Two brothers help turn around business for Alberta’s Supreme Vac and add other services in addition to its oilfield offerings.
Beset by difficult challenges in its early years, Supreme Vac is now a veteran player in the oilfield services industry in Alberta. The journey from just surviving to outright thriving wasn’t easy, but owner Terry Jeske cites two key factors in the company’s turnaround: investments in productivity-enhancing equipment and a reinvigorating influx of ideas and energy from his twin sons, Braydon and Bryce.
“They turned the company around. … I take no credit at all for it,” Jeske says. “They had all the good ideas.”
The company’s near fall and eventual rise underscores the importance of business diversification and sound investments in equipment that opens up new markets and increases operating efficiencies. But it also speaks to the value of family ties in the face of adversity, as well as the power of old-fashioned determination and resilience.
Things looked promising when Jeske established the business in 2005, just as the oilfield boom was starting to heat up. Buoyed by assurances from oilfield companies that there’d be work available if he invested in a vacuum truck, Jeske took the plunge — and then quickly found himself just trying to stay afloat.
The first bad luck break: The vac truck was delivered months later than promised. “Any work we had lined up just vaporized,” Jeske recalls. “We made a financial commitment to buy the equipment and were left standing there with our hands in our pockets.” When the truck finally arrived, problem No. 2 emerged: lack of quality employees. “Things were busy in the oil patch and there just weren’t many good drivers available,” he says. “We definitely were not getting the cream of the crop.”
The end result was, as Jeske puts it, a lot of sleepless nights. “It was a really shaky, tumultuous time. I had all those payments to make and little revenue coming in,” he says. “Eventually I had to refinance the truck. I just rode it out.”
KEEPING THE FAITH
Why didn’t Jeske just cut his losses by selling the truck and moving on? “I had so much invested in the business, and I thought if the boys took over, they’d turn it around,” he explains.
At the time, Braydon and Bryce, now 27 years old, had recently graduated from high school. While Bryce was gaining valuable experience working for a company that replaced water and sewer lines, Braydon was busy taking business administration courses at a local technical institute. “I asked them to come on board, but they declined,” Jeske says. “But I kept pecking away and pecking away and they finally agreed to do it.”
The boys did, indeed, lead a dramatic turnaround. Today the company employs eight people and owns about $1.7 million worth of equipment, including three vacuum trucks, a hydroexcavating truck and two steam-cleaning units.
Advance Engineered Products outfitted two of the vac trucks, built on tandem-axle Kenworth T800 chassis and featuring a 3,434-gallon carbon steel tank and a 1,400 cfm blower manufactured by Hibon. Cusco built out the third vacuum truck on a tri-axle 2014 Freightliner Coronado SD chassis. It’s equipped with a 4,226-gallon carbon steel tank and a 1,600 cfm Hibon blower.
Foremost built the hydroexcavating truck on a 2015 Freightliner 122 SD chassis with a 13-cubic-yard debris tank, a 2,000-gallon water tank and a 4,000 cfm blower made by ROBUSCHI USA. Hot and Mighty (a division of T. George Podell & Co.) built the two steam pressure-washing units, each housed in an enclosed trailer. The company also relies on a RIDGID SeeSnake pipeline inspection camera system and one RIDGID SeekTech SR-20 pipeline locator.
The fleet of equipment enables Supreme Vac to offer customers a wide range of services. The vacuum trucks handle everything from drilling-mud collection and disposal to vacuuming out tanks and vessels to cleaning up environmental spills. The hydroexcavating truck does daylighting, trenching and potholing. And the steam-cleaning units are used to wash down vehicles and drilling rigs and thaw out lines and valves, along with other deicing efforts, such as thawing out mud pits.
“We just got into hydrovacs last year,” says Braydon. “We were working on a pipeline construction project and we agreed that it would be a good idea to buy a hydrovac not only for that project, but to diversify our services, too.”
Breaking into new markets was not easy. “It’s highly competitive,” says Jeske. “It seems like everyone has a vac truck — a number of people service (oilfield) rigs part time. And it’s tough to compete with guys like that because sometimes they have marginal or substandard equipment and don’t charge what they need to because they tend to view and treat it as a job, not a business.”
But the twins brought a powerful new ally into play: the Internet. In 2011, Braydon created a website that gave the company widespread exposure and still consistently generates business leads. “The website is a huge asset to the company,” Bryce points out. “It gives us a ton of exposure. A lot of new customers that call us find us on the Internet. And if people call you for one service, then you can promote your other services, too.”
