Dirty boots

Mike Groh, product development manager with Geo-Synthetics LLC (GSI) in Waukesha, Wisc., is a true enthusiast about the geosynthetics industry and his company’s role in it. He’s been around the industry almost as long as his dad, Robert M. Groh, who started an asphalt paving company in the early 1970s. After studying business administration, he went to work for the new family business. “Nepotism has its rewards,” he quips.

But it’s clear that the connection goes beyond the familial. His father died last summer and left a legacy for the larger GSI family that still defines the way the company operates. “He was a great guy,” Groh says. “Everything we do today at this office is just an evolution of his vision from the early '70s. ‘Ever think about this? You guys see this?’ he would say. He was always curious.”

The company’s introduction into the world of geotextiles was the use of paving grade fabrics as a waterproofing interlayer in an asphalt overlay. Since then, the company has grown to three divisions: geosynthetic construction products, liner construction and geotextile tube fabrication that serves a global market and is Groh’s special area of expertise.

Beyond geosynthetics

One might think that Groh would never leave the family business, but he may have inherited his dad’s curiosity and set out in a new direction. “My wife and I always wanted to have a custard stand,” he says. So, he sold out to his brother in 1994 to go into the food business with his wife, Jule. “This was the good stuff—fresh, frozen custard … made the old-fashioned way. We had a hoot!” he says. He is proud to add that Mickey’s Fresh Frozen Custard in Hartford, Wisc., is still operating.

But he found his way back into the geo business, first via consulting, and in 2008 he rejoined GSI. What he missed was being on the job site as a problem solver. “That is just so gratifying,” he says. “That’s what drew me back. … We’re very much a dirty boots organization.

“Back in the early '80s the way you convinced people to use these products is that you went out in the field and helped them choose the right products and made sure it was installed correctly.” It’s not unusual for him to spend weeks at landfills, waste water treatment facilties, power plants and mining applications. “We are not a sit-behind-the-desk organization,” he adds.

From art to bikes

There’s a sense of adventure in his leisure hours, as well. An avid bicyclist, he’s averaged as much as 2,000 miles a year over the last 10 years. He’s just as likely to be with Jule—traveling (“where it’s warm in the winter”), gardening (“She works; I watch”) and sharing a passion for art, particularly modern art, supported by Jule’s work as a docent at the Milwaukee Art Museum. This routine is about to be punctuated by a life-changing event; they just found out they’re going to be grandparents for the first time.

So he’s looking forward to the future more than ever—in his family life and professionally. An IFAI 2010 International Achievement Award for a project at the La Crosse, Wisc. Municipal Airport “meant so much to us,” he says. “It underscores the excitement for the industry in the civil engineering community, looking to geosynthetics because they’re cost effective. I’m more excited today than I was 30 years ago about the geo industry.”

by Janet Preus, editor, Specialty Fabrics Review