston, Founder & CEO from Ground Penetrating Radar Systems LLC (GPRS), is the nation’s largest company specializing in the detection of underground utilities, video pipe inspection, and the scanning of concrete structures. GPRS has an extensive nationwide network of highly trained and experienced Project Managers in every major U.S. market. When clients hire GPRS, they have the peace of mind of knowing that they have the most reliable scanning technology on their job site and they’ll receive the assistance of a Project Manager who can provide them with the most accurate data. For over a decade, GPRS has been the industry leader by providing outstanding service and cutting edge technology, keeping projects on time, reducing safety risks, and putting our relationships with our clients before profit. Enjoy the conversation.
Hey there, Commercial Construction Coffee Talk fans. Thanks for chiming in. My name’s David Cor, and I’m your host. I’m also the publisher and editor of Commercial Construction and Renovation magazine. I’ve got a little halo on there, but that’s what it looks like. This is May June 2012, we’re pulling them out of the archives. Part of America group, Michael right in the middle there, good to see you on the cover and another good-looking issue. I always like looking to see what I was doing way back then in 2012. Well, I’m shoveling manure, I was doing some stuff at the old house, and that was me looking pretty beasty there. I did all that myself, and that was actually mulch. I did the manure the week before. This is what the magazine used to look like, and it looks like I had this was my G issue, really healthy, 130-140 pages. We went digital August of 2021, so we no longer print the magazine. Well, we do have a print-on-demand service, so we still print, but we’re 100% digital. We get a couple million people a month that hit the website consuming content. Thank you to all of you out there. It’s been an amazing ride. Don’t miss the post office, don’t miss the printer. It’s just been unbelievable going digital, making the transformation from print face to face with our events to digital. This last year I’ve taken a year of digital classes. I’m just about ready to launch my digital agency. You can teach an old dog new tricks. It’s amazing. You just have to keep your mind open and consume it. I hope everybody’s getting ready for the holidays. It’s Friday before Christmas week. Sunny here in Atlanta, a little chilly, but we’ll take the sun. I hope everybody’s getting ready, and I say the best for last. I have a gentleman out of Toledo, Ohio, and his name is Matt Aston. He’s the CEO and founder of GPRS, and they do, they look through utilities and through concrete and all sorts of stuff. I’m going to let him tell you about it, but basically, they want to make sure they know what’s underneath the ground before you start digging. With that said, Matt, say hello to our listeners out there on Commercial Construction Coffee Talk.
Hey, good afternoon. Looking forward to this conversation and helping get the message out about GPRS and how we can help on construction sites across the country.
Absolutely. Before we get into discussion, I actually have a new sponsor, and we’re going to take a look at a short little video. As soon as that’s over, it’s only very short, we’ll come back, and we’ll start with Matt’s story. So enjoy the video, and we’ll be right [Music] back.
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Hey, everybody. We’re back. Thanks for watching the video on our sponsor for Commercial Construction Coffee Talk. Reach out to them, and hopefully, you’ll like their product. This is the way it’s going to work: you’re going to tell your story where you grew up, play any sports, where you went to school, and kids, dogs, cats, all that good stuff, and how you ended up where you are today. Then we’ll talk about lessons learned from the roller coaster that we’ve all been on over the last three and a half years. Then you’ll leave your contact info, one positive thought or phrase for our listeners, and then we’ll close out the episode. With that said, the floor is yours, tell us your story.
