New York Contractor Doesn’t Back Down From Challenge

Second-generation owner continues the standard set by his father, embracing difficult drilling jobs and seeking out cutting-edge technology.

New York Contractor Doesn’t Back Down From Challenge

A crew from Turner Underground Installations is on a job site with the company’s DD-440T directional drill (American Augers) and an CX145C excavator (CASE) to move the pipe.

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Turner Underground Installations is a no-nonsense kind of company. Company owner and President Rhett Turner doesn’t have time for frills. Heck, he barely has time for an interview, settling for a phone conversation from his truck during a trip back to the office at the end of a workday.

The busy 41-year-old executive doesn’t spend much time in his office, actually, which is in a new company headquarters building in Rochester, New York. The 30,000-square-foot facility on 10 acres was erected in the last year. It’s located just five miles down the road from the old company shop that Turner describes as dark and dingy. “It makes a huge difference now to work from a building that’s twice the size and is clean and organized,” he says.

The steel framework of the building was going up in March of last year when the pandemic began to disrupt everything, including the building’s construction. Work at the site was interrupted for two months when building contractors were declared nonessential to the economy: The project came to a standstill.

Yet more disruptive than COVID was the death that same month of Turner’s father and company founder, Robert (Bob) Turner. “For a while, it was a little scary,” Rhett Turner says of that period. “Dad had passed away, and I had stepped up into his position as president and the whole pandemic thing was there. It was a little uncertain which way things were going to go. But I had a lot of good help that took some of the load off me, and I was very grateful for that.”

And work continued. Turner Underground’s work was deemed essential because it served utilities. “We were fine in terms of work,” Turner recalls. “We never had to lay off anyone.”

A year later, Turner Underground Installations is still going full-bore.

INTRODUCING A NEW METHOD

A quarter century ago, Bob Turner began to explore the possibility of helping introduce horizontal directional drilling technology to the Northeast. Turner was working in the construction industry, but wanted to get into something that was unique.

“He used to say that if you are doing the same thing everyone else is, you are kind of stuck,” Rhett Turner says.   

Because HDD intrigued Bob Turner, he traveled west to get a closer look at the technology in action. Directional drilling dates from 1971 and is an offshoot of oil well drilling technology. Drilling for pipelines and utility lines had built up the industry to the point that by 1996, when Bob Turner evinced interest, some 25% of in-ground work was being done by trenchless pipe-laying machines. Five years later, after telecommunication companies became customers, the volume of trenchless work jumped to 50% of the market.

Turner Underground Installations was launched on the strength of its owner’s confidence in the future of the trenchless industry. He invested in a small Underground Tools, Inc. directional drill capable of 25,000 pounds of force and began to bid modest projects in the Rochester area.

Before long, the new company hooked up with utilities and telecommunication firms that were laying fiber optic cables. “The work took off from there,” Rhett Turner says. “Once he got into fiber optics, the work began to come in. All kinds of projects, including some bigger projects that would take him all over the place. He kind of had all his eggs in one basket — fiber optics.”

The company’s clientele is more diverse now. Utility contractors still are a staple, but project stakeholders have included electric and natural gas companies, the Department of Transportation, railroads and airports, manufacturers and college campuses, windfarms and municipalities. “We do a little bit of everything,” Turner says. “We go where the market needs our services.”

Turner Underground primarily serves clients in New York state. Just 20% of work is in other states — quite a few other states, though. Turner crews have drilled and bored in 18 states along the Atlantic coast from South Carolina to Maine, west to Michigan and Illinois and south to Alabama. The company owner says he is open to working anywhere in the country. “We’ll go wherever the work is, within reason.”

The bulk of the work is horizontal directional drilling — about 75% — with auger boring accounting for another 15-20% and the remainder, micro-tunneling. The particular types of projects vary from day to day and month to month, but a typical drill job for the company will run a thousand feet or less for a pipe 24 inches in diameter or smaller.

“We have the capability of drilling three or four thousand feet,” he adds. In other words, if it is a river a utility customer needs to tunnel under, no problem, but usually the task is drilling under tree roots that a property owner doesn’t want disturbed or boring under a busy street to avoid interrupting traffic.

