At nearly 70 years young, Earth Boring Co. Ltd., of Mississauga, Ontario, has never lost sight of the important role trenchless technologies play in Canada.
“We focus on what we know…trenchless,” says Gene Woodbridge the company’s CEO. “We know it better than others and we focus on it day-in and day-out and that helps us along. That formula seems to have worked through the years.”
Founded in 1947, Earth Boring Co. focused on hand-mining projects helping build some of the critical infrastructure that allowed the province the company calls home to grow. This literal hands-on approach helped the company grow through the 1950s. In the 1960s with the advent of hydraulics, the company expanded to pipe jacking and larger diameter tunnel work. The 1970s and 1980s is when the company really started taking off with the introduction of auger boring. According to Woodbridge, Earth Boring used the early Richmond Mfg. machines and had some of the first American Augers machines as well.
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“That changed what we could accomplish in both length and diameter,” Woodbridge says. “In the 1980s, we got in to tunnelling and bigger and better auger boring machines.”
This time of expansion and a reaffirmed dedication to trenchless is also when Tom Yarley, a civil engineer, purchased the company when the firm’s owner decided to retire, that was 1982. This was also when Carmen Yarley, Tom’s wife, became involved with Earth Boring Co. working as the company’s vice president and treasurer.
Through the 1980s and into the 1990s Earth Boring Co. beefed up its auger boring presence, started pipe ramming and dabbled in microtunneling. The latter of which did not catch on in Ontario and faded to the background, until recently. What really caught Tom Yarley’s attention was a new technology known as horizontal directional drilling (HDD). Earth Boring Co. was one of, if not THE, first contractors in Ontario with an HDD rig.
Woodbridge relayed a story about how times have changed. On a recent HDD jobsite, the company had its 1.1 million lb American Augers rig set up and a man stopped by for a chat. The man was one of the original Ditch Witch salesman and sold the company its first rod pushing machine — a P-80 — back in 1993.
Knowing Its Niche
According to Woodbridge, Earth Boring Co. has always kept a close eye on the trends in the trenchless industry and has worked to stay with them.
“When my father [Tom Yarley] owned the company he always looked at it as, you always have to be moving ahead and looking forward otherwise you are standing still. You are actually backing up,” Woodbridge says. “We always did that and we do that to this day, looking two, three, five and 10 years ahead and what’s on the next curve in the industry itself, and where we can best place ourselves to expand in the market and in our capabilities.”
When Tom Yarley died in 1998, Carmen Yarley took on the role of company president, which she still holds today, working alongside her son and business partner to grow the business into what people see today. All the while, they stayed true to Tom Yarley’s mission of keeping the company solely focused on being a leader in the trenchless industry.
That growth includes some of the largest HDD and pipe hammers in the province, roughly 75 employees divided into 14 crews — spread out amongst three divisions — performing auger boring, HDD and microtunnelling work. The latter method re-entered the Earth Boring Co. fold in the 2000s and quickly grew to include three full spreads capable of projects ranging from 600 mm to 1,800 m.
The lion’s share of the work is sewer and water related and centered in Eastern Canada, mostly Ontario, but Earth Boring Co. also tackles oil and gas pipeline work and travels into the Northeast United States and Western Canada as work dictates.
“We always look ahead to be on the cutting edge of trenchless, but we also stick with what we know. We have not branched out to the general contracting market or the open-cut market,” Woodbridge says.
Sticking with that formula equates to Earth Boring Co. being able to weather fluctuations in the construction market and grow thanks to its trenchless diversity. This diversity also helps it better analyze and deliver a better project for clients.
Also aiding in the company’s winning formula is the sheer amount of experience its employees have. Of those 75 employees, many have been with the company for more than two decades. This tenure helps the company leaders, Woodbridge, Carmen Yarley and John Currey, operations manager, place the workers where they best fit the company. The results are workers who specialize in the HDD, auger boring or microtunneling sectors.
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“It takes such a long time to teach certain aspects that you can’t get all of your employees cross trained and some are better set up to focus on one area and become extremely good at it,” Woodbridge says, noting that some of the same people who trained him are still working for the company.
“Some of our employees have been here a long time and they demonstrate certain skills and abilities and they identify themselves as someone who we can leverage in other lines of the company,” Currey adds. “Through that long-term tenure here, we like to develop them and enrich their careers.”
Both Currey and Woodbridge agree that finding trained and qualified help is one of the major issues facing the trenchless and overall construction industries. That is why Earth Boring Co. leveraged its experience by creating a mentoring program.