Thank you, David. My name is Matt Aston, born and raised in Toledo, Ohio. I’ve lived here for all but one and a half years of my life. A brief stint at Hillsdale College, and I met my wife the night before I was going back for my sophomore year. I realized that she was not going to say yes to me if I was going away to school. So, I asked her out a few times over that semester and finally made the decision at Christmas time to transfer back to the University of Toledo. We started dating, and here we are, it’ll be 26 years in January. Three kids later, and we’re on the verge of an empty nest now. My wife, Tara, and I have three kids, Ashley, Trevor, and Travis. It’s been great. I’m amazed by how fast that time has gone. Our youngest graduates here in May from high school. I grew up here; my dad had his own business. He started it when I was three years old; it was a concrete cutting company. I did not want anything to do with concrete cutting. I helped on those jobs when I was in high school and college, learned a little bit about the business, and I wanted to go into big company work in a tall building somewhere in New York or Boston or Chicago. So, I went into finance, and shortly after college, I got a job as a financial analyst for a big automotive company based here in Toledo. It didn’t take long to realize that the corporate world was just not for me. I talked to my dad about going out of business with him, exactly what I thought I was not going to do. We went out to lunch one day, and he said he’d love to have me join him in the business. That was kind of the plan, and about a week later, he called me and said, “Let’s go out to lunch.” I met him for lunch again, and he said, “I think this is wrong. I think you should do something on your own. I think you should find your own way.” I was pretty devastated at first, but he said, “I think if you were to come in and buy this business from me, you would always have this doubt about whether or not you could have started it and whether or not you could have gotten it off the ground and got it to where it is today. So, I think you should really do something on your own.” He gave me this magazine, and in that magazine, there was an advertisement for ground penetrating radar. One of the applications they identified with ground penetrating radar was the ability to find embedded or buried electrical conduits in a concrete slab prior to saw cutting, and I knew from my time helping out on my dad’s job sites that this was a huge problem. It seemed inevitable that if they were going to be cutting concrete, at some point they were going to cut through electrical, and it was going to be a surprise. It was going to cause chaos on the job site and then unexpected repairs and shutdowns. I thought this could be a business that we could probably build up and gain some traction within the construction industry. I had no background in ground penetrating radar or any experience in that area, still very green. I went out to New Hampshire to get trained on the equipment. I tell people that I was scared on the way out there and after three days of training at the manufacturer’s facility, I was terrified on the way home. But, I spent time going to different job sites where concrete cutting was going to take place to try to learn and apply the training that I received in New Hampshire to how to help bring value to the construction industry in Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan where I’m from.
I found a few other applications where we could bring value, so not just finding electrical, but also determining the exact placement of reinforcing steel within a concrete slab. So, if you had to drill a hole through a concrete floor or structure, we could lay out the exact placement of the rebar or post-tensioning cable, and that way the core drill could be drilled without jeopardizing any structural integrity of the structure. The manufacturer had another antenna that could look deeper into the ground with the primary application of using it to find underground utilities prior to an excavation. That same antenna could also be used to identify underground storage tanks or voids underneath the ground. What started out as a focus almost exclusively in that one area of finding electrical prior to saw cutting has turned into many other services all revolving around damage prevention and helping keep construction sites safer when saw cutting, core drilling, excavating. Over the last few years, we’ve added a few more services like video pipe inspection, where we can run a camera through a sewer to determine condition, to determine if there’s any directional drilling that has penetrated the sewer. We’ve also added water leak detection services and laser scanning services, so 3D laser scanning building three-dimensional models and point clouds using laser as the measurement tool.
You know, my family’s been in construction since 1888. We were in recycling and demolition. We were in sustainability before it was even a word. Just like yourself, when I grew up outside of Philadelphia, all the grandsons got their driver’s license at 16. You know where you had to go? You had to go to Uncle Frank in the scrapyard at 7 in the morning in the summers. You had no choice, or you weren’t going to drive your car. I used to play down in the scrap, and here I am in construction. I’m not doing it, but I mean, everything that I learned there, I kind of knew. I grew up with tools and cranes and all that stuff. It’s amazing when you look back that those things that you really didn’t want to do, now my cousins are running the business, but it’s still family. Everything I learned there, I use here because I build this magazine every month. I’m a constructor. I used to use paper and ink and materials, and now I’m digital, but I still do the same thing. I build this, I’m proud of it, and you know, I don’t drive by it and say, “Hey, I built that,” but I’m still a manufacturer, I’m a builder. I always like people that, you know, my son, I told him the same thing. “Hey Dad, why don’t you take me into the business?” I’m like, “Bro, you need to go work out and get fired a couple of times, okay? Because let me tell you, I was very hard on you, and I wanted you to have thick skin so you were ready when you jumped out of my nest. You were going to be able to handle the business world.” He works at Boeing right now. He went to FAA mechanic school. He’s working on the 787 at 24. He’s a flight op specialist. It’s just crazy that this kid is working on these $350 million airplanes. At the time, I said, “You need to go out and find something to do. Just go out and work, make mistakes, whatever.” And if you want to come back, at least you’ll have some experience of what it is to be an entrepreneur, and you can see if you like the corporate world or this or that. That’s the route that he took. But like you’ve been with your sweetheart from high school or whatever college, been together with my wife now 33 years. You and I have a lot in common, you know, from the whole family standpoint, but
I put brass little sofa tables together, unloaded the trucks, Scotch guarded, and was a picker on the lift. I went into the jewel business, got GIA certified when my mom got remarried. I didn’t like sitting behind the showcases in the store waiting for customers to come in. Then I moved to Atlanta and was bored. I didn’t want to move back to corporate in New York. I liked living in the South. I found an ad, just like you found a job, an ad sales job in the paper when they still had papers. Small world, they had a magazine, Furniture magazine, and they had met me when I was three years old in my dad’s office because my parents used to run ads in these guys’ Furniture magazine. So they put me on an automotive title. I had sales experience but didn’t have publishing experience. I called on Ford, GM, Chrysler, all the interiors, the headliners, the dashboards, all those kinds of manufacturers. Then they threw me another one, and right after 9/11, we got bought up by Neelen, and right after 9/11, they whacked about 40 or 50 titles in their magazine division, and my little construction magazine had gotten the axe. So I flew up, offered to buy the magazine, and they wouldn’t sell it to me. I resigned and just went out on my own. Everybody told me not to do it. There are a lot of people who take a few wrong turns and go down one road to find out that that road is really what you’re supposed to be on.
