The character of the water well industry has led to fellow contractors helping each other with the day-to-day demands of the job.
By Mike Price
Water well contractors once viewed their competing contractor as “the enemy” and possibly names not suitable for this publication, but those days seem to have passed.
For a variety of reasons, the highly skilled industry has progressed to where most of today’s contractors see the need to be on a first-name basis with their fellow area groundwater professionals. They call it operating as friendly competitors, and it undoubtedly has helped them work through the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing supply chain issues.
“I know they do it as an industry probably better than any other industry I know,” says Marvin F. Glotfelty, RG, author of The Art of Water Wells and principal hydrogeologist at Clear Creek Associates LLC, a Geo-Logic Associates Co. in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“Drillers loan each other tools or crews to help each other out when they’re having difficulties, and they recognize as a group that high water floats everybody’s boat, and so that’s where I really wish hydrogeologists would do that more.”
A look into the close-knit, friendly competitor culture can be seen online in Facebook’s Water Well Guys group (see shaded sidebar for examples) and the National Ground Water Association’s Groundwater Forum. These group chats too have brought contractors together where industry knowledge can be learned through the countless questions posed and input shared from across the United States and beyond.
Case in point. A question on where to purchase a breakout wrench off a Versa-Drill V-140X drilling rig in late May was posed by a contractor in Facebook’s Water Well Guys group. The contractor needed to find one as quick as possible. He received 75 comments off the photo he posted, spanning everything from where to order one to how to fabricate his own wrench.
“I don’t know of any other industries that really help each other out,” says Glotfelty, a contributing writer for Water Well Journal. “Kind of unique in that way. Kind of cool. That’s been the culture for a long time.”
It wasn’t always this way. The industry has evolved from some who held a tunnel vision mindset dating back to the 1950s through the 1980s or so. Some who worked during that time frame were raised to solely focus on their business and not speak with their fellow contractor down the road.
“I saw it with my father, my uncle, and my grandfather, and we just went about our business and did what you did and didn’t need any interaction with other people,” says David Hutson, who retired in 2017 as owner of Acme Well Co. Inc. in Durham, North Carolina.
“I think today’s generation is different, and I’m glad of it because it’s somewhat better for the industry, and it works out better for the individual too.”
In fact, Hutson has seen competing contractors form tighter friendships—particularly over the last 10 years—as the industry has faced labor shortages, expanding work radiuses, and other issues.
“It’s closer than it’s ever been with well drillers,” he says.
It’s not just a rhymey, gimmicky saying, but both Chauncey Leggett, CWD/PI, and John Boyette, CVCLD, truly believe that the water well industry is better when it works together.
As friendly competitors 30 miles apart, the two contractors from North Carolina who both currently serve on NGWA’s Contractors Section Board of Directors have helped champion this cause in their neighboring areas of the state.
Boyette, owner of Boyette Well & Septic Inc. in Wilson, North Carolina, recalls hearing about 12 contractors in a 25-mile radius who wouldn’t speak to each other during the late 1980s through the early 1990s.
“They’d deliberately cut prices if they knew one of them was bidding,” Boyette says, “and I told one of them this is not the way to grow our industry. You’re backing up by doing that. That is your competitor, but you need to make him your friend and not your enemy.”
The two met in memorable fashion in January 1996. Boyette, who had recently purchased a boring rig like the one being used by Leggett, asked if he could watch him drill for the day on farm property near Boyette’s family farm. A bit confused by the request, Leggett obliged and the two later saw each other on other jobsites.
Boyette, a quick learner through research and trial and error, leaned on Leggett’s years of drilling experience after both purchased their first air rotary drilling rigs in 1997.
“Over the years the glue that has stuck us together is the respect that we have for one another,” says Leggett, president of Lake Valley Well Co. in Tarboro, North Carolina. “From the friendship to the professional side of respecting our client base. If I beat him on a job that someone’s contacted [me], it’s going to be by quality rather than the price.”
Like others in the industry, the two share their workload with one other. They know each other’s rates but don’t talk about it. They’ve also worked on many geothermal jobs together and commonly refer one another to customers.
“I think the biggest key is to being able to communicate with your fellow well driller,” Leggett says, “and John and I have not had a problem with that where there are people down the road because someone did cut the price to get that particular job, and the other one holds it against them, and it just festers and you get so far apart you don’t even really know how to even start to come back together. Hopefully we’re educated enough to realize that’s not the best way to be.”
Boyette and Leggett treat other competitors the same way. Both believe contractor relationships in their state have improved due to the increased workload experienced across the industry.
