ETTI’s ‘trenchless’ construction has created a niche in New England
In the mid-1990s, James Kelly had a vision. The electrical contractor, owner of Enterprise Electric based in Lisbon Falls, had come across a developing technology called horizontal directional drilling (HDD) that was being used with success in other parts of the country. Kelly knew that HDD would be a boon for his industry and would enable crews to install electrical conduit in challenging conditions where traditional open trench techniques were too intrusive. He also recognized that HDD or “trenchless” construction could revolutionize other utility installations – including water, sewer and natural gas.
In 1995, Kelly launched a bold new enterprise called Enterprise Trenchless Technology Inc. (ETTI) and bought the company’s first directional drill and set about the formidable process of introducing the new technology in Maine. James’ son Scott, just 24 years old at the time, stepped in to head ETTI in 1996, so his father could focus on Enterprise Electric, which has its corporate headquarters just down the street in the same Lisbon Falls business park. The elder Kelly currently is ETTI’s treasurer.
Scott is well known for his excellent business sense and dedication to the job. He typically arrives at the office by 5:30 a.m. to deal with phone messages and e-mails before he heads out to the job site. And his day continues well into the evening.
“If you know Scott’s dad, you know that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” said ETTI Vice President of Operations Bruce Hubbard. For his part, Scott Kelly calls his dad “the single most influential person in my life.” The younger Kelly remembered the day his dad gave him what would be the best business advice he has ever gotten.
“He said, ‘First, you are allowed to make profit on a job but never skin a customer, as it will be your last. Second finish a job with the highest quality and ethics regardless if the job is making money or losing money. Third, don’t be good at what you do, be the best at what you do.’”
“Today at nearly 70 years old, my dad still works in the field with his crews installing pipe in ditches and working 24-hour shifts for the power company when storms come through. He never backs down from a challenging project,” said Scott.
Kelly says he has been fortunate to learn from another pro – Hubbard, who joined the business seven years ago. Hubbard, he said, “has been my backbone support. . . he’s another old school guy who just simply gets things done and has a vast background that has truly helped the business grow.”
Directional drilling had been used since the 1920s in the oil industry, where it was initially a survey tool used to settle oil property disputes. In 1934, the new technology caught the eye of Popular Science Monthly which hailed the young and upcoming technology: “Only a handful of men in the world have the strange power to make a bit rotating a mile below ground at the end of a steel drill pipe, snake its way in a curve or around a dog leg angle, to reach a desired object.”
During the 1970s, the technology advanced with the introduction of downhole drills (mud drills) that used hydraulics to power a drill string and enabled the drill pipe to remain stationary. By the mid-1990s, the technology had become increasingly sophisticated and adaptable to a wide range of applications. Electronic guidance systems measure and transmit roll angles, pitch information and beacon temperature. Advanced drilling fluid systems have extended the range of HDD to up to six miles.
These innovations, and the rise of new HDD equipment that adapts the technology to a range of heavy construction applications, has set the stage for ETTI’s explosive growth over the past decade and a half. The company began in 1995 with just one HDD drill and two employees. Today, the company employs 25 and maintains a fleet that includes four directional drills, one that can install pipe up to 34 inches in diameter and distances up to 2,000 feet. The ETTI fleet also includes three slurry vacuum units; eight fusing machines capable of welding pipe from 2 to 18 inches; four electro-fusion machines; three excavators; four yard loaders; three dump trucks; five service vehicles; and a full support of other trucks, trailers and equipment.
Laparoscopy on a grand scale
The chief benefit of directional drilling is that it is considerably less intrusive and more environmentally friendly than traditional open trench construction. In locations where there are wetlands or other environmental concerns, and in high density locations were there is existing road and utility infrastructure, an HDD drill works like laparoscopic surgery on a grand scale, drilling and placing pipes and utility conduits with amazing precision and little disruption to either the environment or local commerce.
There certainly is a “gee whiz” factor about the work ETTI does, because so much is accomplished far below the surface. Hubbard tells the story of a recent project where an ETTI crew installed a 16-inch water main below a pond in North Conway. A fisherman was flycasting, and came over to find out what was going on.
“He couldn’t believe what we were doing, and all the time he could see the fish swimming in the water,” said Hubbard. “Here we were, performing major construction 20 feet below this pristine waterway and all he could feel was a slight vibration under his feet.”
ETTI crews have installed sewer lines under a tidal inlet in Ogunquit, run water and sewer lines under the Maine Turnpike in Gardiner and bored through 500 feet of solid rock in Fryeburg for Nestle Waters North America. In 2009, ETTI worked with Sargent Corp. to install 600 feet of 24-inch water main under Hatcase Pond – a principal water supply for the city of Brewer. The project won ETTI and Sargent a Build Maine Award, one of four the company has taken home during the past decade.
