Wyoming’s Freedom Oilfield Services finds success in the oilfields through investment in its employees and smart growth principles
Freedom Oilfield Service's driver Travis Viles attaches a hose of a Proco 150-barrel tanker, pulled by Kenworth T-800 truck, to a 400-barrel tank at the company’s yard. The company, with locations in Wyoming in North Dakota, offers hot oil, oilfield hauling, oilfield pumping and other services. (Photography by Sallie Shatz)
For 22 years, Joey Austin, Brian Radke and Art Holt worked side by side in the oilfield industry of Wyoming. They learned the work and experienced the common boom and bust cycle. They watched the owners of the company, taking lessons away about what to do and what to avoid when heading up a business.
When they decided to come together to start their own venture, Freedom Oilfield Services, in 2002 they had a good idea about what was needed to make it a success. Today, although the current industry downturn has Freedom more in survival mode than growth mode, the company continues to thrive with locations in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and Killdeer, North Dakota, and a diverse array of oilfield services. One key has been the team Freedom’s owners have put around themselves.
“It doesn’t matter how much money you have or how nice your equipment is. If your employees don’t have a good attitude, you’re not going to do well,” says Austin, company president. “We do the best we can for them because then they’ll pass that on to the customer.”
And maintaining a good reputation with customers has been important for Freedom having a consistent workload despite the typical industry fluctuations.
“Customers we had in 2002 when we started are still with us today,” says Diana Walter, Freedom’s manager. “I think that speaks to our good reputation.”
Freedom was a one-truck operation when it first got started and initially focused on water hauling. The three owners assumed roles similar to those they had each risen to over the course of 22 years with their former company and gradually grew the business from there.
At first they serviced only the area around their home base of Rock Springs, Wyoming. In 2009, the company tried to expand operations into Pennsylvania. But it didn’t take long before Freedom abandoned its East Coast shop. Still, the company was able to take away lessons that proved valuable when it started to break into North Dakota just a year later.
“We didn’t have a good base there. We just kind of floated around,” Walter says of the Pennsylvania operations. “I think the biggest thing we learned is you have to have a place to park your trucks and put your people. If you’re going to start up business somewhere, you actually have to start the business. It’s really difficult to try to run it when you don’t have actual boots on the ground and a building to run it in.”
So Freedom made sure it established a better physical presence when it started in North Dakota. Radke headed up the operations and, being from the state originally, had some good contacts.
By that time Freedom had built up a solid reputation working in the oilfields of Wyoming for eight years, but expanding into North Dakota took just as much work as establishing a new business, says Austin.
“It was like starting all over, trying to establish a customer base and get our foot in the door. And there were a lot of other companies out there doing the same thing,” she says. “Our company had a good reputation, but even though we knew a lot of people in the North Dakota area, we still had to build and re-establish our good reputation there. If you’re going to expand somewhere new, it’s like starting over and you have to work just as hard.”
Now, between the two locations, Freedom has 27 employees and provides a variety of oilfield services in addition to the water hauling, such as heating, hot oiling, equipment hauling, pressure washing and steam cleaning, high-pressure pumping, and propane delivery.
“We strive to meet the needs of our customers by taking on whatever jobs they need done,” Walter says.
That first service offering — water hauling — remains one of the most important for the company, though, particularly with the current downturn. The water haulers work seven days a week transporting both production water and fresh water in the Wyoming oilfields. Freedom has also transported water for other purposes, such as watering goats for a customer who used the animals for weed control. The company has one of only three potable water tankers in its service area certified as food grade by the Wyoming Department of Agriculture.
“I call it Steady Freddy work,” Austin says. “We’re not waiting for a customer to call us and then we might have a job in three days. These guys go out every single day and these water trucks work. It’s the stable work we can depend on that will get us through until things get better.”
“In Wyoming we’re established with customers who already have their wells into production, and the wells need to be treated and the water needs to be hauled off,” adds Walter. “So it’s everyday work, whereas in North Dakota the challenge is that things aren’t quite on that production side yet. We’re waiting on customers to decide if they’re going to drill. Are they going to need our heaters? Are they going to need our hot oilers?”
HANDLING THE BOOM AND BUST CYCLE
Like any oilfield services company, Freedom has been affected by the industry downturn. The company had to lay off some employees working in North Dakota, and plans to expand and add new equipment are on hold for the time being. But Freedom has an approach that has taken advantage of the highs while not becoming overly depleted by the lows.