The president says that “in 2009, we drilled for a utility laying fiber optic cable in Massachusetts. The job took us all across the state of Massachusetts, drilling under a large variety of obstacles.” The duration of a typical drilling job? “It all depends,” he says. “Some of them will take one day and some will require us to work for six months.”

AN INVESTMENT IN EQUIPMENT

In Rochester, there are numerous Ditch Witch machines sitting in the equipment yard of Turner Underground Installations — or there would be if they weren’t scattered across the region working on client projects. If a visitor were to visit the property when all the machines were home for the night — admittedly, a rare occasion — he would see about a dozen Ditch Witch units ranging from 27,000 pounds of thrust to 100,000 pounds of thrust — three of the large units.

Also parked there would be three American Augers directional drills, including two capable of 440,000 pounds of thrust and pullback. In the mix of equipment would be three American Auger boring machines, one of them with 108,000 foot-pounds of torque, and a Barbco 48/60-950 boring machine with 241,000 foot-pounds of torque and almost a million pounds of thrust. The Barbco auger can be configured to bore holes five feet in diameter.

So, some of these are, in a word, big machines with the deadweight and horsepower to cut and ram their way through rock and difficult soils. Also in the equipment yard are mud pumps and mixers, pipe-fusing equipment and the other auxiliary tools of drilling. Consequently, Turner also is in the hauling business. That is, the company has about 40 trucks to carry machinery and supplies from project to project, including pickups and 10-wheelers, dump trucks and “a ton of trailers.”

The Turner Underground website says this about its equipment: “Turner has never been timid about investing in the machinery, tools and vehicles necessary for getting the job done.” The capital tied up today in the company’s machinery totals more than $13 million. This represents more than just a cost of doing business. It is a pledge to customers that Turner Underground will efficiently complete whatever task it has been contracted to do.

TAKING ON CHALLENGES

Bob Turner’s inclination to do things that others aren’t doing led him to look into horizontal directional drilling and auger boring, and the rest is history. His son has the same contrarian conviction about work. The company’s reputation reflects it.

“I would say that we are recognized for liking the more challenging projects, rather than regular old busy work,” Rhett Turner says. “We always are trying to take it to the next level or trying to find a better way to do something, or to find a better technology that can keep us ahead of the curve.”

All underground projects deal with unknown challenges, of course, with drilling heads usually going where no drill has gone before. Unsuspected rock formations or abandoned and forgotten footings or pilings sometimes are encountered where soil was expected to be. So, even best-planned drilling or boring projects can bump into problems.

Yet some underground projects are just harder. They have a large enough degree of difficulty built into them that not every HDD contractor wants to take them on. Enter Turner Underground Installations. “A lot of the jobs go as scheduled, but drilling is not cut and dried over and over,” Turner says. “You have your projects where you have to really pull out the moves to make it happen.”

The market where Turner Underground operates is cursed with a large variety of rock and soil conditions, each of which can present a challenge. Such a variety of conditions is not the case in some other parts of the country.

“Drilling is difficult in our region because we have so many different challenges. We have a wide range of everything in the ground,” Turner says. “There are places we have worked that you hope you never hear from anyone there again, but the next thing you know you get a call and need to go back there for something else.”

The company’s positive response to such calls has led to lots of return customers for Turner Underground. The owner says the company has partnered with many contractors across the region through the years “and we have a good working relationship with them.”

Through trial and error at its own expense, Turner Underground Installations has built a reputation for dependably completing contracted projects. In a crunch, Turner leans on industry friendships in different parts of the country for suggestions. His peers, in turn, call him when things get tricky on their end.

“Experience is a major factor in our success. Our whole industry is based on a bunch of problems. When we run into them, we have to come up with a remedy and move forward. When we succeed, we are recognized for being innovative and reliable.”

Looking around, wouldn’t it be easier to manage, say, a site preparation bulldozing business? “No, that’s boring compared to our work. I love the work, except maybe for all the rules and regulations and engineers who think they know everything. And I have a positive outlook for the future. There’s a lot of infrastructure that needs to be replaced. We might have to shift markets a little bit to get work, but we’ve made it this far and I’m feeling very positive.” 



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