A driller sets up his own operation, starts out slowly, gains momentum, buys out a local competitor, deals with growth issues and keeps an eye on future opportunities. Sound familiar?
Josh Abnour is president of C&J Well Drilling Co. in Brownsburg, Ind. As is often the case for drilling firms, Abnour’s wife, Christy (the “C” in C&J), is an invaluable asset to the organization with her contributions in the office.
The company was founded in 1996. “Immediately prior to that, I was working for a water well company – doing a little bit of everything, including drilling and pump installations,” Abnour explains. “The owner of that company helped us out with setting up C&J so that he could subcontract all of his drilling work to us, instead of having us on as employees. We bought his rig – a 1966 Failing 1250, which we still have.”
New Rig on the Way“Today, we have four rigs – two Failings and two Versa-Drills – but we basically just run two of them,” Abnour says. “We’re going to trade in one of the Versa-Drills – the 2001 rig – for a brand new one with a 3-by-4 centrifugal and development air. We really like the six-wheel drive, and, of course, the new Peterbilt cab will be a real benefit, as will the Cat power. We’re looking forward to getting some real dependable service out of that machine.” As for the next rig replacement: “We’re not even thinking about it right now, but I’m sure that will be happening soon enough.”
C&J handles most of its own maintenance and repair stuff in-house, “unless it’s a real big job, and then we’d send it out,” Abnour says.
Settling InAsked to briefly describe his company’s business, Abnour tells us, “Primarily, we’ve been doing residential water well projects and some light commercial work; our projects are 95 percent residential, and that’s the way it’s always been for us. We’re scheduled out about two weeks, and that’s fairly typical for us – not a heavy backlog.
“We just recently bought out one of our main competitors. I don’t expect us to grow any more at this time. With construction the way it is right now, I’m hoping to maintain for a little bit. We want to get those customers transitioned over and keep them happy, and if the new construction market keeps on keeping on, we’ll be tickled.” C&J currently has 17 employees. “We do pick up a few students during the summer season.”
When I queried Abnour on whether he has given any consideration to entering other drilling markets, he responded, “Yes, we’re looking to diversify by getting into vertical geothermal, but that market really isn’t kicking it around here yet. We’ve had some success; we’ve done more of it than anybody else around here in Indiana, but it just hasn’t taken off like it has in other parts of the country. I’m pretty sure it will happen; it makes too much sense to give up on it.” He says his area is just a little behind the curve, and when it does happen; he’ll be ready for it.
Market ConditionsDiscussing the city water situation in his market area, Abnour offers, “There still are a lot of wells out there that people are on, and they’re milking them out. Until those wells go dead, the people will hang onto them.” And for C&J, that means a lot of service and repair work for its two pump hoists. “I’d say approximately 50 percent of our income is from service work.”
Regarding his drilling competition, Abnour relates, “Our market is the one-third middle band of Indiana; we mostly stay within a 50-mile radius. But sometimes,” he admits, “we go farther than we’d like to – for a special customer or if work is a little slow, whatever it takes to keep the rigs running. There aren’t a ton of other drillers around here; it’s pretty reasonable. Sometimes, we get into bidding wars, and there are some crooks out there, but for the most part, we have pretty good, straight competitors around here.”
Projects WantedOn the morning of my visit with C&J, we had a chance to stop by the Eagle Creek Park & Reservoir, which is building what it calls the Earth Discovery Center, a world-class environmental education center. As a subcontractor for Indianapolis-based JE Mechanical, Abnour explains, “We were drilling for the open-loop geo-thermal heating and cooling system that they’re putting in. It was a 6-inch well, approximately 140 feet deep. That part of the job took two days, with development and grouting and all. We still have to set the pump,” he says, adding, “You know how these commercial projects sometimes can go horribly slow.”
Later that day, we visited a residential project in progress. “We were tapping the water main and running a line – via directional boring – to the house,” Abnour says. “The homeowner’s pump went out, and it was a very close call, price-comparison-wise, between digging up her well and replacing the pump, and hooking her up to the city water. She decided to go with city water, so we smiled and said, ‘We can handle that for you, no problem.’ You know; if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. We abandoned her old well up to code.”
Looking Ahead“My succession plan is to send my kids (ages 6 and 10) through college, and give them the opportunity to do anything in the world that they want,” Abnour reveals. “If it happens that they want to do this, then great – that would be the Lord’s way for them.”
As for solid drilling work for the near future in his market, Abnour says, “City water hookups and water treatment should present profitable opportunities. We don’t do anything with treatment right now; we’ve been kicking it back and forth, but it just doesn’t seem to be our niche. Other water well contractors are doing it successfully, but it doesn’t seem to feel right for us at this time. I hope that someday, I can get the right person in here so that it would feel right for us. But if new construction stays strong, we won’t need anything else.”