21 Questions: Exclusive interview with Kelly Johnson

October 20, 2022

Kelly Johnson has 44 years of experience in the drilling industry, but that almost didn’t happen. His life looked set for a career in banking before a summer job with Midwest Drilling (Midwest) made him change course.

Kelly remained with Midwest working in their warehouse for the next 20 years until Major Drilling purchased the company in 1998. Then everything changed.

Only several years later, Kelly was Major Drilling’s global inventory manager, traveling the world 260 days a year and teaching workers on five continents.

He returned home in 2007 as General Manager for Canada, then in 2010, he lead operations in countries in South America and Africa from Major Drilling’s headquarters in Moncton, New Brunswick. By 2017, he oversaw operations in North America and Africa as Senior VP.

Kelly retired in 2022 after showing the ropes to entire generations of drillers and managers.

Grigor Topev: Hi Kelly, thanks for accepting our invitation! It’s a pleasure to have you in our magazine. Let’s get started. It seemed you were set to go into a career of banking. Why and how did you decide to go into drilling instead? Please tell us the story.

Kelly Johnson: My whole family is bankers, and as such, I think there was an expectation I would probably go that route as well. I was lucky enough to graduate from high school at 16 years old, but my parents believed I was too young to go eight hours away to university, so I decided to work for a year and then go. Also, I needed to save money as my parents could not afford to send me. My dad’s friend said I might be able to get a job as a bull cook, which is a ‘kitchen helper’, in a drill camp with a company called Midwest Drilling so I went and applied. I started work the day after graduation, but since there was no immediate position for a bull cook, they had me help around the yard and warehouse. After 14 months of working in the warehouse, I went to university in the fall. When I came home over the Christmas break, I went and saw all the people at Midwest, and I realized that these people were hard-working, successful, and happy and since I loved working with them, I decided to quit university and start a career in diamond drilling. I could see very clearly that with hard work and long hours, you could rise within the company.

GT: Continuing with the early years of your career, tell us more about Midwest Drilling.

KJ: Midwest was a family company originating out of Flin Flon, Manitoba where I lived at that time. We were mainly a western Canada drilling company with a majority of our drills running in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the western part of Ontario. It was a very good company, and we were like a big family. Our branch was very busy, we ran more than 30 surface drills and 18 or so underground drills during the peak seasons.

GT: What were the challenges at the beginning of your career? Could you tell us more about the first time you were on the field?

KJ: The challenges at the beginning of my career were many, but mainly there was a lot to learn and understand, as this is a specialized service industry. With almost all our surface work being remote, it became very clear that one little mistake in sending and setting up jobs could cost thousands of dollars in downtime. Not being that knowledgeable about mechanical things, I had a lot to learn and I had to do it quickly. We set up a large base camp in the Wollaston Lake area of Saskatchewan, called Hidden Bay. It was a large workshop, man camp, and warehouse, and I spent my first time in the field there in 1980, I believe, for about nine weeks. At that time, we had around 40 drills running in a 50-air mile region, mostly all drilling B-size looking for uranium. Back then, our customers were all oil companies, like Gulf and Imperial Oil, as uranium was a new concept for creating energy.

GT: In general, what was drilling like back when you started?

KJ: Drilling was quite a bit different when I started. Wireline drilling was still very new, until then all the rods had to be pulled out of the hole each time you drilled ahead 10 ft (3.05 m). Drilling in our area was mainly B-size drilling and at that time we thought a 1000 ft or 300 m hole was a deep hole. We could generally put enough items on a 5-ton truck (≈ 4.5 tonnes) to go out and get started drilling a hole. Now it takes four-five semi-trailer loads for each drill. All the drills at that time were exact model JKS drills, so all components could be changed from one drill to another, and it took generally only a few bolts to do so. The drills all had towers with baskets, and the helpers would have to stay in the basket each time the rods were pulled for a bit change or end of the hole. At -35 degrees Fahrenheit (-37 degrees Celsius) in Northern Saskatchewan, this was not a fun job at all.

