The lifeblood of the water well industry largely hinges on sons and daughters continuing the company legacy.
By Mike Price
Family-run water well businesses have an uphill battle clawing past the so-called third-generation curse.
True or not, people tease that the first generation starts the company, the second generation builds it, and the third generation loses it. It’s just one of many sayings that reference the three-generation rule.
“I read somewhere that for a company to make it to the third generation it’s like winning the lottery almost,” says third-generation auger rig operator Bridger O’Keefe of O’Keefe Drilling Co. in Butte, Montana. “I forget the stats, but it’s a very low percentage to make it to third generation.
“But if it can make it to third generation, it will almost always make it to fourth and so that’s kind of pretty exciting to me because I can see where if Gradeigh [brother] and I weren’t interested they probably would have had to sell, but I’m just glad we’re both interested in it and that’s what we’re doing.”
In one of the most challenging industries to work in, having younger generations who are fully engaged, strong-willed, and motivated are necessary if family-owned companies are going to survive. It’s not a stretch to say that the lifeblood of the water well industry largely hinges on sons and daughters continuing the company legacy.
“That’s the only way it’s ever going to keep developing is if the sons and daughters take on their father’s or grandfather’s businesses,” says Jaclyn Giop, accountant, office manager, and monitor well driller for O’Keefe Drilling. “Not a lot of people wake up and they’re like, ‘Oh I want to be a driller’ because it’s a learned trade.
“It’s not like you can go somewhere. You can’t go to a trade school and learn how to do it. It’s got to be learned by those who’ve been doing it. But it’s hard work. It’s hard labor and trying to get anybody to come do that anymore, it’s just ridiculous. But I think it’s anywhere, no matter what it is. No matter what the dollar signs are. It’s hard to find good labor.”
It’s difficult to measure the impact if a company doesn’t succeed, but in an industry like water well drilling which has long struggled with business management and succession planning, losing that niche driller who specializes in cable tool or other specific drilling method is significant.
Giop, the first female president of the Montana Water Well Drillers Association in its 76-year history, has seen it in her area. It’s increased an already demanding workload for her company.
“You have all these old-school people who know how to run this equipment and they’re awesome at it and they have nobody else to train because nobody wants it,” she explains. “Their kids don’t want it. Then what? It’s going to get to that sad tale of your well’s dry, but the drilling company down the street is 12 months out. It just scares me.”
While much has been reported on the workforce challenges facing the water well industry in recent years, here’s a fresh look at just a few of the family members from across the country returning home to work. Plus, two employees from Preferred Pump & Equipment LP who will soon be leaving to work at their father’s respective well and pump service companies in Missouri.
Kennebec Well Drilling in Farmingdale, Maine
Just the day after Noah Rolfe graduated high school in 2018 in Farmingdale, Maine, he was the helper on the back of a drill rig.
Rolfe’s original plan following graduation was to enroll in a two-year program to become a diesel mechanic, but one day of shadowing in the garage changed his mind. He instead went to work at his grandfather’s water well drilling and pump company before he and his father, Ted, an industry veteran, split off nine months later. They purchased the name, Kennebec Well Drilling—named after Kennebec County which they live in and near the Kennebec River—and a 1999 REICHdrill T-650 WII.
“From when I was little, I’d always be right with him,” says Noah, a 22-year-old, third-generation driller. “I’d go to work with him on days I wasn’t in school, whether he was doing filter work, looking at jobs, on the rig, and I’d just tag along. I kind of got to see it without doing it and it interested me enough to try it as soon as I was old enough.
“Nothing was ever forced, it was always the option, and he always makes it a competitive job because up here with the shipyard that pays well, the power company, Cianbro [construction company], stuff like that, and you gotta be able to compete with them to find anybody worth hiring. You can’t pay someone $15 an hour to shovel dirt on the back of the rig—rain, snow, whatever—you have to treat them right.”
Ted Rolfe, a past president of the Maine Ground Water Association, told his children that it didn’t matter which career they chose if they could go to bed eager to get up the next morning and start the day.
“I think it’s important to encourage them to chase their dreams. Whatever they may be or become,” says Ted who is licensed as a master well driller, master pump installer, and has a license in closed-loop geothermal and an accredited installer through the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association.
“I also believe our children are not going to want to become a part of something we don’t seem to enjoy ourselves. We do something pretty amazing. We construct a well that provides families and businesses with water that typically lasts for generations to come.”
Noah, who is following in his father’s footsteps by serving on the MGWA Board of Directors, looks forward to working alongside him each day—something he doesn’t take for granted.
