An unexpected call leads to a new enterprise for an entrepreneur with industry ties and household know-how.
It’s not often that a former stay-at-home soccer mom becomes the head of a gas and oilfield support-services company. But that’s exactly where Carol Jones finds herself, a scant four years after she founded VZ Environmental, a company that provides fluid- and dust-containment products and services for drilling companies and contractors.
The growth of VZ Environmental, based in Fort Worth, Texas, stems from a simple formula for business success: Spot an undeveloped market niche/customer need, capitalize on it by developing several innovative products, then provide great customer service out in the field. But that’s deceptively simple; it also required a good idea, a little business savvy, a penchant for risk-taking, a lot of hard work and the help of a longtime oil-industry veteran.
Jones’ unlikely story begins in 2009 with an even unlikelier start: She went from sales rep to unemployed when the oil and gas industry service company she worked for closed her regional office. But the entrepreneurial-minded Jones turned her predicament into a make-lemonade-from-lemons moment. As she faced this crossroads in her young career, Jones got an unexpected call from a former client who needed fluid-containment devices in the Marcellus Shale play in Pennsylvania.
Intrigued by the prospect, she contacted Mark Matson, the owner of ACF Tarp and Awning, a Fort Worth company that makes custom awnings, canopies and truck tarps. Jones knew Matson, who worked in the oilfields for 12 years before starting ACF, because their sons played on the same high school football team.
“So Mark and I put our heads together and designed containment devices for this customer,” Jones recalls. “Then, through relationships I’d established with customers from my old employer, I realized there was a good market for containment devices in the Barnett Shale play here in North Texas.”
At first, Jones envisioned her company as a retail supplier of containment devices, which catch fluids that leak from equipment, lines and tanks on drilling rigs. But customers kept asking for help in setting up and removing the containment units, which led to an “aha moment” for Jones: VZ Environmental should expand into the service business, too.
“We needed to be a service provider because customers needed it,” she says. “And once one operator used us, other major operators in the region jumped on board. … I was able to leverage old contacts from my previous job. Word-of-mouth referrals helped, too. As we grew, I hired a lot of those laid-off employees I used to work with at my old job.”
Two intangibles worked in Jones’ favor to create demand for containment devices. First of all, parts of the Barnett Shale play stand in high-impact, well-developed urban areas. As such, drilling companies want to operate as unobtrusively and inconspicuously as possible to minimize complaints about nuisance factors, such as fluid spills, dust and so forth. Second, those same companies want to be known as proactive environmental stewards, Jones says.
VZ Environmental currently rents and services three basic products developed in conjunction with ACF. The first is called VMatz, a modular unit that consists of a vinyl, chemical-resistant drip pan (floor) with bright-yellow, detachable “drive-over” walls that form a leak-proof barrier. Made of vinyl-encased foam, the walls spring back into place if a vehicle drives over them. Contractors place machines and equipment atop the VMatz, which can be custom-made to various sizes.
Thanks to the detachable VMatz walls, the modular units are much lighter than if they were one whole unit. A typical VMatz with 6-inch-high walls, or berms, might be as small as 4 feet square or as large as 30 by 60 feet. That smaller unit weighs about 8 pounds and the larger one weighs about 175 pounds, Matson says.
“There are other drip- and spill-containment devices out there, but they have rigid walls … and use L-shaped brackets to stay upright,” Jones explains. “But the brackets pose trip and puncture hazards, so we were asked to come up with a better design.
“Mark’s know-how really paid off in the design of the containment units,” she adds, noting that the modular design makes for easy transport, deployment and storage. “This has been vitally important to the success of the business because it increases efficiency and productivity.”
“Time is money when you’re setting up fracking equipment,” Matson says. “When you’re on a drilling pad, you’ve got to get your part of the service done as quickly as possible so the fracking can commence.”
The second product is called VPondz. It features 2- to 4-foot-high walls and is used for higher-volume spill containment. For example, drilling companies might place large water or flowback tanks inside a VPondz unit in case a tank leaks or ruptures. Like VMatz, the size of each unit varies; larger ones might reach 23,000 square feet in size, Matson says.
Crews first erect the walls, then lay out prefabricated rolls of tarp. Then crews vulcanize the tarps together to form a leak-proof barrier. “The goal is to minimize the seaming on the job site because it’s usually hot and windy,” Matson explains. “We’d rather do the seaming in a more controlled environment in our yards, where we do the majority of the fabrication. Sometimes we might have to use a forklift to unload the tarps, but usually they’re light enough for manual lifting.”
The third product, VSoxz, is used primarily to control dust created while unloading silica sand. As its name implies, the device is basically a large sock-like bag made of a proprietary fabric that passively filters dust and other particles. Crews place the custom-made, reusable VSoxz over hatches on bulk-proppant storage units; the bags inflate automatically as silica sand is off-loaded from pneumatic trailers into the storage units. During off-loading, the bags allow positive air pressure to escape, but trap dangerous and unsightly silica-dust particles.
VZ Environmental employees endure rigorous working conditions in the oil and gas fields. In temperatures as high as 120 degrees, they’re required to wear personal protective equipment, such as overalls with reflective tape, impact gloves, goggles, hard hats and steel-toed boots, plus chemical-resistant aprons and face shields as needed. When they work with water, employees also don rain gear.
“It’s a booming industry and unemployment is low, so there’s lot of competition for jobs,” Matson observes. “Guys work long days in hot weather … and it’s a physical job even without being decked out in long sleeves, boots and so forth. Protective clothes don’t breathe well, so it’s hot work out there.”
Keeping employees happy
To compensate for the tough working conditions, VZ Environmental uses various means to attract and retain employees. The company provides vigorous job and safety training and offers competitive pay, plus medical, dental and vision insurance. In addition, the company has strategically positioned its four service yards in areas where the majority of employees live – South Texas, West Texas, North Texas and Oklahoma – as opposed to centrally locating them in various oil and gas shale plays.
“That way our employees can go home every night to their families,” Jones notes. “If the service yards were located in the heart of these shale plays, those employees many times would work five days on, three days off, or some similar kind of rotation. We try to fashion our schedules like traditional companies … so employees don’t have to live in man camps and work consecutive days without going home.”
Even with the strategic yard locations, employees still might have to drive up to three hours to job sites. The company uses GPS tracking in all service vehicles and employees also use smartphones to get their bearings, but phone service can be spotty. So even with all that technology, finding remote drilling sites can be problematic.
“West Texas is pretty darn big and some employees aren’t from around there,” Matson says. “Often enough, the roads they need to find are ranch roads that aren’t on maps or GPS systems. And sometimes directions can be sketchy … like take a left at the cattle guard.”
To get the job done, VZ Environmental relies on a fleet of about 45 trucks – primarily Dodge Ram 1-ton pickups – and 42 trailers of various sizes, most of them made by Big Tex Trailers. To clean containment units, the company also owns 35 trailer-mounted, high-pressure, hot-water jetters made by Alkota Cleaning Systems Inc.; they generate flow of 4 gpm at 3,500 psi and feature two 500-gallon water tanks and a 230,000 Btu burner.
The company does not handle disposal of wastewater; typically, crews hose it into a sump and a disposal company pumps the water out and hauls it to a regulated disposal site, Matson explains.
Looking forward, Jones is optimistic about the company’s future. She expects growth to come from increasing the company’s customer base in regions it already serves (primarily the Barnett, Eagle Ford, Haynesville and Permian shale plays), as well as expanding geographically into northern markets.
“We could easily double our sales in 2014.”