How long is it going to take before you realize that the road you’re on is not for you? One of the pieces of advice that I give to younger people as they’re starting their careers is, once you know you’re on a road that’s not for you, turn around and be done. I don’t care if it’s six days or six weeks or six years, but once you know that’s not it, turn around and find what you’re supposed to do. This is an unbelievable bridge story. My son got hired by Delta to be a facility tech on the airplanes. It took about two months for him to go through fingerprinting, background checks, all that stuff. His first day at Delta, he’s not even there three hours, and a recruiter calls him and says they need thousands of people at Boeing, offering five times what Delta’s paying. He calls me up, and I told him to listen to his boss who said to get out of there. So, he moved to Charleston to work on planes, as opposed to turning wrenches on the tarmac for Delta. He spent a year as a contractor in the plant, and then a position opened up where he worked on all the planes coming out of the manufacturing plant and any planes sold to other airline operators. He got hired, beating out people with tenure. He knew everything about the plane, from the cargo bay up to the cockpit.
Timing in business is everything. It could be three hours, three days, or three years, but if you don’t like what you’re doing, leave. If you’re not happy, go do something that’s going to make you happy. Being negative just brings you down. When you get that first acknowledgement from your dad, even though it’s devastating at first, when you look back, it’s like the best thing that ever happened to you. I questioned the long-term viability of GPRS every day for the first five years. I’m a big believer in the 10,000-hour rule, where it takes 10,000 hours of practice before you can become good at something. I viewed that first five years as practice. I didn’t have leadership experience, experience in creating a vision, or goals for a company, but that came with practice. Now, 22 years later, we’re just shy of 800 employees, with operations in 54 cities throughout the United States, from Boston to Honolulu, Seattle to Miami, and every major city in between. When I started, it was just me. Congratulations on your growth and continued momentum as we close out Q4 in 2023 and go into 2024.
Bridging to that, let’s talk about the last three years. How your firm and other satellite offices weathered the storm because construction was state to state, depending on the regulations. Talk about how you weathered the storm and then we’ll talk about some of your product lines. I was a little disappointed in governmental leadership at the state and federal level. We saw construction sites shut down in different parts of the country. Imagine driving a car down the highway, and all of a sudden your windshield is blacked out. That’s what it felt like. We knew we were going to be impacted, but we didn’t know to what level. Fortunately, our services were deemed essential, so we didn’t shut down. We plowed through, had two rough months in April and May, but we started to see things turn in June. Today, GPRS is twice the size it was in March of 2020 when all the chaos ensued.
We’ve got a great team, unbelievable people. They were resilient, they did not act in fear, and the growth of the company is a direct result of our people’s response to those events. Construction people, I give all the credit to all the frontline workers, the essential workers, people worked in the hospital, firefighters, police, all those guys who had to go to work. All my buds said, “Hey man, I just put my mask on, got on the plane, went to my site wherever it was. I had to get stuff done. I had no choice.” They were all troopers, and the stories they told me were incredible. The biggest thing was that no one really knew what to expect. It’ll be a couple of weeks, then it was a couple of months. We are three and a half years later and we’re still kind of talking about it.
