Andrews & Foster, based in Athens, Texas, is a 76-year-old family-owned company that specializes in water well drilling, cathodic protection drilling and groundwater exploration development. Ashley Foster, vice president of the company, is a fourth generation leader of the business, which was founded by her great grandfather. Her progression into the role, however, wasn’t nearly as natural and long-awaited as are most paths to the family business.
Foster has a passion for public health, and after studying political science and public health at George Washington University, she stayed in Washington, D.C., professionally immersing herself in those fields. She long considered her career path completely unrelated to Andrews & Foster, but over the years she says she came to realize that both realities were considerably intertwined. “My entire life I listened to the challenges and frustrations of my grandfather and father, and I saw that it was within my power to alleviate some of those challenges in ways they’d never considered,” Foster says. “So, I packed my bags, moved back to Texas, and the rest is history. I like to jokingly tell my dad he is finally getting a return on his investment.”
Now that she helps her father, Donald Foster, oversee the company of around 30 employees, she’s come to spend more time on the compliance division than anything else. For small drilling businesses, she says it’s a critically important area due to the dangers drilling crews are exposed to on a regular basis. “In a small business, a mistake impacts everyone. When one of us has a bump in the road, we all do,” she says. For that reason, she takes the responsibility of educating employees about safety very seriously.
As for working with her family every day, she says it can be tough to separate work and home life when you see your co-workers in both environments. “It is very difficult for my dad and I not to spend Christmas lunch discussing how we are going to tackle challenge X or problem Y, but the great news is that my mom does a great job of keeping us in line.” At the same time, she says their definition of family goes beyond the last name and makes the work she does all the more enjoyable. “If we did not genuinely love the people we work with and for, there’s no doubt in my mind we would have given up years ago. It is a true pleasure to come to work every single day and not only get to be with my dad, who is my best friend, but to get to be with all of our employees, who in many ways are like aunts, uncles and cousins to me. We all know each others’ business, for better or worse.”
Q. What do you do and what keeps you coming back every day?
A. I have many roles in this business. In no particular order, I am the human resources, recruitment, compliance, health and safety, and information technology departments. I keep coming back every day because I know it will be different and more challenging than the day before. I am never bored. I also take my role as a team member very seriously. People are counting on me to show up and to perform to the best of my ability. I am a leader in this company, and if I do not put my best foot forward every single day, others will follow in my footsteps.
Q. What does a typical workday involve?
A. Unlike my father, who spends quite a bit of time in the field, my typical workday is spent in the office. One of my greatest challenges is the recruitment and retention of a talented workforce. To that end, a large part of my time is spent conducting phone and in person interviews. As the information technology department, I spend time troubleshooting the tech related issues faced by employees. All of my foremen submit reports via iPad using a custom reporting application that we built. As the compliance and health and safety departments, I update and modify our health and safety programs on an ongoing basis. I work with our general manager to ensure we are in complete compliance with all of our clients’ contractual requirements. I work closely with our insurance company to make sure all our I’s are dotted and our T’s are crossed. Because I admittedly love all things public policy, I get to spend a great deal of time following federal and state regulatory changes that impact us. I subscribe to hundreds of construction and drilling industry blogs and newspapers, and am forever checking in on what’s happening at the DOT and OSHA. I also get to spend a great deal of time looking at the financial health of our company and developing our long-term plan to ensure we are here for another 76 years.
Q. What does it take to succeed in what you do?
A. The short answer is patience! It takes patience! The long answer is it takes a willingness to work with all types of people, from your clients to your employees. It takes a willingness to clearly communicate expectations and help people succeed.
Q. What do you wish you knew when you started?
A. I wish I knew just how much fun I would be having.
Q. What tool can you not imagine working without?
A. My team members and technology are essential to our success. We are extremely advanced when it comes to technology. I operate this company under the premise that if New York can work with Tokyo, those of us in Athens, Texas, can work with and for anyone we want to. So far, everyone on our team has been willing to learn and adapt to my insistence that we move everything to the cloud. All of our operations are run through a customized intranet that I created. At any given time, I can log in to the intranet and know exactly what is happening with every single piece of equipment I own and every single employee I employ. Learning about technology is a hobby for me, so I’m constantly trying out new things to see what does/does not work for us.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
A. Never stop reading and asking questions.
Q. How would you describe the present state of the industry?
A. I believe the industry is undergoing some major changes. With our workforce rapidly aging, we face a critical shortage of talented and skilled individuals who understand the complexities of successfully drilling and installing a water well. I also believe the industry will continue to face increased scrutiny from federal and state regulatory agencies. Gone are the days when the water well driller can stay under the radar. We are more sophisticated, more visible, and more important than ever before. As the importance of water continues to dominate the global news cycle, water well drillers will slowly gain the recognition they so desperately deserve.