“I’ve called up people who are on our state board who I know really well or just local drillers,” Boyette says, “and say, ‘Hey, this lady has called me four times and she’s waiting on you, do you still want to do the well or do you want me?’ Because more than likely they keep putting it off it’s going to be a problem anyway. It’s in a bad area. Those are definitely the ones I give to Chauncey [laughs].”
Leggett interjects, “If we get on a bad hole, my driller will ask me, ‘Did John give us this well?’ [laughs].”
Giving Back to the Industry
New to the industry but eager to learn and network with other contractors, Boyette was encouraged by Hutson in 1998 to run for the North Carolina Ground Water Association Board of Directors. Hutson saw the need for someone new to serve.
Boyette, a type-A personality, grew into his role and later became NCGWA president from 2012 to 2016. He nudged Leggett to serve on the NCGWA Board of Directors in the early 2000s and Leggett eventually followed Boyette’s presidency from 2016 to 2020. It was the first time NCGWA presidents served four years rather than the standard two years. During the eight-year span they relished recruiting individuals to serve NCGWA who had fresh ideas.
“I credit all of his [John’s] efforts to get me into the political side of it, which I didn’t realize I would like but I do,” says Leggett, a type-B personality.
The two like to joke with each other too. While serving as NCGWA president, Leggett encouraged Boyette to run for NGWA’s Contractors Section Board of Directors, which also means running for NGWA’s Board of Directors. Boyette was open to the idea and verified with Leggett that he was only running for the Contractors Section—but Leggett knew otherwise.
“Jeff Williams said, ‘You’d be nominated for the board,’” Boyette recalls, “and I say, ‘Okay, tell me what I gotta do.’ He says, ‘You gotta do a two-minute speech at the Delegates Meeting.’ I say, ‘Hold on now, you’re talking about the big board?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’
“I called up Chauncey and said, ‘What in the hell have you got me into?’ [laughs]”
Boyette followed through in running and was elected in December 2018. Leggett was elected in December 2019.
“Chauncey and John, they’re cut from the same cloth,” says Hutson, who served as NCGWA president in 2000, 2001, and 2011, and became an honorary member in 2021. “They want to give back to the industry and they work for what’s best for them and for the industry—it’s not just about them.”
Leggett promoted the mantra, “Better Together,” during his role as NCGWA president and even includes it in his email signature. Ironically, NGWA Past President David Henrich, CWD/PI, CVCLD, chose that same mantra during his presidency in 2018.
“And we live it because we truly are,” says Leggett, who’s been in the industry for 38 years.
Both have seen the benefits of both their state and national association memberships and attending the annual Groundwater Week. “I’ve been going to the national [show] since I’ve been in business because I realize what an asset it is for your business,” Boyette says.
Leggett understands it takes time and money to participate at the association level. He says that’s one reason why the industry needs to be charging enough to generate a profit.
“It’s kind of like the rabbit chasing its tail,” he says. “You gotta get out of that circle to get a little money.”
Like Leggett, Boyette recommends contractors communicate with one another.
“The same troubles are across the industry,” he says, “and when you have someone you can trust to talk to, it just makes it easier. You’re not out there by yourself.
“As being a member of an association, that’s part of it. The networking is huge and the sharing of ideas. You’ll get just as much at these functions at lunch, in the evening at the bar, as you do in the actual classroom when you’re sharing information and you just let that ‘I’m in this all by myself’ guard down and say, ‘Hey, this guy is going through the same thing.’”
Boyette, who earned an economics degree from Wake Forest University in 1989 prior to considering entering the industry in 1995, has shared his business expertise at state and national levels. He’s also helped grow NCGWA’s continuing education efforts throughout the state and organizes the association’s annual golf tournament that began in 2018.
“It takes a lot of time and effort and takes away from work. It’s a give-back thing and he’s made a lot of friends that way,” Hutson says of Boyette, “and he gets a lot of respect and people see that the relationships they have, it kind of makes it a little easier to work with somebody else who you have always considered your competitor.
“He’s the same guy I am. He does the same thing I do for a living. He’s got the same problems.”
Beyond their professional life, Leggett and Boyette enjoy spending time together with their respective families. They vacation together. They travel to the South Atlantic Jubilee together and turn it into a family vacation. They travel to NGWA functions together and mix in golf when they can.
“Our vendors will tell us they don’t see people like Chauncey and I,” Boyette says. “It’s just like Preferred Pump has 59 stores all over the United States, but they don’t have anybody that’s like the two of us.”
