Western States Soil Conservation outpacing the economy.

I had the recent good fortune to briefly visit with Ford Stigall, owner of Western States Soil Conservation Inc., which is headquartered in Hubbard, Ore. Stigall’s enthusiasm truly is both refreshing and inspiring – like a lush oasis in a harsh desert of nay-saying pessimists and hand-wringing fence-sitters.

It probably would be fair enough to describe the industry’s general sentiment these days as one of decidedly guarded optimism for better times on the horizon. Stigall is having nothing to do with that fussy “guarded” part; his primary lament is the lack of enough hours in the day to implement all of his plans.

Stigall started Western States in 2005. Prior to that, he worked as a driller at his uncle’s drilling firm for six years, and then went out on his own with what he describes as “a little excavation company, doing tank pulls and such.” It wasn’t long after that when his uncle picked up and moved to California. Beckoned by the siren’s song, Stigall decided to fill that void, and he returned to his calling – drilling.

Today, Western offers the full spectrum of geotechnical (mud rotary, auger, coring) and environmental drilling services. Like most operations, there were the requisite baby steps. But in short order, through forward thinking and aggressive marketing, the company began its adolescent-like growth spurt. “We started out mainly just doing the geotechnical, which kept us plenty busy,” Stigall recounts. “As we grew, I had a little more time to go out and market, and that let us expand into the environmental side. In the early days, we probably did about 80 percent of our work – geotechnical exploration – for a couple of engineer clients. These days, we do a lot of Oregon DOT work simply due to our reputation.” The geographical market Western covers encompasses Northern California, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

With the economy the way it is, things have become very competitive among the area’s engineering firms, and their clients increasingly have been putting pressure on them to shop around more than they used to. “We’re asked by our engineer clients for a number a little more often,” notes Stigall. “And that’s fine with us, because sometimes, we get guys estimating our jobs, and they’re not drillers, and that can get them in a bind. All our clients know if there’s ever a problem with the budget, they can give us a call, and we’ll work it out however we can. We’re in it for the long haul; we’re not here today to fight over $100 and then never hear back from a customer.”

Maybe you’ve heard of this sort of thing before: Stigall says of his firm’s initial stages, “We started out with only myself and another guy working with one rig.”

Currently, the company runs five rigs – three truck rigs and two track rigs – and has 13 year-round employees. “We’ve averaged a new rig and a new crew each and every year as we’ve continued to grow,” Stigall explains. “We just recently purchased a 2011 CME 75. We’re also thinking about building a helicopter fly-in drill rig.” That type of growth is not easy to maintain nowadays, given the state of the economy and the dearth of qualified personnel. “Drillers are hard to come by – especially out here,” he says. “We’ve been building them in-house. That’s kind of what you have to do – find some people who are hard workers, start them out as helpers, and train them to become good drillers.”

With respect to the employees, Stigall is proud to emphasize, “We operate as a family; we’re all in it together. We’ve only had one driller who’s worked here who has ever left. Once we get people here – and they’re good – we take care of them, and they stay. We provide full-coverage insurance for the drillers and their families. That’s one way I wanted to make sure that we can keep the good people we have. Out here, nobody else does that, but we emphasize the family values. That generates a lot of loyalty – especially when you run into tough times with the economy. You tend to get people who will stand by you and ride the wave with you instead of bailing out.”

Given Stigall’s ardent zeal for his profession, I was rather taken aback to even hear him utter the words “bailing out.” I’m sure he felt just a little awkward about saying them – for all of a second-and-a-half – and then returned to planning his firm’s next strategic move.