Oklahoma’s Key Welding sees big growth as it finds a niche in providing services to oilfield companies
Even though it happened more than 25 years ago, Bill Key still vividly remembers the first welding job his company, Key Welding Inc., performed in the oilfields of Oklahoma.
“I cut open some doors on a control house and welded the conductor pipe onto a drilling rig,” he recalls. “It took me about four hours, and I made $100.”
A lot has changed since that day in March 1989. Key’s business, based in Vici, Oklahoma, has expanded considerably. It now serves customers throughout western Oklahoma, southern Kansas and the Texas Panhandle. Owned by Key and his wife, Leann, the company also runs two branch offices in Hobbs and Carlsbad, New Mexico. In addition, Key Welding runs 10 welding trucks and employs 15 people. And two years ago, Key built a nearly 15,000-square-foot fabrication shop next to an existing smaller facility.
But through it all, one thing has not changed for Key: an unrelenting focus on customer service coupled with boundless confidence in his ability to succeed.
“You put out a good product, be on the job on time and put in 10 hours of work for 10 hours of pay,” Key says. “That’s pretty much how we’ve made it. We provide good, quality service and never take advantage of customers. We work for a lot of good companies, and if you take care of them, they take care of you. It’s just that simple.”
FORGING A FUTURE
Key got introduced to welding as a high school student in 1979, working part time at Everett’s Welding, an outfit owned and operated by his future father-in-law, Everett Hutchens. The shop was in Vici, which is located about 100 miles northwest of Oklahoma City.
“I really liked welding,” he says. “It really intrigued me … I was fascinated by how you could put two pieces of metal together and make them stick.”
After graduating from high school in 1982, Key earned some oilfield experience while working as a roughneck on drilling rigs for about a year. Then he went back to work for Hutchens. Displaying the business instincts that would serve him well in the years ahead, he told his father-in-law that the oilfields around Vici represented a prime market opportunity for new business.
“I told him I wanted to work the drilling rigs,” Key says. “I told him, ‘You’ve got to believe in me.’ I said I’d guarantee that if we bought a welding truck, we’d pay it off in a year. And we did,” he adds, noting the truck cost about $32,000 and he earned about $50,000 doing oilfield welding.
Roughly six years later, Key told Hutchens he wanted to strike out on his own and service just oilfield customers and build drilling rigs. “He told me, ‘Go for it,’ and I’ve been chasing rigs ever since March 13, 1989,” Key says.
“Everett was my mentor – a pretty good guy, someone I looked up to,” he adds. “We butted heads frequently. But in the end, he was still the man that helped guide me in the right direction. He gave me a lot of the knowledge I needed to run my own business.”
STARTED OUT SMALL
Starting out with virtually nothing wasn’t easy. His marketing strategy was as basic as can be: Head out to drilling rigs. Ask rig officials if there was any welding work to be done. Hand out business cards. Repeat. Day after day, week after week, month after month.
“Basically, I just busted my butt,” he says, summing it up. “I had to hustle constantly. There was no time to relax. During one six-month-long stretch, I don’t think I saw Vici in the daylight more than three or four times.”
But diligently making the rounds paid off. After two years, Key felt confident enough – and sufficiently sound financially -– to build a 7,000-square-foot shop. And after five years, he felt he’d established himself in the industry.
But Key hit a critical turning point after about 10 years in business. Run down from the rigors of years of working 70- to 90-hour weeks, he caught pneumonia, recovered, then caught it again. “I was killing myself trying to keep it all together,” he says. “So Leann and I talked, and we decided to grow the business by hiring some people.
“I was physically and mentally worn out and couldn’t do any more than what I was doing,” he continues. “So it was time to either slow down or get bigger by hiring some employees.”
A GROWING FLEET
The couple chose the latter option and never looked back. As the company expanded, so did its stable of trucks and equipment. Today, Key Welding owns 10 Ford welding trucks with special welding beds fabricated in-house. Each truck is equipped with welding units made by the Lincoln Electric Co.; they’re powered by four-cylinder diesel engines built by Perkins Engines Inc.
Key prefers cutting torches manufactured by Victor Technologies International Inc. “They’re durable tools – a good quality product,” he notes. “They’re the Cadillac of cutting torches. Shoot, I’ve got some Victor torches that are 20 years old and still work great.”
The company’s newer, larger fabrication shop is the hub of the business. It’s large enough that customers can drive trucks inside, where the company’s employees rebuild truck beds, piping and other components. “Pretty much anything that comes along, we can repair it, from frac tanks to oilfield equipment, such as mud tanks, substructures and derricks,” Key notes.
The shop is well equipped with machines that boost productivity and efficiency, including:
- One 5-ton-capacity overhead crane, made by Bridge Crane Specialists.
- One shear machine for cutting iron, made by Betenbender Manufacturing Inc.
- One 250-ton press brake for bending metal, also made by Betenbender.
- Three forklifts, two made by Genie (a Terex Corp. brand) and one built by Caterpillar Inc.
The Betenbender press brake is used to bend metal plates, which is faster than welding two plates together. The unit is capable of bending metal plates that are up to 3/8-inch thick and 12 feet long. Before the plates are bent, workers use the shear to cut them.
“It’s way faster than cutting them with an [acetylene] torch,” Key notes. “In fact, using both machines together cuts fabrication time by a third or in half, as opposed to welding parts together or cutting them with torches. The overhead crane also is important to our efficiency.”
HARD WORK, LONG HOURS
Like most oil and gas workers, Key Welding employees put in long hours – 50 to 60 a week minimum. The welders are certified by the state of Oklahoma, plus they receive extensive training in-house before they’re allowed to work on drilling rigs. And the training doesn’t just cover the technical aspects of welding; it also centers on building a strong work ethic and organizational skills – traits that impress customers on job sites and lead to repeat business, Key says.
“What sets us apart is we train our people pretty heavily – about six months – before we send them out in the field,” he explains. “But we teach them not only how to weld, but how to work.
“A lot of people know how to weld, but not how to work,” he continues. “You have to set the pace and guide them in the right direction. You have to know the next move before you finish the one you’re on. You don’t flip up your hood and then wonder what to do next.”
Key concedes that younger workers think he’s hard on them. “But I’ve had quite a few of them come back years later and tell me they were glad I didn’t give up on them because I helped make them what they are today,” he says. “It helps to push them and guide them in the right direction, just like my father-in-law did for me.”
Looking ahead, Key envisions a day when he hands off the business to his three sons: Zak, age 27; Nik, 23; and Dakota, 18. He also foresees more growth for the company, perhaps expanding farther out geographically if it makes sense. But if growth does occur, he says he’d prefer slower, more modulated growth in order to maintain the company’s high expectations for customer satisfaction.
“I’m pretty comfortable where we’re at,” he notes. “But there’s always room for growth – you never rule that out. But how much is enough growth? That’s the million-dollar question.”