Building a business boils down to a few different factors: industry need, customer satisfaction and money. Dive a little bit deeper and you’ll find that building a successful business is dependent on things like reliability, adaptability and honesty.
Rock Drilling, located in Bardstown, Ky., has honed these attributes into a business that’s grown and flourished for over 36 years.
Established in 1982 by three partners — one being David Frye, who ended up buying out the partnership and taking full ownership of the company in 1996 — Rock Drilling started with five drilling rigs to its name and a taste for quarry work.
As times have changed, they’ve had to look at ways of expanding their company in new and unique directions. They started with geothermal drilling, and have since added in work with grounding grids, cell towers, monitoring wells and anything else that involves a hole in the ground.
“We love a challenge. We love to explore new potential and new areas of drilling,” says David Frye, owner of Rock Drilling. “We’ve drilled at airports to see how sturdy the surface is on the runway, and we’ve sent heavy machines into factories and drilled the floor down to put bigger footing on certain machines they’re getting.”
Over time, they’ve also added nine rigs to their lineup, for a grand total of 14: two Ingersoll Rand T-4 drills and 12 track drills.
With their strong business practices and adaptability, Rock Drilling’s growth has been on a steady incline since their start in the industry. However, the need to refresh and update things from time-to-time is just as important to machines as it is to business.
A lot has changed since 1982. For Rock Drilling, that doesn’t include their two T-4 drills. Original to the company, one drill is a 1986 model and the other is a 1988.
Instead of spending the money to purchase new equipment and replace their still-working machines, the company decided to go the route of refurbishment — focusing their attention on the older model T-4.
By definition, to refurbish something is to renovate and restore it to its original condition. In terms of equipment, refurbishment consists of reassembling and replacing any non-working or defective parts.
Going the refurb route is an enticing option for business owners because of its price-savings. A new drill like the T-4 model can cost close to $1.5 million. Refurbing an older machine typically costs about half as much as buying new, while still bringing the machine back to like-new condition.
“When it comes to refurb, what we’re promoting is another decision for an owner who is faced with replacing an older machine,” says Garrett Dykes, director of Brandeis Machinery, which performed the refurb. “We can give the option to reinvest 50 to 60 percent of the new machine cost into their existing machine and get the same production.”
However, not only does refurbing a machine save money, but it also saves in both downtime and operator training.
“Probably one of the biggest reasons for refurb is being familiar with the equipment already,” says Tyler Frye, operations manager and mechanic, Rock Drilling. “You already have operators trained on knowing how everything works on that particular unit. So there’s a lot of time saved in trying to relearn something or having to figure out how a new one is going to operate differently. With refurb, it’s a new drill in a sense, but yet, the same operations.”
An added benefit of the refurb — and an added expense saved in the long run — was the parts that would be required for a new machine and the stock the company already has.
“We have a full stock of parts — everything for every piece of equipment. If you add another drill, you’d have to get rid of all your old parts, start restocking, then there’s downtime,” Tyler Frye says. “There’s such a large turnaround on figuring out how to work on a newer piece of equipment versus still working with what you have.”
Rock Drilling has shared a 30-year business relationship with Brandeis Machinery. Brandeis was started in 1908 and has 14 locations throughout Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana. In 2012, the company truly started focusing on the “second lives” of production machines by opening the Louisville Rebuild Center, which refurbishes and rebuilds a wide variety of construction, material-handling, and mining equipment.
At Brandeis, a refurbishment includes the repair of any and all major components, the repair of wire harnesses, hoses and cab internals as necessary, and a 90-day warranty on all work performed.
During the refurbishment of Rock Drilling’s T-4 drill, the machine was broken down entirely and in the shop for around eight months. The rig was sandblasted and repainted; the cab was replaced; all new gauges, wiring and hoses were placed all over the rig; the hydraulic components were all rebuilt; and they added new rims, tires, brakes and suspension.
“This machine is a workhorse,” Dykes says. “There was quite a bit of body work and welding, but as far as major components, we didn’t make any changes that affected or changed the production of the machine.”
