National Quarry Services Evolves From One Drill to a Smart Fleet.
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An authorized Epiroc dealer, James River provides NQS with DTH rigs such as this Epiroc D60 and top hammers such as the Epiroc T35. Its 40 full-service locations and over 100 service trucks offer NQS close in-field technical support across its service region. Epiroc operated under the trademark “Atlas Copco” prior to Jan. 1, 2018.
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Drill rigs delivered to NQS go straight to work on a customer’s job. Driller Michael Elliott stops between patterns in a granite quarry just long enough for NQS owner Chris Gifford to put the company logo on a new Epiroc D60 down-the-hole rig. Epiroc operated under the trademark “Atlas Copco” prior to Jan. 1, 2018.
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Strong alliances between contractor, dealer and manufacturer is a key component to NQS’s continued growth. Left to right: Greg Beck, James River account manager to NQS; Greg Ayers, district manager – Southeast, Epiroc; Chris Gifford, owner, National Quarry Services.

In 2004, Chris Gifford, a 32-year-old from Upstate New York, quit his job with a heavy equipment contractor, cashed out all of his investments and bought a blast-hole drilling rig. He set up a drill and blast contracting company in Winston Salem, N.C. They began with just that one rig and a single customer.

Fourteen years later, National Quarry Services (NQS) is a full-service, precision blasting, drilling and crushing services provider with a fleet of more than 70 drilling rigs and employing more than 100 people. Its customer base includes approximately 50 quarry customers, representing some of the industry’s most highly esteemed, large-scale operations.

In addition to its quarry customers, NQS routinely contracts and subcontracts its drill-and-blast services for industrial, mining and government customers. They include the Center Hill Dam for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, subcontract blasting for Luck Stone on a 3M property, and a long-term contract with Hale Gold Mine.

From the beginning, NQS has been based on personal relationships. Gifford made the life-changing decision to found the company after a casual dinner conversation with a driller friend-of-a-friend one evening. The driller’s stories struck a chord with Gifford that only those with drilling in their blood might understand. “I was actually making good money at the time working where I was. I was just ready for something different.”

Up and Down

Revenue for NQS was up and down at first, which might cause other startups to second guess their decision. Gifford doubled down. “I bought a second drill to even things out. I figured while the first one wasn’t drilling, the other one could be working on another job.”

Customer satisfaction with his work got him through the leanest times, including the economic downturn of 2008. Gifford said he learned not to turn new work away. “I never, ever thought back then that we would grow as big as we are now, but if I were to tell a customer ‘no, I’m too busy,’ that job is still going to get done. But it’s going to another contractor. They get bigger. And they’ll be right in my backyard taking what would be my jobs. I learned to accept each opportunity that was offered to us.”

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Geologist Juan Payne described what he appreciates about having NQS on a job. “The biggest things are their technical expertise and their attention to detail. One thing I’ve witnessed while working with them on multiple occasions is their adaptability. When there are geological conditions that are challenging, they have risen to the occasion to overcome those.”

Jim Schultz, NQS vice president of construction services, said, “We are not inclined to find ways around doing the hard parts of the job. We get the hard parts done. … Knowing that you did a good job for the customer is probably the most important thing.”

NQS has steadily increased in revenue 20% each year since its founding, including the years 2008 to 2012. “We keep our customers through our quality performance,” Gifford said. “In fact, we still drill for that first customer we worked for as a startup.”

In 2012, NQS bought five more rigs. Gifford learned later that some of his industry associates were taking bets against how much longer he could last. In their eyes, growing that fast could only mean the company was getting vulnerably deep in capital debt.

On the contrary, Gifford said, each additional rig NQS bought, leased or rented went straight to a customer’s job to earn its keep. “Look around the yard. You won’t see any rigs parked here. They are all out making money.”

No rigs in the yard also means rig availability for new job orders is an ever-present challenge. In 2016 Gifford bought 14 more rigs. In 2017, he added another 13. NQS planned to add many more rigs to its fleet with James River Equipment and Epiroc.

Gifford said he hopes to institute a rig rotation plan soon, trading out perhaps five rigs a year. NQS has its own fully equipped maintenance facilities, trained service technicians and a parts warehouse, complete with everything to keep its rigs in tip-top shape.

Changing with the Times

The rotation plan is necessary because his customers’ needs are changing. “More and more they’re asking if we have ‘smart rigs,’” Gifford said. “They ask about GPS capability and automated features.”

