Alberta Hydroexcavator Takes Different Approach to Building Company

Alberta’s DR Hydrovac uses sparkling trucks to bring in potential employees and business, and it keeps business booming.
Alberta Hydroexcavator Takes Different Approach to Building Company
The DR Hydrovac team at the headquarters in Strathmore, Alberta, includes, from left, Gordie Jenkins, Corey Hanna, Thomas Stahl, Cody Helfrich, Dwaine Ruckman, Lucas Ford, Kyle Doucette and Shane Maser.

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From clean trucks to hiring practices to diversification, Dwaine Ruckman likes to take a less conventional approach to business — a strategy that’s working just fine for his hydroexcavation company, DR Hydrovac, based in Strathmore, Alberta.

“It’s just the way we roll,” says Ruckman of the strategies he uses to differentiate his company in the marketplace. “Doing things differently is a niche we’ve chosen to pursue. I’m not sure I can quantify how it’s helped us grow our business, but it definitely hasn’t hurt.”

Running sparkling-clean hydroexcavating trucks is one of the company’s most visible differentiation tactics. “We roll down the road pretty shiny,” Ruckman says. “Cleanliness is one of our big things, along with safety, equipment maintenance and proper training. Sure, it’s a very dirty business, but you have to be professional.

“Customers comment about our trucks all the time,” he continues. “It’s such a simple thing, but it creates callbacks (repeat business) from customers. We clean our trucks every day — there’s a pressure washer on each truck, so how much does it take to give it a quick spray? Absolutely nothing.

“People may laugh at us for this, but every one of my guys is proud of their truck,” he adds. “I always tell prospective employees that we’re like a fire department: If we’re not out working and our truck maintenance is up to date, we’re out polishing the trucks.”

Clean vehicles also serve another purpose: They’re job recruiting tools. In an industry where good employees are difficult to find, Ruckman says he often gets calls from operators working at other companies, asking if there are job openings at DR Hydrovac. “We rarely have to hunt for new employees because they come looking for us,” he explains. “They want to drive a clean truck, too.”

Hiring practices mark another area where the company zigs while other firms zag. While some contractors prefer to hire operators with a minimum level of hydroexcavating experience —10 years, for example — Ruckman prefers to hire good drivers with four or five years of road experience who he can train to be good hydroexcavators.

“I prefer to hire guys without bad truck-operating habits. We prefer to mentor our own guys,” he says. “We don’t want guys coming in and telling us how to operate our trucks.”

New hires spend at least a month in a truck’s passenger seat as a swamper (an assistant to the truck operator). That way the company is always developing a pool of assistant operators who not only know how to operate a hydroexcavation truck the DR Hydrovac way, but are also familiar with the company’s business practices. “The system has served us well,” Ruckman says.

OIL-PATCH ORIGINS

Ruckman does not mind taking risks. In 1996, for example, he quit a job as a dispatcher for a local trucking company and went to work in the Alberta oilfields with no experience other than as a truck driver, lured by the promise of better pay. In 1999, after driving a vacuum truck for three years, his employer offered him a half-ownership of a vacuum truck that Ruckman would operate as a lease operator, a common arrangement in the trucking industry.

“They supply the work and you do it and give the owner a percentage of what you make,” he explains. “When a fellow works hard and puts in time for a guy, at some point he (the employer) can’t offer more pay and perks, so you’ve got to offer him a piece of the action or he’ll go to work for someone else.” But in 2001, as business slowed, Ruckman struck off on his own, bolstered by the experience and reputation he’d built.

To avoid competing with his prior employer in the oilfield-services sector working on service rigs, Ruckman decided to focus instead on servicing drilling rigs. From there, he slowly diversified into other related services as market opportunities arose, such as delivering water and hauling contaminated soil. The diversification was helpful in softening the industry’s cyclical ups and downs, he notes. “When one thing slows down, hopefully other things keep you busy,” he says.

But around 2003, Ruckman again bucked conventional wisdom and decided it was time to focus on one service instead of trying to be more diversified. The core reason? “I felt we could offer our customers a better product,” he explains. “I was worried that by offering many services, we’d end up being good at a bunch of things, rather then being great at one thing.

“It also boils down to the fact that all the industries are different,” he explains. “From a management standpoint, it made more sense (to retrench) because it’s tougher to manage three different types of work, all with different employees. Plus the drilling industry requires you to live on the rigs for three to five weeks at a time, and it’s harder to find employees who are willing to live that way. With hydroexcavating, our employees can come home at night and be with their families.”

So Ruckman decided to focus exclusively on providing hydroexcavating services for oil companies installing new infrastructure, primarily pipelines that tied together wells and storage facilities. Most of the work involves exposing existing infrastructure, he says, to pave the way for tying in new pipelines. By 2006, business was good enough to justify investing in a second hydroexcavation truck. Today, the company owns four Tornado F4 Slope trucks, made by Petrofield Industries (a division of Empire Iron Works).

