Ground Water Canada

Features Drilling
Keeping it in the family

This family business focuses on honest service and going the extra mile


June 23, 2011
By Treena Hein

Topics

Bill Murray’s family history may be hidden beneath the surface of
Alberta, but every trip through the province’s wide open spaces is a
trip down memory lane.

Bill Murray’s family history may be hidden beneath the surface of Alberta, but every trip through the province’s wide open spaces is a trip down memory lane.

“As I drive through the countryside, I enjoy being able to pick out wells that we’ve drilled and recall situations where we had to put in the extra effort in order to get a customer water,” says Bill, who co-owns M & M Drilling Company Ltd. with his wife Jeannette in Strathmore, Alta. “It’s a really good feeling to know that you’ve been able to help someone by providing them with one of the necessities of life.”

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Bill has followed in the footsteps of his father, Don, and water well drilling has been a part of his life for as long as he can remember. “I take pride in being a part of the industry and I’m committed to any efforts that will lead to the enhancement of our future water resources,” he says. “Our business is a family-oriented operation and we strive to treat our employees as such.”

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Jeannette and Bill Murray in front of the family business.
Photo courtesy M & M Drilling Company Ltd.


 

M & M got its start in seismic drilling. “My father, Don, started working in the seismic industry on a Franks rig during the winter of 1949/50 for M & W Drilling, which was owned by Hank Webster and John Mundell,” Bill remembers. “In 1952, Dad purchased Hank’s share and during that same year bought a new Mayhew rig.” In 1956, M & M Drilling was incorporated. Two years later, John Mundell retired and Don purchased his shares in the company.

M & M Drilling acquired all the licences and permits needed to do drilling work in Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. The rigs criss-crossed all three provinces doing seismic work. They went everywhere from Fort Nelson and Fort St. John, B.C., to Fort McMurray and Crowsnest Pass, Alta., to Weyburn, Sask., and many more locations, notes Bill. During these years, M & M worked for Amerada Petroleum, Weiss Geophysical, Century Geophysical, Beaver Geophysical, Teledyne and Compagnie Generale de Geophysique.

As the years passed, the company took on more and more water well drilling projects. “In the mid ’60s, my father purchased two new Failing rigs that were more adaptable to water well drilling,” says Bill. The new rigs helped expand the business to include sales and installation of pumps, pressure systems and, more recently, water treatment systems.

The acquisition of two new Cyclone rigs also allowed the company to get involved in a much wider variety of work. “It became possible to do large diameter, high production wells, including work in downtown Calgary for air-conditioning wells in office building complexes,” explains Bill. “We also drilled a series of large capacity wells at Finnegan, Alta., to de-water river gravel for the construction of the Alberta Power Sheerness power plant water intake.” Prior to construction of the new CP Rail tunnel, M & M was also involved in exploration drilling in British Columbia’s Rogers Pass.

M & M has also done surface hole drilling for gas and oil well production, cathodic protection drilling for gas plants, and coring for Calgary’s Light Rail Transit system.

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The M & M logo is a familiar sight in a community the company gives back to.
Photo courtesy M & M Drilling Company Ltd.


 

Through these and many other projects, his father became well known in the industry, building a reputation for doing whatever it took to find water for his customers. “No matter what the time of day, if someone had pump problems, my father would take care of it. He had his pilot’s licence and bought his first plane in 1950, and he surprised many a customer when he flew in to fix a problem.”

From that point on, his dad always had a plane available for the company – a tradition Bill continues.

Another tradition passed on from father to son is leadership in the industry. Don was a major force in water well drilling in Alberta and served several terms as a director on the board of the Alberta Water Well Association. Bill has done the same. In addition, he served as an alternate for the Alberta representative on the board of the Canadian Ground Water Association.

As a company, M & M Drilling belongs to the Goulds, Grundfos and Franklin Professional Dealers Associations.

