by Mark Binsfeld, VP of Business Development
Innovation is one of our core tenets here at Brennan. And perhaps there is no one individual here who embodies this tenet as much as Vic Buhr, former Vice President of the Environmental Group.
Vic Buhr: The Early Years
Vic began his career back in 1980 working for F.J. Robers Company. He was hired out of the local union hall to run a bulldozer on the new Highway 61/Highway 151 bridge that was being built in north Dubuque, IA. Robers won a contract to dredge all of the fill in that would be used for the approaches for the bridge. The job was run by long-time Robers Superintendent Tom Abraham, father of current Brennan superintendent Jeff Abraham, who noticed Vic’s hard work ethic and offered him a permanent position on the crew.
Vic traveled all over with the Robers hydraulic dredge crews for the next nine years. He worked with several gentlemen who had been in the dredging industry for a long time. Guys like Billy Bob Thorton, Bob Babler, Duane Becker, and Arlen Trocinski (grandfather to Brennan Yard Manager Kyle Trocinski) who had been in the dredging business for many years with Kertzman Dredging Company, Robers, and the early ears at Brennan. During the 1980s Brennan and Robers would often team together on dredging projects where Robers did the dredging, and Brennan did all of the rock and construction work. Vic’s first project working with Brennan was on a levy restoration in Quincy, IL in 1988.
Brennan's first hydraulic dredge: The Mathew.
By the late 1980s when Charlie Robers decided to exit the hydraulic dredging business, Tony Binsfeld felt it would be a good addition to our portfolio and the two negotiated a buyout. By 1989 Brennan had bought two of Robers’ dredges (the Dougan and the Howard) and hired several of their key members of the dredge crews such as Vic, Steve Becker, Al Page, and Jeff Abraham. The first project was the Betrom and McCartney Lake Island Habitat project near Cassville, WI with Ray Kronforst as superintendent and the dredge Dougan newly renamed the Mathew.
Vic Buhr Joins the Brennan Team
The transition to Brennan was not an easy one. Soon after the first project many of the long-timers retired and Vic found himself quickly climbing the ladder. “Initially I was a foreman/ leverman and Ray (Kronforst) would be the Superintendent. Then I moved on to running jobs, and then became a general superintendent.” His first job that he managed was a pipeline crossing by 9-Mile Island south of Dubuque. Brennan had to dig a 40-foot cut directly across the channel with the massive dredge Howard (by this time renamed the Mark Anthony). “I had a crew of guys that had been around Brennan forever. Guys like Cy Mohn, Kenny Steiber, Kevin Zenke, and Roger Bean. At the time we were using Robers’ old pipe. And, oh man, we were working in a cross current down there. You’d get everything together and then “pop” the pipeline would break. The dredge moved using anchors and winches, and since the ditch was only 40 feet wide, it took a lot of work. Most of the guys weren’t used to hydraulic dredging, but you know we got it done and everybody seemed happy.”
Vic Buhr, Roger Mohn, and Ken Manning on a newly rebuilt levee in Missouri during the flood of '93.
Another job that Vic remembered was the emergency levee restoration during the flood of 1993. Brennan sent two dredges to the Quincy, IL area and Gregory Landing, MO to aid the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in rebuilding collapsed levees that had devastated the Missouri side of the River. “I went down to Missouri on August 6th and didn’t come back till December 28th. We have done some pretty cool stuff, including environmental stuff, but when you saw the devastation and how it affected people, and the fact that we were going to fix those levees because people were losing their homes. This project was probably the highlight of my career.”
Vic Sparks Change Throughout Brennan
For those who know Vic, he is a very innovative person. After all, he is listed on at least two patents here at Brennan and has countless other innovations to his name. So as Vic became the head of the newly formed Dredge Division in the mid-1990s, he had a lot of pressure to succeed. “You know, you find the guys along the way that can help you out. And Tony was so supportive. He really wanted to build the hydraulic side of the business up and we spent a lot of time trying to figure stuff out.”
At the time Vic did not have a large network to lean on, but started looking into dredge manufacturers and suppliers that could help him accomplish his goals. He discovered Dredging Supply Company (DSC) in Louisiana. “I started talking to Tommy Wetta and he was just awesome. He probably knew immediately that I didn’t know what I was talking about, but he was such a fine gentleman and really helped me out, and that’s what fostered our relationship with DSC which has stayed throughout all of these years.” This was an important relationship, especially before the internet was available, as Vic learned how to strategically source parts and supplies to keep the dredges running.
New Dredge Michael B during the Potters Marsh Project in the 1990s.
Vic could see that change was beginning to take place in the hydraulic dredging industry. The gigantic dinosaurs of the past were expensive to run, cumbersome to move, and mechanical nightmares to maintain. Through his dealings with DSC he learned about the swinging ladder dredge concept that eliminated the need for traditional winches and anchors. It was also portable and could be disassembled in a couple days and trucked anywhere in the country. So, Vic started pushing to buy a swinging ladder dredge. “We had this consultant at the time. He was a smart guy who’d bite off chunks of cigars and chew them all day. I was pushing hard for a swinging ladder dredge to do the Potter’s Marsh project and he thought I was crazy. He’d say, ‘There’s no place in the industry for that.’ You know, this was new, and it was designed for the swamps and narrow canals.” To make a long story short, Tony followed Vic’s advice and Brennan bought the Michael B., our first swinging ladder dredge in a long line of new dredges. The Mathew and the old Mark Anthony were soon replaced with smaller, more modern swinging ladder dredges, better suited for the work we do.
