Rich Stewart travels the Midwest to ensure contractors are tooled up with the right drill bit.
By Mike Price
One of the many great qualities of the water well industry is the unbending commitment in providing a quality product at a fair price. The industry is full of individuals who just don’t know any other way.
Rich Stewart, known as Stew, is on the road 25 days a month calling on drill bit customers in the Midwest. He’s as loyal to his customers as they are to him: 80% of his 110-plus customers have been with him since 1991.
“I’m buying their old bits, selling them new bits, selling them used bits, fixing their bits, whatever they need me to do,” says Stewart, who started Rich’s Bit Service LLC in Benton, Illinois, more than three years ago. Before starting his own business, Stewart worked for a drill bit supplier for 30 years.
“They’ll tell me what they’re looking for and I’ll try to find it for them. Whatever I can do to help them out. The traveling is easy for me. I’ve got no kids and am not married.”
Stewart, 53, averages 125,000 miles a year in his 2019 F-350 Dually covering “all the states that make up the Big Ten Conference.” He doesn’t charge to deliver. Other than a secretary (Ashton Knight) who does his paperwork and family help on the weekends, Stewart carries the business on his back. But he insists that he couldn’t do this without many helpful suppliers.
“There aren’t too many guys who will do that (travel 25 days a month),” he says. “Most people are just shipping the bits, and have you ship them back if they’re bad and most guys don’t want to fool with shipping them back if they’re bad.”
Stewart works with his customers so they’re satisfied with their bit. If a bit is problematic, Stewart will send another bit at an adjusted price and pay the delivery himself.
“I try to be as fair as I can. If it’s my fault in any way, if you had a bit go bad and I tell you to hang on to it until I get there, I’ll send you another one,” he says. “But if I see you chewed it up, then I’ll charge freight.
“There’s no added cost to me delivering the bit as long as you’re not running me to death. I encourage customers to buy multiple bits, and if they do, I’ll knock off 10 bucks a piece.That way they buy in quantity so I have more time to call on everyone else.”
Stewart typically visits customers every eight to 10 weeks. For his customers who operate a larger outfit, it’s once a week.
“Rather than going to a state and working all week and then going to another state and working all week and starting all over again six or seven weeks later,” Stewart says, “I just go to where the phone is ringing the hottest. If I got three or four calls in one area, I’ll load the truck and hit that whole area while I’m there.”
‘His Knowledge in the Bit World Is Amazing’
Shawver Well Co. Inc. in Fredericksburg, Iowa, has predominantly used Stewart for bits over the past 25-plus years. The company appreciates Stewart’s personal approach to customer service.
“Rich is a hard worker and is really focused on customer service,” says Gary Shawver, MGWC, company vice president, who served on the National Ground Water Association Board of Directors from 2010-2013 and writes a bimonthly column for Water Well Journal.
“He bends over backwards to get someone a bit when they really need it,” Shawver continues. “If we’ve had issues with any bits, Rich has been very fair on his adjustments. He is truly dedicated to the industry.”
Ryan Budke, general manager of Shawver Well, says Stewart always answers his phone, and if he doesn’t, he usually returns the call within 15-20 minutes.
“His knowledge in the bit world is amazing,” says Budke, “and if he doesn’t know the answer, he will find it out. He always comes to the shop with a smile and a good sense of humor.
“If you need something in a rush, he makes it happen and doesn’t give any excuses. His customer service is by far the best of anyone selling bits around here. He takes the time to look over hole openers and discuss options with rebuilding them.”
Stewart, who has never been a contractor, has instead amassed his knowledge over the years from working with drill bits in a variety of drilling markets—water well, geothermal, horizontal directional drilling, and the oil field. He sells bits for surface casing; polycrystalline diamond compact (PDC) bits for geothermal and water wells; and hammer bits and hammers. He says most contractors are eager to help him learn more.
“PDCs have definitely cut into the roller cone sales and hammer bit sales, but they haven’t completely taken over it,” Stewart says. “In the oil field, they can afford to tear up those PDCs and they’ll run them through a lot of different conditions. It’s made roller cones hard to find as far as good used ones.
“Buyers used to go to 15 places in the oil field and get 500 rerun roller cone bits. Now they go to the same 15 places and maybe get five bits because they’re running PDCs all the time. I don’t see as many reruns out there.”
When Lyons Well Drilling Co. Inc. in Stockton, Illinois, is looking at a different application, the company checks with Stewart to see if he has customers who are doing anything similar. If they are, it asks him what they are doing and using.
“He’s a fountain of information regarding bit rotation speed, push down, style, etc.,” says Larry Lyons, president of Lyons Well Drilling, who served as NGWA president in 2004.
“He has competition, but no one offers the personal service nor can they come close to matching his expertise. One thing the others do is sell or push what they have rather than making sure what you’re buying is what you need.”
‘He Stands Behind Everything’
When contractors want drill bits tailored to their liking, Stewart will make the necessary modifications.
For example, cutting the center out of the bit for mud drilling creates less restriction on mud flow. Another is welding the bit jets closed because contractors want more flow on the drill bit’s teeth or to keep the jet flow from washing out sand and gravel wells.
Stewart also gets his customers the brand of bit they request. In addition, he accommodates their requests for certain features on the bit (hard facing, tooth coating, new gauge buttons, etc.).
“You just learn what they want and that’s what you try to take with you and let them pick what they want off your truck. I’m like a moving bit store,” Stewart says with a chuckle.
“I take the things that are sold, and I also fill the truck with whatever else I can get on there that I think I might sell them or they might be interested in looking at. Every once in a while, you’ll have a guy say, ‘What’s that there? Let me try one of those.’ That’s how it works.”
Stewart, whose sales are up 10% from 2019 as of May, says three-wing PDC bits and welded-on blade bits do the best in softer formations. In harder formations, more fractures, or anything broken, Stewart says five wings or more are needed.
“It’s just like the tricone bit,” he says. “With the tricone bit, you want long buttons and less of them so they’re real aggressive in the soft stuff, and in the harder the stuff you’re drilling, the more buttons and the closer together and shorter you want them.
“It’s the same way with PDC bits. The harder the stuff you’re drilling and the more fractures there are, the more wings and diamonds you want. You want more bit face on the formation.”
Stewart also buys used bits from his customers and encourages them to buy any bits they find to sell to him.
“If they have friends who have bits, grab them. If they’re scrapping them, grab them and I’ll make it worth your while,” he says. Stewart reclaims parts off them or sells the carbide. He pays double to triple what a scrapyard would give for the bit ($180–$190).
“He stands behind everything and once in a while makes you feel like you got a deal,” Budke says. “I would highly recommend Rich’s Bit Service to anyone in the drilling industry.”
Lyons shares the same sentiment: “Rich has been our go-to guy for bits for a very long time, including when he worked for his previous employer, so well over 25 years. We like Rich so much we won’t even consider anyone else. He’s honest as the day is long and stands behind his stuff.”
As mostly a one-man operation, Stewart has stayed busy throughout the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and never missed a day. He has tried hiring help over the years, but like many in the water well industry, it’s been a challenge.
“You can’t find anyone who will last,” he says. “I just said the heck with it and hired a secretary so I’m not doing paperwork at 3 o’clock in the morning. I get help on the weekend from teenagers in the family and I do everything else myself. I’m looking to get bigger. I just got to find some help.”
Whether he finds help or expands his business, Stewart will continue to provide the same service and expertise to his customers.
“Rich strives to be the best and won’t settle for anything less,” Budke says. “You’re not just a customer to him, you’re a friend to him.”
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,