Experienced Driller Marks Major Milestone – After a Lifetime of Drilling, Bruno Zerbin Celebrates 50 Years with
Major Drilling and the Industry
Inside the Thompson Nickel Belt, nestled among the Canadian pines and lakes of Manitoba province, lies Soab Lake. It’s the site of a long-completed drilling project run by a company with a bygone name; however, it is at Soab Lake that a fruitful, 50-year career in global exploration drilling began.
In September 1968, a sturdy 19-year-old farmer named Bruno Zerbin boarded a train bound for Soab Lake. The 500-mile journey swept him away from the familiar Saskatchewan prairies and deposited him at his first job with Midwest Drilling. The adventure was sparked by a tip from a neighbor who said Zerbin could hire on as a drilling helper for $1.35 (CAD) per hour.
“The first drill I ever used was a BBS-2 Boyles standard rig, and it’s still my favorite,” said Zerbin. Having been born on a farm, working in the field made him comfortable with machinery, so drilling was a natural fit.
When he completed the job, there was no more work at the time, so the company sent Zerbin home. The 16-hour train ride returned Zerbin to the familiar wheat and barley fields, but just eight hours later, he was asked to return to the drilling site. He said yes and never looked back.
‘The More You Drill, the More You Learn’
Zerbin became a supervisor by August of the following year. “I had a lot of fun and had a great education,” he recalls. Part of that education was developing his gut instinct for what makes great drillers and effective teams. The work was hard but rewarding with shifts around the clock. Zerbin hauled water for the cook and filled up gas lanterns and oil barrels for heat which kept crews going strong while drilling deep in the Canadian bush.
Those early years at Soab Lake remind Zerbin of a Scottish geologist who, with a thick brogue, dubbed the hard-working drilling crew as “core grinding throttle benders”. The moniker stuck and helped build a camaraderie so unforgettable that the team had specially made red bomber jackets emblazoned with the “Throttle Benders” name. The red jacket is a treasured memento of Zerbin’s 50 years dedicated to the industry.
He became a field supervisor in 1974 and has been troubleshooting ever since. His crews know him as the “drilling police”, a detective who penetrates through problems in drill holes and solves them with intuition and expertise.
Over the years he’s seen a lot of ups and downs. Zerbin says some drillers around him would stop working when things got tough or if bonuses weren’t high enough. Yet, with a high tolerance for cold weather and a tough-as-nails work ethic, Zerbin’s passion for the craft has run deeper than a single job. “I never quit,” said Zerbin. “The more you drill, the more you learn.
A Lot of Us Strive to Be Just Like You.’
While Zerbin built a career of supervising drilling projects, Major Drilling pursued a strategy of expanding geographically as a conventional drilling company. This strategy led to the purchase of several mineral exploration drilling companies and strengthened the company by adding talented and experienced personnel. Beginning in 1997, the company’s focus turned to expanding operations beyond Eastern Canada, including the purchase of Midwest Drilling in 1998. Zerbin stayed on to become an outstanding member of the expanded organization.
Major Drilling’s Senior Vice President of North America and Africa, Kelly Johnson, has known Zerbin for more than 40 years. In a congratulatory letter marking Zerbin’s 50-year work anniversary, Johnson recalled meeting Zerbin on his first day of work in June 1978 after being hired on in the stockroom for Midwest Drilling.
“I still remember you joking, smiling and making me feel at ease,” wrote Johnson. “You have always been a true leader, coach and mentor to many of us, and I know that a lot of us strive to be just like you.”
Zerbin currently works as Major Drilling’s Field Superintendent of the Flin Flon Branch in Manitoba. He has supervised up to 44 rigs and crews at that location. A life of drilling has also led him to sites around the globe including Mongolia, Greenland, Sweden and Finland.
When Major Drilling made a culture shift toward quality, safety, and results in recent years, it became a far better and stronger company. This is due to drillers relying on mentors like Zerbin, with continuity being a hallmark of the company’s workforce. “Bruno embodies much of what our culture is about,” said Johnson.
‘Find a Way To See the Good In Every Job’
Working in an industry like drilling doesn’t come without its hair-raising moments. In 1993, Zerbin oversaw work to drill zinc on the world’s largest island, above the remote 83rd parallel. Beginning at Greenland’s Station Nord, Zerbin made a harrowing 29.5-hour journey in a buggy across fields of sea ice. Lacking the ability to swim, the adventure was even more unnerving. Nevertheless, he helped establish drilling rigs and even a landing strip to allow a Boeing 727 to bring in gear, an historic feat never before accomplished on saltwater ice.
The job found Zerbin’s crew making hole at a point farther north than any other drilling team in the world. Dimatec later chromed, mounted and presented the drill bits used on the job as trophies for Zerbin and his team. He worked in Greenland for six summers, and says he still misses that time to this day.
Fifty years in the industry will cause a person to reflect. Zerbin knows he has built more than a career. He has also built a life enriched by the industry. Gratefully, he acknowledges the support of his wife of 47 years, Gladys, as past jobs would require absences of up to six months, rather than today’s more common three- to four-week rotations. He also warmly remembers working in drilling camps with his father who was a camp cook with Midwest Drilling in the early 1970s.
Drilling became a way of life for the next generation of Zerbins as his son, Barry, is now the Coring Manager for Major Drilling Canada, based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and his son, Brian, works at Major Drilling’s Flin Flon Branch as the Logistics Coordinator. The late fall/winter of 1999-2000 found the trio of Zerbins working in the same camp in Hanson Lake, Saskatchewan. “It’s pretty rare when you can work a job doing something you love with your dad,” said Brian Zerbin. “He’s a great example of hard work and how to make good come from any situation.”
With no retirement date yet in sight, Zerbin simply said, “Find a way to see the good in every job.” He’s a believer in giving a second or even third chance to a team member who is truly interested in the drilling industry. His advice? “Make sure any new people to the organization get a good, even, fair chance to be taught properly.”
Zerbin still occasionally visits his old worksite at Soab Lake and thinks about the times he drilled with his favorite rig and fellow “Throttle Benders”. If you’re ever in Flin Flon, you might be lucky enough to see Zerbin at work sweeping the shop in his downtime. If your luck continues, he might stop for a moment and tell you some tales that make you want to become a driller for life, too.
More than a leading, global exploration drilling company with a prosperous balance sheet, Major Drilling’s best asset is its people, making its successes possible. We tip our hardhats to Bruno Zerbin for his 50 years of dedicated work in the drilling industry, delivered with hard work, expertise, leadership and joy. Congratulations, Bruno!