“We’ve never butted heads,” he shares. “I know some drilling companies that the father and son, they don’t get along the slightest, but every morning we’ll run down, get a coffee, and just talk—not even about drilling but just whatever.”
When they began their business, Ted decided that it was going to be a real job or no job at all, meaning the job came with decent pay and benefits like health insurance, vacation pay, bonus incentives, and retirement.
“It’s important to give them the opportunity to become a part of something successful and be part of that success,” Ted says. “Listen to them as you teach them. Invest in your business as well as your reputation. Update equipment when you can. Nobody likes working with or on tired iron. Show and encourage them to strive to be the best at what we do and go beyond just what’s expected.
“Also, make safety a priority. Provide the equipment needed to be safe. Whether it be hard hats and safety glasses or well-maintained vehicles. And don’t try to sugarcoat what we do. It’s hard work in extreme conditions, and they know it, but you can do worse things for less money.”
As the youngest full-time driller in Maine, Noah likes drilling in different locations and the different aspects that come with drilling (welding, driving service truck, mechanic, etc.). He’s also enjoying serving MGWA, particularly the committee on the overweight issue of drill rigs and accompanying vehicles.
“It’s interesting to see the other side of well drilling,” he says, “not just drilling on the back of a rig, but paperwork, rulemaking, and the laws that go with it.”
Crabtree Drilling LLC in Springfield, Ohio
As a child, Chelsey Christensen was infatuated with the family business and emotionally drawn to her great grandfather, Holland K. Crabtree, who founded the business in 1946.
“Seeing the different generations and I kind of always wanted to be a part but then you know as a female you’re like, ‘Where do I really fit into that piece?’” she recalls.
At the urging of her father, Jacob, CWD, CVCLD, Chelsey earned a teaching degree from Miami University in 2010. Jacob wanted her to have a college degree to fall back on, so she taught eighth-grade English in her hometown for six years.
However, with three young children, Chelsey and her husband, Sean, a driller at the company for nearly 20 years, needed a work schedule that better fit their family life. Fortunately, the company’s growth in the geothermal drilling market led Chelsey’s parents, Jacob and Chelsey, to step back and an opportunity arose in 2018.
“I just think as it’s been passed on from generation to generation, we haven’t lost sight of those foundational things— faith, love, and grit—but also carried them on with a certain aspect of growth and I really appreciate and value that,” says Chelsey, a 33-year-old, fourth-generation operations manager.
“One of my favorite things about the business is that it’s supported our family through all these generations and it’s also been able to support tons of other families in our community, which is really cool.”
From the outset, both Jacob and Chelsey have been open with Chelsey and later her brother, Chase, about how the business runs. This has made for a smooth transition thus far, Chelsey says, and made it easier to understand the business.
“When you’re the next generation of family coming in, it’s easy to have a vision and want to implement change, which is very healthy and a natural process of a growing successful business,” she explains. “But it’s very important to not jump to big changes or assume that there are things that need to be fixed.
“Chase and I had to learn the business exactly the way it is before we could ever choose to make changes. After all, it has been successful for seven decades because of the generations before us.”
In this unique and tough industry, Chelsey has been most proud of her sons and daughter embracing the business, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2021. They go to work with their father, visit jobsites, work a shovel, and interact with farmers and homeowners.
“Our middle son recently worked a 17-hour day drilling a 16-inch well for irrigation. He’s 8 and described his day as fun,” Chelsey says, “and after the rig shut off, the farmer took him to see a newborn zebra on the farm. This business is full of opportunity I couldn’t dream of.
“Our daughter is 10 and as we drive to town, she beams with pride pointing out the wells she’s completed with her Dad, saying ‘I put the cap on that one, Mom.’
“I’m here because I’m a daughter with a passion and I’m stoked to see the same fire lit in my own sons and daughter.”
Crabtree Drilling LLC in Springfield, Ohio
Like his sister, Chelsey Christensen, Chase Crabtree was encouraged by his father to get a college education before considering returning home to work for the family business.
“I always wanted to come back to the business, Chelsey more so than me, but he [Jacob] said, ‘No, go to college, figure out what you want to do in life, pursue other things because this is always going to be here for you to lean back on,’” says Chase, who received a business degree from the University of Northern Colorado in 2019 on a wrestling scholarship.
“I always fought him on just let me come back now, I want to make money, I’ll help with what’s going on, and he just said, ‘Nope, get some experience and then we’ll talk.’”
