LISBON FALLS — The man was fly-fishing in 2 feet of water in a North Conway stream when the earth moved under his feet.
He turned to Bruce Hubbard, who'd been walking around, taking pictures.
"You feel that rumbling?" the fisherman asked.
"'You know what that is? A 16-inch water main is going underneath you right now,'" Hubbard said. "He was so fascinated."
Since 1995, when it was the first Maine company to venture into horizontal directional drilling, Enterprise Trenchless Technologies, Inc. has laid thousands of feet of underground pipe. Under the Maine Turnpike. Under the Bowdoin College athletic field. And in Ogunquit, under the ocean.
Since 2006, it's also worked with natural gas, last summer connecting homes and businesses in Lewiston-Auburn. That side of the business is booming.
ETTI is hiring 12 more people this spring, expanding its workforce from 27 to 39.
Next month, President Scott Kelly travels to Las Vegas to represent ETTI, one of the 12 companies up for Equipment World Magazine's contractor of the year award.
"I didn't think we'd be sitting where we are today," said Kelly, 42. "Sometimes my two-year (reality) has surpassed my five- or six-year plan — much faster growth than we anticipated."
Kelly's father, James, founded the company in 1995, when father and son were both electricians. James traveled to Massachusetts and Rhode Island to learn from drill crews there. A year later, he turned the company over to his son.
"Even from the day we bought the machines we were on a learning expedition," Scott Kelly said. There wasn't anyone local to lean on, and there wasn't anyone local with experience to hire.
Many employees have come from construction.
"Our best driller was a truck driver when he came here," said Hubbard, vice president. "We're developing our own people."
The drills are part of hulking machines that can cost three-quarters of a million dollars, according to Kelly. Using a drill bit and a water mixture, they burrow into the ground, steered and monitored by a worker above using a beacon that signals angle and depth. They can drill under buildings and bodies of water or around objects. One drill can tunnel 250 feet an hour.
In a project for the Maine Turnpike Authority, ETTI ran a 12-inch steel gas pipe under four lanes in Portland, without stopping traffic, and navigating around two crude oil pipelines.
"One mistake and you'd have had a catastrophe," Hubbard said. "Everything has to be very well planned."
In another project, ETTI drilled 2,000 feet of new sewer pipe under the ocean in Ogunquit, from one point of land to another. The alternative would have meant ripping up 4 miles of road, Hubbard said — more time and more expense.
Since 2006, the company has had a contract with Maine Natural Gas. It expects to be busy with natural gas pipeline work in the Augusta area, a mix of trench and trenchless jobs, this year.
Two-thirds of its current work is related to natural gas, Kelly said. But, after several flat years, 2012 saw some growth in trenchless water, sewer and utility work, a sign of possible turnaround in the construction market.
He'd like to see more growth there, where the company got its start. The company has traveled as far as New York for work. Plans to expand to a second location have, for now, been put on hold. Its operation is based at 42 Capital Ave.
"We've found ourselves expending right here locally and haven't had to chase that work," Kelly said.