You Know the Drill: The Business End
It’s been 14 years since Sherri Marlo joined the drilling industry as a small business owner. The president and co-owner of Dupo, Ill.-based Bulldog Drilling and Terra Drill Inc. says, during that time, she’s gotten a first-hand sense of how valuable reliable employees are. If anyone understands the old saying, “good workers are hard to find,” Marlo does. She says a top challenge that she and the profession as a whole face today is finding people who want to make a career drilling, likely because of how demanding the work is. Lucky for her, she’s acquired a team of nine employees that she says she can’t imagine working without. They offer environmental and geotechnical drilling services to consulting firms, private companies and government agencies in Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky and New Jersey.
Q. What do you do and what keeps you coming back every day?
A. I’m president and owner of both Bulldog Drilling and the original company, which is Terra Drill Inc. So we actually have two companies. Terra Drill was the original company that we started and then in 2013 we started another company by the name of Bulldog Drilling. Now Terra Drill just owns the equipment and leases it to our other company, Bulldog Drilling. The field services and all of the employees are under Bulldog. So I’m actually president and owner of both companies.
Pretty much what keeps me coming back every day is the great employees that we have. You have to be engaged and be a good example for your employees. So, if you’re not present, it doesn’t take long for the ship to go astray. You have to be there to kind of steer the ship. But our crews are so dedicated and work really hard to make our company what it is. We feel like we provide the best drilling service possible.
We have a health and safety meeting every Monday morning at 6 a.m., and we frequently tell them how much of an asset they are to the company and how they are the faces of the company because they are actually doing the work and coming into contact with our clients. We’re in the office and have much less contact with them. A lot of the time, we hardly even meet the clients. We just converse by email or phone. But they’re the ones out there representing us so we try to instill in them that they’re our biggest asset and that we want them to go out there and be professional and respectful of our clients, because they’re the ones that provide us with jobs.
Q. What does a typical workday involve?
A. It’s kind of hard to say I have a typical day, but normally I oversee the finances, pay the bills, review the payroll after my administrative assistant has entered it in our system and before sending it to the accountant. I make the decisions regarding employee benefits like health insurance, disability insurance, the retirement plans, and their other benefits. In addition I make the decisions regarding the company’s various insurance policies, both for TDI and BDI. My assistant and I also work together to publish a quarterly newsletter. In addition, we get input from our department managers regarding projects we have performed that we feel highlight our company’s capabilities. I also try to keep the website updated with current information.
I am a member of an organization called NAWIC, which is National Association of Women in Construction. I attend the monthly and annual meetings and was asked to be one of the directors on the board for 2015. I belong to a couple of chamber of commerce organizations and attend the various meetings and functions in order to network, meet new people and get our company name out there.
I meet with our accountant to keep track of the finances and make sure everything’s correct in QuickBooks. And policies, procedures — I keep those updated. It’s so hard to list everything that I do on a daily basis because it changes frequently... You’ve got to wear a lot of hats when you own a business.
Q. What does it take to succeed in what you do?
A. A lot of hard work and dedication, trying to provide our clients with quality service and trying to meet their different needs and exceed their expectations. We try to stay diversified as far as the type of services we can do, whether it’s rock coring or installing monitoring wells or doing mud rotary or CPT testing. We do a lot of environmental work. You just have to be really diversified and offer a lot of different types of services and have the equipment to provide that and, most of all, good employees. You have to have a really good team in order to make a business succeed, whether it’s your employees, accountant, banker or financial advisor, etc.
Q. What do you wish you knew when you started?
A. The biggest thing is how costly it is to run a drilling business or any kind of business, and how many hours you have to put in. The drilling business is kind of a niche business and unique. Everything that seems to be related to our industry is expensive, whether it’s the equipment, the material that you have to buy — especially the insurance. The insurance, because we’re high risk, is extremely expensive — workers comp especially. Then doing business in the state of Illinois, we have one of the highest unemployment rates that you have to pay and workers comp rate. So I wish we’d have known more about how much capital it takes to run a business and keep it going. That’s been the learning curve, is trying to figure out how to keep equipment running and keep it maintained within budget.
Q. What tool can you not imagine working without?
A. Good employees. Employees aren’t really tools, but to have dedicated, honest, skilled people is invaluable. Otherwise, as far as a piece of equipment, we have a CME-55LC track rig that is one of our most used pieces of equipment because it is low clearance. It can get through very narrow doorways, tight spaces and it’s very versatile. We have five rigs but this is the one that would be hard to do without. You can buy equipment all day long, but you can’t find good people all day long.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
A. We’ve had issues with a lot of our clients wanting us to sign contracts for projects and they want us to sign the payment terms “pay when paid,” which means they’ll pay us when they get paid from their clients. Well, because we are at the bottom of the food chain, so to speak — we have our client, our client has a client or two above him — that means if everything goes right, then we get paid. But if there is some type of issue, not due to our fault — for example, if someone doesn’t do a report correct, our consultants or engineers, or if there’s a glitch somewhere up the food chain — the payment could get held up. So our best advice, which is our motto, is, “It’s best not to do the work and not get paid than to do the work and not get paid.” We saw this plaque on TV when a lawyer was being interviewed and it was on his wall. We thought this made a lot of sense, so we have adopted this as a policy for payment terms. So we try to stress to our clients that we’re a very small company. We work with them to come to terms on a payment schedule, but we cannot sign “pay when paid,” because then you have no recourse if you don’t get paid and you have to take them to court. So I think that’s the best piece of advice we’ve ever gotten. I know a lot of other drilling companies in our area that sign those contracts, but if everyone went by this model, then perhaps they would not try to force this upon the drilling industry.
Q. How would you describe the present state of the industry?
A. We’ve had a very good year, but I think the thing that concerns us is, again, finding good employees who want to work in this field, especially rig operators. There’s no school or training facility for drill rig operators. So you have to take a chance, hire someone who either doesn’t know anything about drilling or perhaps has been a rig operator in the past. Normally, what we do is mold our own guys from a laborer or from the rig operator’s helper to become a driller. Our crews have to be welders, drillers, mechanics, PR people, and they have to be professional. All of us have to wear many hats in order to make the company successful. Most people wouldn’t think of all the skills you have to possess in order to be in the drilling business. Our industry’s biggest challenge in the future is the shortage of people who choose to do this type of job.