“We select people who we see as up-and-coming to be junior foremen and foremen and then supervisors. Those guys look after each other as the first point of contact to troubleshoot problems and questions,” Woodbridge says. “That has helped train people and give them confidence that they are not out there on their own.”
There is one side benefit to training employees through the ranks, Woodbridge says, and that is the employees learn the Earth Boring Co. way as opposed to some other company’s way.
“We identify where we see a ‘spark’ to promote and develop organically from within. We really try to promote our guys from within to learn our system from the ground up,” Woodbridge says. “I’d much rather have a guy who was a mucker or welder for our company work their way up to a foreman and then a supervisor. That way, when he’s telling someone to go weld on a cold day in January he knows what that is like and we are better served that way.”
This is something Woodbridge believes in whole-heartedly because that is how he started at the company at 16 working seasonally until he graduated from university and came on board full-time.
“My background helps with my credibility with the guys. They know that I know what it’s like to be out there on those days,” Woodbridge says. “I know what it’s like to be dirty and in the trenches. I miss those days. Unfortunately I probably spend more time in the office now than I care to.”
Woodbridge is not alone, according to Currey there are several family members working together on Earth Boring Co. crews providing a sense of community within the company.
To build upon that sense of community, and to give back to the company, Carmen Yarley created the Carmen & Tom Yarley Scholarship Fund to help Earth Boring Co. employees and their families who are pursuing a civil works related post-secondary education.
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“I wanted to give back,” Carmen Yarley says. “My husband Tom Yarley was a civil engineer and we thought it would be great to give back into the same type of work that he did.”
Carmen Yarley knows that education is paramount and as the trenchless industry grows, there is a need for engineers who specialize and know trenchless. This fund, created in 2013, is encouraging the next generation to consider a career in trenchless engineering.
“There are times when we get a drawing and it looks as though someone scratched out open-cut and wrote trenchless on the drawing,” Currey says. “In creating this scholarship, Carmen is leading the way in saying this is an important element and I will do whatever I can to encourage people to pursue that.”
Not only is Earth Boring Co. encouraging the next generation of trenchless professionals on the construction side, but also the customer side through its active membership in the Ontario Sewer and Watermain Construction Association and the Greater Toronto Sewer and Watermain Contractors Association.
This year, Carmen Yarley became the first woman to receive the Greater Toronto Sewer and Watermain Contractors Association Industry Award of Excellence — commemorated by her own manhole cover .
“I will be turning 79 this year and people keep asking me if I am ever going to retire,” Yarley said in her acceptance speech. “My answer is always the same, ‘Definitely not.’ I love my business, I love the industry, I love this association and I like the fact that I am getting my very own personalized manhole cover.”
Earth Boring Co. also works with the Centre for Advancement of Trenchless Technologies (CATT) and North American Society for Trenchless Technology (NASTT) frequently delivering technical presentations at the CATT and NASTT conferences.
“One of the great things is the annual trenchless technology seminars and sessions that we send our people to,” Currey says. “The biennial Trenchless Technology Road Shows allow interested public stakeholders, engineering firms and contractors alike to see what the latest and greatest is in trenchless. Those educational sessions are constant and continuous to help promote the industry.”
He adds, “We deliver seminars for CATT from time to time on trenchless technology and the audience for them has really increased. And after a presentation you get mobbed by people asking more pointed questions and there are even times when people rolled out drawings or plans after a session to ask us a question.”
When discussing what the future holds, Carmen Yarley, Woodbridge and Currey see an industry poised for continued growth as technologies emerge and the public becomes more aware of the failing underground infrastructure.
“The industry has grown three-fold in the last 10 years and a lot of that has to do with the fact that there is more infrastructure and we have such a huge infrastructure deficit in Ontario, in all of Canada and the United States,” Woodbridge says. “I think governments are starting to look at not only the hard costs but the soft costs of construction projects. If I am ripping up a major throughway artery and slowing traffic down and slowing goods and products down that is a real-time cost to people. Whereas if I can do the same job trenchlessly, people look at it more favorably.”
That addresses the state of infrastructure already in place and in need of repair, but the same outlook is true for new installation projects as well. Over the last 50 years, much of the easily developable land is spoken for, what is left are pockets of more difficult to develop areas, which Woodbridge says are perfect for trenchless.
To get to those areas requires the newest and best that the trenchless technology industry has to offer, and Woodbridge says Earth Boring Co. will be there to advance with it. “We are not afraid to get involved in new technologies. The entrepreneurial spirit at Earth Boring Co., although we are nearly 70 years old, is still very much alive.”