GT: You were Senior Vice President and were overseeing Major Drilling’s operations in North America and in Africa. Where has the expansion taken full scale with satisfactory results?

KJ: Major Drilling is incorporated in around 20 countries, but we currently operate in 15 countries worldwide. Over the last decade, we have closed some unsuccessful branches and have put our focus on countries where we can grow to be number one or two. Our biggest branch is in Canada, followed closely by the US, Australia, and Mexico. We are a company continually looking for growth, but we also have a very high standard, so a lot of acquisitions no longer fit our current model of advanced, modern equipment.

GT: And talking about the not-so-successful expansions, what would be the reasons for the slow progress or its complete lack?

KJ: There are certain regions where we are not interested in working in because it is dangerous or risky from a political standpoint. We also measure the risks of corruption, and we have a zero-tolerance policy for bribery.

GT: How to make a good drilling proposal? Any tips or advice?

KJ: The more information you have, the more accurately you can bid for the project, so your customer is happy, and you are profitable. Historical drill hole data is key. When drilling companies are given generic information, we often don’t trust it, so we usually assume it is a higher number than it is achievable. Always make sure you understand the true scope of the work, such as ground conditions, the distance of moves, distance to water and many other factors. All of these will help you bid accurately and avoid conflicts with your customers. Make sure that when items are not discussed, there is a clause in the contract that explains what happens if unforeseen things do occur.

GT: On the topic of mentorship, what would be your advice for managers in the industry?

KJ: Always be training your replacement so you have not only the strongest team you can but so you are ready for the next step in your career. Train and learn constantly, it is surprising how often your next promotion will come and catch you out of position to take it. Major Drilling believes very much in bringing people up from within, and for the last twelve years, we have been teaching an internal management and advancement course called Core College for our employees from all around the world. This is taught by Ben Graham, our VP of HR and Safety and me, along with a guest list of VPs, as well as the CEO, who would invite these employees to our head office in Moncton, New Brunswick. We are a large public company, but we strive every day to act and treat our employees like we are still a family company.

GT: Any good piece of advice for junior drilling companies from an inventory point of view?

KJ: It is always harder for smaller junior companies to carry all the inventory you can possibly need to be ready for any issue. One of the strengths of Major Drilling is that we carry extensive amounts of inventory globally so are prepared for almost any problem and were better prepared than others when the recent shortage of inventory in specialized tooling happened after COVID-19.

Kelly Johnson at PDAC 2014
Kelly Johnson at PDAC 2014

GT: What does the industry lack?

KJ: The main thing the industry lacks is females in all positions and sometimes a lack of diversified workers. We are very lucky that working in so many countries as a global company, we can have local workers from within those countries. We have an ongoing goal to have a workforce that continues to reflect the makeup of the communities we operate in around the world, but this can be challenging. With such a shortage of workers, we need to seek out every avenue to entice workers to this industry.

GT: You have worked in many countries. Which one impressed you the most in terms of diamond drilling and why?

KJ: Every country has its own challenges and hurdles, so I am almost always impressed when I visit a drill in a particularly tough region. Whether it is the High Artic with permafrost drilling in Canada, the extreme heat of Arizona, the US, Australia or Africa, the ultra-high elevations of Chile and Argentina, or drilling in the middle of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, to complete holes safely is a huge achievement. All branches have their unique issues ranging from holes that freeze immediately when the drill stops turning, to loss of water return, and huge fractures to contend with. Our team is almost always able to find the best way to get to the bottom.

GT: Tell us a story or a couple of stories of interesting, memorable projects.

KJ: Being in this industry for 44 years, I can tell you many stories about projects not only throughout Canada but around the world. We had one project in Arizona, US, where we drilled for 18 years. We have areas where we have had branches for close to 80 years, so experience is our strong suit.