“This isn’t the first downturn that Freedom’s been through,” Walter says. “In the time I’ve been at Freedom, the one thing I’ve noticed is that the owners never over-extend themselves. They always keep in mind that another slump is coming following a big boom, and they try to plan for that.”
When the company got started in 2002, it was a gradual-growth approach immediately, says Austin. As Freedom gained customers and those customers needed more services, the company added more equipment and employees. Any debt was paid off quickly, and expenses were kept in check as much as possible without sacrificing high-quality customer service.
“We made a deal going in and said no trains, no boats, no planes. Every company we heard about that bought an airplane went bankrupt,” Austin jokes, though it does speak to the conservative growth model that Freedom has applied.
When the company expanded into North Dakota in 2010, the growth didn’t turn out to be gradual. The operation there doubled in size in a little over a year, Austin says. But the company still largely stuck to its same growth principles, like not carrying a lot of long-term debt.
“We didn’t intend to grow that fast, but we took advantage of it when it was there,” Austin says. “When things were good, we borrowed a lot of money to add to our fleet, but we paid that debt off in full before the downturn came. So we are in a good position to ride this out.”
Although Freedom has always been somewhat conservative with its expenditures, Austin says the downturn has resulted in further belt-tightening. For example, keeping up on fleet maintenance is a priority, but the company has cut back on any supplies that aren’t a necessity.
“Every employee knows that if they must have something, we’ll buy it, but we have cut back anywhere we can, anything that’s not absolutely necessary,” Austin says.
"We also contacted our vendors to see if we could get discounts,” Walter says. “We called around and changed some vendors to try to get parts in bulk for both Wyoming and North Dakota. We’ve just basically watched the way we spent our money, made sure we’re getting the biggest bang for our buck.”
Besides watching spending carefully, another key to surviving a bust cycle is to make sure the company is retaining existing customers, Austin says.
“There’s very little work out there, so we always have the policy do the job right the first time,” she says. “The oilfields are known for being up and down, so you have to be prepared for it.”
One area that isn’t considered an excess expenditure for Freedom is its employees. The company views its employees as a commodity worth investing in that ultimately produces satisfied customers.
“We really focus on our employees and think if they’re happy, they’re going to spread that around,” Austin says.
Freedom aims to provide a competitive compensation package that includes company-sponsored health insurance. The company also constantly looks for other perks that can be offered to employees. For example, there is a PPE reimbursement program that allows employees to choose the exact kind of safety gear they use out in the field instead of just being provided PPE by the company. In recent years, Freedom has also matched employees’ contributions to 401(K) plans by 100 percent.
“In 2014, we had the best year we’ve ever had,” Austin says. “We not only matched the 401(K) contribution by 100 percent, but we also gave them the maximum amount allowed by the federal government.”
When the company started operations in North Dakota, it bought three houses for employees to live in since most of those employees were not local.
“It allowed our employees to work hard but be able to have a place where they could have pizza and beer on Friday night when they weren’t working. I think it gave them a sense of home life and kept them grounded,” Austin says.
Freedom puts an emphasis on maintaining open lines of communication throughout the company from employees all the way to the ownership. That also helps ensure that employee needs are being met, says Christy Bonsell, human resources director.
“We have regular interactions with the owners and regular communication with the field supervisors,” she says. “I think that helps us quickly react to what employees request and think of new ways to offer perks and compensation.”
When will the next boom cycle begin? That’s the top question for the oil industry, and one without an answer. But with decades of experience in the industry, Freedom’s owners know the climate will improve eventually. When it does, they plan on being ready to take full advantage. They’re preparing by doing what they’ve done from the very beginning — focusing on making the team around them stronger.
“It’s difficult to have two separate service areas, so we want to get everything organized and have a management team in place that can look for new technologies that may help and really move us forward,” Austin says.
The management team has gradually been put into place over the years, with Walter being put into the manager role and later the safety director and human resources director positions being established. Since the downturn is still making it difficult to aggressively pursue any growth opportunities — a good deal on some used equipment is all Freedom would pull the trigger on at the present moment, Austin says — the company is going to take the time to finish building the management team.
“Then we’ll really be ready when the next go-around comes,” Austin says.
Read more about Freedom Oilfield's safety and employee training program.