M & M is also heavily involved in the local community. “Our company is an ongoing supporter of the Strathmore Cancer Walk For Life,” says Bill. It’s also a supporter of local Heritage Days festivities and 4H activities.

In 2002, Don passed away after a lengthy illness. Ownership of the company was transferred to Bill and Jeannette.

Challenges along the way
Although M & M has retained several very long-term employees for anywhere from 15 to 30 years, Bill says that keeping workers has been one of their biggest trials. “An issue that we’ve struggled with for years is putting time, effort and money into training new employees only to have them leave to work in the oil patch. It’s one of the water well drilling industry’s biggest competitors for manpower, as employees for both require very similar training.”

As Bill explains, “Our clientele is primarily agricultural and residential, and this results in a very different pay structure than what’s offered in the patch. What we can charge our customers for services means we are unable to compete with oil and gas wages.”

To tackle this challenge, M & M devised a retention strategy that includes offering staff as many benefits as possible, including an excellent health-care plan, company picnics and campouts, ongoing incentive programs and year-end bonuses.

“It’s also important to us that we try to create a family atmosphere within the company,” adds Bill.

Trying to stay on top of all the operational regulation changes that affect the water well drilling industry and the workforce – including transportation, health and safety, and environmental rules  – is another ongoing challenge.

“It’s very frustrating at times because we spend a lot of time and effort to track regulatory updates and then implement changes to our operations to remain in compliance, only to have more changes introduced in a short period of time,” says Bill. “To stay on top of it all, we’ve had to hire additional office staff – a health and safety officer and office assistants – to track, implement and report.”

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A bird’s eye view of equipment at M & M Drilling.
Photo courtesy M & M Drilling Company Ltd.


 

From an industry-wide perspective, Bill is concerned about aquifer pollution. “A lot of old water wells were developed using a well pit as opposed to pitless adaptor systems and over the years, these well pits have deteriorated substantially,” he explains. “They now pose a threat in terms of polluting the aquifers.”

He notes that the same hazard is found at old, abandoned well sites. “Regulations need to be enforced that would require all well pits to be converted to a pitless system (or eliminated entirely), and all old water wells to be ‘retired’ correctly. There’s no one to enforce these regulations at the present and that’s a big problem.”

M & M fully supports the Multi-Aquifer Completion Program, an initiative being developed through Alberta Environment and industry participants. “This legislation will regulate the use of multiple aquifers in one well and how these wells need to be developed,” Bill says. “Right now, lots of wells are developed by inter-mixing aquifers in one bore hole both inside and outside of the casing and this in time could cause quality, quantity and contamination issues for the aquifers involved.” The proposed legislation would likely require bentonite to be used on the outside of the casing and sealed just above the aquifer.

One of the challenges this program must address is determining a maximum gallons-per-minute rate that can be taken from multiple aquifers in order to create a functioning well for the client.

“I’m also concerned about how these regulations will be implemented, given all the types of equipment – rotary, cable tool, casing hammer and boring – used to drill wells,” Bill says.

Unequal construction standards for private and commercial water wells is another issue that Bill feels should be addressed. “If all wells were completed to the highest standard – which is the commercial level – this would help address future pollution and contamination issues.” He admits, “I also struggle with the intrusion of government-sponsored water pipelines in areas where active aquifers exist, as this creates an unfair competition for water well drilling companies.”

In the years ahead, while tackling these challenges and remaining an active industry participant, M & M will continue providing the best quality of service to their customers at an honest and competitive rate.

“We pride ourselves on being hard-working, innovative and willing to make the extra effort when it comes to the customers we serve,” Bill says. He notes that his father, Don, was “always one to take on challenges head-on” – and complete a project whether or not money was made. “He always put the focus on providing quality service for his customers, and always looked for new and inventive ways to complete a job,” recalls Bill. “These are traits that I have tried to instil in myself and I can only hope that in years to come, I will be described similarly.”


Treena Hein is a science writer based in Ontario.