B&T Drainage evolves from agricultural work to municipal work and continues to keep a focus on family.
Farming and underground utility construction have several similarities: heavy equipment, long hours, dirty work and dedicated people.
B&T Drainage owners John, Steve and Scott Boyer know that all too well. With their dad, Allen, and John’s sons Chase and Colby, they operate a business that specializes in directional drilling, trenching and other earth-moving and underground utility operations. After work, the family members are in tractors tending to field crops.
“It’s all we know,” says Chase. “Even on the weekends we’re doing something involving work.”
When the company started nearly 37 years ago, it focused on laying farm drainage tile. Over time, that transitioned into putting pipe into the ground for municipalities near the company’s home base of Marshall, Illinois. The company is now 30 employees strong and takes on jobs year-round.
BUILDING THE COMPANY
Allen Boyer started the company in 1980, when he and another farmer started laying drainage tiles. “After a while, the other guy decided he wanted to put all his money into farming,” says John. “So we bought him out.”
The three sons eventually took over B&T Drainage, and now Chase and Colby are getting involved. Chase runs the directional drills, while Colby operates a hydroexcavator and is learning to work the drills. “It’s good to see that everyone is still heavily involved and striving to keep the company growing,” John says.
Several employees have been with the company for 15-plus years. Most can operate the excavators, but the Boyers prefer that workers specialize. Only a handful run the drills and vacuum excavators. “If guys get on those and don’t know what they’re doing, they’ll tear stuff up,” John says. “They don’t mean to, but they don’t know any different.”
John still gets out to job sites, but stays at the office at least once a week to handle paperwork on current and upcoming projects.
“I think what separates us from other companies are the owners,” Chase says. “They’re also operators. They are out with the crews running equipment. Dad and I run the drills. Steve and
Scott install sewer and water. That’s how we keep the ball rolling.”
The second and third generations of the Boyer family have already made an impact on the business. “As us kids grew older, we just kept expanding and kept getting tougher jobs and kept going,” John says.
The move into municipal work was one big change. “We were limited to three or four months out of the year where we could really do drainage tiles,” John says. “Municipality work can be year-round if you can find it. That’s what drove us to do that.”
KEEPING UP WITH TECHNOLOGY
While growing, B&T Drainage has had to keep up with technology. The company maintains three directional drills and four trenchers. “We run a lot of Vermeer equipment,” John says. “We rent quite a bit of specialized equipment from them also.”
The drills include a 9x13, 40x55 and 60x90. B&T Drainage won the use of the 40x55 drill in 2015 after competing in Vermeer’s Ultimate Crew contest that summer. Four teams competed at the International Construction & Utility Equipment Exposition in Louisville, Kentucky. B&T won by completing a directional bore in four minutes, 47.8 seconds, a minute faster than the next team.
“It was quite the experience,” Chase says. “We had a 36x50 drill that was getting some age on it, so we ended up trading that in. We got the free lease for the year on that 40x55 and just combined that into a deal to keep it.”
While the old drill was a 2013 Series 2 and the 40x55 is a 2015 Series 3, the technology was a big change. “It’s just night and day,” Chase says. “It’s amazing how they keep advancing. Now it’s all electronically controlled. It’s getting to the point where you’re pretty much running a computer.”
Also changing is the amount of utility infrastructure being moved underground. John says it’s getting tougher to install the pipes: “It just keeps getting worse as far as room to work and all the fiber being installed in the ground. It’s continuously changing.”
Because of that constant change and the proliferation of utilities to work around, the Boyer family decided a few years ago to invest in vacuum excavators. “We now run two vacuum excavators in front of the work crews just to spot everything before the drilling crews show up,” John says. “Usually you’ll find plenty of utilities in your way, so your path has to be relocated.
It’s better to do that before you start working instead of when you have a full crew on site.”
B&T Drainage bought its first vacuum excavator, a Vermeer E900, 10 years ago. As the Boyers saw a need for more potholing to complete jobs faster, the company added a Vactor unit, and then a Mud Dog from Super Products two years ago. “The drilling crews just love seeing those big trucks pull up,” John says. “It makes their day.”
WORKING WITH MUNICIPALITIES
Keeping those crews busy hasn’t been a problem, especially now with a big push to upgrade pipe and put in fiber throughout the U.S. “Right now there seems to be a decent amount of work out there, so it’s not too tough,” John says.
The hard part is getting hired. Municipal jobs are typically bid, and most of the time the lowest bid wins. B&T Drainage bids on about 90 percent of its work. Quality is key: “As long as you try to give them a good product and work with them, they’re usually very receptive to that and they’ll remember that,” John says.
The company has been replacing many inadequate utilities lately where municipal sewer systems are nearing 50 and 60 years old. “Communities are getting grants to replace some of the older utilities,” John says. “The utilities’ age limit has been reached and before they lose it, they’re trying to replace it. It’s getting so tough to install with all the fibers underground now that a lot of people are scared to do it. That’s what is helping us.”
Chase sees his family’s company expanding more into city work in the future: “It seems like all these little towns around here are finding that their infrastructure is outdated and they need to upgrade. Especially the waterlines.”
From the drills to the tractors
After working a 10-hour day installing underground utilities, you might expect the crews to go home and relax. For the Boyer family in Marshall, Illinois, though, there is no time for relaxing.
The family, which owns and operates B&T Drainage, simply moves from directional drills and trenchers to farm tractors. The Boyers farm about 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans.
“It’s a lot of late nights and little sleep,” says Chase Boyer, son of John, one of the owners. “We’ll do the B&T work during the day and then we’ll show up and get in the tractors. All of us have our high-visibility shirts on and it’s dark out and you just see everyone reflecting through the glass. It’s kind of funny.”
The Boyers keep the equipment for both jobs on their property.
“We have all of our farm equipment down at our shed, but we also have a shop down there,” Chase says. “That’s where we keep our semis and other pieces of equipment that we aren’t using for B&T.”
The family members try to take some time off on the weekends, but that doesn’t always happen. “We’ll spend time getting prepared for the coming week and move some equipment around, do some maintenance work,” Chase says. “It takes a lot of time just getting things where they need to be.”