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Walking the talk

Aardvark Drilling is a new-generation business focused on health and safety and on employee engageme


April 28, 2015
By Carolyn Camilleri

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Scrolling through the Aardvark Drilling social media sites – Twitter and Facebook – tells you something about this Guelph-based company. Posts highlighting St. Patrick’s Day, PiDay, and the International Day of Happiness mingle with soft-sell promotion and client-feedback invitations.

Scrolling through the Aardvark Drilling social media sites – Twitter and Facebook – tells you something about this Guelph-based company. Posts highlighting St. Patrick’s Day, PiDay, and the International Day of Happiness mingle with soft-sell promotion and client-feedback invitations.

AardvarkInside 
The Aardvark Drilling team, from left: Darren Juneau, chief executive officer; Matthew England, president; and Adrian Richards, shareholder and maintenance manager.

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Timely quips and cartoons balance facts about water and news about Canada Water Week, Ground Water Awareness Week, and World Water Day. Photos show the Aardvark team assisting with the train derailment in Gogama in March, as well as the truck they painted pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Week. And safety – there’s a lot about safety.

“Safe, reliable, and professional” is more than just a tagline at Aardvark Drilling Inc.: these folks really walk the talk.

And they want to get everyone engaged in that conversation.

That has been part of the plan since Darren Juneau and Matt England launched the company in 2002. England had been drilling for about eight years back then, and Juneau, an engineer by trade, used to hire drilling companies like Aardvark.

“The engineering company that I used to work for had their own drill rig,” Juneau says, who is also president of the Ontario Ground Water Association. “They decided to divest themselves of the drill rig and sold it to Matt. I went in as a silent partner, solely because I thought it was a good investment.”

Although Juneau didn’t have any aspirations to be a driller, the two business partners figured that within about five years, there would be enough work to keep them both busy. As it turned out, business progressed so quickly that Juneau was at Aardvark full time after about six months.

How fast did they grow Aardvark? Really fast.

“In 2005, we applied for Profit Magazine’s Emerging Growth Companies and, at the time, we were maintaining about 280 per cent growth rate,” Juneau says.

“Then in 2012, we applied for Profit Magazine’s 100 Fastest Growing Companies and we were in around 140 per cent. Even after 10 years, we were maintaining an average of better than 100 per cent growth.”

Depending on the season, 20 to 30 employees work out of the main Guelph office and the smaller shops in London and Ottawa. They also have a rig in Bermuda – part of the original deal – and a quid pro quo agreement with a company there.

Juneau describes the rig as “nothing to write home about,” but says it fits the bill for data collecting in Bermuda. As for Aardvark’s equipment in Canada, he says it is “in the middle of technology.”

But they are not in the middle when it comes to what they do. While Aardvark does offer conventional drilling, they have created a niche in the market with specialized services.

“Because our staff is so highly trained and competent, we do get a lot of phone calls from clients where their Monday-to-Friday drilling provider is unable to do the particular job,” Juneau says.

So what is the secret behind stunning growth?

Juneau says it starts with the business partnership and sums it up like this: “I speak ‘engineer’ and my business partner speaks ‘driller’ so we can talk to each other. [England] explains things in driller – how the job is going to proceed – and then I take that and translate it into something that engineers understand.”

Health and safety is vital element to their success, and something both partners were really involved with from the beginning. Juneau took it upon himself to develop a health and safety policy.

“But it got to the point where I couldn’t ensure compliance, drill, and meet with the bank all at the same time,” he says. “We had the policy and we had training, but the missing piece of the puzzle was compliance.”

So they hired someone – full time. Aardvark’s registered health and safety professional, Greg Zehr, BES CRSP, trains employees and conduct audits.

“Looking at it purely from a good employer aspect, no amount of money is worth someone getting hurt on a job site,” Juneau says. “This is an extra layer to ensure that our guys are top drawer.”

But even from a business aspect, it is good business, he says. You don’t want to invest in an individual and have them get hurt.

Another benefit: client peace of mind. When Zehr does an audit, he leaves a copy with the client; if there is an inspection or an incident, there is proof of due diligence.

