Taconite Drilling is on the rise

Taconite Drilling employees work on a non-ferrous exploration project.  

From the ground up.

That's how two northeastern Minnesota men, Mark Porter and Max Motley, are building their new drilling company.

Taconite Drilling specializes in definition drilling at iron ore mines, exploration, environmental, and geo-technical drilling. The new company is a little more than half a year into operations.

And the two former co-workers are doing it in part because of their love for Iron Range mining.

“I like the Iron Range,” said Porter. “I like iron ore drilling. It's a little more challenging.”

Getting a new business up and running as a nationwide economic downturn began to unfold, is a challenge for any start-up venture.

But Taconite Drilling has advantages.

Porter, of Warba, Minn., and Motley, an Eveleth native, previously worked together in the drilling industry.

“When we first met, I was an operations foreman and he was in safety,” said Porter. “We didn't see eye to eye.”

Not any more.

Both continued working in the drilling industry with no plans to embark on their own.

But in September 2019, Porter called Motley.

“He was getting pretty serious about drilling and getting a drill rig,” said Motley. “He thought we could get enough drilling between the iron ore mines and the copper-nickel industry.”

The drilling company they had been working for was likely to be sold.

And Porter simply wanted to be his own boss.

“I figured it was as good a time as any to start a business,” said Porter. “I didn't want to go to Alaska or Nevada or Chile anymore. I just wanted to drill for my own company.”

The two men sat down, talked, put together an article of incorporation, and began planning the birth of Taconite Drilling.

“In a matter of 15 days in November we acquired a drill, fabricated the entire set-up and hired crews,” said Motley.

Taconite Drilling is on the rise

Porter and Motley hired five top-notch drillers from Minnesota's Iron Range and Upper Michigan.

“To do taconite drilling, you have to hire from the Iron Range of Minnesota and the Iron Range of Michigan,” said Motley. The guys we have working for us is the reason the company is working.”

A few weeks later, the new company was at work, drilling in an iron ore mine.

A new Sandvik drill powered by a Cummins engine is their first – and only – drill.

“It's the drill of choice for taconite drilling,” said Motley. “That first two or three weeks was a lot of learning. It definitely was a challenge.”

But both men know the drilling business inside out.

Porter has about 30 years of drill operating experience. Motley has eight years in safety, health, and environment in the mining and drilling industries.

With their knowledge and experienced local workers, business began to take off.

“We've got two drillers from Michigan and the rest are from the Iron Range,” said Porter. “It's nice to have good employees. You have to have the right guys. Even when it's miserable, they can make it good.”

Drilling is challenging work. Long hours. Inclement weather conditions. Ensuring worker safety. Protecting the environment. And keeping equipment in top operating condition.

“We work 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Porter. “Our crews work hard. My goal is to keep it small enough to make some money, work a job, and then the crew can take a couple weeks off.”

In a short period of time, the company has found success.

Within the last seven months, the company has performed drilling at two iron ore operations and also at a potential mine site in central Wisconsin.

The company's diamond drill is capable of drilling to a depth of about 2,500 feet, said Porter.

Typical drilling jobs into the hard taconite at iron ore mines are 700 to 800 feet deep, he said.

“In operating mines we are doing production drilling so they can do their mine planning,” said Porter. “We're also doing pure exploration.”

Some drilling jobs take months to complete, said Porter. Others can be finished in weeks.

To buy a new drill costs from $230,000 to $240,000 all the way up to $500,000 to $600,000, said Porter.

It's a huge investment – and a big risk – for the two northeastern Minnesota men.

However, both believe the company offers unparalleled safety and service.

“It's scary,” said Motley of starting a new company. “But Mark saw an opportunity. There are people on the Iron Range who have trusted him for years and in the things he's done. He's the best drilling mind I've worked with. You can't see what you're doing when you're 1,000 feet into the ground, so you need to have someone who knows what they're doing. ”

“It's a little different and a little scarier,” said Porter. “It's all your money and it's all your equipment. But I'm having the best time.”

By knowing iron mining, hiring experienced local employees and taking all the steps to satisfy customers, Porter says the company is on track for steady growth.

“My game plan is to not go too fast,” said Porter. “We'd rather do it right, take our time, give clients a real quality product and service clients the way they want to be serviced.”

Within a year, Porter hopes to add a second drill. Over a five-year time frame, he'd like to add a third rig.

Taconite Drilling isn't a big company.

Yet, it's uniquely positioned to serve the iron ore industry and non-ferrous projects, said Motley.

“I think what makes us unique is we're a small business, we're straight shooters, the owner (Mark) is in the field and you get a personal experience,” said Motley. “The guys we have working for us are friends we've known for a long time, they trust Mark and we're like family. We're also all local.”

As northeastern Minnesota's iron ore plants return to health this year, Motley says Taconite Drilling is poised to offer top-notch expertise, industry experience, and a local, personal touch to customers.

“You're getting the best bang for your buck with our drilling, especially on the iron formation,” said Motley. “We do what we do best. First and foremost is safety and not having an environmental incident.”

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