Canadian woman launches TKS Industries with no experience and develops it into a successful oilfield services company, building respect along the way.
“I was very naïve when I came into this business,” says Stec, owner of TKS Industries in Lacombe, Alberta. “I didn’t see the potential in the beginning.”
Stec purchased her first tandem-axle vacuum truck in 2003, just hoping to make a profit in a short period of time and get her investment back. Her former husband, a drilling engineer, helped her with his contacts in the oil and gas industry. By 2005, she saw that the rate of return on her investment was substantial and she decided it was time to build the business.
The company now serves a radius of about 1,000 miles from its headquarters, traveling throughout Alberta, northern British Columbia and southern Saskatchewan. “Today, my business involves heavy-duty vacuum and water trucks,” Stec says. “We focus strictly on the drilling side.”
GROWING THE FLEET
Stec moved the company to an industrial park in Lacombe in 2005 and soon added five trucks, but this time she went with tri-axle trucks instead of two axles. “I learned that the popular truck was a tri-axle. The industry demands those.”
The company now has a fleet of 10 vacuum trucks and 10 water hauling trucks. The water trucks are a mix of Kenworth, Freightliner, Western Star and Peterbilt, all with Bowie 4-inch pumps and tanks built and manufactured by a mix of Liquid Partners (formerly Protank), Goldec Hamms, Jasper Tank and Wabash National. The vacuum trucks are also a mix of Kenworth and Western Star with Hibon 820 and 827 pumps and tanks built by Westech Vac Systems and Rebel Metal Fabricators.
The water trucks are used to haul water and make the mud required at the rig, while vacuum trucks pull that mud back in and take it away for disposal, making TKS Industries a one-stop shop for oil companies in the region. Stec says a majority of the jobs the company takes on last between 10 and 15 days.
TKS has found a unique way to dispose of the drilling mud. While many oilfield services companies transport the mud from drilling operations to a designated landfill, TKS provides its customers the option of land-applying. Stec says the material is treated and often sprayed on farm fields as fertilizer. “We have been very conscious about the environment.”
An independent environmental firm monitors and tests the mud to determine if it is suitable for land-applying. Stec says it’s the oil companies that will work out the details with the local farmers.
LONG DAYS ON THE ROAD
When TKS operators leave for a job, they pull along a 10- by 30-foot trailer to be used as their home during time in the field. An operator will stay on site for 21 days and then have seven days off. Other operators are brought in to the work site to fill in for the main operator on those days off.
Operators are on call 24 hours a day. “Sometimes a worker might work just two hours a day, but is there on site if needed,” Stec says. “We have a crew boss and safety coordinator, and those two will take operators in and out of the work site so the trucks and portable home can stay on location.”
To coordinate all the moving with her crew, Stec counts on solid communication from everyone in the company. Her management team includes an office manager, an accountant, field supervisors and crew bosses. “I’m the boss, but the culture at TKS is more of a family-run operation,” Stec says. “It is casual with an open-door policy.”
Because of the hours and travel involved, it can be tough finding qualified field operators. The company requires operators to have, at minimum, a Class III driver’s license, but most have a Class I. New hires will go through a week or two of orientation working with a senior operator before they can go on their own.
“Work is seasonal,” Stec says. “The operators who chose to work in this industry understand it and build a life accordingly. It is a certain culture and is very distinct.”
The busy time for TKS is the winter. “Everything is frozen and it’s easier to drill and move heavy equipment around,” Stec says.
There is a slow time from the middle of March through the middle of May, when very little drilling is done and oil operations come to a halt because of the spring thaw.
“In those two months we bring our equipment home, clean it up and do major repairs,” Stec says. “We do annual inspections and certify equipment every year. That is a requirement for the Department of Transportation. We’ll get it all done and by the time June comes around we’ll be ready to go back to work.”
To obtain jobs, TKS must go through a bidding process with the oil companies, and reputation helps in securing those bids.
“Your reputation is very significant in this industry,” Stec says. “We need to meet all of their requirements, and our crews do that and do it well every time.”
SAFETY IS A PRIORITY
Communication on the job site is critical when it comes to safety and because of that, TKS has a full-time safety coordinator. With operators in the field sometimes hundreds of miles away, supervisors talk by telephone regularly to discuss any issues that might arise.
“This is important because operators working on a site can be ignored or forgotten,” Stec says. “When we talk on the phone with them, they can discuss concerns or issues. On a well there is a chain of command and sometimes a worker can feel intimidated. If our operator doesn’t feel like things are being handled in a safe manner on a job site they can contact our crew boss, who will help resolve any concerns.”
The company’s safety program — Work Smart — is to encourage employees to stop, be safe and then go, Stec notes. “There is a lot of pressure on the workers,” Stec says. “We encourage our operators to not feel this pressure. To stop and take 30 seconds and think about what they are doing and then go. That is the main thing behind Work Smart.”
EARNING THE RESPECT
As a woman in the male-dominated oil and gas industry, Stec had to earn the respect of her crew, and she believes that was her biggest challenge as she grew her business.
“I had to understand the environment,” Stec says. “This is not something most women are accustomed to. The culture was a bit of a shock and you need to have a certain toughness. You have to hold your ground, be smart and aware.”
Stec says she had to work hard and earn the respect of her staff and drivers, and she has that same respect for them. “I’m very proud of my company. This has been like training for a marathon. I feel like you train hard and get through it and finally get across the finish line.”
Stec feels like she has crossed the finish line and is looking forward to where the company goes next.
“When you own your own business it is like raising a child,” Stec says. “It becomes so important to you. You have invested the time and money and now you’re excited to see it grow.”
Maintaining the Equipment Takes Time
With a fleet of 20 trucks, the maintenance of equipment gets top billing at TKS Industries.
“If I send out a piece of equipment and it doesn’t function, then I’m not being reliable to the oil companies and will probably not be asked back again,” says Theresa Stec, owner of the Lacombe, Alberta-based company. “The survival of this company depends on my employees, but also my equipment, which must always be in top repair.”
Another reason to make sure the truck is in good shape before leaving is because if it does break down and the crew is a long distance away, it can be tough getting to that location for repairs. Sometimes crews are 14 hours away from company headquarters.
To help with vehicle maintenance, TKS has a fully functional service shop with a mechanic and an apprentice.
“I’m fortunate that the bulk of our equipment is generally in one area, so it’s much easier to manage,” Stec says. “But if we have trucks in Alberta, close to the U.S. border, or trucks in Fort St. John, my crews can be busy and do a lot of driving.”
Stec likes to keep the trucks running as long as possible and have trucks that have gone 10 or 15 years before requiring replacement.
“An older piece of equipment can still make as much money as a newer piece if it is maintained,” Stec says. “We are very conscious about our iron. We don’t want to have downtime; we are always maintaining our equipment.”