“It is prevention. If nothing happens, nobody says anything about it,” Juneau says. “It is when something does happen or if the Ministry of Labour does stop by to inspect your site unannounced, then the client is extremely happy that we have all this stuff in place.”

Juneau would like to see more inspections, not just to find problems but also to support compliance.

“You want to get that pat on the back, from your clients and from your employees, to say this is a really good idea that we did this.”

While companies are responsible for compliance, they are also at the forefront of client education: another boost to business.

“The onus is on us to educate our clients and our potential clients that all this stuff is required by law and that it makes sense to do it this way,” he says. “And look at what we have done for ourselves – that’s the big thing – to get out there and advertise and promote all this stuff so that you can leverage it into making more work.”

“We must have done a pretty decent job of it based on our growth rate,” he adds.

Juneau says the emphasis on health and safety will gain momentum in the future.

“I think the industry is going to become more and more stringent. You are going to have to be more compliant with the rules and regulations – and not just lip-service compliance.”

Rather than increasing inspections, he believes there will be more enforcement at the client level, naming Workplace Safety and Insurance Board clearance certificates as an example.

“There is a big onus on the end user to make sure that the contractor is compliant,” he says.

Moreover, employees are more educated and know the rules.

“[Employees] are going to sniff out these companies that are not in compliance,” he says. “If those companies want to continue to work, they are going to have to fall in line.”

THE HUMAN ELEMENT
But there is another vital element in Aardvark’s success: the human element, which includes their staff and how management view their role as employers.

DarrenJuneau-truck 
“Technically, our drillers are superb, our health and safety is second to none, and then there is that addezad component of that professionalism, that business development side of it that we really feel is a strong portion of the company as well,” says Darren Juneau, CEO.



 

“We founded the company with really good ideals and a good solid partnership, and we put a lot of effort into our employees to maintain the level of commitment.”

“If we find that [commitment] is lagging, we don’t blame the employees. Matt and I look at ourselves and say ‘what is it that we are not doing adequately to engage our employees? And what can we do to get them more actively involved in the company and have a vested interest in the company?’ ”

Key to that is recognizing the professionalism and high skill level of drillers, something Juneau says is lacking in the industry.

“Drilling is a career choice and the people who drill and are successful at it are very talented, very smart individuals. It is our responsibility to nurture that,” he says. “The same way you need to give someone who is really good in math an environment to flourish in ¬ the same is true of drillers.”

Creating such an environment means fostering employee engagement: holding quarterly meetings, organizing activities like bowling and golf, responding to employee suggestions, and continually inviting feedback.

“If you are trying to engage employees, but you never ask them for their feedback, how can you engage them? If they feel they have a voice – that is the biggest thing – that they feel they have somebody to talk to or that we will listen to what they have to say,” Juneau says, adding that it is tough sometimes because soft skills like communication are not a typical part of a driller’s curriculum.

Another challenge is not seeing staff on a daily basis.

“A lot of our guys are gone a lot. They might get a job up in, say, Whitby, and they are gone Monday to Friday. It is hard to get that one-on-one time. That is a hurdle that we have right now.”

But they are determined to get over the hurdles. For instance, their evaluation program has a new element this spring ¬ one suggested by employees.

“We give feedback to the employees based on what our thoughts are as managers on their performance,” Juneau says. “And so they asked, at the Christmas meeting, if they could do the same thing in reverse – have the employees give feedback to the managers.”

Another upcoming project aimed at increasing engagement, particularly with staff at remote job sites, involves bringing in a human resources professional who has expressed interest in working with them to complete a masters thesis.

“I am really interested in what the person learns about it. Is the message getting through?” Juneau says. “If it isn’t, then what do I have to do?”

Ultimately, this way of looking at employer responsibilities has a payoff that goes deeper than financial success.

“It has been a lot of hard work but it is rewarding,” he says. “People are always welcome to stay on with the company, but if somebody can move on and better themselves, I look at that as a feather in my cap.

“If I can be one step in their journey towards being a better person and getting to where they want to go, then that is fantastic.”


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