An Interview with McEllhiney Lecturer Jeff Williams
Drilling Industry Vet Talks Business, Recruiting, Training
The groundwater community is small, and as we interact with recruits, we have the opportunity to influence their involvement in promoting the betterment of our industry. No one does a better job at exciting and encouraging our next generation than Jeff Williams. I met Williams, MGWC, CVCLD, in 2008 on a drilling project with Baroid IDP. He hosted a learning session on best practices to shut an artesian well in Burlington, Vermont. Two weeks later, I left that project with a newfound passion for teaching and promoting our industry.
What has Williams been up to since I met him in 2008? Not too much. He’s just a past president of National Ground Water Association (NGWA), 2020 McEllhiney lecturer, a promoter of Covid-19 safety best practices, and owner of Spafford & Sons Well Drilling — a distinguished resume for any groundwater professional. Our conversation here is edited for space and clarity.
Q. Did you choose the industry, or did the industry choose you?
A. It was a little bit of both. In fourth grade, we had a career day. This day had a big impact on me. I can remember very vividly. Mrs. Center was my teacher, and when she asked me, I said, “I want to be a well driller just like my father.” The whole class laughed at me. I will never forget that day because that was immediately my challenge, I was going to grow up to be a successful well driller come hell or high water.
Q. You never had a second thought?
A. No. In high school, I took machine trades at the vocational school and woodshop. I was good with hands-on activities. When I graduated high school, there was an opening to work with my father at Spafford & Sons. That was before we bought the company, and I accepted the job. Here I am almost 40 years later.
Q. Your father did not own the company when you started?
A. No. My father started in 1964, and he is still out there today at work as we speak at 77 years old. I started in 1980, my uncle in ’82, and my brother in ’83. We bought half the business in 1984 and the rest in 1987.
Q. How was it working with your father?
A. I only quit once. It was 1981, I was 19 and my father got mad at me for something another guy did. I said, “You are not going to holler at me!” It was a Friday. I hitchhiked home, got in my car and went to my girlfriend’s house. He called me and said, “I am sorry for what I said; it wasn’t right, and I would like you to come back to work.” I came back to work that Monday.
Now, we have had our days where you might take a timeout and calm yourself down, but as a family, we have gotten along very well business-wise. He has given me the latitude to do some things that maybe I should not have done, but then a whole bunch of things that we are glad that I did. The good decisions outweigh the bad.
Q. Tell me about your family’s decision to buy a drilling company?
A. In 1983, John, the owner, came to us with an offer; it was owner financed, and we paid him for the business.
Q. Wow, 1983 was a tough time to decide to buy a company.
A. Yes, it was. We bought half the company and started with a 1973 F100 ranger with no toolboxes. We had a 1972 T4 that had been retrofitted in 1980 and a GMC water truck with a V8 Detroit 13 speed and Jake brake.
Q. How long were you a driller before stepping off the platform?
A. I was a helper until 1987 and a fulltime driller through 1999. Then I started sharing the drill with my helper, where I would get going early in the morning, and he would run it late into the evening because, in 1999, we had a drought. That same year, I moved north to Underhill because the travel was killing us. I would leave at 4:30 in the morning and get back at 9 at night. I knew that was not a sustainable choice. When I moved north, that’s when things changed because I was building another division of the business. In 2001, I started to phase out of drilling.
Q. Tell me about your hiring process and how you take a helper to driller?
A. We always look for a helper that had a background with operating equipment. We liked to hire helpers that grew up on a farm. Farm kids had a lot of the qualities we were seeking out. They are willing to work long hours. They are eager to work in bad weather conditions. They have a base knowledge of a lot of different things: mechanics, welding, various mechanical skills. They were quality workers willing to put in a good day’s work for a good day’s pay.
Q. Do you still hire farmhands today?
A. It’s more challenging today. The training was easier; they knew how to operate tractors and drive trucks. We just had to teach them how to drill, geology, customer service and all those other things that go into being a good operator. Today, we do not have the same farming communities. The stark reality is many young men and women are not as hands-on anymore.
Q. What pushed you to start working more on the business side?
A. I saw the opportunity, and I thought my talents could go beyond being a driller. Being a driller is something to be very proud of, but I thought there was more I could do by growing the business. I felt we needed help building the second facility, hiring people and training them. It took seven years off the rig platform before there was something substantial to show for it.
Q. How do you step off the platform and train someone to make the same choices to make a good well?
A. The choices will never be the same as yours. If you are good at what you do, it is hard to accept something less than that. That is one of the toughest things that you will have to do. Although they don’t make the same choice, the job outcome can end up successful if we train them with the right process and procedures. It’s essential to bring someone on that you feel is competent and can complete a good well.
Q. When did you get involved with the NGWA board?
A. At the 2006 Empire State Water Well Association meeting on a dinner cruise, Lloyd Watson, Scott Fowler and Art Becker talked me into running for the national board over cocktails. I ran for the board in 2007 and lost my first election.
Q. You lost! How did that happen?
A. Members were like, Jeff who? I did not own it at that time. I had not been involved with the NGWA enough to be on its board of directors. So, even though I had been recruited and we had great conversations about joining, I lost my first election. Lloyd walked up to me right then and said, “Don’t give up. We need guys like you to lead this organization.” I said I am going to take three years to be more involved; I joined several committees: safety, geothermal, and government affairs.
Q. Three years later, you made it on the board?
A. No. A year and a half in, I felt like I was ready to try again. So, this time I went to the microphone with my jacket and tie on. The first time, I did not respect the traditions and history of the organization. In 2009, I had it in my mind I was ready. I had my NGWA groundwater and pump installer certification. I was prepared to be part of the leadership.
Q. Did you win?
A. I won my seat in 2009 in New Orleans. It was a great night. I remember the feeling of being elected to the national board, along with some of my colleagues that are still there. Certainly, I was with some of the best minds in the industry.
Q. What advice would you give a new driller to get involved?
A. Volunteer at every opportunity on all association levels. If you are involved and you care about our industry, the chance to do more will present itself. The takeaway is tenfold.
Q. Tell me about your McEllhiney lecture?
A. Over the years, I have experienced in my leadership roles that we do not focus enough on our businesses. As a business owner, we think about the employees, training, retention and the value of our assets. We start to talk about usage rates and, ultimately, the replacement of the assets. I am not convinced that we are in the best place. Matter of fact, we are behind the eight ball when it comes to running a profitable business.
Q. Behind the eight ball, how?
A. As an industry, we are not able to compete with the rest of the construction market for wages. When we look at our wage rates, we are out there, and we compete with a much smaller pool of qualified workers that have technical and mechanical abilities to be able to go out and service our customers. When you look at other parts of the construction industry with their wage scale, they have the same deficits in labor. There is no mission without money. You cannot pay competitive wages and give competitive benefits packages if you are not generating the revenue. You might build it for the short term as an investment, but you cannot make it sustainable. You cannot reinvest in new equipment and new technology if you do not have the revenue to support it. The numbers do not lie.
Q. Why are we good at drilling but bad at being business owners?
A. It’s not sexy, right? How sexy is to sit there and just go over the numbers? It takes diligence and it takes effort. You must carve out time for it. And because we are all so short on time, it’s the first thing we put aside. Eventually, we just get away from allocating the amount of time it takes to run a good business. If you do not have a good understanding of your financials, where are you? If you do not know where you are, do you have any idea where you are going? You cannot be strategic in the deployment of new ideas and new technology.
Q. What would you like to tell the next generation of water well company owners?
A. Get involved. Get as heavily involved as time will permit. Whether that is in acquisition of knowledge with current information or being a volunteer, do not put your head in the sand.