Photos and story by Kent Brick
The boom in western North Dakota may be fueled by oil, but its blaze is stoked by small businesses. They are delivering the goods and services that keep oil-related commerce humming. Electric cooperatives serve many of these small businesses. We profile three of them here.
- Portal Service
- Badlands Steel
- Found It Now
- Power Supply
Doug (left) and Chad Johnson say Portal Service heavy equipment and industrial service work is totally devoted to the oil industry activity.
Portal Service fully engaged in boom
Operating from Lignite near the Canadian border, Doug and Chad Johnson’s Portal Service Company was on the outer edge of previous oil drilling surges in the region. The current Bakken oil boom, however, has surrounded them and they are mobilized to get critical equipment where it is needed.
Portal Service was founded in 1963 and has continued to expand its services with the rapid growth in the North Dakota oil industry. The company is headquartered in Lignite (Burke County) and also has an office in Tioga (Williams County). Portal Service, a member of Burke-Divide Electric Cooperative, Columbus, is a leading provider of oil field, energy infrastructure and heavy civil construction services throughout the Williston Basin and Bakken regions. The company sells, installs and rents oil field equipment and supplies and also distributes, installs and maintains HG pumping units throughout the United States.
Doug Johnson joined Portal Service in 1965 and purchased it in 1970. “This is about my fifth oil boom” Doug says, with a smile. He is company president, and his son, Chad, is vice president. They know this boom has enduring qualities and they have put their 75 employees in the high activity mode that is responding to the growth surge.
Doug says the HG pumping unit has a unique energy-saving design, and is a popular item his company distributes and installs. “We do a lot of location sites, do a lot of dirt work, and do a lot of trucking and moving equipment. We set pumping units every day,” he says.
Before the boom, Doug said their varied services included installing gates at border crossings from Minnesota to Montana. For now, that kind of work isn’t necessary for the company’s survival. “Today, everything we do is related to oil,” Doug says.
Chad Johnson said attractive wages and benefits is key to keeping their growing workforce intact. He said manpower demands in the area have resulted in “job jumpers.”
“It’s getting harder to manage people because of that,” he said.
Heidi Robbins, member services representative for Burke-Divide Electric, says Portal Service is playing a role in helping the cooperative manage the higher volume of power line materials it needs for oil country expansion. “We've relied on them to bring their cranes over to unload our big reels of wire and transformers,” Robbins says.
Getting many new miles of power lines extended to rural customers is a part of achieving manageable oil country growth, according to the Johnsons.
“We need infrastructure and lots of it,” Chad says, including power lines, water lines, phone lines and rural roadways.
Late last year, Inc. Magazine recognized Portal Service for the third time in five years for its national standing in energy services company growth. The magazine reported that Portal Service grew by 149 percent in the past three years.
Mountrail-Williams Electric Cooperative representative Chris Brostuen, left, and other cooperative employees, keep busy these days meeting the power needs of members like Stew Vachal and his Williston companies.
Industrial Equipment Sales expands with conditions
The view from Stewart Vachal’s modest office in north Williston reveals a bustling light industrial sector of the city and booming development stretching out over the landscape. At this location, Vachal – with Rory Anderson and Dean Klein – operates three industrial services companies that have become immersed in meeting the equipment and transportation needs in the Bakken oil development region. The companies are served by Mountrail-Williams Electric Cooperative, Williston.
As Vachal reflects on these companies, and what they will be doing as the oil industry remains on its robust path, he says adaptation is the key. “We’ll continue to do whatever it takes, whatever is needed,” he says, adding that moving with business conditions and getting the people to support these moves, is their direction.
Vachal and his partners’ businesses include:
• Industrial Equipment Sales & Service (IESS) – supplier of high-quality products and services to the oil and gas industry for more than 10 years. Vachal says this currently involves a wide range of services, including work on natural gas engines, gas compressors, fresh water injection pumps, salt water disposal, and oil and water transfer. IESS has four welders, and eight mechanics who go out in the field and work on engines and pumps.
• Badlands Steel – which they developed in 2007, when a growing need in the Williston area prompted IESS customers to make requests for a steel fabrication company. The division fashions components and parts from new steel, aluminum and stainless steel, and performs weld repairs and creations for many products and purposes. Badlands Steel equipment includes: press brake, shear, auto feed band saw and a plasma table.
