Experience and adapting to the times are two things that Tim Kelly, vice president of Brotcke Well & Pump (BWP) in Fenton, Mo., credits to his successful career.
Growing up, Kelly worked in the farming family business. During his freshman year of college, he took a job with a local well drilling company during his breaks from school. In 1990, after two years of working in the grain industry, he started with BWP before leaving to open his own industrial and municipal well company in Wisconsin. Eleven years later, he found himself back at BWP when the president, Paul Brotcke, asked him to start a new office in Kansas City.
His experience in a variety of industries with a multitude of different companies led him to an overall better understanding of how to serve customers.
“I’ve been in the same industry for a while, but I went away (even though it was still in the Midwest). It’s just a little bit different geology and graphical differences and personality differences,” Kelly says. “I learned so many different things that, in my opinion, helps me come back here. When I went up there, I took ideas and things that they hadn’t seen, that they weren’t used to, and I picked up things that they do and it kind of gives me a lot more understanding of the industry. It allows me to be able to reach out and talk to people in other states and be able to understand what they’re going through, too.”
BWP had a similar experience. The company was created in 1984 as a geotechnical and environmental firm under the name Brotcke Engineering, and within a few years, added well and pump services to its repertoire. But after a few years doing both, it was evident the company was doing three to four times more well and pump work then geotechnical drilling. So Brotcke Well and Pump was born.
“The changing of our company was dictated by the industry,” Kelly says. “You could see the transition from environmental and geotechnical drills to more water well service rigs and water well drilling rigs.”
Now, with three different locations, a larger fleet and about 35 employees (the company started with three), there’s something to be said for adapting to the industry, as well as customer’s wants and needs — something Kelly knows well.
Q: What do you do, and what keeps you coming back every day?
A: Other than a paycheck and having to feed my family, it’s the fact that this industry gets into your blood. I can’t imagine doing anything else. If you add up the time since I’ve been doing this, it’s over 30 years now. And the thing that I enjoy the most is the people you work with, like the employees at this company. I also thoroughly enjoy meeting customers, meeting new customers, and working with them. It’s completing a project in the fashion and the concept that I told the customer that gives me a tremendous amount of satisfaction. And being able to solve their problems and take care of their water issues that keeps bringing me back every day.
Q: What does a typical work day involve for you?
A: Well, since we’re a service contractor driven by what occurs out there — from lightning storms taking out people’s submersible motors, to normal wear and tear and repair of equipment — a typical day for me is always in flux. When I leave each day, I plan out what I’m going to do tomorrow, and inevitably, a phone call at 7:15 in the morning can change what I’m going to do that day. I oversee our three offices so, for the most part, my day involves communicating with the project managers in those offices. But ultimately I’m a project manager handling a full workload just like they are. So I handle that, plus keep track of the field crew — as far as working with them and dealing with the issues of the employees — and whatever might occur with these project managers or difficulties they’re having with a project or with a customer that might need a little more attention. So I divide my time amongst that, but my work day is always too short.
Q: What does it take to succeed in what you do?
A: I’d have to say, in order to succeed in this business, you’ve got to be able to devote the time. … The time required to work with your customers as needed. And work with your field employees to make sure they’re well equipped and understanding of what’s expected by the customer to satisfy their needs. You’ve got to be able to juggle an enormous amount of balls in the air.
Q: What do you wish you knew when you first started?
A: When I first started, I guess I wish I knew the time that would be devoted to this. I mean, it’s worked out and I have a very understanding family. But I don’t have a good answer other than the fact that it’s about understanding the amount of time needed to be successful in this business. It takes a lot of time, and it’s a big commitment.
Q: What is the best piece of advice that you have been given?
