Cribley Drilling and its Champion Water Treatment division. The Clark family has been very careful to respect tradition while at the same time staying progressive to meet the needs of the water system industry's evolving marketplace.

The Clark family has been very careful to respect tradition while at the same time staying progressive to meet the needs of the water system industry's evolving marketplace.

E.E. Cribley and Son began drilling water wells in southeastern Michigan in 1946. In 1963, the company was purchased by Jack and Mary Jane Clark. Such was Cribley's reputation in the area that the Clarks, faced with having to rename the firm, astutely chose Cribley Drilling Co. The company, headquartered in Dexter, Mich., some 50 miles due west of Detroit, also boasts the services of Clark siblings Larry, Tim and Cindy - all company directors.

Traditionally, the company drilled water wells and installed and repaired pumps. Today, Cribley's drilling side sticks with that part of the market. “We did get into environmental drilling in the late 1980s,” says Tim Clark. “We were really involved in it until about 1995. It was hot at the time; a lot of federal and state money allowed for a good opportunity there, but right now, we are only moderately involved in it. We don't really pursue it anymore, but if it does happen to come to us, we'll do it.”

Further explaining Cribley's evolution, Clark notes that the company's commercial market has grown quite a bit, currently representing nearly 20 percent of the firm's projects at this time. “Dad really didn't have time for it, but Larry has taken it on and carried it a long way,” he says. “Now that we're not doing the environmental so much, that commercial work is fitting in nicely.”

Cribley Drilling runs three main rigs - a pair of Versa-drills ('99 and '04) and a 2001 Ingersoll-Rand T2. “We'll hang on to them between five years and 10 years before we trade them in,” says Clark. “We do most of the maintenance and repair work in-house - unless something out of the ordinary happens and we need someone to come in.”

Breaking down his field personnel, Clark explains, “We have six main guys for drilling, four main guys for pump hook up, two people handling water softeners and another two guys for servicing wells. Other projects such as well abandonment or other odd jobs get handled by whoever is available.”

A Champion Is Born

Cribley Drilling got involved in the water treatment business starting in 1979. “My dad used to send a lot of work to a local treatment contractor. After referring out so much work, he decided that our company should be able to do it.” Cribley looked into buying that contractor's business but couldn't come to terms. So they forged ahead, as Cribley Drilling, with a water treatment division added to the mix.

“When I got out of college in 1987, we did about 18 treatment jobs that year,” Clark recalls. “I had an interest in that end of the business, and my dad really didn't have the time necessary to do it properly, so I took it over.”

Clark faced a marketing dilemma early on: “The Cribley name is so well known around here that when people would see it, their first reaction was 'Oh, Cribley, that's the well people.'” Cribley's Yellow Pages ads noted the softener services, but people just had that one-dimensional perception. “In 1990, we started Champion Water Treatment as a division of Cribley Drilling. After about 40-some years, we didn't want to mess with the Cribley name because it's so well known. But we didn't want to use Cribley Water Treatment because of that perception I mentioned. We were worried that people would see Cribley Water Treatment and think, 'I thought those guys did wells, but I guess they just do softeners now. I'll call someone else for my well.'”

Champion experienced very steady and sustained growth over the years; last year, Champion Water Treatment installed nearly 450 softeners - residential for the most part.

Initially, Champion installed a treatment system Clark describes as, “A good system - but pretty high-priced, making it difficult to compete. So we designed our own system.” The system originally was going to be called, “The Champion,” after Champion Water Treatment. But a trademark search found that “Champion” already was being used for another company's pressure tank, so that wasn't going to work. “The Quicksilver name came about because I knew we could get silver jackets for the softeners and it kind of flowed from there,” Clark explains. “We just recently renewed the trademark for another 10 years.”

After the first five years, water treatment represented about 10 percent of company revenues; today, that figure is around 40 percent. “Right now, we're not looking to expand or pushing too hard to get any bigger,” says Clark. “I'm pretty satisfied with how things are going. But like they say - if you're not growing, you're dying. That's something to keep in mind, but you also don't want any more problems than you can handle, either.”