• ECO AFS (alternative fuel systems), which is a distributorship for an innovative energy-saving bi-fuel system. GTI Bi-Fuel System enables operators of heavy-duty diesel engines to substantially reduce operating costs and lower emissions by running dual fuel. It involves using lower-cost, cleaner-burning natural gas or propane with a fuel source mix without engine modification or voiding your factory warranty.
Together, these companies employ 62 people, and are growing. Vachal values the employees’ role, and he works hard to keep them secure and even comfortable in a congested community. “My main concern is to take care of our employees. They are the ones who build our company,” Vachal says. He says when they look at adding more employees, they struggle with housing availability, like other employers in the area.
Vachal, who has a lifetime of raising his own family and being a part of the Williston business community, wants the community to keep its focus on that.
“There’s a lot of good people coming here. Now if we can get their families here, that’s what we need to do,” Vachal says.
Ryan Heller’s Found It Now business focuses on oil equipment hoses and belts, and has a growing range of other equipment parts it has on hand – or will make – for customers.
Found It Now matches Heller’s drive
Calling his company “Found It Now” matches Ryan Heller’s drive, personality and dreams. This Williston native was first exposed to commerce in oil industry parts and services as a young man. Still young, with a wife and small children, Heller started retail sales of hoses, belts and small machinery parts out of his townhouse garage. He worked with industrial contacts, and was a one-man procurement, delivery and service bureau. He experienced success by staying closely engaged in his customers’ satisfaction with the products he was furnishing, the prices he was charging, and the assurances he was backing.
It has led to a retail and customer service center in a Williston industrial area, with ample warehouse space, and 13 employees hustling to fill and furnish component orders. Heller has simply adhered to a “golden rule” based business philosophy.
“You have to take a chance and you take a chance realizing that if you just do the right thing and take care of people, they will take care of you. That's the main thing that I always thought was important,” Heller says.
Found It Now is not necessarily about a particular product line. It is about the experience Heller wants to create for every customer. “We operate on a customer basis. If they need it and we can get it for them, and we can save them money and get them in and out the door in a proper time, why can't we sell anything to them? So, that’s why I went with ‘Found It Now.’ ”
The “Found It Now” product niche currently centers on furnishing crimping hydraulic hoses, and belts for pumping and other industrial units. They also get work done on cylinders, pumps and valve parts that are vital to oil and industrial equipment operation.
Heller says he is pleased to operate his business and treat his employees as family. He wants this resource base to stay intact for what he believes will be a long stretch of busy times in the western North Dakota oil region.
“This is going to be here for the rest of our lifetime, as far as I’m concerned,” Heller says. He smiles broadly when he thinks about what’s coming in Williston. “My thing is to keep growing. I don’t think you should ever put a limit on yourself as to what you can accomplish. I’ve always dreamt big.”
Power supply boost coming to western N.D.
From Basin Electric Power Cooperative report
Greatly expanded power supply requirements in the western North Dakota oil boom region are being addressed by construction of two new power generation units for Basin Electric Power Cooperative and local cooperative members.
Construction began in June on the Pioneer Generations Station facility, located approximately 15 miles northwest of Williston, directly adjacent to a gas processing facility called Stateline I currently under construction.
The Pioneer Generation Station, a 45-megawatt natural gas-fired peaking station, will primarily be used to support the local transmission system and serve loads developing in the area.
“The unit would incorporate a synchronous clutch. If needed, the turbine could be disconnected from the generator, and the generator would act as a motor, thus providing much-needed voltage support to the area,” said Myron Steckler, Pioneer Generation Station project manager.
The facility is located directly adjacent to a gas processing facility – Stateline I – currently under construction. Both facilities will be tied into a Mountrail-Williams Electric Cooperative substation.
Commercial operation of the Pioneer Generation Station is planned for early 2013.
Basin Electric is also building a natural gas-fired peaking station west of Watford City.
Last month, construction began on the Lonesome Creek Station, also a 45-megawatt plant. It will be tied into the local distribution system through a 115-kilovolt transmission line and is similar to the 45-megawatt Pioneer Generation Station being constructed near Williston.
Like the Pioneer Station, Lonesome Creek Station will primarily be used to provide voltage support and also to provide generation to support the increasing loads developing in the area
This plant is scheduled for commercial operation in mid-2013.