Around the Willamette Valley, Oregon, Apryl Fouts is known as the “Drill Diva” by her colleagues and customers. She’s been sitting at the controls of a horizontal directional drill (HDD) for 14 years now and has taken on some of the area’s most challenging projects.
Apryl and her husband, Mike, started their business, Willamette Valley Underground, Inc., in 2009, but they began drilling together several years before that when Mike encouraged her to quit her retail job and learn how to drill. Now, Apryl and Mike have their own business, employ several crew members, including one of their sons, and have a fleet of equipment, which includes three Vermeer horizontal directional drills.
While the couple manages to keep all three of their drills busy, it's Apryl’s most recent addition that really catches everyone’s eye — her panther pink Vermeer D23x30 S3 Navigator® horizontal directional drill with a “Drill Diva” decal on the operator’s seat. “We had the chance to demo a Vermeer D23x30 S3 directional drill on a few projects and were impressed with how it performed,” she said. “Nick Frappier, our Vermeer sales representative, told me I could get one of my own in any color I wanted so I chose pink — panther pink.”
Apryl picked out the color panther pink after researching automotive colors used on muscle cars in the 1970s. “I ran across a few photos of the Mopar FM3 and knew it fit my personality,” she explained. “It’s not like anything anyone has ever seen on a jobsite before; it really grabs people’s attention.”
The “Drill Diva”
Apryl received the “Drill Diva” nickname many years before Willamette Valley Underground added the panther pink drill — it was earned through a lot of hard work and others taking notice of her talent and perseverance.
In the early 2000s, Apryl was working two retail jobs when Mike was just getting started with his directional drilling career. Mike, working for another contractor at the time, really enjoyed his craft and thought his wife should give it a try. That’s when Apryl went from the retail world to underground construction.
“The contractor we used to work for said he would give me six weeks to figure it out,” explained Apryl. “I’m sure he had his doubts since we were the first husband-wife crew he had employed. After riding around with a crew for around a month and a half, the boss put us out on a crew of our own, and we’ve been working together ever since.”
Early in Apryl’s drilling career, a co-worker told her that she would never be able to operate bigger rigs, a comment that really stuck with her. Determined to prove him wrong, she continued to hone her skills and take on more challenging and longer drill shots. Her work got the attention of other crew members, and one day on a particularly difficult job, a friend started calling her “Drill Diva" — a nickname she’s had now for 12 years.
“I’m not one to be boastful, but there’s not many jobs that Mike and I haven’t been able to bore,” said Apryl. “If we’re not able to bore a job, there’s a dang good reason for why it can’t be done.”
Starting a business
In 2009, during the midst of the recession, the Fouts decided it was time for a new adventure — self-employment. “We wanted to be able to set our own hours,” said Apryl. “Our two boys were growing up. We wanted to have more flexibility and spend more time with them. The business has given us the opportunity to see them more and go on to work with them as they’ve gotten older.”
“Looking back, it was a bad time to start a business,” said Apryl. “The economy was terrible, and we were doing everything we could to just get by. We would do whatever drilling work we had, and then take on a lot of extra projects. We painted a house, and Mike went as far as building a dog house just to keep money coming in. At the time we had an older, unreliable directional drill that made the work that much harder. It was tough.”
There were a lot of instances in those earlier years of Mike and Apryl pulling a double shift on the jobsite; doing a shot during the day, resting for a couple of hours and then coming back at night to do another one.
It took the support of the whole Fouts family to get to where they are today. Now, their oldest son, Mike, is 21 and works full time with his parents. Before officially hiring him, his parents asked him to spend some time working for another contractor. “It was important to us that Mike got some experience with other people,” said Apryl. “During his time away from the business, he learned a lot and has grown. He holds a CDL license, knows how to operate a drill and runs a crew of his own.”
Apryl says their younger son, Benjamin, now 14 years old, helps wherever he can around the shop. “He loves being around the crew and is always eager to jump in and do whatever is asked of him,” she said. "Right now, we just want him to enjoy being a kid. There will be plenty of opportunities for him to do more when he gets older.”
Willamette Valley Underground has come a long way since those early days. They ditched the old drill they referred to as the “jalopy” and added a Vermeer D6x6, a D9x13 and a D23x30 S3 Navigator horizontal directional drill to their fleet. They also have a Vermeer VX50-500 vacuum excavator, compact excavator, a 5-yard (4.5 m) dump truck and a few trailers.
The type of work Willamette Valley Underground does has also expanded. The crews do a lot of installation work for power and utility companies, but have earned a great reputation for doing on-grade water and sewer line bores. Apryl said Mike deserves a lot of the credit for their track record in that area. “Mike is great with a locator and calculating percentages — the best I’ve ever worked with,” she added.
For their expanding group of employees, the Fouts like to keep things fun around the shop. Every Monday, Apryl brings in homemade goodies for the crew that her mom baked over the weekend. “It’s kind of a tradition around here that we all get together and eat breakfast on Monday mornings,” she said. “We like to work hard and have fun together."
Life on the drill
Even as the company grows, Apryl’s favorite place to be is sitting at the controls, and her panther pink drill and the “Drill Diva” decal certainly get a lot of attention from customers and the public. “The first time I saw it, I was in love,” she said. “It’s a beautiful machine and one that’s easy to operate. Besides the color, I think one of my favorite features is how quiet it runs. It's so much quieter than anything I’ve ever operated. The Vermeer D23x30 S3 is exactly what we needed to continue to grow our business.”
The paint color of Apryl’s panther pink drill has also gotten the company a lot of attention from customers and the public. “It’s unique! Something people haven’t see before and may never see again,” she said. “I hope it also makes other women think about getting into the construction industry. It is certainly a profession with more job security and better pay than the stereotypical retail jobs.”
“It’s going to sound cheesy, but I feel like I’m stepping up onto a throne when I get behind those controls,” said Apryl. “It’s where I’m supposed to be. I’m always excited about everything we’re going to accomplish, and when I step off the drill at the end of the day, it just feels great. After 14 years of drilling, that feeling hasn’t gone away.”
Advice to other women
Apryl says making the leap outside of her comfort zone to a career in construction wasn’t an easy one. When asked about her career change by other women, she tells them to stop being afraid to step outside of what others expect them to be and try something different. “I never, ever played in the dirt when I was a kid; I hated the dirt,” she said. “Now, I love it. I love being outside, coming home as muddy as my sons. It feels good. Don’t let anyone say construction isn’t a place for women. It's one of the most rewarding professions around.”
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