Directional Drill Contractor Goes From Employee To Owner

John Clugston turned job search into small-business success as he founded JLC Underground and maintained steady growth over the course of the last decade
Directional Drill Contractor Goes From Employee To Owner
John Clugston, owner of Martin, Michigan based JLC Underground, stands near a VERMEER NAVIGATOR D9X13 SERIES II direction drill on a jobsite in Coopersville, Michigan. (Photography by Amy Voigt)

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“It’s pretty simple, actually,” says John Clugston, owner of Martin, Michigan-based JLC Underground, as he thinks back on his decision to start his own company back in 2005. As his previous employer headed into retirement and made plans to shut his company down, Clugston needed to find a new job.

“Working in the management area at that time for my previous employer allowed me the opportunity to think about starting up my own business as opposed to going out on the road and putting in an application with established companies,” he explains.

His tool belt included knowledge and experience gained over the course of 20 years in the underground construction industry. Even so, it wasn’t an easy decision to dive in. “Things weren’t very good at that time, especially here in Michigan,” Clugston explains. “Things were really, really slow. There wasn’t much work going on.”

But he did have something working in his favor. He had helped secure a couple of key contracts with telecommunications giants Charter Communications and Comcast through his previous employer. “They knew me,” he says, “so it was pretty painless and seamless on their part to accept me as a new contractor.”

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

Just as he had to find his bearings as his prior employer closed down, a handful of former co-workers searching around for their next adventure decided to join Clugston and become a part of his new startup. “We started small, just like most people do,” he says.

From the get-go, JLC Underground utilized directional boring and trenching techniques to install underground utilities such as cable lines and pipelines, and it has maintained that focus since inception.

“We don’t get into a whole lot of different aspects of this construction industry,” he explains, noting that they haven’t moved into the aerial aspects, splicing or other types of turnkey operations. “We’re primarily just an underground construction provider for our customers. ... We do quite a bit of underground work for the coax side of the world.”

With many fiber optics companies the work comes and goes, Clugston says. There might be work for a couple of months, and then these customers are set for a couple of years until financing comes through to handle another area. Others, like Charter and Comcast, have provided steady, ongoing work for JLC Underground, however.

Although jobs have brought the company and its employees into fellow Midwestern states like Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota as well as destinations farther off such as Florida and Texas, Clugston says he and his crew are happy to remain as close to home as possible, and much of their work is handled throughout lower Michigan.

Clugston and many of his employees have been in this line of work for a long time and have taken on their fair share of travel. “We did the travel thing,” he says. “We did the stay away from home and our families for a number of years, and it’s gotten rather nice to be home and spend more time with your family.”

In recent years, that time spent with family has evolved into a working relationship as well. Although JLC Underground is not a family business in the traditional sense, John’s wife, Amy, has stepped in to help out in recent years as a part-time administrative assistant. Her ability to remain flexible and handle work after hours as needed has been a boon to business.

In the early days there were six employees total, and that staff size remained as is for about four years. “Since then it’s been more or less a steady increase,” Clugston says, and the current number of employees is 32 – a tight-knit crew that consists of former co-workers and even schoolmates.  

The biggest goal Clugston is trying to push for with his staff is versatility. “There may be some that are better than others at a certain task, but it doesn’t mean that that one person cannot perform that task,” he says. “We definitely try to train our employees on every aspect of the work that we do.”

For example, they’re trained on machinery operation, which ranges from small vibratory plows and trenching machines to horizontal-boring machines. “We try to, as soon as we reasonably can, introduce a new employee to that new machinery and get them familiar in a safe way to where they can operate it,” he says. This strategy pays off in situations where the typical operator needs to take a day off.

BIG MACHINES, SMALL DISTURBANCE

The bulk of the company’s work is handled by its directional-boring machines, Clugston says. The company has seven manufactured by Vermeer (one 24x40, one 24x33, two 7x11 series 2, and three 7x11) and six made by Ditch Witch (two jt 20 and four jt922).

“We’re really leaning toward the Ditch Witch brand of machinery currently. We’ve had some pretty good success with them,” he says. “The speed and the power in such a small package really impressed us.

