Changing with the times
Diversification and experimenting with technologies keep a drilling business alive.
June 19, 2013 By Julie Fitz-Gerald
For close to a century, the Hopper family has been drilling wells and installing pump systems across Southern Ontario that provide families and businesses with fresh water. In order to adapt to the evolving industry and the changing needs of its customers, W.D. Hopper & Sons has diversified its services over the years. The Seaforth, Ont.-based company initially drilled domestic and farm wells, but eventually expanded its services to include municipal, industrial, commercial, environmental and geothermal work.
|Ron and Paul Hopper are co-owners of W.D. Hopper & Sons.|
In order to adapt to the evolving industry and the changing needs of its customers, W.D. Hopper & Sons has diversified its services over the years. The Seaforth, Ont.-based company initially drilled domestic and farm wells, but eventually expanded its services to include municipal, industrial, commercial, environmental and geothermal work.
It all began in 1915 when William D. Hopper drilled his first well to a depth of 90 feet using a rig called the Listowel Drill. This drill had its own steam-powered engine and was a wood construction mounted on four iron wheels. A Sawyer Massey engine was also used to pull the drill, supply steam to it, and haul water. In his first year, William Hopper drilled a total of 11 wells.
In 1959, William retired at 69, leaving the business in the capable hands of his three sons Neil, James and Durl Hopper. At this time, the company’s fleet of drilling rigs included two Keystone 50 machines and a 22W Bucyrus Erie. In 1963, James and Neil converted the 22W Bucyrus Erie to rotary drilling. The conversion was such a success that they also converted the two Keystones to rotary/cable tool rigs.
The business’ family affair continued when Neil’s oldest son, Ron, joined the business in 1970. In 1979, Neil and James formed W.D. Hopper & Sons Ltd., while brother Durl formed Durl Hopper Ltd. Durl’s company subsequently moved from the Seaforth location to its new home in Stratford, Ont., where it continues to operate, often working closely with W.D. Hopper & Sons.
Today, W.D. Hopper & Sons is co-owned by the third generation of Hopper drillers, Neil’s sons Ron and Paul. It is a true family business, with Ron’s wife Candace managing the office and their two sons, Phillip and Mathew, along with James’ sons Allan, Scott and Tim, all employed with the company.
Over the years the business has had to diversify in order to adapt to the changing market. A major shift in the company’s drilling resulted from the dwindling number of small family farms in the area, something that is being seen in many parts of Ontario. “We’re far more diversified in the last 10 to 15 years than we ever were. Initially we did domestic and farm wells and that was about it, along with submersible pump systems. There’s not as much of that type of work anymore and there’s more competition, so to grow your business you have to find more work. That’s why we diversified. While we still do many domestic and farm wells, they’re a different percentage of our market now,” Ron explains.
He estimates that the company does about a 30/30/30 split between domestic and farm drilling, commercial/municipal/environmental drilling, and technical-type drilling, although it tends to fluctuate depending on the year.
“Within all of that we do a lot of irrigation work too, especially when the seasons are dry, like big irrigation for vegetable farms. That’s all part of the commercial/industrial side of it too. We do a lot for the big greenhouses around here as well.”
Keeping up with advances in technology has also played a big role in the success of W.D. Hopper & Sons. “Technical stuff, like cameras, computerized equipment, and electronic controls: we’re always on the leading edge of that. We’re usually the first to adopt it. We also use e-commerce for a lot of our purchases. We watch new technologies very closely. With respect to suppliers and manufacturers, for years we’ve shown an eagerness to at least look at and adopt their new technologies if they prove to be good. They have an eagerness to get us on board, even to do trials for them. We’ve done a lot of that,” says Ron.
By implementing cutting-edge technologies, the field and office’s day-to-day operations run more smoothly and efficiently for the Hoppers. One of the new technologies they’ve adopted and are hoping to expand is well overdrilling. “Particularly for municipal wells, small and large, it’s an easier way to replace an existing well by overdrilling, replacing the casing and bringing it back up into new condition. There’s less paperwork and less permitting, so you can speed the process up. It could save you many, many months, maybe even a year or two, depending on the location. It’s been a little difficult to get it adopted everywhere, but we do a fair bit of it from time to time,” Ron explains.
In well sites where the water contains a large amount of corrosive elements, Ron says the company now uses stainless steel casings to ensure a longer well life. Having the ability to offer a stainless steel casing for situations that require it, particularly to their industrial customers, has been advantageous for the company.
“We’re always looking at new things to branch off into, but that are still related to the water business. It’s getting a little tougher to find. Diversification is important. Expansion is relatively important too, but you have to be careful on that one because you could get more than you bargained for,” he says.
To keep operations running smoothly, communication between family members has played an integral role. “Like anything else, you’ve got to be able to communicate. It’s not always easy, but if something comes up you’ve got to be able to sort it out.”
With the fourth generation of Hoppers now working in the business, well drilling has simply become second nature to this family. “They’ve seen this type of work since they were young and they developed an interest in it. Most of us would be out on the machines as soon as we were done school for the summer holidays,” Ron says.
After almost 100 years in the industry, the Hoppers are proudly carrying on the family tradition, supplying fresh water to families and businesses across Southern Ontario.
Julie Fitz-Gerald is a freelance writer based in Uxbridge, Ont., and a regular contributor to Ground Water Canada.
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