There is no one best way to build any business, and nowhere is that more true than in an industry as unpredictable and volatile as the oil and gas industry. But there is a lot to be said for being in the right place at the right time with the right idea and a will to succeed. Those factors all came together in 2012 for one growing industrial and marine service company located in the South Texas coastal town of Gregory called SR Trident.
Timing can be crucial in this part of the business world. The year 2012 was a boom time in South Texas. By then, the Eagle Ford shale region 50 to 100 miles inland from the coast had been in full boom for three years, and a similar, even bigger boom was developing in the massive Permian Basin further to the West. Forecasts of massive volumes of new oil and natural gas production in Texas was in turn starting to place an early focus on refining, natural gas processing and potential exports centralized at the state’s biggest ports, including the Port of Houston and the Port of Corpus Christi (PortCC), as well as the pipelines that would need to be constructed to move that production across the state.
Two lifelong best friends who had grown up and worked together in the small communities of Portland and Ingleside during the 1980s and 1990s had pursued separate paths following college graduation. Ryan Berthold, after listening to Bill O’Reilly describe the Navy Seals as “the tip of the spear” for America’s anti-terrorism efforts shortly after the 9/11 attacks, decided that a military career was for him.
“I didn’t even know what that [the Navy Seals] was then,” he told me in a recent interview, “But he [O’Reilly] was talking about how they were the tip of the spear for this campaign. So, I started doubling up on classes and finished as quick as I could, and actually enlisted.”
Steven Snyder, the son of a mother who taught school for 34 years and a father who served on the Ingleside school board for a dozen years while he was growing up, chose a different path. He became an educator himself, and ultimately the principal at Ingleside High School “Education was always important to our family,” he said. “I always enjoyed sports, so it made sense to me to become a coach. But once we started our family, it became obvious to me how much time that was taking away from spending time with my kids, because I was spending so much time with other peoples’ kids. That is what led me into school administration.”
Ultimately, though, the two friends knew they wanted to form a business together, and in 2012, that’s what they did. “It’s something we had talked about through our whole lives growing up together,” Berthold, the company’s CEO (Snyder is the Chief Operation Officer), said. “We got started in areas where there was opportunity and an easy way to enter into agreements with the venders. Then, as time progressed, we saw certain niches in the industry where we were able to get a foothold, and we tried to model our business off of where we saw others having success and built relationships and a clientele based on doing what we promised we could do.”
I asked if the boom times in the Eagle Ford and growth then happening at Port CC were major factors in the decision to start their joint venture in 2012? “It absolutely was. We saw what was going on here locally in the Eagle Ford, and our initial aspiration was in the construction of oilfield pads and roads,” Berthold said. “But it’s so capital-intensive, which was something we didn’t have, so we found an initial opportunity to do hot-shotting. That was such a need for everybody at the time.”
In the oilfield, the term “hot-shotting” refers to the sub-leasing of a truck and a driver to facilitate time-sensitive repairs, equipment hauling and deliveries. Both men had gotten plenty of experience driving and hauling while holding down summer jobs in their school days working for Berthold’s father’s utility company that did a great deal of work for what was then Southwestern Bell and later AT&T. “Times were just a little different back then,” Berthold laughed. “We were 16, 17 years old and pulling a backhoe through downtown Corpus Christi going from job to job. It just seems like something like that wouldn’t even be legal now – we weren’t even CDL driver age at the time.”
Relationships are also key to success. For a service sector startup, word-of-mouth can be the biggest driver of success. Both men described the path for growing the company in those early years as one of making contacts and building relationships, a very common story in America’s oilfields. Today, SR Trident performs broad diversity of both industrial and marine services at some of the area’s key facilities, such as Enbridge Energy’s oil export terminal in Ingleside.
But again, Berthold emphasized the timing of starting the business when they did as a major key to success. “I think if we had started earlier and gotten into the Eagle Ford, we may have found ourselves on some hard times,” he said. “Because a lot of those companies that we saw along the way had just exploded overnight and then, when everything crashed, it all came tumbling around them. Coming into it when we did, we were able to grow it at a controllable rate.”
Being situated adjacent to Port CC and all the expansion that has taken place in the nation’s largest energy exporting port also created an array of opportunities to get involved in the marine construction and maintenance sector. Berthold said that is an area of increasing focus for SR Trident in terms of current projects and future plans for expanding operations farther up the Gulf Coast. It’s the kind of hybrid business that can only exist in certain parts of the United States.
Berthold and Snyder were also able to create and maintain a company culture with a strong focus on safety. Snyder told me that every meeting, whether in the office or in the field, begins with a safety moment. Every job starts with a detailed safety briefing. “You take the time up front before you do a job to make sure everyone on that job knows exactly what the potential hazards are, identify them, and talk about how we’re dealing with each one of them,” he said. “We value our employees, and want them to get home safely to their families each night.”
SR Trident’s safety efforts have been so successful that the company has won two National Safety Excellence awards from the Association of Builders and Contractors in recent years.
Talking to Berthold and Snyder got me thinking about my first job in the oil and gas industry, working summers on a pipeline construction crew for a South Texas oilfield construction company during the late 1970s. It was a job in which, like so many things we did back in that time, safety was not a big focus area, to put it mildly.
But, as Berthold said, “Times were just a little different back then.” Where safety is concerned, the changes in the business in the last 40 years have been uniformly good ones.