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‘Never two jobs the same’: DJ’s Well Drilling father and son share perspectives on the industry

DJ’s Well Drilling father and son talk drilling


May 14, 2020
By Carolyn Camilleri

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Darrell Jefferson, founder of DJ’s Well Drilling, has been drilling wells in Nova Scotia from his home base in the Annapolis Valley since 1992. His son Arthur joined him first as an employee when he was in school, then six years ago, when he took over ownership of the company. Photo courtesy DJ’s Well Drilling

Darrell Jefferson, founder of DJ’s Well Drilling, has been drilling wells in Nova Scotia from his home base in the Annapolis Valley since 1992.

His son Arthur joined him first as an employee when he was in school, then six years ago, when he took over ownership of the company, building on the foundation his father established. Here, in side-by-side interviews, we look at how perspectives on the well drilling industry vary from generation to generation.

WHEN AND HOW DID YOU GET INTO DRILLING?

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DARRELL JEFFERSON: I worked for another well drilling company – that started in 1985. Then, in ’92, my father died and left me a little bit of money, and I used that for a down payment on a rig. It wasn’t much money, but I had a couple private investors, and we financed the rig and I never looked back.

ARTHUR JEFFERSON: I was 14 years old, and I found myself with a pickaxe and a shovel, digging trenches. That was my first introduction to the industry. My dad was running a cable tool rig and approached me about digging trenches to bury the waterline in from the well to the house. I was looking to get some cash in my pocket, and I remember asking, “What are you going to pay me?” – Because that’s what everybody wants to know – and he said, “I’ll pay you $100.” So I asked, “Okay, how long is it going to take?” He said, “Oh, it shouldn’t take you more than a couple of hours.” Jeez, I could do the math on that: 50 bucks an hour? I was 14. I was going to be rich! Four days later, the trench was in.

IF YOU HADN’T BECOME A DRILLER, WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE FOR A LIVING?

DJ: I’m a licensed mechanic by trade. I’ve run heavy equipment before, excavators and dozers, but the well drill really took to me. After five years or so [of having my own rig], my mother said to me, “You know, this is as long as I’ve known you keep a job.” And I said, “It’s got to do with who’s the boss. I’m working for a good boss.”

AJ: I had been working summers for my dad, but I started working full time in 2003. I had come out of university, just finished up a degree in sociology, and I had student loans building up. I approached him about coming to work, and I said, “I’m going to do this for a few years, and I’m going to move back to law.” I wanted to go into law and become a lawyer or maybe a teacher. It’s been what, 17 years? Still drilling. I just liked the drilling, more or less.

WHAT DO YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT YOUR DAY-TO-DAY WORK?

DJ: I love the drilling and meeting different people every day and being in a different yard every day. And that was a big thing. I run the rig and I looked at all the work myself and I installed pump systems myself. But after a while, I was drilling too many wells, I couldn’t look after it, and so I hired a couple of guys. I started small and went big.

AJ: It’s always different. There are never two jobs the same. There are never two customers the same. Everybody’s got different needs and different wants, and you’re doing your best to fulfil them. I love the variety. Even with one well, you’ve got different challenges from day to day. And even throughout the day, you’ve got different challenges. And you’ve got different customers, and you get customers that are really appreciative, that you got them water. I really enjoy that, being able to pull one out of the hat, every now and then – what some of my friends call “hero jobs.” You get to be hero for a day.

WHAT TYPES OF JOBS INTEREST YOU THE MOST?

DJ: The big holes. The big holes are all specialized. You’ve got to work with engineers and hydrologists and, normally, they’re all big companies or towns or villages and federal government.

AJ: I like the larger commercial work we do. The ones that are real challenging that not a lot of people want to try. Those ones take a lot of patience, take a lot of time. I’ve been on some pretty tricky ones.

HOW DO YOU PRICE A JOB?

DJ: Most of it’s all done by the foot.

AJ: We price by the foot. Very rarely do we ever give a flat rate. And we have to price by the foot, because, at the end of the day, we’ve got to get paid for what we do. I’ve gone into areas, where the wells were deep, and we came in shallow, and then, I’ve gone into areas where the wells are shallow, and we went deep. You can’t predict what’s going on under there.

The cost of maintenance is not getting cheaper. And I’m a big believer, if you want good help, you’ve got to pay them. And having the manpower. You have to have a network of people around you, to be able to make the calls, to do the work, to drill the wells, to put pumps in, to do treatment. You can’t be in five spots at once, doing five different things. I think that’s one of the things a lot of people miss: you’ve got to charge enough that you can hire the proper people to do this for you. To me that’s the biggest one. Equipment’s number two, but people – your employees – are number one.

OF THE SKILLS YOU’VE DEVELOPED, WHICH SKILLS HAVE SERVED YOU BEST?

DJ: I knew how to electric weld and there’s a lot of electric welding in the well drilling business. And it benefited me every day being a licensed mechanic and knowing how to run heavy equipment.

AJ: Public speaking. Having the confidence to talk to people and not be afraid to voice your opinion in a manner that you’re not closing any doors. When I went to university, that was one of the very first things I did, was get up there and do a presentation. The more public speaking I did, the easier it got. It really prepared me for talking to customers down the road and having that confidence to just be able to look them in the eye and tell them what I think they should do. That helps [customers] feel like, “I trust this guy. He knows what he’s doing, and we’re going to follow it.”

