Al Belasco is president of Belasco Drilling Services Inc., Columbus, Ohio - and a proud member of the National Drilling Association. He's the kind of guy who could walk into a roomful of perfect strangers (even actuarial accountants with self-esteem issues) and walk out with six new friends - and probably two environmental drilling project leads.
As he was going down his career path, Belasco explains that, “As different doors opened up, I had choices to make and I kept getting pushed in the direction of drilling. It just happened. I was a geology major in college, studying oceanography. I never would have thought that I'd ever be on a drill rig.
“After I got out of the military, everything just seemed to direct me toward drilling. I started out with an oil exploration company down in the Louisiana bayou. Then about a year later, I went to the East Coast for a job as a drill rig inspector for the Baltimore subway. When that project was completed, I went to work with A-Tech in West Virginia, where we continually ran 12 to 14 rigs - at one time, we had 17. We did lots of wire lines and coal exploration, but that office closed after the coal strike in 1977-78, and I was sent to Indianapolis to be the drilling supervisor. After two-and-one-half years of that, I went to work for this guy who was a recovering alcoholic, and when he fell off the wagon, he fell really hard. I went home and talked with my wife and decided that if a guy like that can run a company, I could do a better job, so we incorporated in July of 1984.
At the beginning, it was Belasco and a helper in the field, with Belasco's wife, Elena, running the office - a roll-top desk in the living room. That's how it was for the next four years. “You've got to pay your dues and establish yourself,” he reminds.
Help Along the Way"I have to give a lot of credit to John Dietrich. He and I go way, way back,” says Belasco. When Dietrich was just starting out selling drilling equipment, Belasco helped steer some business his way while he was in Indianapolis. “So when I needed a drill rig for my company, John said to me, 'Al Belasco helped John Dietrich, now how can John Dietrich help Al Belasco?' I said, 'I need a rig that's not going to break down for two years.' We made a deal and that's how it happened.”
“I get a lot of my materials from Global Drilling Suppliers. Early on,” Balasco recalls, “if I had a job coming up and it required five screens and 15 bags of sand, that's what I would order. Now I'll order a truckload of sand and 300 feet of screen. I'll purchase about $170,000 worth of stuff from them each year.
“You can't do something like this on your own. You need friends and people who are going to suggest things and help you along the way. You can't be closed-minded about anything. You keep your ears open and have a lot of conversations. There are lots of good ideas out there; you don't have to be constantly re-inventing the wheel. This is a relatively small fraternity; we can help out each other. So many of the people I've talked to and made friends with are of the same mindset. You can compete but you also can help out. For example, one time, I needed some NW and AW rod. I found this guy - another contractor - selling them pretty cheap. I asked him if he was skittish about selling to somebody who's going to be a competitor. And he replied, 'Good competition is always welcome. If you're doing quality work, there's always room at the top for more people. And if you're doing schlock, you'll be dropping out so it's not a big deal to me.'”
In the beginning, Belasco's firm concentrated on geotechnical projects. “Then one day, somebody called and asked if we could do a monitoring well for him,” Belasco recalls. “I asked, 'What's a monitoring well?' The guy explained it to me and I said, 'Alright, we'll take the job.' We drilled down to 25 feet with augers, pulled them out of the hole, threw some PVC in there. Luckily, it didn't collapse. We put some sand in there and used bentonite and the guy said, 'OK. That's a good well.' So then the next time someone asked if we did monitoring wells, we could say, 'Heck, yeah, we do!'”
Present DayToday the company has 12 employees and runs four rigs and a probe unit. The rigs: Two D120s, a truck-mounted D-50, a remote-control track D-50. The probe unit is a Simco Drill Team probe. The rigs' average age is 14 years. Belasco does his own maintenance, so while the equipment is older, it still looks good.
Eighty-five percent of the company's projects are environmental drilling, and the remaining 15 percent is geotech work. Notes Belasco: “There were many years when the ratio of environmental projects was even higher. In the early 1990s, the geotech market became way too competitive - there wasn't enough profit. But it's a bread-and-butter of the industry so you don't just turn your back on it.”
The company does very little negotiated work. “Almost every job is bid now,” Belasco explains. “And we're not a low-cost company; we're right in the middle. I only win maybe 30 percent of the jobs I bid on - but that's right where I should be. If I start winning more, then I know my prices are too low. And if I start winning less, I'll again look at my prices. We'll do about 700 proposals a year.”
