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TEI Rock Drills

by Eric Peterson on February 25, 2019, 07:27 am MST

www.teirockdrills.com

Montrose, Colorado

Founded: 1980

Privately owned

Employees: 44

Industry: Industrial & Equipment

Products: Rock drilling rigs, excavator attachments, safety equipment, and related components

President Sue Frank is leading the nimble rock drill innovator into new industries and export markets.

Bill Patterson, Frank's father, founded the company as an engineering consultancy, not a manufacturer. "He was doing contracts with the U.S. Bureau of Mines for noise control," says Frank.

The business was originally based in the family's basement in Littleton. Bill had started it when Cooper Industries acquired his previous employer, Gardner Denver, and he didn't want to move from Colorado with it.

Staying behind also soon presented an opportunity to pivot into manufacturing. "Because Gardner Denver left Colorado, there became a void for parts for Gardner Denver drills," says Frank.

After starting with replacement parts, Patterson devised some new products. "My father had an idea for a new hydraulic drifter and a new feed system," says Frank.

TEI's first attachments hit the market in 1984. The resulting excavator-mounted drilling systems could fit on a flatbed. "It's easier to move around," says Frank. "We specialize in limited access."

In need of a larger facility, TEI Rock Drills moved southwest to Montrose in 1988. "As long as they had FedEx service, it didn't really matter where we were based," says Frank, who started working for the company the same year as the move. "For me, it was about quality of life."

TEI now occupies nearly 28,000 square feet in Montrose, with the shop accounting for more than half of the space. "Eighty percent of our people are in production," says Frank. "We manufacture everything in-house. We subcontract out heat treatment and we don't do gear cutting in-house."

Keeping most functions under the same roof offers benefits, she adds, in the form of quick turns and responsiveness to customer needs.

The catalog grew after TEI relocated, as the company started manufacturing its own lines of drifters and rotary drills. Innovation is the common thread across the different product lines. "Our feed system is patented, our drifters are patented, even our clamp is a patented system," says Frank.

"We're always looking to innovate . . . to improve performance and durability of the product," she continues. "As my father always said, 'As soon as you turn [a rock drill] on, it's trying to destroy itself.'"

The civil market is TEI's top vertical, but the drills are used by crews on everything from micropile foundations to solar farms. North America accounts for about 70 percent of sales. South America, Australia, and New Zealand are top export markets.

"We're looking at getting back into the mining market," says Frank. While it was the first market for the company, mining now only accounts for about 10 percent of TEI's sales. "We feel we have a better product to go into it with our new line of drifters," she notes, because of their higher torque and impact energy.

"We provided that additional torque and still left a more powerful drill behind it," says Frank. Hitting a void after drilling through denser material "tends to destroy your drill head. That energy has nowhere to go." TEI's technology, conversely, "will actually power down if you're not against a hard surface."

Fueled by such features, the effort to get back into mining is bearing fruit, as TEI has 70 drills in service in gold mines in South Africa. "It's getting stronger in Canada," adds Frank.

Over the long term, TEI's growth has been "pretty slow and steady," she says. "We've averaged about 10 to 15 percent every three years. . . . We're expecting a good growth year this year. Despite everything that's going on politically, we're still seeing strong growth in the U.S."

And that means the company's key markets are still making big capital investments. "If someone is thinking about buying a drill made in the U.S., we want them to think of TEI first,"  says Frank. "There are no other drifter manufacturers in the U.S. anymore."

Challenges: "Right now, I would say it's challenging to find employees," says Frank. "I'd like to think of us working in an apprentice-style program . . . but it's hard finding those people who want that opportunity and want to work for it."

She also highlights "everything that's happening with import-export taxes. . . . Those things can affect whether somebody is going to buy our products. I'd like to know what happened to NAFTA."

Opportunities: "We're seeing more opportunities in Australia and New Zealand," says Frank, citing economic growth and new construction.

The mining market is another TEI target. "It does seem to be a growing market," she notes. "We're concentration more on OEMs in that market. They'll sell a piece of equipment that has our drill head on it."

Rapid turnaround time "has provided another opportunity," she adds. TEI can ship some products overnight, versus a four-week wait from overseas manufacturers, translating to considerably less downtime for a drilling operation.

Needs: It's not immediately pressing, but TEI will likely need more space in the next five years. "If we do something, we'd probably build a new building," says Frank.

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