Keep the family drilling

Kenneth Slade calls himself Drillwell Enterprises' "gopher" these days. He answers phones, opens mail and takes regular trips to the bank. It's busy work, but he likes it.

Slade is not doing it for the money. He's the owner and founder of Duncan-based Drillwell and at 80 years old, he's slowly working his way to retirement. It might never happen, of course – his eldest son, David, said he's been "in the process of retiring for 20 years."

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But it's a way to stay involved and the sons agree it's the least they can do for the man who's handed them all very stable careers.

"I don't think we could have offered our parents a better retirement than in keeping the family business going and keeping them as involved as we can with the operations," said Paul Slade.

Paul is the middle son of three brothers – along with David and their younger brother Calvin – who currently run the company. With their father, they've grown the company from a small water-well drilling venture to Vancouver Island's largest drilling firm, specializing in environmental and geotechnical drilling, hydrofracturing, geothermal drilling and mineral exploration drilling.

Kenneth founded the company in 1965, after 17 years working for Pacific Water Wells, doing major drilling jobs everywhere but at home.

"I was away from home most of the time, and someone else was doing all the work around here, when I was doing all the big jobs [elsewhere]," Ken said. "I said, 'Bugger this!' and I quit to start my own company. "

Within a few years, Drillwell had become a leader in drilling and mining exploration on the island. Naturally, Kenneth had his sons working with him as soon as they were old enough to wield a hammer.

David said that he, Paul and Calvin had sought different careers after high school but they only succeeded only in finding careers they didn't want to do. In the end, nothing quite compared to the business in which they had grown up.

"We didn't always think that's what we wanted to do," David said, "but there's been an awful lot of things that I wanted to do less."

By 1982, the three brothers joined in as partners. Over the following 30 years, they helped their father diversify the business and expand their operations overseas.

They've done jobs in Africa and the Caribbean, including a Canadian International Development Agency project throughout the mid-80s, helping with groundwater exploration in Swaziland.

"We're not just about profit," David said. "We're not satisfied about a job if our client is not satisfied."

Today, with their father essentially retired, the three brothers share all administrative, supervisory and maintenance roles equally.

Paul said this overlap has been essential to the business's success – when one brother has been away for work, another can pick up the slack without placing any burden on the operations.

"We can cover for each other very easily and quickly – necessity being the mother of invention, right?" Paul said. "So as far as the managerial skills go, we've just learned by [trial and error], and it seems to work pretty well."

Likewise, all major decisions are made together.

In rare circumstances, David said they'll loop Kenneth into the conversations, but they've managed, for the most part, to deal with any conflicts democratically.

David said, "There's always a majority-rules sort of thing. The partner who was on the losing side was always able to accept that with a minimum of I-told-you-sos and that sort of thing."

He added, "It's always been an unofficial arrangement in the way that we managed our business.

"We've been fortunate that we haven't had serious problems with partners wanting or needing to leave the business or serious illnesses among the partners."

This has worked out, he said, because the Slade family has always been a tight-knit unit. At family gatherings – of which there are many – they will have up to 30 people around the dinner table.

Paul and David say that managing the business together has bound everyone in the family – including the two other siblings not currently involved – closer together.

"I think it's pretty rare to have people who can spend so much time together and still tolerate the sight of each other," Paul said.

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