The groovy story of John Stallman

Published 5/10 at 16:30

Every industry has its legends: one of a kind, larger than life figures that define it and lay the path for others to follow. Concrete sawing and drilling has its fair share of giants, too. John Stallman, a trailblazer in runway grooving techniques whose career spanned nearly six decades, is one such individual. By Andrei Bushmarin.

Runway grooving is a very niche yet universally required technique. Employed to eliminate hydroplaning on runways, grooving is integral to the safe take-off and landing of an aircraft. A fighter jet loaded with armament sliding off the runway can cause a whole lot of trouble so airport operators tend to keep a weather eye on every experienced groover.

 

Well engineered beginnings 

John Stallman was born in Rochester, New York on 1 February 1936. Having finished at the local high school, he did a two year stint in the army before entering Syracuse University. He graduated from it in June 1960 with a Bachelor’s Degree in civil engineering. Following graduation, John worked as a design engineer in New York City for about a year. Then he relocated to Trinidad BWI to join a US$25mln sewer project sponsored by the World Bank. John’s wife, Marcelina Edith Davies, was born in Trinidad, and it was Marcelina’s father who alerted him to this opportunity. John spent almost five years in Trinidad working his way up from a field engineer to project manager. From a professional point of view, it was a formative experience for a young John Stallman. After that he worked for the same company in Los Angeles and Okinawa before moving to Honolulu, Hawaii in 1968 to run a prestressing manufacturing plant. It was there that he earned an MBA post graduate degree in International Finance from the University of Hawaii graduating in 1971. Since that time, Hawaii would be playing a vital role in John Stallman’s life, eventually becoming his home base and residence. 

 

Business owner and consultant 

In 1971, an investment group that John Stallman was a part of bought 49% of Concrete Coring Company Hawaii. At the time, the company’s founder and 51 % owner was the legendary Ed Dempsey – the very man who pioneered the use of high cycle 400Hz motors in concrete cutting. Following a series of twists and turns over the next two years, John Stallman gained full control of the investment group and the contracting company, thus becoming a business owner. The contracting company was set up as a union shop, starting out using experienced operators from California before training its own staff. With his MBA and strong engineering background, John Stallman played consultant to numerous others in the industry throughout his career, overseeing their progress to senior management positions.

 

Getting into the groove 

In the early 1970s, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration of the US) began promoting runway grooving techniques as a means to prevent hydroplaning. In Hawaii, a first project of this kind was executed at Hilo International Airport by a Texas based contractor. This led John Stallman to research the business and arrange a lease of a grooving machine with an experienced operator to train his personnel. The first grooving task that Concrete Coring Company Hawaii completed on its own was in Lihue Kauai in 1974. From that moment on, runway grooving became John Stallman’s pet project to market, bid for and oversee every aspect of. 

In 1975, the company executed its first international contract (albeit in cooperation with Concrete Coring Company, Tokyo) in Yamagata, Japan. Thanks to John’s expertise and equipment, the Tokyo based contractor was able to secure the first ever grooving contract in the country. In this particular case, hydroplaning was not the only reason for grooving; the runway was too short for a jet to land and, like many others, the Yamagata airport authorities wanted to upgrade it from turboprops to jets, with grooving of the runway making jet landing safe with braking. 

Over the course of twenty years, Concrete Coring Company Hawaii completed some 30 grooving missions all over Hawaii as well as in Guam, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Micronesia. In 1995, John sold his interest in the company to his employees under an ESOPS (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) agreement. In the latter years, they managed to increase the company’s annual turnover from US$4-5mln to US$25-30mln, with John’s name being on the building’s facade to this day. 

 

Operation ‘Hong Kong’ 

When the Hong Kong government awarded a repaving and grooving contract for Kai Tak Airport's solo runway to the Anderson Asphalt Company in 1992, its chief engineer did his due diligence and found out that Concrete Coring Company Hawaii had done similar jobs in the Philippines, Japan and Pacific islands. He flew over to Hawaii to evaluate the contractor’s equipment and capabilities. By that time John had already set up Concrete Coring Company Hong Kong, obtained a residency permit, met all local contractors and completed his first grooving job in Macau for a specifier from mainland China. In Hong Kong he befriended Samson Pei, the owner of Drillcut Ltd and a cult personality on the local concrete sawing and drilling scene. At Samson’s request, John became his wingman, running the business together until 2001. It was John Stallman who introduced Samson to the CSDA and American suppliers, techniques and equipment. Concrete Coring Company Hong Kong was operational until 2014 and during that time finished 14 runway grooving and repairing projects in various Pacific Rim countries, the US and India. 

 

Some groovy tales 

After 40 years in the runway grooving business, John Stallman has a bagful of exciting tales to tell. In the 1980s, there were no more than 50 companies worldwide that had the equipment and expertise to undertake runway grooving, so every project was truly unique. For instance, for a job on the island of Pohnpei (aka Ponape) in 1981, John Stallman set up the entire operation in two 6m shipping containers. One was used to transport the machine, parts, tools, generators, lights and hoses while the other was used for a vacuum tank with more hoses and accessories (vacuum tanks are necessary to capture the water and slurry to keep the runway clean for use). This mobile set up allowed John Stallman to go anywhere a freighter could drop off the containers. In between jobs, John stored his machinery on the US island of Guam. 

Another unforgettable experience involved runway grooving on a US military base on the island of Diego Garcia, which is in the middle of the Indian Ocean. A B1 bomber had hydroplaned off the runway into a grass field with a full armament load. Since that base was a departure point for all the bombing missions in the Middle East, Congress got involved and demanded the concrete runway be grooved immediately. John Stallman was located relaxing on a boat in Hawaii, and had to cut his vacation short, rounding up six operators, locating and leasing two machines and set to work. The machines were delivered by Korean Air on a Boeing 747 to a Singapore military base from which they travelled to the destination by ship. 

In 2010, John Stallman sold his machinery to Cardinal International together with a non-compete and consulting agreement to assist them in taking over the Asian market. He consulted Cardinal on projects in Micronesia and Papua New Guinea in 2012 and 2013 finally retiring from the industry to his home in Honolulu, Hawaii in 2018.

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