Contractor profile: Forage Samson
By Guillaume Roy
When diversification makes you more agile
By Guillaume Roy
Over the years, Forage Samson has built a diversified drilling business and it is now agile enough to take advantage of different opportunities that come its way.
Recently Forage Samson drilled a 230-feet well, 20 inches wide, for a municipal aqueduct network, in the west island of Montreal. “It was a huge project full of constraints,” says Alexandre Samson, co-owner of Forage Samson with his parents.
In 2020, Forage Samson also worked on a big civil engineering project, as a subcontractor, in Old Montreal. “We had to drill a lot of anchoring very deep to retain the secant wall,” he adds, as two drilling teams worked on the project for three months.
The COVID-19 pandemic initially put a halt to many projects back in spring 2020, when only drinking water projects were allowed because they were considered essential by Quebec government. Ever since the construction sector was relaunched, things are booming. “The virus has brought a lot of bad things, but for our business, it had a very good economic impact,” notes Alexandre Samson, who thinks 2021 will be another record year. “Last year was one of our best year even if we had to stop the operations for one month and this year will be even better,” he says.
For example, the list of confirmed projects is six times longer than usual at a similar date. The project delivery dates have pushed back from 10 to 21 days, to 21 to 35 days. “Clients need to think ahead of time to confirm their projects as soon as possible,” claims Samson.
Forage Samson has come a long way since it was founded in 1945, by Alexandre’s grandfather, Maurice and two grand uncles, Wilfrid and Marcel. After creating the business primarily for residential drilling projects, Forage Samson diversified over the years to include commercial and municipal sectors, so that today, the market is evenly shared between those three sectors. For residential projects, Forage Samson covers mainly the Quebec regions of Chaudières-Appalaches and Charlevoix – regions where there is a housing boom. For the commercial and municipal sectors, the drilling business covers the entire province, and sometimes does work in Ontario and New Brunswick.
Forage Samson used to do a lot more geothermal, but the markets have changed. “We had very good years when the Quebec government provided better funding around 10 years ago, he adds. With the evolution of heat-pump systems, which cost less than geothermal projects, it is less popular, even if it still gives good economic returns once installed.”
With 15 employees, Forage Samson works with as many as six drilling teams simultaneously. Examples of jobs include building bored piles and anchoring in downtown Montreal and drilling to look for water for municipal aqueduct networks.
To deliver the projects in diversified markets, Forage Samson had to diversify its equipment as well. “The perfect drilling machines that does it all does not exist, so we need to work with a variety of machines,” Samson says.
Two of the machines still performing very well are the Bucyrus Erie 22W and Erie 60L, which date back to the 1960s, but have been upgraded since. Forage Samson also owns a Foremost machine (DR-24), bigger and more performant for municipal and commercial projects and three Comacchio (MC-900P, MC-22a and MC-28A HD) tracked machines often used for civil engineering projects.
In 2020, the Quebec-based business received a new Fraste Mito 100 drilling machine, worth more than one million dollars, for deep foundation building projects, including bored piles and rock anchorage. “We ordered the machine before the pandemic and the delivery was postponed for five months, so we kept using the machine we were renting. And we finally bought it with the growing demand,” says Alexandre Samson, who likes to try new technologies and follow the evolution driven by manufacturers. The machine has two rotating heads, and one of them, the Vibro, allows them to dig in tougher terrain.
Of course, client service from the manufacturer has a lot to do when buying a new equipment, because a broken machine does not produce any income. And since most machines are made with custom requirements, there are no identical drilling machines. Parts need to be ordered from the United States or Europe. “With the pandemic, delays and constraints are even bigger so we make sure to keep important parts in inventory,” Samson says.
To keep those hardworking machines rolling, Forage Samson also does a lot of preventive maintenance. “Some contracts are far away, sometimes 1.5 days of driving, and we don’t want to bring the machines back for repairs,” he says.
If machines play an important role, employees are even more important, because they are the professionals who take the best decisions for the good of the business. “They report every time a machine has something wrong, and we ask them to take the lead to optimize the preventive maintenance.”
Just like for all companies, it’s always hard to find trained employees . . . especially since there is no specific training offered for drillers in Quebec. With a new drilling machine, Forage Samson added an extra team of two employees.
“We need to find new staff interested in the sector and train them on our own to transfer the knowledge,” Alexandre Samson says. And when the new employee is trained, you need to retain them. “We have been pretty lucky so far, but I guess our employees like our teamwork, our values and our mentality.”
Over the next decade, Alexandre Samson will continue to gradually take over the business succession. He already is the third generation of Samson to lead Forage Samson, and he wants to grow the company slowly but surely.
“We want to gain market share in our markets,” Samson says. “We have a good name and we want to keep focusing on quality.”
New machines could be added, but again, the main restricting factor is more often the workforce these days, so growing a business has to be done focusing on human resources. Even with huge, hardworking machines, people will remain central to a successful business, he concludes.