US Builders Review                                                    

Sargent Irrigation Company: Dependable Professionals, at Home and Abroad

Charles Sargent Irrigation Inc., a/k/a Sargent Irrigation Company (SIC), has been providing most of the Central United States with the water well drilling expertise needed to support growing communities and businesses for almost 60 years. “We started as a very small local operation drilling irrigation wells for local customers in the ’50s,” explains Mike Whitesel, SIC president. “In addition to drilling all of our own wells, we manufacture most of our own piping, turbine pumps, drilling rigs, test rigs, and boom and crane trucks through Sargent Pipe Company (SPC), Inc., a brother/sister entity to SIC, which has its manufacturing plant here in Broken Bow, Neb.”

The company, still one of the largest privately owned companies of its kind in the world, splits its business among agricultural, industrial and municipal sectors. Aided by SPC’s modern 45,000-square foot manufacturing facility, SIC maintains eight branches catering to local markets across its home state of Nebraska, as well as into Iowa, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Kansas and Missouri.

One of the SIC distinctives that has existed since the beginning is that SIC drills wells using reverse circulation drilling. Based upon the markets serviced by SIC and their general soil types, SIC finds that reverse circulation drilling allows for efficiency in construction and what SIC believes is a better, longer-lived well for its customers.

Recognizing the need for higher quality and more individually designed products, SPC engineered its own brand of more efficient, more dependable deep well turbine pumps and well casings in the 1970s, and used these to build its presence in the market. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the company further diversified its specialized services to include monitoring wells, heat pump loop wells, dewatering wells and domestic wells, developing specialized equipment and sophisticated in-house training procedures.

In the past the company has worked internationally as well, from Mexico to Egypt. In the late ’80s the company established itself as an international competitor in the irrigation well drilling market and was eventually contracted to drill a number of irrigation wells in Algeria. “My dad, Larry Whitesel, had tried to get a number of projects going in Saudi Arabia in the mid ’80s, and even though he tentatively secured a number of contracts things all seemed to fall through when it came to financing,” explains Whitesel. “But it was pretty widely known in the industry that we were interested in working internationally.

“Eventually a firm out of Colorado was recommended for the job in Algeria, they contacted us, and by 1986 we were in Algeria, drilling irrigation wells for the government,” continues Whitesel. “We drilled 10 wells with all of our own well drilling equipment and manpower that we brought to bear ourselves. I went to Houston and packed the freighters myself. After we finished a few supplemental wells in 1989, we were in talks to drill additional wells, but the country had some more civil unrest and nothing developed further. Even though it was some time ago, we were, and continue to be, really proud to have been successful so far from home.”

Taking Care of What Matters Most

Today, SIC continues to blend experience and modern technology, offering premier services delivered by professionals to provide water around the world. Whitesel, who has been with the company since his teens, attributes the company’s longevity to its dedicated staff. “We are in the business of drilling wells, but we are also in the business of taking care of our employees,” asserts Whitesel. “We have managers here who have been here a long time. Loren Taylor has been here 50 years. I started working here when I was 15. We pride ourselves on our ability to keep our employees around, starting with the management.”

SIC works hard and consistently to maintain the quality of its workforce, always looking to recruit and retain qualified employees. “Our biggest challenge has always been finding the right people. Always,” opines Whitesel. “You can build all the drilling rigs you want and buy all the pickups and equipment you need, but you have to be able to find the people you can train and retain and that can be expensive. We are in the process of renewing our health insurance and it’s not cheap, but the staff really looks to the management to set the tone. We know that it’s always about the paycheck and we like to be able to take care of our employees, not just by providing them with health insurance but also just by making sure they have a solid weekend. Especially on the municipal side of the business, some of those employees may leave home on Monday and not come home until Friday night, but if he or she has all weekend to spend at home, he or she will come back to work Monday morning refreshed and ready to go.”

Over the years, SIC has accumulated a large client base and takes pride in its field personnel being able to drill and install wells efficiently and expediently. “On any given day, the Broken Bow office might have 12 wells to drill and another six in which to install the turbine pumps, but that’s just how it is for us,” remarks Whitesel. “We drill wells from 50 to 100 feet, all the way up to 750 feet if we need to in some areas. Unless we’re drilling a 500 foot well or deeper, we can usually drill, gravel pack and cap a well in one day without any problems from the weather or the equipment.”

Quality Through and Through

Whitesel is quick to admit that much of SIC’s continuing success is due to self-awareness, which is why the company works to establish trusted strategic partners to augment the company’s already impressive skills.

“We know what our strengths are and we are happy to let other subcontractors do what they do best,” affirms Whitesel. “Depending on the project needs, we will sub out the electrical work, the building construction or waterline work. We don’t want to get into the waterline business, because there are already so many companies who can do that kind of work much better than we can and that’s ok with us.

“In every state we work in we have a group of subcontractors we know we can call upon, and we take special pride in knowing that our local electrician will work for us anywhere,” continues Whitesel. “He is on top of his game and we know we can call upon him to do work wherever we need it, because working with him just works for us and he does it at the right price. Our idea is to do our best at what we do best and let others take care of the rest.”

The SIC team has established the kind of reputation that has allowed the company to remain active, even during the recent economic challenges that have affected the entire nation. SIC comprehensively operates in several sectors, and in the past few years the municipal well markets have remained particularly strong.

“In April 2010, we had a project with the City of Wichita, Kansas, that was a major municipal job for us, and in 2004-2005 we had a big project for Municipal Utilities District in Omaha, Nebraska, requiring 31 caisson wells,” explains Whitesel. “Just a few weeks ago we were invited back to work for the City of Wichita on another seven-well project, so we should begin the test drilling in July, but we have absolutely got to finish work by the end of the year.” Repeat clientele are not uncommon for SIC.

In the near future, SIC is looking to maintain its current markets with the possibility of expansion, but Whitesel is cautious about planning too far ahead. “We want to keep doing what we do in the states we currently service,” he says. “At one time, we had an office in Nevada that we just had to back away from with the turn of the economy there. We have been doing a lot of municipal work in Kansas over the past year-and-a-half, so we have been considering the possibility of opening a branch there, but we know that SIC is very dependent upon the health of the agricultural markets. We live and die by commodity prices and right now business is good and has been for a while, though eventually those prices will have to fall. They just have to, if history is any kind of teacher. But for now, I’m not complaining.”

Sargent Irrigation Company Inc. has demonstrated, and is committed to continuing to demonstrate, the technical capabilities and a professional attitude that assure clients are pleased when they select the company to provide single-well projects or turnkey multi-well projects now and for decades to come.