Chase worked in marketing for about three years in Colorado before returning home in the summer of 2021. The 28-year-old, fourth-generation driller with a young family is operating the DRILLMAX DM250 (doesn’t require a commercial driver’s license) and learning how to operate the company’s older two rigs.
“When our family first discussed the possibilities of Chase joining the business, there wasn’t really a specific need or vacancy,” Chelsey shares. “We kept trying to find a place that he could fill, but when it’s a family business, you just make it happen. It turns out there was a place all along we didn’t even know we were in need of, and since he’s been here, he has made such a substantial impact in optimizing our efficiency and operations.”
Fifty percent of the time, Chase is on a crew helping drill commercial geothermal projects outside of Ohio. If drilling in Ohio, it’s typically for residential geothermal boreholes, water well, or irrigation well. He’s also built the company website since he returned.
“My favorite part about coming back and working for the family business is I feel like I am actually making a difference in people’s lives,” Chase says. “For example, we have people who are out of water and are in need of help and I can give that to them. And they are always so thankful as it is an essential need for almost everything day to day.
“Whereas in other jobs, I felt like I was working to make someone else’s dreams and ambitions come true. Not my own.”
Chase attended Groundwater Week 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee, and it opened his eyes to just how large the industry is. He took in as many workshops as he could.
“I found it to be very revitalizing, which is nice considering the day in and day out grind,” he says.
Beyond Springfield, Ohio, both Chase and Chelsey understand the daily struggles that Haitians endure through Living Water for Haiti, a nonprofit organization that their parents founded in October 2015.
The nonprofit organization drills water wells in the region of Jérémie, a coastal city on the tip of Haiti’s southern peninsula, and assists with other needs in the region, including supporting an orphanage and building homes. Both Chase and Chelsey have been on multiple trips to help.
“Water is an unfathomable, overwhelming global problem,” Chelsey says. “To see it firsthand is to forever carry the burden of not being able to ever do enough. I’ve watched my parents carry that load. But when you meet the people, build relationships, and completely fall in love with them, it becomes part of the rest of your life.
“My parents will always be a part of Haiti and part of carrying on the legacy of this business is following in their footsteps of seeing needs, from our town to the rest of the world, and meeting them when God calls us to.”
McCarthy Drilling LLC in Halfway, Missouri
Years ago, Jeremy McCarthy was reluctant for his sons to enter the industry, but his mind changed based on improvements and today he’s proud that all three are currently working for the family business.
Hayden, the oldest, operates the 1999 REICHdrill T-650 WII and likes the hard work ethic required in this industry. His younger twin brothers, Trenton and Trey, are following suit since they graduated high school. Trenton is on Hayden and Matt Lakey’s drill crew while Jeremy, Trey, and another employee are on another crew. The company has three total drill crews.
“You come to work, meet at the shop by 6 a.m., and some nights you’re not off until 7 or 7:30 p.m.,” says Hayden, a 21-year-old, third-generation driller. “There’s a lot more hours [than in high school] and you got to pay attention. Always being on your toes because stuff goes wrong. It’s not perfect by any means. There’s always challenges and struggles every day. You learn something pretty much every day.”
Hayden, who appreciates learning together with his brothers and soaking in knowledge from reading comments on Facebook’s Water Well Guys group, recalls first going to jobsites with his father when he was 17. He remembers starting out by helping with local jobs around home on 300-foot wells, and the more he learned, he began traveling to jobsites. They’d venture to Oklahoma to drill 1000-foot wells.
“Once he saw that I was learning and growing, he decided that he was to teach me to run the rig,” says Hayden, who returned to the family business in March 2020 once COVID-19 hit, forgoing his baseball scholarship and studies of construction technology at North Arkansas College. “I knew eventually I’d come back and COVID was my excuse to come back.”
With a backlog of wells to complete like many in the industry, it’s been a struggle to find time to train both Trenton and Trey. It’s also been challenging for one of the drilling crews to keep a helper—also common in the industry.
“If you can keep it close in the family,” Hayden explains, “I definitely feel like they’re more reliable help than you’ll ever be able to find. My brothers and I, so far, we’re three for three. We come to work every day. No hiccups.”
O’Keefe Drilling Co. in Butte, Montana
O’Keefe Drilling has had a custom machine shop since 1984. It is about 50 feet by 70 feet and just so happens to be Bridger O’Keefe’s favorite place.