A: There are two pieces of advice that I was given. One of the best goes along the lines of, “Your customer is always right”… but I’ve learned that that’s not the case. So, the best piece of advice was, “Always give your customer what he wants.” They might not be right, but in further discussions, you can figure out what they really want. And I’ve always had the knack to be able to convince them, “Yeah, that’s what you want, but if we do this and this, you get something better!” Instead of telling the customer that’s not right, you’ve got to present some facts to give them what he really needs even though, ultimately, you’re giving him what he wants too. In some cases, you can’t give him what he wants because it might be against regulations or requirements for the state — and you can’t do that. It’s just a matter of listening to and working with your customer.
The other piece of advice I was given that’s along these lines is, “You always have to listen to your employees.” Take the time to spend with them one-on-one. I’ve worked with businesses where someone is the boss and — it doesn’t matter — whatever they want, you do. Right or wrong. And ultimately, if you do that, you’ve got a lot of failures, and secondly, you’ve got a large turnover of your employees.
So, its two things: There’s the customers and the employees. A bit of advice is just to listen to your employees and take the time to devote to them and their issues as well.
Q: What is one tool that you can’t imagine working without?
A: I would say my computer, but now that my computer is in my phone. … The one tool that I can’t live without is my actual smartphone. I can’t imagine not having it because people want to talk to you now. They’ll give you a few minutes, but they won’t give you five or six hours. They’re expecting some sort of response whether you’re in a meeting or not. Otherwise, they’re going to move on and figure out some other way to get their problem solved.
In the 28 years or so that I’ve done municipal and industrial work, we’ve gone from a period of people calling your office and leaving a message, but you’re out on the road and the only way to call them is to stop at a payphone, call the office to get your messages, and call your customers back. We’ve gone from the age of that — or getting them a letter and sending it to them in a fax — to the point of instant gratification.
Because we work such a large area, there are areas where I might be standing on a jobsite for five hours and I have zero cellphone coverage. And it’s a difficult situation when I’m there because you may get a blip saying you have phone messages, but you have to drive 5 miles to get out of the river bottoms and to an area where I have cell service. So it becomes difficult, and it’s a difficult thing for our crews and project managers because they can’t communicate if there’s an issue.
Q: How would you describe the present state of the industry?
A: I’m gonna give you a couple responses to this. The present state of the industry, what I see going on more and more in this industry, is there’s fewer and fewer of us well and pump contractors. And what tends to be happening is, as these well and pump contractors get older and closer to retirement, there are no more family members in the family business that want to take over and run it. And in a lot of cases, it’s very difficult for them to sell the business. I’ve seen several of these fail in the last three or four years. … It’s an odd situation that I don’t see that many businesses being passed on to a son or daughter. I just see businesses going away. The well drilling industry is a dying industry.
Also, it’s not a school-taught industry. There’s no school you can go to in order to learn all this. It’s all about on-the-job training, which makes it difficult. And that brings up the other part of my answer: I am seeing fewer and fewer young adults that are graduating high school and want to go into the trades. I’m seeing this not only in the well industry, and trying to hire workers here, but I see it in all construction industries. More and more kids are graduating from high school and going to college, getting a technical degree to work in computers or electronics, writing programs or writing apps, and we don’t have as large of a pool to draw from to get young workers into this industry.
Q: Do you think there’s a solution? Do you foresee it getting better?
A: In Kansas City, there are a few colleges and technical schools that are making a big push into the high schools. … They’re trying to get these kids to go to these technical colleges and learn some of the trades because there’s an enormous amount of employers out there. It’s an employee’s market out there, meaning there’s more jobs available than there are workers. The possibilities are endless, and not only in the well and pump industry.
Being optimistic, yeah, I’d like to see it get better. But at this point in time, I’m concerned with it. There are a lot of guys that are older than me, between my age and 65, and it’s going to be a very short period of time before they’re retired. So they’re nearing retirement age and the next group of guys are 22-, 23-years-old. So there’s a big gap in there! You’re going to have a 22-year-old try and fill those shoes with a couple years of experience. It’s going to make the project managers have to work twice as hard to get those guys up to speed and do their due diligence in order to make sure they fully understand the scope of work and what’s expected of them on that particular project. So, all in all, our industry is going through some major changes.