Saskatchewan-based Southern Spur Enterprises uses specialized vacuum trucks to help customers out of tough situations.
Gerald Grassl didn’t want to leave Lashburn, Saskatchewan. He was familiar with it, he knew people and he was familiar with the major industry in the northern Canadian region — oil and gas exploration and production.
Grassl, who was working for another company driving vacuum trucks, wanted to set out on his own and saw the opportunity for success as the market was taking off in 2004. He launched his company, Southern Spur Enterprises, at that time.
“He had a vision about starting his own company, and he went and talked to a few prominent people who were in charge of some of the oil companies in the area and pitched his idea to them,” says Jim Donald, field supervisor for Southern Spur. “They told him that if he built the trucks they would give him a chance, and that’s how it all started.”
The company started with one sludge hauler, but the fleet has since expanded to over 20 trucks serving a 100-mile area around Lashburn and Lloydminster. “Basically once you get outside of this little area, there isn’t a whole lot of other industry,” Donald says. “Everyone that works here is oil and gas oriented.”
GETTING TO WORK
The company, with 38 employees, has a primary focus on tank cleaning, which accounts for up to 80 percent of the business.
Crude oil extracted from underground formations commonly contains sediments such as sand that are extracted with the oil. The sand settles to the bottom of the storage tanks and accumulates, eventually blocking the tanks’ ports if they are not cleaned.
Crews attach a hydraulic stinger to the lower portion of the tank wall. Water pressure mixes the sand and turns it into slurry. “Our vac trucks can then suck that out of the tank,” Donald says. Crews will do about 20 stings a day.
The company’s sludge haulers serve oilfield production facilities. “We go in and clean the facility out and we haul the sludge from them to a nearby disposal plant.”
Southern Spur uses four disposal plants situated around the area, but the Lloydminster and Unity disposal plants are the company’s primary
“It saves us traveling time when we’re loaded by having nearby facilities,” Donald says. “The whole trick to the game is to get to the tanks and then to the disposal site in a timely fashion so that you’re not gouging the customer too bad for travel time.”
Southern Spur has proven it’s willing to take on any tank-cleaning job, even those that other companies can’t handle.
In one case, other companies were unsuccessful cleaning a tank at a location just outside Lashburn. “It turned out to be a fairly unique job. We went there with a crew and pulled the door to the tank back and found that it was full of concrete.”
Crew members took turns jackhammering the concrete into small enough pieces for it to be loaded into a vac truck. “That job took us a week to do, but no one else would tackle the job.”
Donald says there wasn’t any complaining from his crew members, and it helped the company secure that customer for future jobs. “The oil company was more than happy to have us continue working for them on a regular basis. I really have to take my hat off to the crew. They went right to work on that job and got it done.”
TRUCKS, TRUCKS AND MORE TRUCKS
Southern Spur now has a fleet of over 20 specialized trucks that help it tackle difficult jobs.
“We’ve had some steady growth and went from having one sludge hauler to having six,” Donald says. Sludge haulers are different than a normal straight vacuum truck, having a double-helix drop belly rather than a standard cylindrical tank. “As the company has grown we’ve added straight vac trailers and now we’ve added self-contained vac trucks.”
In total, the company has 11 self-contained vacuum trucks, five straight vacuum trailers and six sludge haulers. Acro Trailer of Springfield, Missouri, built all the trailers.
“We also have a couple pressure trucks that we run in conjunction with some of the straight vacs,” Donald says.
The self-contained vacuum trucks set the company apart from its competitors.
“That stands us alone in the field as far as competitiveness,” Donald says. “There’s a lot of competition in our area because of the amount of work. We’ve set ourselves apart by going the extra mile and making it so you don’t have to have three trucks on the site, you can have just one. The cost savings are huge.”
Being competitive also means having a crew that is trained properly and not afraid to work long hours. Donald says Southern Spur has both. “The training is fairly extensive, plus crew members are required to be at our monthly safety meeting that Gerald runs.”
When hired, crew members must undergo certification for Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), Carriage of
Dangerous Goods (CDG), first aid, H2S and confined space.
“Everybody also has to be oriented by every oil company that we work for, and we probably work for 10 or 15 oil companies,” Donald says.
As field supervisor, Donald is normally making sales calls and dropping in on job sites to make sure work is going smoothly. “If it’s a big job, I usually organize the job and stay on site. I work with the owner to ensure that all health and safety regulations are met in the field on a regular basis also.”
Grassl doesn’t do much work in the field anymore. He can usually be found in the office handling the day-to-day operations.
Besides the field crews and the office staff, Southern Spur also has a shop with three full-time mechanics.
“It’s actually a huge savings having our own mechanics,” Donald says. “We run them 10 hours a day, and they would work longer if need be. We have them go five days a week and one guy is on call over the weekend.”
TIME TO DIVERSIFY
With the current state of crude oil prices in flux, Donald doesn’t see much more the company can do in the industry and sees its growth coming from other industries.
“At this time we’re probably not going to be doing a lot of changing and diversifying unless we find something to diversify into other than the oilfields,” Donald says. “The downturn in the price of oil has put the crunch on a lot of companies here.”
Southern Spur hasn’t had to cut any jobs since oil prices dropped, but crews are working shorter shifts, going from 12- to 18-hour days down to 8- or 10-hour days, and the company hasn’t hired anyone since the slowdown.
“We’re probably one of the fortunate companies,” Donald says. “We haven’t had as big of a slowdown as the majority of service companies here have.”