WHAT IS SOMETHING YOU’VE LEARNED FROM YOUR SON, ARTHUR?

DJ: One thing I’ve learned, he’s charging more. He says, “This is what we’re going to charge. You’ve got to make money and you’ve got to bring your prices up.” That’s the biggest thing. For doing house wells, you’ve got to get your price up where you can make money. It’s no good just to break even, because what if you have a major breakdown in your rig? I had my rig back to the States in 2012 and had her totally rebuilt right at the manufacturer and we upgraded. My rig was originally good for 2,400 feet. The engineer said the rig is good for 3,000 feet or a little more, so we did a lot of upgrading to her. They were one day tearing her apart and 12 weeks putting her back together. The engineer, said, “You do your maintenance on her, she should last another 20 years at least.”

AJ: He’d always say, “Boy, never admit defeat. You just keep going.” That’s him to a T. Never, never admit defeat.

WHAT IS THE MOST UNUSUAL OR CHALLENGING JOB YOU’VE WORKED ON?

DJ: In ’91, I was even up in Goose Bay, Labrador, putting down oil recovery wells. Some places up there in Goose Bay they had 17 feet of oil sitting on top of the water. We’d be up there for 21 days straight, then we’d come home for a week. We had to work a minimum of 12 hours a day. Some days we’d work 15-17 hours because there’s nothing else to do.

AJ: I drilled one here, only five minutes from my house, where we had to put in 460 feet of 14-inch casing, then drill a 14-inch hole down to 780 feet, then install an eight-inch casing and screen assembly down to 760. We got the 460 feet of casing in but the casing became structurally compromised and collapsed about 20, 25 feet from the bottom.

We’re nowhere near finished. We can’t call this a well. We got the casing still rigged together. We couldn’t even get a six-inch bit down through it. We went through a lot of money and a lot of patience. We got a drill bit built in Oklahoma, that would ream that casing back up to size. It took me about four days to get that reamed back out, and then, we continued on to finish the well.

The well is going to be operational this year. That was the biggest production. But we did her.

WHAT PART OF YOUR JOB IS MOST STRESSFUL?

DJ: They’re all stressful at times, especially if you get down 500-600 feet and you ain’t got no water. Everything gets stressful then. They get stressed out, we get stressed, and then you say, “Where is that water?”

AJ: Number one’s money. Getting paid. As a business owner, that’s number one. Number two is getting water for people. Being able to find water but doing it in a way you can harness it for them, make a good well out of it. At the end of the day, we have to work within people’s budgets, too, and figure out a way to make it work.

WHAT QUESTION DO YOU GET MOST OFTEN FROM WELL OWNERS?

DJ: How much is it going to cost? We try to give them an accurate cost and, if anything, I like to give them a little bit higher price than what I think it’s going to go, because if you come under, they feel good.

AJ: Usually, once we’re drilling, they’ll ask, “You haven’t found water yet?” I’ll say, “I found it. I know where it is. I just haven’t got there. It’s not lost.”

They look at me like I’m nuts, but you got to be honest to be in this industry. I think that’s part of the problem with our industry: we’re not really trained to deal with those situations. We know our job’s to get water, and we know we need to go deeper, but we have got to explain this to the homeowner. They just see it as a number. Some understand, but most see it as how many thousands it’s going to be.

WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHANGES YOU’VE NOTICED IN THE INDUSTRY SINCE YOU STARTED?

DJ: The government regulations. You’re regulated to death. They want to tell you what to do and where to do it and the whole nine yards, and they want everybody to be computerized. I don’t even know how to turn the computer on, and I don’t really want to know. And that’s one of the reasons I more or less retired, that you have to be computerized. They want everything sent in over the computer, your well logs and where are you going to go drill on that day and everything. And I said, “No, this is going in the wrong direction for me.”

AJ: The equipment’s getting better. Technology’s come a long ways. Drill bits, they’re getting better. The air hammers, the tooling, the drill rigs, they’re getting more user friendly. I still run an old dinosaur, but I do see how it would be easier with newer equipment. From a government standpoint, our environment department has become nonexistent in terms of policing. We used to have three well inspectors for the province who used to go around and randomly track drillers, and they would catch up with the ones that weren’t doing quality work. But as I was getting licensed, they were doing away with well inspectors. Now they have what they call “inspector specialists.” They don’t have any real background in wells. They’re like a general inspector and can inspect oil tanks, oil spills, septics, gas, anything. So their background’s kind of broader.

WHERE DO YOU SEE THIS INDUSTRY GOING IN THE FUTURE?

DJ: I don’t know what will happen really, but I think it will still survive. And only the smartest will survive, the ones who are making the money. The ones who are working from day to day and job to job, they won’t make it because they won’t be able to keep the gear up and they won’t be able to pay their bills and manpower. You’ve got to be smart, really smart with money, and be able to make money.

AJ: I’m concerned that hired help’s going to be harder to get unless we make some changes in the industry. We don’t charge enough for what we’re doing. We live in the lower economy here, but we still need to charge more, in order to hire the people we need and take care of the equipment.

If that doesn’t change, I’m not saying the industry will die – the industry will never die – but we won’t progress, we won’t get better. We’ll never take ourselves more seriously, if we don’t get to that point. The younger generation, who are taking over their family business, I think they’re seeing that.


Carolyn Camilleri is a Toronto-based writer, editor, and content strategist. She has been writing for consumer and trade magazines, as well as businesses and organizations, for more than 15 years.