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Bluenose Well Drilling

Ralph Jacobs on 40 years in the water well industry


June 17, 2014
By Laura Aiken


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Typically oil and water don’t mix. But for drillers, one career might just stir them together. For Ralph Jacobs, his penchant for drilling took him offshore for oil but ultimately brought him back to the land of water.

Typically oil and water don’t mix. But for drillers, one career might just stir them together. For Ralph Jacobs, his penchant for drilling took him offshore for oil but ultimately brought him back to the land of water.

Born in Newfoundland, Jacobs left his birthplace in 1971 and began working for a Halifax well drilling company in 1974. He spent six years drilling before the turn of the decade saw him venture into offshore oil, where he climbed his way up to work as a driller. Jacobs worked two weeks out to sea and then two weeks off, time during which he continued to drill water wells and keep his license current. But by 1987, the hardships of a career in oil had him thinking of getting out of it altogether. 

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“You travel a lot. There’s a lot of pressure as you move up the ladder, and sometimes you only feel like a number rather than a name. The industry runs 24/7 in all kinds of weather, drilling in unbelievable conditions. You’re shipped all over the world with no idea where you are going to be from month to month.”

And, at the heart of it, he didn’t like being away from home that much and found the profession to be very hard on family life. He had no inclination to leave drilling because he had always been attracted to the work. He is one of 12 children – six boys and six girls – and he is the only one who went into drilling.

Firmly committed to drilling, he also found that there was something about water that he just couldn’t get out of mind. So, in 1987, he took on a partner, bought a water well rig, and formed Bluenose Well Drilling in Lawrencetown, N.S. He worked one more year in oil to make sure he was making the right decision – the money in oil was nothing to sneeze at in the 1980s – before returning full-time to the water industry in 1988. The partner stayed on in the business until 1990, at which time Jacobs took over full possession of the company. He hasn’t looked back since.

“Every well is different, every site is different, no two installations are alike; it’s something to wake up to every day that’s different. I’m out of bed at 5:30 in the morning and I still go down to our shop. I like getting the wells started for the guys. I still do a lot of selling and site business…I’m still available to drill every day if it need be.”

In 1991, events steered the business towards it becoming the family-run operation that it is today. His brother Byron, who was living in Pickering, Ont., at the time, was laid off from the job he’d had for 15 years. He had never drilled before, but he was seeking employment and wanted to move back east. Jacobs brought him into the business, and says that his brother turned out to be a good driller. For the first three to four years, the company only drilled wells, but eventually it branched out into pump installation, and Jacobs created another partnership to form Bluenose Water Cleaners to focus on water treatment. He continued growing the company from one rig, to two, and added more service trucks and cube vans. Bluenose now runs three crews, one for pumps and two for drilling.

His brother’s son Travis just recently got his drilling license, and Jacobs’ own son Larry is a driller and a troubleshooter for pump installation. His wife Marilyn also works in the business. Turning Bluenose into a family operation has worked well, says Jacobs, noting that it helps that they are all on the same page.

With Bluenose firmly ensconced as a family affair, Jacobs has a clear succession plan in place. He says the success of his water well drilling business is all about keeping it together as a family enterprise. Jacobs established a family trust in 2005 to have the other members working towards their ownership. He says he would not just sell the company to a stranger.

“The name is worth a lot of money and I worked hard, six days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day, to make the name what it is today. Family businesses help keep the industry together, by keeping the company and the reputations going.”

The Bluenose name is very iconic and local to Nova Scotia. The Bluenose was a famous Canadian racing and fishing ship whose image appears on the Nova Scotia license plate.  Jacobs is one of multiple Nova Scotia businesses to capitalize on the name. However, after the company was named, he received notice that small businesses wouldn’t be able to name themselves after the Bluenose anymore.

“The government started to put the squeeze on, at one point wanting me to give royalties to them if we continued to use the name, but that didn’t go anywhere.”

At one time Jacobs was pressured to give up the name altogether, but no enforcement came of it so the name stuck around, as did Bluenose Well Drilling.

Over his 40 years in the industry, Jacobs has become a passionate advocate for the public drinking supply. He served as president of the Nova Scotia Ground Water Association for about 10 years and advised on various focus groups in the province concerning ground water. He spent about 12 years working on a Nova Scotia ground water advisory board.

One of his biggest concerns is keeping the provincial Ministry of Environments (MOEs) focused on having water and the treatment of private water at the forefront.

He stated that MOEs “Need to pay more attention to educating the public on how to take care of a private well. Need to do a better job.”

Good initiatives have happened, he says, but in the last five to 10 years he has seen provincial budgets get tighter and feels less money has been allocated to protecting the safety of private water supply.

“I think we had more money spent on water and education 15 to 20 years ago than we have in the last five to 10 years.”

He notes that when he was a kid, people were told to get in and out of the shower in five minutes, whereas today’s generation is inclined to stand in the there for 20 minutes.

“I don’t think our ministry of environments are putting out the importance of not wasting good potable water that is getting more expensive to get.”

Jacobs hasn’t changed his prices much in the last 10 years, and he thinks it’s getting harder for the new generation to make a good margin with the incessant rise of fuel and equipment costs. He finds the banks difficult to get reasonable interest rates from in the purchase of new equipment, which also hampers growth.

“Running a small business today you really have to make sure all your T’s are crossed and there’s no loopholes or you’ll be throwing money away.”

In addition to the financial challenges, Jacobs finds it’s also getting harder and harder to find qualified people, particularly in the east when the only drilling programs in Canada are located in Ontario and Alberta. There used to be a program in Cape Breton, N.S., but it closed. There ought to be more courses available in each province so students don’t have to travel to Ontario or Alberta, and they should be provided at a reasonable cost, he says.

“There is definitely a problem with the training. We’re training the kids to go into the oil and gas field, but not enough into water. Kids should be taught more about it in high school so they think of it as a career – and not just drilling and water treatment, but all parts of the industry. That’s a little dig in there for our federal government to get more involved in ground water.”

After four decades in drilling, Jacobs has seen many changes and issues that still need to be addressed in the industry, but one fact hasn’t changed at all.

“I’m a little over 60 years old now and still having fun.”


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