“We’re not a rags-to-riches story by any means,” Ruckman points out. “We’ve grown steadily. We never really grew crazy fast. I’m a big believer that slow and steady wins the race — don’t try to do too much. That way you can maintain reasonable cash flow and not put yourself too much in debt. And when you grow too fast, your level of service may not be where it should be because you have too much happening at once.”

CUSTOMER SERVICE COUNTS

Providing service that goes above and beyond customer expectations has been key to the company’s growth. The business has earned a good reputation for solving problems; in fact, Ruckman says many customers call the company Doctor Hydrovac (a play on the initials in the company name). “But we believe DR stands for ‘done right,’” he says.

A can-do attitude that embraces problem-solving also keeps the phone ringing, he notes. “We’re always willing to adapt and we’re not afraid to try new things,” Ruckman says, noting that the company recently completed a job that required tunneling under a utility vault for 30 feet. “We don’t want to be that guy where the minute a job sounds a little out of the norm, he says, ‘Sorry we’re busy,’” he notes. “We take those jobs head-on. If you’re not learning something new every day, you’re really not moving ahead. Sometimes you’ve got to be a little ingenious and forward-thinking.”

As for the company’s future, Ruckman envisions more slow and steady growth coupled with a focus on cost-effective operations and productivity-enhancing investments. A good case in point is the company’s recent construction of a 6,000-square-foot office and shop that includes four service bays and — of course — one wash bay. The company had been renting a cramped 4,000-square-foot facility, Ruckman says.

The building also does double duty as a marketing tool, thanks to its location just off the Trans-Canada Highway. Moreover, a water-fill station located inside the building saves the company time and money, he points out.

“Before, we bought water from water treatment plants and filled up at overhead bulk water-fill stations,” Ruckman explains. “That took maybe a half-hour of travel and 15 minutes of loading time. Now we can load a truck in five minutes with our high-pressure system. This does not decrease our water costs, but with one less stop for our drivers during the day, they get home to their families quicker. And with less time spent on the job, we lower payroll expenses, too.”

Doing things differently — that’s just how DR Hydrovac rolls.


Tornado hydrovac trucks put new spin on dumping debris

When Dwaine Ruckman, owner of DR Hydrovac in Strathmore, Alberta, got into the hydroexcavating business in 2003, he wanted a truck that would be as safe as it was durable and productive. He found just what he was looking for in the Tornado F4 Slope, built by Petrofield Industries (a division of Empire Iron Works).

The truck includes an unconventional debris tank design; it sits at a slight angle atop part of the water tank, which creates a floor that slopes toward the truck’s rear. This enables efficient debris dumping with a hydraulic sweep. Moreover, overhead obstructions don’t come into play because an operator doesn’t raise the tank to empty it, Ruckman says. “There’s less hydraulics on board and no subframe for a hoist, so the truck is lighter, too,” he points out.

DR Hydrovac owns four Tornados built on chassis made by Peterbilt Motors (model years 2013 through 2015). Each truck features a 5,400 cfm blower, made by either Roots Systems (Howden Roots) or Hibon; a triplex water pump (25 gpm/3,000 psi) made by Cat Pumps; a 10-yard debris tank; a 2,000-gallon water tank; a 26-foot-long extendable boom with a 342-degree coverage radius; a 740,000 Btu boiler (to heat water used to excavate frozen soil); an Eaton Fuller transmission; and a 23-foot-deep digging capacity.

The large debris and water tanks increase productivity by minimizing trips for water refills and dumping debris. Moreover, the four trucks also include three drive axles in the rear, rather than two, which allows the units to legally carry more weight without violating highway weight regulations. “They also give us more traction on soft ground and less compaction,” Ruckman adds. “In our line of work, you can end up working on some pretty soft ground. We sometimes work on pipelines that cross private farmland right-of-ways, so they’re looking for less disturbance.”

Ruckman says he specs blowers that will generate enough power to get jobs done; anything more is just overkill. “Bigger blowers equal more weight, and engines have to work harder to operate them so you use more fuel,” he explains. “At the end of the day, is that better? You can’t charge customers any more money just because you have a bigger blower (than what’s generally needed), so we’d rather spend less on fuel. However, if I come across something that requires a bigger blower, we’re not afraid to mount one on. If I see a market for something, we’ll build it and make it go.”

The company aims to sell its hydrovac trucks after four to five years, while they still hold good resale value. Because the company sometimes sells used trucks to companies in the United States, the value of the American dollar versus the Canadian dollar can factor into the timing, too. “Sometimes we sell a truck just because it helps us buy the next one,” Ruckman notes.

But no matter when the company decides to sell a truck, it always gets top dollar. Why? A comprehensive maintenance program. “When we’re not running the trucks, we’re checking them over front to back to make sure they’re running right,” Ruckman says.



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