The boys also resolved one of the company’s biggest problems at the time: finding qualified workers. They brought in friends as well as other workers they found through word-of-mouth referrals from friends.
“Good drivers and operators are the key to the whole thing,” Jeske says. “Equipment is just a pile of metal if you don’t have employees with the proper skill set or an interest in the business and solving problems.”
CUSTOMER SERVICE COUNTS
But while marketing and new technologically advanced equipment will nudge open the doors to new business, providing excellent customer service keeps those doors wide open, the Jeskes emphasize. “You have to do the job right,” Braydon notes. “You can’t do half a job and expect customers to be happy. When I go out and do a job, I do it as if I was doing it for myself.”
To keep customers happy, the Jeskes also rely on a very simple and basic principle: Always answer the phone. “We pick up our phones all the time — even on long weekends and holidays,” Jeske says. “I’ve actually had customers tell us that they called 10 or 15 vac companies before they called us, and we were the first ones to pick up the phone.”
“It’s a huge differentiator,” adds Braydon. “We always answer our phones, regardless of how busy we are or how late it is — even 3 a.m. And we’ll try to find another contractor for a customer if we’re too busy to do the work.”
Jeske says another significant asset — his sons’ ability to solve problems — always keeps customers coming back. “That’s another key to our success,” he says.
Another less obvious but equally important factor in customer service revolves around keeping abreast of new technology. “We read Gas, Oil & Mining Contractor and other publications and always keep an eye out for equipment that can expand what we do,” Jeske notes.
SLOW AND STEADY GROWTH
The Jeskes see more growth ahead, even as the market for industrial and municipal cleaning becomes increasingly competitive. “With oil prices dropping, more and more guys are coming in from other provinces to service and put pressure on the oilfield and construction markets, or they’re trying to get more work by branching into things we already do,” Braydon points out.
Many companies might see that as a bad thing, but Braydon disagrees. “It’s good for the industry because it will weed out guys who undercut on price and don’t provide good-quality service,” he says. “And when oil prices go back up, those companies will go back to serving the oil industry.”
During the next three to five years, the Jeskes envision slow, evenly paced growth. Another possibility: buying land and building a shop in or near Edmonton. “Right now we rent two different buildings a few blocks apart,” Braydon explains. “But we need time to evaluate and better assess the state of the economy going forward before expanding further into land and equipment.”
Jeske also plans to sell the company to the twins in the next five to eight years, bringing to fruition what he first envisioned back in 2005. “I was hanging in there for my boys,” he says of the company’s turmoil-filled early years. “I knew that if I had a family-run business, I could eliminate all the babysitting and headaches I was dealing with.”
Bonuses, family atmosphere and respect help firm attract, retain good workers
Good employees can make a decent company great. Bad employees can ruin one. Just ask Terry Jeske, the owner of Supreme Vac in Edmonton, Alberta, a company that suffered greatly in its early years due to poor employee performance.
As such, the firm — which cleans municipal and industrial pipelines and also performs oilfield services work — was especially motivated to develop ways to increase the odds of finding not only qualified, but quality employees. Part of the solution came from his twin sons, Braydon and Bryce, who joined the company in 2009 and 2010, respectively, and recruited friends to come and work with them. In lieu of that, they obtained word-of-mouth referrals about reputable workers from their friends, Braydon says.
“You need good people working for you,” he says. “You can have the best equipment in the world, but having competent employees to operate the equipment is the most important thing. And they’re hard to find.
“We try to hire guys we know or have known,” he continues. “We’re not looking for guys who just want to get a paycheck. We want guys who really want to make a difference — want to do a job right and generate repeat business.”
To attract that kind of employee, Supreme Vac pays competitive salaries and also pays annual performance-based financial bonuses. The company also tries to create a family-like atmosphere where employees feel valued and respected. For example, when employees work unusually long shifts — say, 12 hours — the company will buy them meals. The company also periodically takes employees out for team-building dinners, Braydon says.
“We’ve even sent employees on vacations as a reward for great performance,” he notes. “We try to maintain a small-company feel. We don’t want to treat our guys like numbers. If you have employees that respect you, they’ll also respect the equipment and your customers. So you have to treat them with dignity and respect.”
In instances where the company interviews prospective employees without a word-of-mouth reference, it requires a drug test. The company also obtains a driver’s abstract that shows traffic violations, accidents and such. “We also ask them point blank if they do drugs, drink or smoke,” Bryce says. “And if they say, ‘No,’ I blatantly ask them,
‘Why not?’ You can tell if they’re telling the truth or not.”