NQS jobs were increasingly farther away from its facilities in Clemmons, taking his drillers as far north as Maryland and south to Georgia. “We do have plans underway to create additional NQS locations, but I realized we couldn’t build fast enough to keep up with our growth.”

Self-sufficiency had worked for NQS up to this point, Gifford said, but to support continued geographic and technological growth, “It was time to form alliances.”

Partnering with James River Equipment was an ideal solution to both challenges. The dealership serves the mining/quarry/aggregate markets as well as agriculture, forestry and commercial and residential construction industries throughout Virginia and North and South Carolina and had been supplying NQS with drill rig tooling for two years. It is an authorized dealer of Epiroc down-the-hole (DTH) hammers and bits, with access to the full line of Epiroc equipment.

Supportive Partnership

Greg Beck, James River account manager, said James River was more than happy to help NQS. “These are good people, with realistic expectations. We are fully committed to a supportive partnership with NQS during this time of expansion.”

James River is supplying the high-tech Epiroc DTH and top hammer drilling rigs that NQS customers had been asking for, and they will warehouse parts and consumables close to NQS job sites. James River has 40 full-service locations and over 100 service vehicles to provide NQS with close in-field customer support throughout the NQS service area.

Gifford said while he was extremely happy with the relationship he’s formed with the dealer, he also wanted a firm relationship with the manufacturer itself. “Relationships are just that important to me. I need to know who I’m partnering with.”

The NQS Epiroc contact is Greg Ayers, district manager, Southeast. Ayers said, “When top-level support is in place from a quality dealership like James River Equipment, we recognize the value that is to the customer.” The ability to serve the customer alongside the dealer is based on good communication, he said. “We’re all in this together.”

Company growth isn’t just about equipment. An expanding fleet means NQS is always in need of skilled drillers. NQS has its own in-house driller training program and is investigating the possibility of purchasing Epiroc training simulators. Simulators are the most efficient and safest way to transition novice drillers or those unfamiliar with the rigs to competent proficiency.

“Drilling is a demanding job,” Gifford said. “It’s working long, hard days isolated from others out on a bench, alone and often far from home. They’re not just drilling. They also have to keep their own rig up and running, lubing it properly, changing out hydraulic hoses. Not everyone is cut out for it. The only way to know is to train them and let them experience it. Some discover that they’re a better match for parts or shipping. No problem. We’ll do everything we can to find the right match for our employees.”

On the Job

For NQS driller Michael Elliott, who has been with NQS for seven years, drilling was a perfect fit. NQS gives him incentives such as production bonuses and reliable, productive equipment he needs to achieve them.

On this October day Elliott is operating a new Epiroc FlexiROC D60 down-the-hole rig on 3M’s Pittsboro, N.C., quarry. Pittsboro is part of 3M’s Industrial Minerals Products Division (IMPD) within its Safety and Security Protection Systems business. Luck Stone, the drilling and blasting contractor for this property, subcontracted NQS to perform the work.

Elliott had just finished a 33-hole pattern of vertical, 6 ½-in. holes with 14 by 15 burden and spacing that when blasted would neaten up the bench face. The holes were 52-ft. deep with 5 ft. of sub-drilling. 3M would test and sort the cast into three grades, A, B and C. All of it would be used, though not all for its primary product, roofing granules that it sells to a variety of U.S. asphalt shingle manufacturers.

The rock is hard here, Elliott said, but the rig sets up fast on holes and the bits give him “above average bit life” compared to what he had been using before the switch to Epiroc.

NQS is currently advertising for additional drillers to meet its goal of doubling production in the next five years, increasing its current staff from 100 employees to more than 175. Gifford’s optimism is based on a bright outlook in the markets that NQS serves and its successful business model. “We had a plan,” he said, “and we’ve been able to follow through on it.”

The plan is based on good relationships with its clients and its people, the ability to mobilize rapidly and a commitment to performing the highest quality work. “We take no shortcuts,” Gifford said. “We’ve got the best operators, all trained in the industry’s best practices to get a customer’s work done on time and without incident, safely and efficiently.”

Customer satisfaction continues to bring new work. With new, rock-solid alliances with James River and Epiroc USA, Gifford said he expects to continue growing at 20% for the next three to five years. “That suits us,” Gifford said, “Our name is, after all, ‘National’ Quarry Services. Expanding means we’re just living up to our name.”

Information for this article courtesy of Epiroc.