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Drilling in cottage country

The evolution of F.C. Hammond Well Drilling Ltd.


January 5, 2012
By Laura Aiken

Buying a business can be as natural a fit as putting on your well-worn boots, even if that business isn’t quite your expertise. Norm Yearly found himself in these very shoes in 2005.

Buying a business can be as natural a fit as putting on your well-worn boots, even if that business isn’t quite your expertise. Norm Yearly found himself in these very shoes in 2005.

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Outside Norm Yearly’s Huntsville, Ont., shop. 

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Yearly, who started Muskoka Pump Service in 1974 in Huntsville, Ont., began putting pumps in for F.C. Hammond Well Drilling Ltd., which was owned by Tom Hammond. Hammond’s father Frank was the first driller in Huntsville, says Yearly, dating all the way back to 1926. When Yearly learned Hammond wanted to sell, he took a leap of faith.

“Ninety per cent of my business was putting in pumps for Tom so I thought it was a natural step to buy the well-drilling business, it was an expensive way to go but that’s what happened,” says Yearly with a chuckle. “It’s just a bigger business, that was all, had employees for a change – for years and years and years it was only me . . . It wasn’t that difficult, really.”

Daughter Julie Denning, the office manager, can’t help but jump in there: “It’s a big step to buy a business when most people are thinking about retiring at his age. It’s a big investment.”

I have to agree.

Yearly has never run a drill rig or driven a big truck and expects he never will, but his son Jeff, who wasn’t in the water industry at the time, jumped into the business after the 2005 sale. Jeff’s stepson Mike Murray now handles much of the pump side.

Yearly kept all the staff when he bought Hammond Drilling. One man worked for a year and then he retired, but not before teaching Yearly’s son how to run the rig. Another driller was around until last year, and Denning started with Hammond in 1992.

Jeff seems like the natural successor to the business, to which Yearly says he certainly hopes so.

“He’s always been mechanically inclined, but the problem is he loves drilling – I’d like him to get in here and run the business. It’s very hard to run the business when you’re drilling because they start at 7 a.m. and work until five, six, seven sometimes longer and he couldn’t get all these notes you see [he points to a phone covered in yellow sticky notes] and there’s three wells to see, if you’re working 12 hours a day.”

And he does love what he’s doing,” Denning adds. “He loves the drilling; it’s very difficult for Dad to retire  –that’s the big question – how’s Dad going to retire?”

To which Norm replies with a smile: “I don’t know whether I could retire. I’d have too much time to think about everything that’s wrong with me.”

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Jeff and Norm Yearly after one of the first snowfalls of the season. 


 

Retirement isn’t the only thing on the mind of Hammond Well Drilling. Denning says it’s been a tough year for staffing and they are finding a general lack of experienced, licenced drillers. The company, which usually drills about 100 wells a year, lost one driller to retirement last December and then his trained assistant decided in July to leave them in favour of drilling for diamonds in South Africa. She says she’s done a lot of advertising online but isn’t having much luck.

“There’s a big gap and it’s getting worse,” says Yearly. “There are no licensed tradesmen coming along. I go to a meeting or show and . . .  it’s mostly all old people there, but we do need people, we’re going to run out of them . . . . It’s a mindset: everyone wants to sit in front of one of those computers, and not too many people want to get their hands dirty.”

Denning: “And work long hours and be called at 10 at night or . . .”

But the business does have one member with a special skill, says Denning, and that’s Murray and his witching or dowsing/divining for water.

“He gets a couple of copper wires, or you can use willow sticks, and where they cross is where the water is – he’s more right than wrong and generally right. Mikey says if they really cross and if he keeps walking and they straighten, that’s how wide the vein is. Then he’ll take a piece of copper wire and he’ll hold it out and it will bob, and every bob is a foot and he’ll tell you how deep the well is. It sounds like hocus pocus but he’s witched two or three. He’s quit telling the customers how deep the water is, but he’ll do it and tell me and he’s pretty accurate,” says Yearly.

Yearly goes on to tell me of a time years and years ago about another fellow in town who witched for wells. The man witched a well for him and told him the water was 18 to 20 feet deep. It was a dug well, and Yearly started digging at noon until he got to 17 feet and said it was just powder dry.

“I called him and said you blew it this time. There’s no water down there; it’s dry. So he said, ‘how deep did I tell you to go?’ I said 18 to 20 feet. He said, ‘how deep are you?’ I said 17, and he said, ‘you silly old fart – you’re not deep enough.’ So I went back out and kept digging. I was 17 and a half feet deep and it was just like someone had drawn a line through the earth and below that there was just water trickling in through the hole and two inches above it just dry. Unbelievable.”

 Yearly’s 38 years in drilling have given him countless great stories in the field, from witching for water to drilling for some of Canada’s wealthiest families. Seems like buying F.C. Hammond Well Drilling was a natural fit indeed.