“I think it was all about timing,” he adds. “There are other companies out there that make these machines, but I think that for this size of machine it’s my feeling that Ditch Witch beat everyone else to the punch in timing as far as coming out with a real rock solid fast and strong machine for that size of class.” 

Clugston says that over the course of the last decade he has noticed a growing expectation in terms of non-disturbance of land. “Ten years ago if we were to come into a neighborhood and install a new cable system or water system you would’ve expected to see a bunch of backhoes and trenchers out there tearing up the earth just to get it in the ground,” he says. “With today’s horizontal directional drills we definitely make a lot less impact on removing the earth and ripping it up and making a mess.”

“So much of the work that we do is in very high-profile places,” Clugston says. “We don’t get into many of the construction sites where the earth is all tore up. By the time we come in there everybody already has grass or sod landscaping. We need to try to leave it in a way that no one could tell we were ever there.”

Beyond the boring equipment, the company makes use of a grouping of plows, backhoes and excavators to get the job done, including 11 pieces of machinery made by CASE (eight maxi sneaker vibratory plows; one 860 combination plow, trencher, backhoe; one 560 plow; and one 580 backhoe) and four Ditch Witch products (three 850 mini-excavators and one 1220 quad track plow). Rounding out the lineup is a Kubota kx 41 mini-excavator and a Bobcat 435 excavator.

In the same way that directional drilling has taken off, Clugston says he has noticed a similar trend as vacuum excavation takes hold within the industry. The technology is really growing and will continue to grow, he says. “I don’t believe they’ll replace the directional-boring machines,” he adds, “but they’re coming close to replacing the shovel.”

And it’s making a difference within his own company as well. In virtually all the jobs JLC Underground takes on there are already buried utilities underground. “We have to expose those, and currently by law you have to do that with a shovel – a non-mechanical machine,” he explains. “It can’t be a backhoe or a trencher or anything like that.”

This type of work has traditionally been handled with a shovel, whether it’s hard or soft ground and whether the hole needs to be 2 feet deep or 6. It’s an employee with a shovel, and it’s pretty labor-intensive, Clugston says. But now that hydroexcavation has come into play, it’s acceptable by law to use these machines to expose the utility in the ground in order to either parallel or cross it without causing damage. “It can be easier and it can be safer as well,” Clugston says.

STAYING STEADY

Although his company, and in turn, his staff has grown over the years, Clugston says his greatest ongoing business challenge relates to human resources: “I have a feeling that I’m in the same boat as a lot of other contractors from what I’m hearing across the state and across the country, and I think that’s employees – finding good, hard working, knowledgeable employees.”

Finding workers with a CDL license needed to operate the heavy machinery is an even bigger dilemma, he adds. For those who do make their way into the company, however, Clugston feels the culture is one of the strong points of JLC Underground. “We’re not really a family business, but we definitely try to treat everybody as such,” he says. “When you’re an employee here you’re not a number.”

Co-workers don’t just know one another’s names. They know one another’s families, he explains, and that helps. “You don’t have foremen out there shouting at people or pointing fingers or yelling,” he says. “It’s good, strong, clean communication between everyone here, and I think it keeps a less stressful atmosphere for sure.”

Running a business in itself is a challenge – exhausting at times – but at the end of most days it feels rewarding, Clugston notes. “I would say that I probably worked just as hard and just as many hours when I was working in management for someone else as I do today,” he says, “but at the end of the day I can say that between myself and the employees we have built something here that is important.”

“There is a sense of satisfaction that I’ve accomplished this,” he adds. “I definitely had a lot of things helping me in the beginning to roll forward with it, but if I didn’t spend the hours and the dedication every day for the last 10 years I don’t believe we’d be at where we are today.”

As Clugston looks ahead to the future of his business, he doesn’t envision unprecedented growth; he just hopes business can continue to remain busy. “I don’t consider this as one of those Fortune 500 type companies,” he says. “I’m hoping that we can just stay steady, that all the employees I have can continue to put in an honest day’s work and receive an honest day’s pay and feel good about what they’ve done at the end of the day.

“We never have foreseen this as a get-rich-quick kind of deal and don’t expect that,” he adds. “We just want to do our part and make the world go ‘round.”



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