ETTI has weathered the recession without having to lay off staff, but the company has had to watch things closely, as job costs, including fuel and materials, have increased.
“We’ve been impacted just like everyone else in the construction industry,” said Hubbard. “We cut back hours and overtime. We‘ve tightened up our spending and we’re pricing jobs like we did eight years ago, because it’s that competitive.”
Still, last year marked three significant milestones for the company. The company completed its seventh straight year without a lost time injury. ETTI was awarded its largest contract in company history – 9.2 miles of gas transmission main in Freeport and Pownal. That job included more than 50 bores totaling in excess of 17,000 feet and an open cut installation measuring 32,000 feet. The company also hosted a safety seminar that was attended by 450 people and featured Eric Giguere who was buried alive when the trench he was working in collapsed. Hubbard said the event has had a lasting effect on all who were there to hear Giguere’s story.
“It made everyone think ‘That could have been me,’ and that really makes you think about safety,” said Hubbard.
Safety concerns also drove Scott Kelly to help form the Northeast Trenchless Association in 2004. The organization has members from Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont.
“We started to hear far too many stories of new contractors entering the industry having issues – mostly from inexperience,” recounted Kelly. “The goal behind the trenchless association was education for each company and setting standards and codes of ethics that would help our industry grow. To me, it wasn’t so much the case of who got the jobs, just that each was installed correctly to continue positive things for directional drilling.”
Kelly said that ETTI, like everyone in the construction industry, is experiencing an uneven recovery and commercial work continues to lag from its pre-recession highs.
“Our year actually started off very slow with several larger projects we bid from last season down in Cape Cod put on hold until just recently,” said Kelly. Despite the slow start, he said, ETTI’s crews have been “flat out” since the beginning of June, and there’s no sign of that letting up through the rest of the season. On a recent weekday in June, all but one of ETTI’s fleet of HDD drills are deployed at work sites throughout New England. ETTI’s spotlessly clean, well-ordered, 24,000-square-foot headquarters in a Lisbon Falls business park is quiet, but Dave Racine, ETTI’s warehouse manager, is busy making sure there is a ready supply of parts and the equipment remaining behind is in good working order. Downtime isn’t an option, because the company’s crews are so tightly scheduled. HDD work typically comes in one-day projects, and ETTI’s market stretches from northern Maine to New York City.
“On Monday, we may have a crew in southern Massachusetts, on Tuesday in New Hampshire, Wednesday in northern Maine, Thursday downeast and Friday in Scarborough,” said Hubbard. The challenge of scheduling crews and making sure they have the equipment, manpower and supplies they need is the work of Hubbard who has 41 years of construction experience. Hubbard started with H.E. Sargent in the 1960s, and has worked almost every job in the business from truck driver to project manager for Maine companies including Harry C. Crooker & Sons and CPM Constructors. He joined ETTI in 2003, and his experience and contacts in the industry have been invaluable through the company’s rapid expansion during recent years.
“This business is phenomenal,” said Hubbard. “It’s growing and making advances every day.”
Investing in people and safety
To keep up with the business’s growth, ETTI invests considerable resources in training and safety. ETTI crews are arguably the safest best trained in the HDD industry. The company has logged more than 210,000 hours without a lost time injury.) Kevin Thibeault, another construction veteran with utility experience heads ETTI’s Natural Gas Division. Brian Chase, who has 12 years experience in industrial work, is superintendent of operations, an HDD crew foreman and an experienced journeyman driller and fusing technician.
ETTI employees share a family-like sense of loyalty, respect and commitment to the company. That feeling is mirrored by the good the company and its employees do in the community. “We like to keep things home-based,” said Holly Williams, ETTI advertising and marketing manager. Williams joined the company in 2008 and says she can’t imagine having a better employer. She said the company employees has been chipping in to help a local family that lost two daughters when their home burned earlier this year. She said they like to give where the gift can make a difference in the communities where they live and work. ETTI and its employees have been regular contributors to the Aaron Farmer Scholarship Fund. They hold a giving tree at the office to collect donations for local families facing hard times. ETTI contributions also helped build the local hockey rink.
Michelle Hoffman, ETTI’s CFO and office manager, moved to Maine two years ago from South Carolina with her husband, where she had worked in finance for nearly two decades. Hoffman has welcomed the career change from corporate America to a small-town, family-owned business. She said working at a place where everyone strives every day to be the best in their field has made the transition a welcome one.
“In my old job, people came and went. Scott has made this a place where people want to stay,” said Hoffman. She recounted how a big group of her co-workers gave up a weekend day to help her move. “I don’t have any family here, but I call this ‘my little ETTI family.’ It’s a wonderful place to work.”