Adding Equipment Keeps Contractor Amped for Growth

Contractor embraces risk — and pushes into a new market — via big-ticket equipment investments.

Adding Equipment Keeps Contractor Amped for Growth

Axis Vac & HDD operators Justin Harris (left) and Bryce Bevans use a Digitrak F5 Falcon locator prior to starting drilling operations, with a Vermeer directional drill standing by.

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For Mitch Willie, 2020 was a go-big-or-go-home year — as in big investments in big machines that position his Canadian company, Axis Vac & HDD, to do bigger projects and grow, well, bigger than ever.

The highest-profile purchase out of the millions of dollars the company invested in equipment during 2020 was a D40x55DR S3 Navigator horizontal directional-drilling machine made by Vermeer Corp. The purchase was significant for two reasons. The first was the cost — $600,000, but closer to $1 million when all ancillary equipment is included. Second, it positioned the company, based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to enter a new market with better growth opportunities.

“The Vermeer 40x55 allowed us to pivot to longer, larger-diameter bores and chase drilling work for transmission lines installed by government-owned utilities,” Willie explains. “This purchase marked a tipping point for us because it also turned us from a subcontractor into a prime contractor.

“Everyone has smaller drills,” he continues. “So when you buy a big one, it separates the men from the boys, and allows us to chase that power line work.”

Entering the market for longer and larger-diameter bores future-proofs the company’s business prospects to a certain extent. Such projects are more technical and riskier, plus they require equipment that’s significantly more expensive than smaller machines. As such, the market segment enjoys significant barriers to market entry for would-be competitors, says Willie.

“It’s not that the work pays 10 times better,” the 32-year-old entrepreneur explains. “It’s just that you’re not competing against what seems like 1,000 other companies.

“There are a lot more opportunities for getting pipe stuck when you do longer and larger bores,” he continues. “Not many people want to deal with that kind of risk and liability. You really have to know what you’re doing when you’re boring a 20-inch hole.”

The company also bought three smaller Vermeer directional drills in 2020, along with three vacuum trucks with hydroexcavating packages made by Foremost and a vacuum truck built by Vac-Con (a subsidiary of Holden Industries).

“Last year was our coming-out party,” Willie says. “We bought all that equipment and went from a crew of 10 to 52 employees.”

While it may seem risky to spend millions of dollars in equipment and hire that many more employees in the midst of a pandemic, Willie says the investments will generate a significant return on investment.

EMBRACING RISK

Willie established the company in 2017 when he was 27 years old. A scant five years later, the company owns roughly $4 million in newer equipment and employs 45 people. And as improbable as it seems, Willie had never driven — much less operated — a hydrovac rig until he founded the company.

But he hired a friend who was familiar with hydroexcavating and received an on-the-job education about the industry.

“I’m a fast learner, so it didn’t take long to get the hang of things,” he says.

Wasn’t he at all apprehensive about taking such an abrupt career U-turn into uncharted territory?

“I’m the king of risk-taking,” he says. “I don’t have any fears when it comes to business. I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so I guess I’m hard-wired for risk. I also used to be a firefighter, so maybe hydroexcavation and drilling don’t worry me as much compared to that?

“I don’t know for sure,” he continues. “All I know is I’m still putting out fires every week. This is a hard business to be in, so you have to be tough. And be comfortable with debt and risk.”

A ROCKY START

Willie was exposed to hydroexcavating trucks during his years as a firefighter in the emergency services department of a major oil company in Alberta. While he knew nothing about the hydroexcavation industry, he heard it was a lucrative market. So when the company he worked for failed in md-2017, he faced a career crossroads.

“I really wanted to buy a hydrovac truck,” he says. “So I went to an auction house and got lucky when my $36,000 offer was the highest bid. And that was the start of Axis Vac.” (He added HDD to the company name later.)

“It was a junky truck plus the water pump blew out as I drove it out of the parking lot and I eventually spent more than that just to keep it running,” he says. “The takeaway there is don’t buy old trucks.”

A friend gave him a small job and, as Willie puts it, “It’s been crazy ever since. But when you start out, it’s a test to see if you can outlast everyone else. It’s been quite a trip.”

Willie says the company’s revenue has increased threefold every year since the first year in business, a feat it won’t repeat this year due to project delays stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The projects are there, but so far only on paper,” he says.

FAST-GROWING FLEET

Most of the company’s work during the first several years revolved around oilfield work. That changed when oil prices plummeted in late 2018, prompting Willie to diversify into directional drilling.