So many companies had their best years, even with a little hiccup like those couple of months. Even during that, it was probably the best thing that probably happened because, just like myself, I learned so much about my business when March came. I had just had my 10th-anniversary event in Jacksonville, did my first cocktail party in Florida, and then I was on the road looking at hotels in Milwaukee. Everything got shut down, and I was fighting with my printer. I told him, “Half my circulation is furloughed, all these magazines I’m going to print and pay postage are going to get thrown in the trash. What am I going to do?” He said, “You’ve been a publisher forever, you know that it’s economy to scale, and the printing press wants to set up is not a big deal.” So, I bit the bullet, put it out there, and then in April, I sat back and thought, “What am I going to do?” My artist and my editor said, “Hey, go digital. We have all this content, we have a digital magazine, let’s just do it.” So, we went digital in May, and the companies that were able to make the turn rolled the dice. It was the best decision I ever made.
All the people I’ve talked to, contractors, engineers, they’ve had the best years they could have had. If they could have had more project managers or superintendents on their jobs that aren’t out there, they would have bitten more of the apple and had more business. But they were smart; they didn’t want to bite off more than they could chew. Your story is just like a lot of construction guys I’ve had on this podcast. The last couple of years, even though it was a learning experience for everybody, they learned a lot about their company. They learned that people could be productive off-site, and you could trust them. Some people have to be in the office environment, but you can get things done and grow your business in extenuating circumstances. We’re growing the company to the number year. Congratulations, that is some feat.
Now that we’re kind of out of it, do you have any new products coming down the pipeline? We’re in the development stages of software that we’re building. We think about the campuses, the sites we work on repeatedly: universities, hospitals, manufacturing facilities, entertainment venues. One thing we see in common across all these sites is very few have good records of what their underground infrastructure looks like. There are some sites that we go to two or three times a week, and we thought, what if we were to build a platform, kind of like the Google Maps of underground infrastructure. For each individual facility, we create this underground infrastructure map where they can log on and see in real-time everything we’ve ever done on their site. All gas lines identified, electric, communications, water, sewer, depths, paths, locations, shut-off valves. They have an accurate underground infrastructure map. For a subscription, they can log in, we host the data, build the data, and as things change, we update and maintain it. They finally have an integrated and updated infrastructure map of everything they have on their property. We’re still in the development stages, but we’re getting closer to our first official launch in February.
We do a soft construction software issue in August. I’m going to make sure you get the link, and we’ll help you get the word out. People don’t realize, whether you’re going in a backyard or concrete, there’s always something underneath. When they did all the Google Maps, you’d see the car driving around with the spinning thing. How did you go about getting all these underground maps? We’ve been collecting data for the last three or four years on every job. We take GPS coordinates of our findings and create a map. If we go to any big college campus today, we would have patchy data, but we have the opportunity to go back and say, “Here’s what we have.” If you want the full picture, we can do this for you. We believe this is going to change the way our services are viewed by our customer base and the relationship we have with them. Right now, most of our interactions with the owners, the facility managers, go through the contractors working on-site. We think this changes things where we’re going to be hired directly by the facility because they become dependent on this software as part of their management system for their underground infrastructure.
I can’t imagine how many facilities, like the Encyclopedia Britannica of underground materials and concrete, are out there—campuses, schools. I draw a parallel to your magazines. You abandoned paper in August 2021. If you go into a lot of these engineering offices at hospitals or campuses, they’ve got stacks of prints that are two and three feet high. A lot of the data on those prints is not accurate. It’s as designed, as opposed to as built. A lot of it’s not integrated, where they may have sewer on one set of plans, electric on another, and gas.
And communications and very rarely do we see that there is one unified set of plans where everything is consolidated and it’s accurate. With this, we abandon the five-foot stack tall of paper, the 24×36 prints. We get rid of those and have one accurate consolidated database showing everything on campus. If you only want to see electrical, you shut off the other utilities. You can click the link, shut off the other digitized utilities. You can say, “Hey, David Corson marked this for me on December 15, 2023, and here’s a gas line, and it’s 32 inches deep.” I can click on it and show where it originates and where it terminates on my site. That’s where this is going, and we’re really excited about what it’s going to do for the industry.
