At a Glance
Directional drilling for electric, telephone, cable television, and gas utility work
Before cofounding J&R Underground, LLC in 1999, Robin Gilbertson had been a dairy farmer. Ten years later, he still owns his farm, but he’s simultaneously extended the reach of J&R Underground with cofounder John Granberg, growing it from a company focused on directional boring to a full-service underground-utility contractor. While the drilling of water, sanitary, sewer, and storm-sewer bores for municipalities and private developers is still the company’s staple, it now also does cable plowing, trenching, and fiber-optics plowing. Based in Blanchardville, Wisconsin, the company completes a mix of electric, telephone, cable-television, and gas construction projects throughout the Midwest every year, and it attributes its growth to close customer care from its experienced staff, and its willingness to take on tough jobs.
Granberg worked for another contractor for five years before partnering up with Gilbertson, and the pair also rely on the business savvy of operations manager Kurt Adler, who worked in telecommunications before joining J&R Underground three years ago. The company specializes in drilling horizontally rather than going straight down. “We feel we’re the best at directional drilling,” Gilbertson says. “Our workers are all trained and know that safety comes first.”
J&R Underground’s capabilities include drilling for lengths up to 2,000 feet—in varying diameters and for all soil conditions from sand to solid rock—and the company relies on a set of drills ranging from the size of a lawnmower to bigger rigs weighing 35,000 pounds. The majority of these are manufactured by Ditch Witch and TT Technologies. “Most of the drills are in the quarter-of-a-million-dollar range,” Gilbertson says. “We have about half a million dollars’ worth of equipment going out on every job.”
However, though J&R Underground’s abilities and equipment might represent the pinnacle of industry quality, its cofounders know the real mark of a company is customer satisfaction. To this end, Gilbertson and Granberg believe not only in keeping their customers happy but also in keeping their customers’ customers happy. And they’re only able to do this, they say, because of their quality employees who know how to get the job done right the first time.
Take, for example, J&R Underground’s current two-year project in Harlan, Iowa, 90 miles west of Des Moines. Through a long-term relationship with Great Lakes Line Builders, Inc., the firm landed the job to put in underground fiber-optic cabling for television—and possible future services such as broadband and telecommunications—throughout the town.
Gilbertson says his company has completed projects in Minneapolis, Chicago, and Milwaukee but found that Harlan already had more in-ground cables than those much larger locales because of the town’s four different phone companies, multiple gas companies, and an electric utility. “When doing directional drilling, you have to locate every one of those cables and make sure you don’t hit anything,” Gilbertson says. “We’ve worked out there over two years with no damage to existing facilities.” Such care comes from the company’s 15 employees who work each day to satisfy both the city of Harlan and its homeowners.
The team at J&R Underground enjoys its fair share of tough jobs, and a type they’ve tackled recently is pipe bursting in the sewer and water industries. Instead of open-cutting a street, J&R Underground instead goes into the old pipe and bursts it directly. “It’s a lot greener in my eyes and a better approach,” Granberg says. “You need very little equipment, and you’re not moving dirt out of there.” He also notes that directional drilling is done more and more often for such jobs. “You’re not going in and open-trenching to put in pipes,” he says. “Customers are a lot happier because everything is not torn up.”
Gilbertson estimates that J&R Underground’s business includes 40 percent electric work, 40 percent fiber-optics, and 20 percent “oddball jobs that nobody else wants to do.” This requires versatility. Recently the firm worked on a petroleum tank farm that needed a dike redone and a drain pipe put in, and it also drilled in the basement of a customer who needed a waterline put in through solid rock. “In a week’s time we don’t know what we’re going to be doing,” Gilbertson says. Thanks to its staff and equipment, though, J&R Underground seems prepared for just about anything. ABQ