In a previous article I asked the question, how do we know if we are running our businesses the right way if we’ve never had a formal business education? The answer was that the formal education helped.
I also wrote about getting the most out of trade shows. It is more than the seminars. It is tapping into each display booth. I have written about picking the brains of salespeople who stop by. I have mentioned reading trade journals like National Driller. Many columnists across these outlets relay real issues and solutions. I have discussed the education available around the contractor’s dinner table, between parents, sons and daughters.
Being a well contractor is a conglomeration of skills and knowledge. Well drilling companies are not big enough to hire a geologist, mechanic, accountant, salesperson, safety expert and heavy equipment operator. Instead, in many cases, a lot piles onto the owner and family members. Run the rig during the day and return calls in the evening.
In our company, my wife, Randy, and I wore all the hats. We had an accountant who did our payroll and taxes. We were in the supply business, so we had no equipment to operate. We had trucks to load and unload, and we rented yard space with fork truck access. We had no formal education in business, but had run companies in the past.
Some of us went to work after high school and some of us went on to higher education. Those, like me, who continued our education, often studied subjects with no direct crossover to what we do. My one daughter has a degree in creative writing, and now is a vice president at Citibank. My eldest granddaughter has a degree in marine biology. She does not work in that field yet, although she is still looking. My son has a degree in graphic design and works in marketing for a robotics company.
As we travel through life, the vast majority of what we learn is outside the classroom. Even at college, we learn more about ourselves than our major in the lecture hall. College means a variety of summer jobs. Here is some of what I learned.
When I started in the manufacture of drill string components, I knew nothing. My manufacturing experience was a second-shift summer job at a shoe factory. It was me, another guy and 40 women. I learned that absolutely nothing happens after the 10:30 p.m. break.
I spent a summer traveling around the Northeast cleaning fuel oil and gasoline storage tanks. I learned how to work in dangerous places. I became a master of rolling up 50 feet of 3-inch hose. I learned how to use pulleys. I learned that a pinpoint of the sludge I carried in those buckets could kill me.
Then there was the summer job in Bethlehem Steel’s blast furnace department. I learned how to open and close the chute doors on rail cars carrying coke. As you stand on one leg, you use the other to swing that heavy door. When you had the momentum, you closed the latch with the pick, which was held in one hand as the other hung on so you didn’t fall in. This is a skill that I have not used since. I also learned that clothing was not a barrier to coke dust.
Did you know that they use a drill to open the blast furnace for a cast? They drill out a clay plug that they insert at the end of the previous cast using a mud cannon. Sometimes my job was to tend the flow of molten steel — where if you kept your poker bar in the flow more than two seconds, it melted. If you stood in one spot for five seconds, your feet became burning hot. What I learned about feeding, loading and tapping a blast furnace had little use outside the mill gates.
I worked two summers at Clear Creek State Park in northwest Pennsylvania. I gathered a lot of practical knowledge. I learned about re-roofing a shed, chainsaw use, driving a stick shift, and operating a tractor and a dump truck. On weekends, we had restroom duty where we stopped to make sure the toilets were clean and well stocked. One morning at the swimming-hole area, I knocked on the ladies’ room side door to announce I was there, and ask if anyone was inside. A voice said, yes. I waited. When she came out, I went in. There had been two women in there. A lesson learned.
I learned a lot about running a small business and making a profit from Murray Steffey. He bought a small market close to my home, and opened a meat market based on his skills and knowledge as a butcher. When that did not blossom, he went for produce. Eventually he found success with a deli. He taught me about profits one day slicing an order of longhorn cheese for a customer. He taught me that you have to be flexible and adaptable to take advantage of what works.
Our parents teach us, usually by example. My mother had college instilled into my being, so I never considered any other route. My mother transitioned from stay-at-home mom with four kids under 10 to breadwinner after my father passed away when I was three. Her example showed her work ethic, and the value of multitasking and sacrifice.
Extraneous tidbits of knowledge stuff our brains. Even if we can choose to get an education by deciding to attend a class or read an article, we do not get to choose what we learn. I forgot to turn off the TV after Nightly News once, and learned things about the Kardashians that I really did not care to know.
So what did you learn yesterday? What did I learn? I read an article about a Bucyrus-Erie 20W spudder rig that my fellow columnist John Schmitt’s family bought in the 1960s. It triggered a memory of when I was a teenager. I was passing a field where, off in the distance, I saw a drilling machine. Next to it were a couple of guys sitting in lawn chairs under a beach umbrella. I later learned they were cable tool drillers at work drilling a gas well.