Ultimately though, our biggest strength is our people and all stories within our company link to the character and characters of our company and the wild adventures they had along the way. We truly believe that we have the best workers in the drilling industry and we know that without them, we would be like every other company. It is our people that set us apart, and our culture that keeps these people at Major Drilling. We’ve had very few high-level people leave our company, and that is directly linked to the culture of caring that we have fostered.

GT: What do you think directional drilling lacks and what would you like to see improved?

KJ: Over time, there will be more of a move to technologies used in oil field drilling, and they are being used in a lot of locations already. Part of the issue is that this type of drilling is very expensive for the customer, and usually adds a lot of cost to the price per meter. The in-hole risk is also far greater, as bending holes too aggressively is one of the surest ways to lose a drill hole. Customers, drill hole technicians, and drillers need to work more closely together to plan holes to avoid the consequences of breaking off rods deep in the hole.

GT: Major Drilling is specialized in deep holes. How did that start?

KJ: We have always been a company that is proud of completing every hole no matter how challenging. We are proud to have drilled not only the deepest hole ever drilled in Canada, as well as many other very deep holes around the world. Over time, that willingness to push beyond the limits of our competitors has caused us to develop techniques to keep progressing forward, whether through directional drilling or any other means. Hole management and care are priority one on deep holes. Our people are very proud that they are able to complete deep holes that many others cannot.

GT: Does Major Drilling do any RnD?

KJ: We do not build drills, but we work closely with all of our drill suppliers to develop and create the most modern drill and safety enhancements, as well as in-hole tool development. We have a small team of innovation developers, who are constantly seeking out ways to drill and retrieve core faster, as well as manage water consumption, fuel consumption and many other items in different stages of development.

GT: How do you assess the changes to drilling technology over the years?

KJ: The basic wireline system has changed very little since the original model of the 1970s. Everyone believes that their head assembly and in-hole tools are the best, but short of having more indication of landing on the bottom, or traveling faster, it has not changed that much.

True technology is getting past the tough ground on deeper holes, using drilling fluids, and hole management and bits that last longer. The invention of rod handling and ultimately the move to hands-free rod and tube handling is the biggest change and the one that opens this industry to more people as physical strength becomes less of an issue.

GT: What would be the next game-changing technology in your opinion?

KJ: The whole drilling and mining world wants people out of the most dangerous area; that area where the rods are turning. Total hands-free rod and tube handling will be the next game-changing technology, but it comes with a very high cost and will take a very firm commitment from customers if they are serious about wanting to take this to the next step. I believe it could almost double the cost per meter for drilling, but safety needs to be priority one.

GT: Is the drilling industry heading towards a consolidation? We’ve certainly seen many high-profile mergers in the past few years…

KJ: The short answer is that there is very little barrier to entry in the diamond drilling business. All you need to do is buy a drill rig and some tooling and you have a drilling company. It doesn’t mean they are safe or competent but it happens all the time. There will always be companies purchasing competitors, but consolidation to eliminate competition will never happen, as the smaller junior drilling companies will always have a place, especially for the overflow of work in an up cycle.

GT: Finally, how do you spend your time after retirement? What do you miss the most from work?

KJ: Honestly, we are just starting down the retirement road this month, as I had a few outstanding items to finish up, one being the September Core College course. My wife Pam and I both enjoy traveling and intend to do some and go back and visit some of the wonderful places we have been to for work where there was not enough time to enjoy the country. We have four daughters and 11 grandchildren, and we intend to see them a lot more often. I will be staying on with Major as a consultant working on mentoring and Core College over the next three years, but it will be very limited. I will miss the day-to-day conversations with all our people and just watching them all constantly growing. I feel like I am leaving behind most of my best friends in the world, but I know them all well enough to be certain that we will stay in touch.

For more information visit: www.majordrilling.com

Read Issue 21 here: 

Issue 21 / 2022