One of the nicest aspects of the refurb for Rock Drilling has been the lack of additional maintenance required. With such a large fleet, the company has the flexibility to work on multiple projects at one time with no fear of a breakdown.
“It’s really nice to have the flexibility to give a man a drill rig and travel to two or three different jobs and get them done in a quick aspect,” says David Frye. “Since the drill has been rebuilt, there’s very little maintenance on it now. There’s not a bunch of hydraulic hoses on it blowing and busting, or electrical wires all crumpled up. It’s a durable and lasting machine, with very little maintenance to it right now.”
“When we take the drill down the road, from job to job, you would not believe how many phone calls we get telling us what kind of a good job Brandeis did on the drill,” says Ernie Viles, driller at Rock Drilling. “It’s a blessing that, since we got it back, you don’t have to work on it every day, or do this and do that. It’s just a pleasure to run that drill. Nobody can believe that’s an ’86 model.”
While exploring and meeting challenges is one of their specialties, Rock Drilling has made a name for themselves by focusing inwards and relying on the talent they have in their own building. The company does all of its maintenance in-house, with the refurb being the biggest project they’ve ever subbed out.
“We do our own maintenance, all the way through pulling and repairing engines, rebuilding compressors — we do all the hands-on stuff here at our office,” David Frye says. “We’re up and going. We’ve got parts. We’ve got mechanics on site.”
Not only does the in-house maintenance save them time and money in the long-run, but it also has made their company more resilient.
“Keeping this business going by doing all of our own repairs in-house is one of the biggest selling points of Rock Drilling,” Tyler Frye says. “We get calls all the time from people using competitors of ours about how their drills are down or they need a drill quick, and being able to get our own equipment up and running quickly has earned the company money. It’s much more efficient to just be able to adapt and do it yourself.”
The company’s lineup of machines features the two T-4 drill rigs and 12 track drills — 10 of which are Sandvik 1500 top hammer drills, with the other two being Furukawa DCR20 down-the-hole hammer drills. The rigs run every single day, Monday through Friday, for 10-hour days.
That kind of workload makes maintenance — and having the right mechanics — even more important.
“One of the biggest things is training, and having your own mechanics in house, knowing your equipment and repairing them the right way,” David Frye says. “We want to repair them one time and one time only, and not have to keep going back to the same problems day after day, because we can’t go back and get the time or business that we’ve lost because of being broken down.”
In order to manage that kind of expertise in-house, David Frye and Rock Drilling focus entirely on making smart hiring decisions.
“[When hiring someone,] we look for mechanically-inclined employees; somebody that can make a decision and stand behind their decision in the right way instead of just making a quick decision. They know how to do a job, how to be safe and how to get things moving in the right direction in case of a breakdown.”
But with today’s economy and always-changing employment rate, some businesses have found it’s hard to keep good employees for an extended period of time. However, Rock Drilling seems to be doing something right.
“We’ve got some great guys. In our company, we’ve got guys that have been here for 12, 14, 18, 22 years and they hang onto us and stay. We’ve got around 22 men, and we don’t have a big turnover,” he says. “We keep them with a lot of prayers, a lot of friendly fellowship and good morale.”
Dykes jumps in, “It’s evident that David really cares for his guys and respects them, and they respect him back. That’s huge. Some of the longevity here and they know the machines, and that goes a long way.”
After refurbishing a machine built in the ’80s, growing a business from five to 14 drills, handling all the maintenance for those drills in-house, and hiring and keeping quality employees with a low turnover rate, it’s evident that Rock Drilling has found the keys to building a successful drilling business.
So, what are some of David Frye’s words of advice to other business owners?
“You need mechanically-inclined employees, you need to get a good banker and you have to know how to manage your money,” he says. “And make sure to keep paying more on your debt then you really have to. You have to pay your drills down quick!”
And finally, one of his most crucial pieces of advice is to make sure to look toward the future … but not in a short-term way.
“We don’t have an ending point to where we’re going … to stop buying equipment, stop buying drills, stop doing business,” David Frye says. “We’re reaching out. I’ve got two sons, who can hopefully learn a lot and carry the business on. We’re not looking to drop off in five years. It’s going to be a lifetime project and job for everyone here.”