Contractor Spotlight: A-B Contracting

Thirty years ago, Bonnie Muegge formed A-B Contracting in Missouri to tackle underground service line installations for the burgeoning telecommunications industry.

She had estimating experience and her brother and nephew (her first two employees) had the operating experience.

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Much of that work was of the straight-line boring variety and that was great for shorter bores. Fast forward 20 years and Muegge decided it was time to head in a different direction and start going after longer projects, so she jumped into the horizontal directional drilling (HDD) world.

“We bored all of those years with a directional machine,” she says. “We could do state highway bores and we could bore up to about 100 ft with straight-line bores. Now we can drill up to 400 or 500 ft.”

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That move in 2004 allowed A-B Contracting, a certified women’s business enterprise (WBE), to tackle many longer projects and delve into sewer and water work, as well, though the bread and butter work is still with the telecommunications industry —most notably for AT&T.

The company, which does more than HDD work, operates within a 200-mile radius of St. Louis and tackles approximately 7,800 jobs, both big and small, a year.

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Tops on the list of HDD projects are a 17-mile project in Springfield, Mo., for Sho-Me Technologies that started in the city and moved to the surrounding rural areas and a 13-mile project in Farmington, Mo.

Making things difficult are the hard rock formations in A-B Contracting’s service area. Tackling the projects requires durable drills, trained employees and a high level of support from the dealer.

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Since that first foray with another manufacturer’s directional drill, Muegge has come to rely on Vermeer’s Navigator drills in the field. The company is on its fourth and fifth Vermeer rigs, a 2014 D9x13, and a 2013 D20x22. For the hard rock and cobble, Muegge relies on power point carbide drill bits and she is looking into adding an air hammer to work with the D20x22 so the company can drill longer solid rock formations.

A-B Contracting started out doing underground service line installations for the telecom industry 24 years ago and made the move to HDD in 2004.“We rely on the Vermeer products to be reliable and productive with our workload. We have to meet due dates on all of these fiber jobs so the project timelines are very important to us,” Muegge says. “We need to be drilling everyday putting in as much footage as possible every day and the Vermeer Navigators do that for us.”

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Muegge’s local contacts at the Chesterfield, Mo., branch of Vermeer Midwest are Tim Noltkamper, who Muegge credits with always being there when she needs him, and Navigator specialist Doug Hicks. Both reps ensure that Muegge’s drill operators have the latest training to make the projects go as smoothly as possible.

She praises the Vermeer Midwest team for always being there when A-B Contracting needs a part or other HDD products and even making arrangements for getting things done after normal business hours.

With 10 years of HDD experience under her belt, Muegge says proper planning is the key to success.

“Making sure that we understand the ground conditions and we have the necessary equipment to deal with the rocky and tough ground we have here and having the proper support equipment on hand to ensure a smooth directional installation [is key],”Muegge says.

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She adds that proper drill fluids, making sure all of the locates are done correctly and her operators are the final pieces of the puzzle to a productive HDD project.

Muegge recalls an especially tricky project, a 250-ft bore underneath railroad tracks where pre-planning assured her crews were successful.

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That project, for AT&T in Middlebrook, Mo., involved drilling up a steep embankment from one side of the tracks to the other. The drill rig was setup 10 ft deep and it came out 250 ft later, traveling at a 40-degree up angle,and exiting at 3 ft deep.

It is here that Muegge highlighted one of the greatest advancements in HDD since she began drilling in 2004: Location technology. The drill rod came out 3 ft from where the hand hole was.

“The ball-in-box technology and the target steering that’s really incredible,” she says. “It actually puts your product right where it needs to be. It is kind of amazing when you are out on one of these jobs and there is a hole dug where you want to go and you can shoot out 200 ft or 300 ft and end up exactly in that hole where you want to be. It amazes me.”

Also on the list of advancements that Muegge touts were the advancement of rack-and-pinion carriages and common operator control platform. Both of which make the drills easier and more efficient to operate.

How has entering the HDD world helped A-B Contracting?

Muegge has grown the company, with her daughter Tiffany Palazzolo at her side for the last 22 years, to 24 employees. It recently opened a 15,000-sq ft facility on 40 acres in Festus, Mo., to house its 25 pieces of equipment, 20 trailers and 18 trucks.

“It’s right where we would like to be right now. I don’t want to get really huge or anything,” she says. “It’s just been steady growth.”

As for what the future holds for the industry and her company as whole, Muegge says, “The HDD industry will continue to grow and A-B will need to add larger drills and rock tooling to diversify as the industry changes.”

Mike Kezdi is assistant editor for Trenchless Technology.

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