This really sounds awesome. Did you come up with that idea, or was it a conglomerate of workers, or just an epiphany one day? Our leadership team came up with it. We do these off-site leadership meetings. One of the smartest guys I know, Jamie Al Houser, had some ideas that I didn’t have. Jamie oversees everything we do in the field across the country. So then we put a team together and brainstormed this and what it could be. We’re calling it Excitement, and we’re getting closer to this first phase of development being complete. We’re really excited for what it’s going to bring to the industry.
It integrates all of our services: leak detection, video pipe inspection, laser scanning, and ground penetrating radar. Eventually, we’ll be able to do this inside a building, so we can incorporate interior infrastructure as well. If you have a facility and you’re going to build and want to have a record of what’s underneath the concrete slab or pad, or if you have an older facility with piles of blueprints, here’s an opportunity to have an up-to-date historical data in real time. You can get rid of the stacks of blueprints and have everything digitized and accessible.
If someone wanted to reach out to you, how would they connect with you or your firm? Our website is GPRSinc.com, and we’re in 54 cities across the country. You can find a full contact list on the website. We’re based in Toledo, Ohio, but we’re all over the country. You can find me on LinkedIn, just search Matt Aston, ASPTON, GPRS, and I’ll pop right up. We have about 600 of our team members on LinkedIn, so you can find plenty of people. We are eager to help and build this service throughout the industry.
As we close out our episode and the end of the year, if you wanted to leave our audience with one positive thought or phrase, what would it be? I’m not a big New Year’s resolutions guy. If you’re going to try to improve in an area, why wait until January 1? Just go ahead and start now. As you look at planning for 2024, create some vision and go bigger than what you expect. The world around us makes it so easy to be average, and we are so much more capable than what we give ourselves credit for. I was fortunate that my dad saw something in me at a pretty young age, and that’s what led me to start GPRS. We sell ourselves short on what our true capability is, and that’s what I would challenge the audience with. You are capable of far more than you realize, but you just got to be committed and dedicated to pursuing whatever it is that you want to accomplish.
Think big. I’ve been taking digital classes for the last year. I had a digital magazine and thought I knew everything, but I didn’t. I just turned 60 this year and have learned so much. I think I got an MBA in online marketing, more than any big school could have given me. It’s all about mindset, staying positive, and thinking big. It’s not “I can’t do that,” it’s “How am I going to get this done?” Every day, I nurture my page with a video or quotes. The other night, I was surfing the web, looking for stuff, and you have to take action. If you do something today, you’ll thank yourself next year, and you’ll look back and be glad you did it. If you don’t do it, you won’t be able to do that. So if you have something, not everything’s going to work. You’re going to make mistakes, learn from them, and that’s how you grow. Thinking big is just so right because we didn’t get to where we are if we didn’t think big.
It’s frustrating to see people who have potential but don’t have the confidence to push themselves. Untapped potential is one of the most frustrating things I see. You can’t want it more for someone else than they want it for themselves. The message I’ve been preaching to our company for the last few years is that we are capable of so much more than we realize. The guy who runs my class said to treat your company like a pet. If you don’t feed it every day, it will eventually perish. If your company is doing $1,000 and another $1,000, you’re not growing. So, if you don’t feed your company every day, you’re doing a disservice. By thinking big, you have to get more done.
It’s not in my DNA to quit or give up. Make mistakes and learn from them. But the think-big thing is just so right because we wouldn’t be where we are if we didn’t think big. It’s frustrating to see potential greatness in someone, and it’s on them to push themselves. We sell ourselves short on what our true capability is.
Our website is GPRSinc.com, and we’re in 54 cities across the country. You can find me on LinkedIn, search Matt Aston, ASPTON, GPRS. We are eager to help and build this service throughout the industry. If you have a facility and you’re going to build, and you want to have a record of what’s underneath the concrete slab or pad, or if you have an older facility with piles of blueprints, here’s an opportunity to have an up-to-date historical data in real time.
Happy holidays, everyone. Appreciate the opportunity and look forward to helping out on your job site. I’m signing off from Sugar Hill, just below the Buford Dam on Lake Lanier, about 25 miles north of downtown Atlanta. Have a great holiday, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Hanukkah ends tonight, and happy Festivus too for those who know what it is with Jerry Seinfeld. Enjoy it and get ready for 2023, which was a wild year. I still have my seat belt on, but 2024 I think is going to be even wilder. You might want to tighten it up a little, but it’s okay because it’s going to be a wild ride, and you’re going to remember it the rest of your life, just like you’re going to remember 2023 when we close the books out on it.
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