Boyette and Leggett, along with Jeremy Bach of Ellensburg, Washington, are the only ones from NGWA’s Contractors Section Board of Directors who operate a drilling rig every day. Boyette and Leggett continue to love the daily grind.
“We both are still extremely busy and reaching out to one another on borrowing equipment and materials to keep us both working through supply chain shortages,” Leggett says.
“It’s a very noble business. I can’t think of another one to be in.”
Sweeney, president of Sweeney Well Drilling & Pumps Inc. in Franklin, Wisconsin, was one of six water well contractors from the United States who operate GEFCO drilling rigs made by BAUER on the trip who heard retired CEO Thomas Bauer give a presentation on friendly competition.
“The most important thing I got out of that trip is it’s very important to work with your competition than it is to work against your competition,” says the second-generation Sweeney. “Get to know them and work with them.
“There’s a lot of competition [that] you never communicated with them. When I got home, I picked up the phone and I called a few of them just to see how things were going. Just getting some input on how to fix different problems we’re having and different situations we’re having with drilling and pump work. We can discuss supply chain shortages and the cost of goods skyrocketing.”
Bauer’s presentation stated that viewing competition as the enemy isn’t good for anyone.
“Competition like a war is dangerous for those involved and they tend to stop innovation,” Bauer said. “Therefore, in markets it is good to keep up reasonable relations between competitors. It is good if competitors meet with each other and if they try to keep a good relationship with each other. This allows to have a friendly competition without price wars and still keep up hard competition to the benefit of the clients.
“Associations for industries are a good meeting point for competitors as they also provide the platform to organize common interests towards government bodies.”
Sweeney, who recently purchased a 2022 GEFCO 40K drilling rig and mostly does air drilling with casing hammers, has already seen it pay off with his competition.
“We’re doing some work for them and may have them do some work for us,” says Sweeney, whose company is celebrating its 70- year anniversary in 2022 and gives credit to his drilling and pump crew for the milestone.
In addition to learning about friendly competition, Sweeney’s network of contractors grew where they consider each other friends. Sweeney saw some of them at a GEFCO/BAUER Equipment America Inc. open house this past spring in Conroe, Texas.
“Learning how they’re doing things in other parts of the country is very interesting and educational,” he says. “All you got to do is listen.”
Owner and CEO of 5E Pump & Well Service LLC in Philomath, Oregon
“Pulled my first pump with a PumpTrax went pretty well. Had to borrow this one from a friend and fellow well pump installer. Pretty cool to work in an industry where someone who is technically a competitor will loan you a piece of equipment. Big thank you to Coastal Range Water Inc. and Andy Cobb. He’s a hell of a good guy.”
Owner/Operator of Total Wells Pumps and Filtration in Gold Bar, Washington
“Man, I love this industry. I really enjoy competing too. There are three or four major companies in my territory and I’m the newest and smallest outfit, but I enjoy going out there and getting it done. Also, my competitors are all guys I could ring up on the phone and hash it out with too. I don’t know of too many fields where all those variables can exist, and I’m just glad to be in the mix in this industry.”
Owner of J.P. Anderson Well & Pump LLC in Ravenel, South Carolina
“If I had to give advice to someone with a young family as someone who did it, I would advise them to live modestly saving every extra dime until the kids get to college or go to work, but find a good competitor who you can depend on and work together to be able to take family vacations. I had a great friend who I trusted to run my company while I was gone with family, and it was wonderful to have that help.”
Kennebec Well Drilling in Farmingdale, Maine
“Up here, everyone we work with it’s all friendly competition. I know a lot of industries and I’m sure in some states the industry is cutthroat, it’s competition, competition, but with so much work out there right now, there’s no need to compete really. There’s plenty of work to go around.
“We’re lucky to have who we have around us. I bet we have half-a-dozen drillers we’re close with and work in their area. My father and I work up and down the coast right on Route 1 mostly, so we cover a pretty broad area and there’s not a lot of drillers around there but we’re friendly with them. And then we’ve got the drillers who’ve sold their drill rigs who sell wells, so we’ll still do wells for them too.”
Roger and Norman Skillings
Skillings & Sons Inc. in Amherst, New Hampshire
They sold their newly delivered 2021 REICHdrill RTD69-PTO at the same price in May 2021 to a friendly competitor in need, Capital Well Clean Water Center in Dunbarton, New Hampshire, which lost operation of all three of its rigs (one permanently) in eight working hours.
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Mike Price is the senior editor of Water Well Journal. In addition to his WWJ responsibilities, Price contributes to the Association’s scientific publications. He can be reached at email@example.com, or at (800) 551-7379, ext. 1541.