For hydroexcavation work, the company relies on Foremost 1200 and 1600 vacuum trucks built on Western Star truck chassis. The trucks feature either 10- or 12-cubic-yard debris tanks, Roots blowers (a brand owned by the Howden Group) that generate either 4,000 or 5,800 cfm of vacuum power and 1,200- or 1,600-gallon water tanks.

The company also owns a model 2100 combination sewer vacuum truck built by Vac-Con. Equipped with a 12-cubic-yard debris tank, a 1,200-gallon water tank, a three-stage fan system (6,000 cfm) and a hydroexcavating package, the machine enabled the company to diversify into water-jetting catch basins and sewer lines for municipalities, he explains.

The Vermeer D40x55DR S3 drilling machine generates 40,000 pounds of thrust/pullback force and 5,500 foot pounds of rotational torque and boasts a carriage speed of 188 feet per minute for increased productivity. It can bore up to 24-inch diameter holes as long as 1,300 feet.

Along with the larger drilling rig, the company also relies on three smaller Vermeer Navigator machines: a D8x12 unit (1,200 ft-lbs of rotational torque and 7,850 pounds of thrust/pullback force), a D10x15 S3 machine (1,500 ft-lbs of rotational torque and 10,000 pounds of thrust/pullback force) and a D20x22 S3 unit (2,250 pounds of rotational torque and 19,500 pounds of thrust/pullback force).

The company also owns a tracked skid-steer made by New Holland; a wheeled skid-steer from Bobcat; a John Deere backhoe; a Hitachi excavator; trailers made by Flaman Trailers, BWS Mfg. and CJay; and generators built by Honda and Champion Power Equipment.

In addition, the company has invested in several Vermeer MX240 and self-fabricated mud-mixing machines; they’re carried on either a Sterling truck, a Ford F-450 box truck or a self-fabricated trailer. A Freightliner water truck outfitted with a tank made by Camex (owned by the Brandt Group of Cos.).

CHALLENGING PROJECTS

Willie says his company has built a reputation for tackling tough jobs that other companies won’t do. One such project unfolded in August 2020 when a water main broke under commercial metal-manufacturing building in Saskatoon.

The problem? The building was built on a suspended concrete pad with no basement, making access to the pipe almost impossible. The solution? Use hydrovac trucks to carve out a roughly 5-foot tall, 5,000-square-foot crawl space under the concrete pad, which was supported from pilings the Axis crew had to work around.

“We were basically tunneling with a hydrovac machine,” Willie says. “It was unbelievable.”

Workers first used a backhoe to dig two entry pits on two sides of an adjacent parking lot, then used hydroexcavation to dig under the pad in fan patterns spreading out from the two entry points.

“They kept digging in a fan pattern until the guys met in the middle,” Willie explains. “We had to provide lighting and ventilation — it basically was a confined-space entry job, with our guys spending a lot of time on their backs.”

The job required two hydrovac trucks on site for a month, running seven days a week.

“It was a huge undertaking, but the boys got it done,” Willie says.

“I’ve done some really crazy things as a firefighter, so I didn’t think this would be too bad,” he adds. “I’d rather say yes to these tough jobs, then figure out how to do them later. We have a lot of brainpower in our company.”

TIME TO RECHARGE

Looking ahead, Willie sees what he calls a period of “digestion.” After a year with such exponential growth, the company needs to take a breather and focus on developing employees, paying off debt and improving and refining processes and procedures.

“We need to learn how to do more with less and part of that comes from continuing to become what I’d call a more professionalized company,” he explains. “Thankfully, I’m surrounded by a lot of smart people.”

Key employees include his wife, Courtney, the company’s office manager, and Joel Snider, operations manager since mid-2019.

“Courtney is irreplaceable — the backbone of the company,” Willie says. “And Joel is my right-hand man. He came from the telecommunications industry and brought with him a lot of experience. He pushes me to try harder and take on more technical projects.”

In the long-term, Willie would like to employ 100 people and continue to expand the company’s services geographically.

“We have to stay on the move and be dynamic,” he says.

What keeps him motivated? The challenges. The money. And seeing his company and employees become heroes to customers in jams.

“Every day, you never know what’s going to happen,” says Willie, who enjoys the adrenaline rush of the fast-paced industry. “I’ve done hard jobs all my life and I enjoy the high stress, the high pay and the fast pace that comes with working in this industry. You have to be a smart person and solve problems. It’s a genuinely fun job.” 



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