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Palmer Bit – Six Decades of Manufacturing in Williston

posted Jeff Zarling on 27 March 2017
Palmer Bit – Six Decades of Manufacturing in Williston
Chances are you have seen the Palmer Bit sign sitting proudly atop a small shop in the southwest corner of 26th Street and 2nd Avenue West in Williston. Although it would be easy to assume they make or sell bits for the oil and gas industry, the company manufactures drill bits for the water well, geothermal and mining industries.

Palmer Bit Company is a family owned and operated company that manufactures drill bits locally and sells them domestically and throughout the world. The company has experienced many opportunities, challenges and changes over the six decades of its existence, including the transfer of ownership from Dick Palmer and his family to Kevin Christensen and his family.

Born in the First Boom

In 1956, five years after the birth of the oil and gas industry in North Dakota, Bob Palmer started Palmer Bit Company to manufacture drag bits for the seismograph market. Activity was brisk as oil and gas operators descended on the Williston Basin to take advantage of the newly discovered oil play.

Activity ebbed and flowed over the years and by 1975, Bob’s son Dick Palmer left teaching and came back to help in the family business. In 1977, Kevin Christensen joined the company while he was a junior in High School. The company now operated with a team of four people as the company continued to grow.

Transition and Growth in the Second Boom

In 1978, Bob passed away and not long after, Mike Palmer joined his brother in the family business. The brothers shared ownership and worked to grow the business. Palmer Bit remained primarily a local business with most of their clients within a 150 mile radius but experienced significant growth through the period of 1977 to 1982.

With the second oil boom in North Dakota, the company grew its traditional business and expanded into re-tipping rock bits as well as selling a line of bits for portions of the oil drilling in the Williston Basin. The company grew to about twelve people.

Diversifying After ’85 Bust

“Then in 1985 it just stopped, they had to lay everyone off but me,” recalls Christensen. It is a time that many in Williston remember all too well and not fondly. Palmer Bit spent the next fifteen years grinding it out and expanding into new market segments.

“Water well and mining was a small part of the business back then, but as seismic and the oilfield shrunk, they grew,” explained Christensen. “The Estevan coal mine became a big part of the business.”

In the late 1990’s, geothermal emerged as a growing market opportunity for both residential and commercial heating and cooling. Many of the same water well drillers that used Palmer’s bits starting using them for geothermal drilling.

Drilling a water well, the driller will take their time to ensure the best well possible. Some would argue it’s an art form. In contrast, geothermal loops are more numerous per project and can be drilled more quickly.

Additionally, the federal government offered tax credits for energy efficiency improvements, geothermal being among them. The market for drill bits for geothermal drilling exploded throughout the early 2000’s as did that portion of Palmer’s business.

Palmer Bit further diversified their offerings by picking up a line of polycrystalline diamond compact (PDC) drill bits. Although not manufactured by Palmer Bit, the fixed cutter bit works well in hard formations, whereas Palmer’s line of drag bits work well in soft formations, and allowed them to offer a complete line of solutions for their customers.

Ball State Breakthrough

In the early 2000’s, Ball State University started a project to replace their four coal-fired boilers with a geothermal solution. It was the largest geothermal project at the time including approximately 3,600 boreholes 400 to 500 feet deep completed in two phases.

One of Palmer Bit’s customers was involved in drilling a portion of the project and found significant challenges. There were varied formations including soft clays and hard consolidated rock formations.

Known for speed in soft formations, drag bits would work in the clays but not the rock formations. Effective in the rock formations, traditional PDC bits are single-bodied bits with circulation ports that get plugged in clay formations when used in geothermal drilling that lacks water or circulation fluids.

While consulting on location in Indiana for the project, Dick Palmer discussed the problems with Kevin Christensen back at the shop in North Dakota over the phone. Given their supply of diamond cutters and experience repairing traditional PDC bits, the two married the design of a drag bit with polycrystalline diamond cutters and invented the Diamond Devil PDC drill bit.

The patented Diamond Devil PDC open wing bit combined the speed of a drag bit with the durability of a PDC creating a revolutionary new drill bit for the geothermal drilling market. The business exploded as the Diamond Devil PDC led the expansion of Palmer Bit into numerous new geographies throughout the United States.

Evolving Ownership

In 2003 with the business growing in numerous market segments, Dick Palmer and Mike Palmer decided to split the business. Mike pursued the oilfield market that was seeing renewed growth with the recently discovered Elm Coulee Field in Sidney, Montana and started Mike Palmer Petroleum Services and Tools. Dick Palmer retained Palmer Bit focusing on all other market segments outside of oil.

As Dick Palmer evaluated the retirement and succession plan, Christensen factored into that vision and purchased 50% of the company in 2005. Now part owner of the company, Christensen was brought into the decision-making processes over time. He and Palmer worked through business decisions including investment in a formal marketing strategy, professional advertising designs, and trade shows display. Additionally, Christensen spearheaded an initiative to expand into international markets that has had a significant impact on the growth of the business.

By 2012, Palmer was ready to retire. Guided through a process with their professional advisers, Christensen acquired the remaining half of the business. Today, Christensen works alongside Sheila, his wife, and their two sons in their family-owned business, much like it was sixty years ago, albeit a new family to carry on the legacy.


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