Building a Company Based Off of Need

After years working in the industry, contractor starts his own company after seeing a need for quality directional drilling work

Building a Company Based Off of Need

King Drilling has three Tornado hydroexcavation units among its fleet along with a box truck for directional drilling operations. Its signature graphics appear on most of its heavy equipment.

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Machines operate best under optimum conditions. For instance, different tools like different soils. Technicians working with electromagnetic locator devices prefer loose and loamy ground cover and abhor trying to find a pipe in dense clay. That’s not the case for operators of horizontal directional drills. For them, the more clay, the better.

“Sand is not ideal, though we can more than manage it. We like the clay,” says Chris King, owner and president of King Drilling. His company operates in southwest Ontario, which isn’t Clay Belt country (that’s farther north), but the soil is comfortably sticky.

King likes the region’s cold weather, too. Ontario is in southern Canada, so thermometer readings average on the cool side. Still, it sometimes is not cool enough for King. “It’s not as cold as we like right now,” he said in mid-December. “We like the ground to freeze. Frozen ground is much better on a job site than deep mud.”

In this cold and clayey environment, King Drilling is a busy HDD contractor.

FILLING A NEED

King started his company six years ago. However, more than two decades of prior work in the construction industry prepared him for his entrepreneurial leap. As a teenager, he helped set concrete forms in place and perform other general labor. In 2003, he signed on as a laborer with J-AAR Excavating, a large Ontario firm. 

His employment with J-AAR was a formative professional experience. In his words, he “worked his way through the company.” More specifically, he moved from the entry position of general laborer to top man on a crew, then became a heavy-equipment operator before becoming sewer foreman.

He continues to find pleasure in running heavy equipment. “I like to get on a machine and run it for a couple of hours. It calms me down.” Yet he came to understand that operating a machine wasn’t enough to truly satisfy him.

Consequently, King enrolled in a construction management program at the London campus of Fanshawe College. After earning his degree, he returned full time to J-AAR as a field supervisor. Finally, after almost four years in that role, the then-32-year-old King decided it was time to launch his own company.

It was a good decision for two reasons. First, he had correctly perceived a shortage of horizontal directional drilling firms in southwest Ontario. Second, he acted from a conviction that the performance of the HDD subcontractors he supervised at J-AAR was wanting.

“The people we would get to do sewer and water projects, they didn’t get the job done as we wanted it done. I didn’t feel the professionalism I thought should be there,” he says. “I decided I could bring that to the work of directional drilling. I could do it better.” His company’s motto reflects King’s attitude: “At King Drilling, our core belief is that quality of work is everything.”

The new company was welcomed into the marketplace on the strength of its owner’s good reputation as a higher-level supervisor at J-AAR — and six years later is growing on the strength of its good performance. Most of its contracts are drilling tunnels for sewer lines, with water and fiber optic lines adding to the workload. In most cases, the company is pulling line underneath a roadway or a stream — or below a stand of trees.

“We don’t cut down our trees,” King says. That is, when greenery becomes an obstacle to a construction project, the trees are not wasted. “The most common response is to drill underneath trees instead of cutting them down.” Because the typical depth for a water main in the area is 5 or 6 feet, an HDD bore passes under the principal root system of mature trees.

King typically bores openings for pipes 1 inch to 12 inches in diameter — 6-to-12-inch pipe most often. The length of a bore is usually 400 feet or so. King Drilling rigs are capable of penetrating the earth for up to a thousand feet, which is more than sufficient distance to get from one side of an interstate highway or freeway to the other side without disrupting traffic.

EQUIPMENT OF ALL SIZES

The company has four crews operating Vermeer HDD equipment of varying sizes. Its midsized Vermeer D36X50 drill produces nearly 5,000 ft-lbs of rotary torque and 36,000 pounds of thrust and pullback. The 10-ton unit is 82 inches wide and 15 feet long, which is relatively small yet boasts the highest power-to-size ratio in its class.

The company’s D23X30 is 30 inches narrower and 6,000 pounds lighter but is powered by a 100 hp DEUTZ diesel and runs quietly — it’s rated at 99 dB(A) — to lessen the noise quotient in congested settings. For small installations, the company rolls out a D10X15 HDD unit. Less than 4 feet wide, the D10X15 has a 60 hp powerplant that can thrust a drill string and pull back a pipe with 10,000 pounds of force.

In the last year, the company acquired a larger Vermeer unit for specialty work. The D60X90 with a 202 hp Caterpillar engine delivers 60,000 pounds of thrust and pullback force. In its enclosed operator cab, a touch-screen displays a project plan. The machine is capable and big — its fuel tank holds 90 gallons, its hydraulic system contains 100 gallons — and can handle 24-inch pipe.

“It’s a big drill,” King says. The unit is trailered behind a tri-drive hydrovac truck. The smaller drills ride to a site on Ford F450-pulled trailers. “We use the D60X90 less often than the other rigs, but it operates pretty much the same. Like with excavators, we have different sized drills for different sized products being pulled into place.”

The D60X90 recently completed a challenging job that cleared the way for two HDPE pipelines leading to a residential development. An 8-inch sanitary sewer system line was drilled underneath a ravine, running for more than 500 feet through sand, silt, clay and cobble. The second shot in the project inserted a 24-inch storm sewer that extended nearly as far as the sewer line and at times dived 30 feet under the surface of the ground.

ADDING MORE SERVICES

King Drilling also offers hydroexcavation work as a standalone service. This isn’t an anomaly for a drill company. Rather, the vacuum service was started to support drilling. “We are a drilling company first and then a hydrovac company, but the two go hand in hand. On large utility projects where we remove drill fill, we were spending so much on subcontracted hydrovac work that it just made sense to buy our own.”

The company operates three Tornado F3 and F5 tri-drive hydrovac units manufactured in Canada. King calls them “simple, rugged trucks that work superbly and are super quiet.” Because they are made in Alberta, the manufacturer was well aware of the need for the machines to function during winter months. “They have really cold temperatures up there, so we have no problems running them down here year-round. It might be negative 30 degrees but they’re ready to run.”

King Drilling’s only other major pieces of equipment are a Caterpillar 308E CR mini hydraulic excavator and Cat 420 and 430 backhoes. When pipe fusing is needed on a job, the work is subbed out. “We don’t own any of those machines. It’s too costly for how often we need to use it.”

 ESTABLISHED AND IDENTIFIABLE

King Drilling equipment is readily identifiable. Each machine is stamped with a huge and stylized “KD” canted at a rakish angle. King refined the logo with an online commercial design team. The KD-splashed equipment rolls onto job sites as either the main contractor or a subcontractor — but usually only in southwest Ontario.

“We definitely are established in our area,” King says. So much so that advertising mostly is word of mouth. “People call and email us with offers to bid on jobs. We do get calls from outside London and we do a lot of work in Windsor two hours away or two hours in the opposite direction or in Fort Perry way up north. We’ll go out 200 miles in any direction from London.”

The service area is pretty elastic, he admits. “There is no hard-and-fast limit to that. If the price is right, we’ll go anywhere.” 



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