For the rest of the decade Vic and the Dredge Division began to pursue a large variety of projects. He pursued everything from large scale EMP island building projects on the Upper Mississippi River, to lake district projects, to small cranberry bog jobs. Along the way he married Debra (Peterson) Buhr, whom our most prestigious cultural award is named after.
Innovation and Leadership In The New Millennium
Then came the new millennium and environmental work. “Gary was the first one. Glenn [Green] had a hard time trying to convince me. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, but back then I didn’t have any project managers. I had some great superintendents with Del [Groth] and Kevin [Zenke], but I didn’t have a CAD guy or any experience with double-walled pipe. It was a whole different arena. We would sit in 8-hour interviews with this specific industrial client, and I was probably the only guy in the room without a Ph.D.” The environmental work was risky for Brennan. Up until then we did not have experience working around chemicals embedded in the sediment.
Despite Brennan’s lack of environmental experience, we won the project. “We proposed a totally different approach. Things like running around the clock, returning the water to the river, and using more than one dredge. That stuff was our deal and that’s how we ended up winning.”
Testing an early version of the now patented VicVacTM.
That project set the stage for the tremendous growth that Brennan has experienced in Environmental work. We learned a lot on the first couple of projects, such as how important survey and documentation is to the dredge process. Soon after the paramount industrial project finished, we began working on Little Lake Butte des Morts along the Fox River. It was on this project that Vic put the initial designs of the VicVac™ and the Broadcast Capping System together. “I was following a salt spreader one day and got the idea. Del was tight with the county down in Coon Valley that had an old, rusted spreader in the back shed. We dumped sand over the bank and dredged it. The slurry would hit a sand screw on the barge and drop in the spreader. Over the course of the project we were able to develop it further into what it is today.” The success we found on the Fox River Operable Unit I project started getting attention and in 2007 Vic was awarded the prestigious Dredger of the Year award by the Western Dredging Association (WEDA). Suddenly other dredge companies were taking notice that Vic was doing things differently, and that put Brennan on the map.
Vic Buhr hosting community tours of the Dredge Victor Buhr in Albert Lea, MN.
The Vic Buhr Legacy
As time went on, Vic continued to build the Dredge Division, renamed the Environmental Group in the mid-2000s. In the 31 years that he has been with Brennan, Vic took a small fledging hydraulic dredging business with antique equipment and grew it into one of the largest, most sophisticated dredging programs in the country. Along the way he has developed some of the greatest dredging talent in the industry. He unselfishly imparted his knowledge, his knack for innovating, and his focus on supporting the individuals on our jobsites who execute our work.
Vic retired at the end of January 2021, leaving the Environmental Group in good hands with Greg Smith. His legacy will extend well beyond that which he leaves at Brennan as his impact is national. From the removal of millions of cubic yards of contaminated sediment to the creation of hundreds of acres of wildlife habitat, Vic has made the world a better place.
“Vic Buhr has been one of the most significant contributors to the success of Brennan since the company was founded. His dedication to our entry into the hydraulic dredging industry, and his professional guidance and development of the group made Brennan a recognized national leader. Most importantly, Vic is fun to work with. I cannot begin to remember all of the miles of scorching levees, contaminated harbors, treacherous rivers and cold beers we have shared. It is guys like Vic that make me proud of our company and our industry.” - Tony Binsfeld, Chairman of the Board
“There are three traits that I believe best define Vic. First, is his ability to innovate, to think outside the box. He is willing to experiment with new ideas and more importantly endure failure, so that he can improve upon and perfect the idea. Second, Vic is a mentor. I count myself among the many at Brennan, who have been lucky to learn from him, his expertise and how he handled different situations. As I have grown, I recognize I owe him a great deal for what he taught me. And finally, legacy. A person’s legacy is what he or she leaves behind. As Vic leaves Brennan, I can’t imagine a stronger team than the one he leaves under Greg’s leadership. I am going to miss Vic, working with him for the last 16 years has been a hell a of a ride and I am better person for him allowing me to take that journey with him.” - Matt Binsfeld, President & CEO
“There is so much to thank Vic for over my years at Brennan. He has been a great leader, mentor and co-worker over the time and we have so much to thank him for with all the opportunities he has developed within our group. Vic had such respect with all the operators that some crazy ideas I would come up with would always be implemented a lot easier if the discussion started with “Vic thinks we should do this…”. If Vic only knew half of the ideas he has had over my time at Brennan. Vic will be greatly missed but I am pretty sure he won't be able to stay away too long.” - Dustin Bauman, Director of Environmental Services
"Vic and I started working together in 2006 and I never thought our relationship would be where it is today. At time we were just starting our run on Fox River. We had a lot of fun on that job and I learned a lot of good lessons. One of my favorites was when Kevin Zenke and Vic taught me the lesson of the old bull and the value of patience. Over the years Vic has taught us all so much, not only about dredging, but also business and life. I can’t thank him enough for everything that he has taught me and we can only hope that we can bring the same success to the company that he has. The best part of working with him over the years is that we built a great friendship which has made our jobs even that more rewarding." - Greg Smith, VP of Environmental Services
For more on Brennan's dredging and environmental remediation capabilities, be sure to take a look at our environmental services page.
We have more stories on Brennan's Legacy Employees and our 100 years of history.