While growing up, Bridger and his twin brother, Gradeigh, helped the company during the summers by sweeping the machine shop or on a pump truck. Bridger and Gradeigh’s father, Dan, had them around equipment from a young age.
“One summer [in 2017] I was in the shop, I really liked that,” Bridger remembers. “I thought the machines were cool. I could literally make anything, so that got my attention.”
Bridger’s interest led him to North Idaho College where he graduated in 2019 with a degree from the machining and CNC technology career and technical program. Following graduation, Bridger was in the shop for the year learning all the tooling and how to make it. He then worked in the company’s geotechnical drilling department, learning and operating the sonic rig for the next two years.
Due to a need at the company, Bridger now operates the company’s most steady rig, the Mobile B61 auger rig. The company expected to receive its upgrade, a 2022 Mobile B61 HDX, by the end of the year.
“I want to take over the geotech side because I see a lot of potential in it,” says Bridger, a 26-year-old, third-generation auger rig operator. “Anything you want to build you have to do the geotech work and there’s a lot of building happening in Montana, so I’m booked out for three years. It’s been pretty busy. I think it’d be great to get more rigs running, more drillers, but it’s so hard to find help now. That’s the issue.”
To help find help, if Bridger were to put a job ad together, the candidate would first need to like the outdoors and not be scared to get muddy.
“Get to travel all the time, pay is good,” he continues. “Always learning something new and the days fly by because we’re pretty busy. Really no sitting around. Always heard about concrete guys who are sitting around waiting for concrete. That’s not us. We’re always working.
“You get to see amazing things. Mines and equipment and how they work.”
Not every day is ideal, but to Bridger, the positives far outweigh the negatives. “I enjoy it until it’s negative 10 and I’m standing in mud,” he says with a laugh, but . . . .
O’Keefe Drilling Co. in Butte, Montana
Once Bridger chose the machining and CNC technology career and technical program route, twin brother Gradeigh opted for business school.
“I always thought what’s the best degree that I could possibly choose to do instead of a technical one,” says Gradeigh, whose parents encouraged them to consider a secondary education. “Maybe when I’m done drilling I can go into the office and know what the heck I’m talking about.”
Gradeigh chose the most general business degree that could help the company the most. He graduated in business marketing and management from the University of Montana in 2020.
While Bridger works in the geotechnical drilling department and sees a future in it, Gradeigh drills mostly large-size municipal water wells (16 to 24 inch) with a 2022 Foremost DR-24HD.
As Gradeigh has increased his time on the drill controls over the summer, he hasn’t looked back on his decision to return to the family business, save for the first day following graduation.
“I woke up to go to work and after that was debating life choices,” says Gradeigh, a 26-year-old, third-generation driller. “Is this what I want to do? And now that I’ve actually been out here and done it for so long, I can’t imagine any other way.”
Learning by being a helper with experienced drillers, Gradeigh is at the controls of the Foremost DR-24HD and explaining to the helper where to be.
“Every day I learn something new about what the ground is doing, what the rig is doing, how to be a mechanic on the rig, if you start hearing some noises where to look for things,” he says. “The feel of the situation and the hole.”
While working away from home 40 weeks of the year can be tiresome, Gradeigh says being outside and seeing what typical office workers don’t, make it all worth it. He’s also been challenged in learning how to manage a helper on a jobsite.
“Getting a guy lined out where he’s in a safe environment and where he knows the danger points of a rig and where not to be and to be at the time,” he says.
Gradeigh, who appreciates the camaraderie of the drilling industry both in-person and online in the Facebook Water Well Guys group, was looking forward to learning more about drilling through hard rock and hammer drilling this fall with the Foremost DR-24HD.
“Everybody helps each other most of the time,” he says. “It’s a different group of people who do it [drilling] and are interesting to talk to. Nice to hear others going through problems and going through stuff.”
It’s not uncommon to see drilling equipment for sale seemingly every day along with companies themselves because fewer and fewer family members are coming home.
Gradeigh remembers his father laying out the future reality of the family business—an increasingly common conversation taking place these days in the water well industry—to him and Bridger.
“If you guys don’t want to be drillers or take on the family business,” Dan said, “we’ll probably have to look at selling the company.”
Gradeigh and Bridger were the only option on their father’s side of the family because the children from their two aunts didn’t want to be a part of the family business. It prompted them to have an honest conversation about their future.
“Bridger and I kind of chatted and decided we better jump on this opportunity,” Gradeigh recalls. “It’s kind of a no-brainer—it’s set up so good you might as well explore it.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or at (800) 551-7379, ext. 1541.