Asked about his firm's workload, Belasco tells us, “We're usually a week and a half to two weeks out.” Knocking on wood, he adds, “It's always been steady like that - very consistent over the past number of years. Over the past 14 years, we only had two really bad years, two really outstanding years and the rest were OK.”
He has no plans to add rigs and/or employees: “I'm very happy with the size we're at right now. If I add one more rig, I'd have to have the right people.” But that doesn't mean the company is sitting still: “There always are areas that you look at in order to increase your client base and make yourself more marketable and that's what I'm doing.”
Giving Something Back"I always want to give something back to the community,” says Belasco, who had one such an opportunity some time back. “An engineering firm was getting rid of three pallets full of soil samples,” he recounts. “I suggested to people I knew at Ohio State's geology department that they take the samples and have students do soil classifications using real samples from the field. So they did that.” Later, in another conversation, Belasco was told about the department's plan to set up an outdoor geology laboratory on campus. He had done just that for another college - Columbus State, which has an environmental technology program - and was happy to lend his services to OSU. “Ohio State wanted the outdoor lab for its geophysics, geology and ground water modeling programs. We put in the four-inch well first so the geophysics people can use their oversized equipment. Then we'll put in a two-inch well and another four-inch well so they can still do all things they need to do. There's engineering involved, geophysics, geotechnical - you can use split-spoons - there are many practical applications for the students. We're doing one well per semester.”
On Campus“The grounds people expressed great concern that we were going to tear up their landscaping on the way to the site where the school's engineering maintenance people had marked the utilities,” notes Belasco. “But while we used our mud mats to walk the rig through the middle of campus, the grounds people were driving their trucks all over the place. We left the grounds in better condition than they did.”
Just at the start of operations, the exact spot of drilling was changed. “We witched it and figured that there might be something there - it turned out to be a tree root. I know that's not scientific and it's not technical, but it got the job done. We reset about a foot and a half away. We started drilling again and with our hand auger, we hit some heaving sand materials. We got through that situation, continued drilling, set the well, sanded it and loaded up the cuttings. People saw everything that gets involved in real-world conditions - it even was raining. There was difficult access, there was a utilities situation, the weather was inclement, and we had the heaving sand situation. We took due diligence in making sure that nothing was torn up and removed all the cuttings. On that site we were on, some things that could have gone wrong did. You run into problems at sites and you overcome them. The students got a real good view of what a normal drilling job can be like.”
Relationship-buildingBelasco's relationship with the university will continue with this particular project - and perhaps beyond. He explains: “The geophysics professor who was at the demonstration said, “Al, I've got a real paying job coming up here; you'll have to bid on it.” This job involves 20 or 30 holes that are coming up this spring.
“You don't make your living on one particular job,” Belasco notes. “It's the continual relationships you have with the clients. If you do good work, they'll give you opportunities to come back in the future. The clients we work with usually are very, very fair and open-minded, and we build strong relationships with them.
“Someone once told me, 'You plant lots of seeds - some grow, some don't.' So I plant lots of seeds - you never know. Just two weeks ago, a person I met eight years ago contacted me - he was a friend of a friend. He calls me and says he's starting out with a new company, has some national clients and he wants me to do his drilling for him. This one was a seed I didn't even know I planted. All of a sudden, this many years later, it pops up. You meet hundreds and hundreds of people in the industry and if you're sincere, and you really want to do a good job, people will remember you. They don't remember the [expletives]. Actually they do, but in a very, very negative way.”
Belasco talks about his most important relationship - the one with his wife: “Elena is extremely important in all of this. I couldn't have done it without her. She's very sharp business-wise - she keeps me from having my head in the clouds too much. I'm able to dream and she gets me and those dreams back in place in the real world and makes sure all the practical matters are attended to.
“I also want to recognize my two operations managers: Scott Guyer, who's been with me since about six weeks after I got started, and Ray Cord. Ray's been with us almost eight years and he runs the Cincinnati operations. They're two real good guys and I depend on them heavily. Ray is the true success story of my company. He got out of the military and started out as a helper with me. He got married and had a child; became a driller and they had another child and got a house; his wife got a job as a bank manager and they just had their third child.
“It's the people out in the field doing things the way we want them to who have the clients coming back. They like talking to me on the telephone and at meetings and everything, but it's the people in the field who make it happen. If it wasn't for them making it happen, everything that I say to the clients doesn't mean a thing. These people make it so I can keep my promises. Not all jobs go as well as you'd like; that's the nature of the business. But all of my employees represent me well and I appreciate that. Together, they make a great team - and that lets me sleep well at night.” ND