Queried about his labor market, Clark tells us, “We don't really have any turnover to speak of. I can't remember the last time anybody was let go.” The last guy Clark can remember who quit did so in 1995. “We offer a 401k, full medical and dental. We treat our people pretty well.” Pressed, he says with non-boastful pride, “Most of the employees would say it's the best job they ever had.”

Clark explains further, “In this business, it's not so easy finding people ready to come in and replace someone. Historically, it's more of a situation where we find someone and we mold that person into what the company needs with on-the-job training. Typically, you can't find a drill rig operator or pump installer without putting an ad out there and hoping that one of your competitors' employees sees it and jumps ship and you hope that that person is a quality employee.”

Some Friendly Advice

Pointing out what he says is an all-too-common misconception, Clark says, “People often think, 'If I can sell a well to someone, I ought to be able to sell the softener, too.' It's really not that way. It certainly happens - especially on a new house or in situations where you installed the well and the customer is happy. But there is a lot more competition in water treatment because it's easier to get into; it doesn't require as much capital investment. Basically, you just need a van and the right tools; $20,000 is more than enough to get started.”

Clark notes that the treatment jobs require a lot more selling. “On the well drilling side, a customer needs a well and decides on Cribley. We schedule it and go out and drill the well. On the treatment side, there is a lot more kitchen-table time involved. People have more questions. They want water tests and a sit-down visit to go over options and how the systems work. It takes a lot more time that way than it does with getting the well drilling job.

“And sometimes just the softener won't do,” Clark continues. “An iron filter might be needed as well. So now you've got a situation where the customer is looking at spending more when he or she thought the softener was all that's needed, and if it doesn't do the job, it's the contractor's problem. Or there can be tannins in the water. Tannic acid is a problem around here; plant materials break down in the water and prevent the softener from doing a good job. It looks like iron, but it isn't, so an iron filter isn't going to help. Tannins aren't a huge problem, but when it comes up, you're looking at a double-edged sword. If you go in and test for it and it's there, you give the customer a price for a system that can handle it, plus the softener. A lot of people will say, 'I don't want to spend that much. I talked to two other companies that said I don't need that.' You just lost the job. On the other hand, if you go in there and only install the softener, you're taking a chance. Some tannins are a problem and others aren't. If the customer calls back and you determine that tannins are the problem, you give them a price on the equipment and they may well say, 'I shouldn't have to pay for that; you should have told me up front about this.' It can be a real catch-22; you can't win. Some people are understanding; others aren't.”

Clark goes on to say that another thing people sometimes forget about is service. “It's not hard to put in a softener but service definitely is a key,” he says. “There's a lot to it. It's not like servicing a pump or a well. There are a lot of nitpicky things, especially early on. With treatment systems, there's a lot better chance that you'll have to go back within a week or two than there would be with a well or a pump. Some drilling contractors might not be prepared for that and they might say to themselves, 'What did I get myself into here?'”

Clark also touches on how drilling and treatment differ when it comes to relationships with builders. “When a well driller becomes established, he'll get a certain number of builders that will call him regularly, if not all the time,” he explains. “The builders tend to be loyal. The problem with installing treatment systems is a lot of builders don't like to get involved with them for the reasons we just went over. Even though I tell the builder that the sticker on the equipment has my name and number on it, they still don't want to be involved with it. It just adds to the price of the home, which works against them. That won't change until the treatment systems become a requirement. Maybe 10 percent of my builders will call me every time for a softener - that's not very many. They leave that up to the homeowner, sometimes referring the homeowner to me. Also, Sears, Home Depot and Lowe's and the like offer treatment systems, and they might make it five years. If it makes it past 10 years, it's practically a miracle. But money is money and the homeowner can save a few hundred dollars up front. You can tell them all you want about quality issues, but they won't believe you until it breaks down.”

When that time comes, Cribley - and Champion - will be ready to help. Cribley's customers know where to turn for all of their water system needs - today and into the future. ND