May 19—Over the last 100 years, Ortman Drilling has dug more than 12,000 wells totaling more than 2 million feet of digging. That's enough drilling to get from Kokomo to Pittsburgh.
And that's just for wells. The company also drills for commercial projects, geothermal systems, irrigation and hydrological surveying.
Company president Rick Ortman said that today the fourth-generation family business is the largest in the state that does both commercial and residential digging. They also travel as far away as Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky for larger projects.
The headquarters, located at 241 N. 300 West, Kokomo, has seven buildings loaded with specialized equipment, digging rigs and other large machinery.
But, Ortman said, that wasn't the case at that location in 1922, when his grandfather, J.B., decided to build his own digging rig.
A BUSINESS IS BORN
At the time, the headquarters was the family farm. But the property needed a well, and J.B. couldn't find anyone to do it. So he built his rig and dug one. When he started digging wells for other residents in the county, Ortman Drilling was born.
At the beginning, J.B.'s brother did most of the drilling while he ran the company. He also farmed, butchered animals and worked in sales.
"He did whatever people needed done," Ortman said. "On Saturday nights, when everyone went to the town square, grandpa would walk around in his bib overalls and have a notebook, and people would come up and say, 'J.B., I need this done or that done. I need a hog or cow butchered.'"
J.B. and his wife ended up having five boys and a girl, and they all helped out over the years in the various businesses operated by their father.
But it was Ortman's dad, Richard, and uncle, Ned, who eventually took over the drilling business in the mid-1940s after World War II. His dad moved into the house on the family farm and J.B. moved into town.
It didn't take long for the two to take the company to the next level. They bought one of the first rotary drill rigs in the state before Ned decided to help design a new hydraulic rig. He worked with a factory and engineer in Oklahoma to create a machine that would be more efficient than anything that came before it.
"Ned could build anything and make it work," Ortman said. "If he had things in his head, he could sit down and draw them out and go build it. Dad was the one that was the salesman and businessman, and Ned was the engineer and technician."
When the new drilling rig was done, it dug so fast that they retired all but one of their older cable machines. The new rig would run 24 hours a day, sometimes six days a week.
That was in the 1960s, during a major building boom in the U.S. Even though the rig was cutting-edge for the time, they still had trouble keeping up with all the work stemming from new construction.
HITTING THE FOURTH GENERATION
It was then that Ortman found his way onto one of the drilling rigs and joined the company. After attending a technical school for around a year to become an engineer, he quickly realized he wasn't cut out for the work.
"I really didn't know what I wanted to do," Ortman said. " ... But I figured out pretty quick I didn't want to sit in an office for 30 or 40 years. I just like anything that's mechanical. If it's got levers on it, I like it. I like doing things with my hands."
And that's just what he got when he was hired on to run one of the drilling machines in 1965. Ortman was 20 years old.
His brother, Steve, joined the company in the 1970s. At one time, three brothers and one sister all worked at the business.
But the Ortmans aren't the only ones with family history. Vice President Russell McDorman said his grandfather farmed with J.B., and the two families have been intertwined with the drilling company for decades. Today, McDorman's son works alongside Mark Ortman, the fourth generation of the family.
Through it all, the company never stopped growing and never stopped digging.
In the 1970s, the business was traveling all over the state digging wells for new schools as districts consolidated and moved out of their old buildings.
In the 1980s, they hired their first salesman, who for the first time started bringing new jobs to the company. Before that, all the work was from people reaching out to them.
"He was a salesman," Ortman said. "He could sell ice cubes to Eskimos. He knew the business and he knew about general contracting."
Business really started booming in the 1990s, when they built their new headquarters at the site and continued adding new buildings and new equipment. That's when they started operating as general contractors for major commercial projects.
The company also started branching out into new fields like geothermal. They created a separate company in 2009 with three other drilling businesses to complete a major contract at Ball State University, where they dug 400, 400-foot-deep closed-loop geothermal holes.
The new entity ended up dissolving, but Ortman Drilling has continued digging for geothermal heating and cooling systems.
ADAPTING WITH THE TIMES
Business hasn't always been booming. Ortman said that over the years, economic recessions have put a major pinch on the company. One of those recessions hit in the early 1980s, forcing the company to drum up work doing oil-well drilling.
Today, the company faces a new challenge: the national worker shortage.
Ortman said they have three to four open positions right now, but can't find anyone to fill them. That's forced the company to turn down jobs because they sometimes can't meet a customer's timeline on when they need the work completed.
"There's plenty of work out there, but we're at the point where we're actually telling people that we don't know if we can do their job in their desired time frame, and that they're going to have to get someone else to do it," he said.
But like every other challenge the company has faced in the last 100 years, Ortman and his team are working to find a way through it.
And these days, the motivation to stay open and keep thriving isn't just about making a profit. Ortman said it's about carrying on the family tradition and continuing to provide a service that so many people need.
"We've always felt like you have a responsibility to the employees, their families and the community because they've depended on us for so long to take care of their water systems," he said.
Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @carsongerber1.
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