Tulsa-based Big Elk Energy Systems builds massive parts, the size of semi tractor-trailers, for use in the pipeline industry.
Geoff Hager has some advice for potential Native entrepreneurs who want to follow his lead in starting up a successful energy-related company: they have to really want it. Really, really want it.
“You have to know that you know that you know that this is what you’re supposed to do,” he said.
He can also guarantee potential entrepreneurs will face some of the trials he faced in starting up the now-successful Big Elk Energy Systems: loss of pay, potential bankruptcy and loss of health insurance and retirement benefits, among others.
But those that stick it out can be inspired by the success of Big Elk, a firm that manufactures massive parts for the pipeline industry and that in 2019 turned its first profit.
Native Business Magazine first profiled Big Elk in summer 2018 when the Tulsa-based company earned several number ones in the annual Inc. magazine rankings, including the status of fastest-growing manufacturer in the country (its revenue increased by a huge 3,152 percent over three years).
Since then, Big Elk has hired another 15 or so people (the current headcount is about 120), gotten traction on an internal training program for welders, gotten customer commitments for a new venture, and gotten to the brink of signing its first international contract.
Hager, a descendant of the Osage chief that Big Elk Energy Systems is named after, estimated the company added at least 30 to 40 more jobs in 2019, despite an industry-wide labor shortage of welders and other skilled workers (see sidebar on the Cherokee Nation-Pipeliners Union Local 798 training deal for the opportunities this is providing Natives to learn new trades).
Landing its first international contract, a potential $50 million Latin American deal, would generate enough demand to double its workers, and Hager is confident Big Elk will ink at least one of several potential deals.
Big Elk has started an internal program to train “high spec” welders from its own workforce. To date, three people have gone through the program, which involves them volunteering their time to work with mentors from Big Elk to develop the skills needed to step up from other positions, such as “lower spec” welders.
The company has also been helped on workforce by its high retention rate. “Our employees just don’t leave,” Hager said. “They stay. They feel like a part of something very special.”
Hager, a man of faith, often speaks of things in religious terms (he calls entrepreneurship “a calling”). “Our people are evangelists,” he said.
The firm in 2019 won an award from OK2Grow, a Tulsa-based small business workforce development and career pathways nonprofit, for Tulsa’s Innovation in Workforce.
Another venture ready to go wheels up with firm customer commitments is M3 Energy Services, a new effort Hager said is “the first of its kind” in the industry. In essence, M3 is a field test operation to check on the accuracy of the parts Big Elk manufactures, like flow meters. Otherwise, the massive parts have to be taken to remote locations for testing.
Hager’s vision, hard work, sacrifice, and good connections are what those young Native entrepreneurs are going to need to launch startups in the energy field, if his experience is anything to go by. And connections to Native heritage and a few answered prayers might help, as well.
Hager, founder and general manager of Big Elk Energy Systems, believed that in starting the firm, he was doing what he was supposed to be doing with his life. He and his family had to sacrifice a steady paycheck and health and retirement benefits to get it off the ground. He made a good connection with investors who put a couple of million dollars into his startup. A very religious man, Hager felt a divine guidance telling him he should be starting his own company.
Hager’s grandmother, Big Elk’s granddaughter, died around the time he started the firm, and the company name reflects “the extremely important part my personal heritage” has for him.
The company’s website (www.bigelk.com) has a section devoted to photos and a biography of Big Elk, who was born in 1852 and died in 1902 and whose Osage name was Opahtunkah.
What does Opahtunkah, a chief of the Claremore band of Osage that settled near Hominy, Okla., mean to the company that now bears his name?
“The family name stands for strength, courage and leadership, an insight into the mission of Big Elk Energy Systems,” according to the firm. “We strive to bring to our company the proud tradition of the Big Elk family and the strength of that name.”
The biography notes that Big Elk was part of a delegation of Osage that went to Washington, D.C., in March of 1897 and was involved in many other significant tribal events. It also details the chief’s genealogy from the Nineteenth Century until now.
“The Big Elk descendants still own their original allotment in Hominy, Okla. where the Big Elk family cemetery is located,” the biography notes. And when Big Elk launched its paint facility, a bunch of Big Elk’s descendants came out for the ribbon cutting.
Hager graduated from Oklahoma State University with a degree in Industrial Engineering and Management and worked in private industry before he experienced a divine intervention which convinced him he should start his own company.
It took a while. “I went two years without a paycheck and one year without medical insurance,” he said. He also liquidated his retirement account. But he was “one hundred percent” sure about what he was trying to achieve.
Raising the $7 million to open the doors of the 144,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in 2014 wasn’t easy, and it was helped by a vote of confidence by Onefire Holding Co., the investment unit of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
According to an account in the Tulsa World, “Citizens Bank of Oklahoma lent the company about $5 million of the required funds on the contingency that Big Elk could raise around $2 million in private capital.
“Big Elk succeeded, with Onefire Holding Co. and NewRoad Ventures acting as the leading private investors.”
As a result, Big Elk regularly reaches out to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation for potential personnel. Hager described one Native hire who started as a janitor and worked his way up to welder.
With its anticipated expansion, Big Elk is thinking big. It is building big, too. The things it manufactures for the oil and gas (mostly gas) pipeline industry are huge, carbon steel parts as big as semis.
Some of their products and services include:
- Precision meter tubes.
- Meter skids.
- Control valve skids.
- Pig launchers and receivers.
- Fuel gas skids.
- Electronic flow measurement and gas quality analysis.
Big Elk also touts its manufacturing plant, which has more than 100,000 square feet of shop space. “Three large fabrication bays allow us to work at an increased capacity, and still have room to fast-track projects,” it says.
The firm’s paint booth is one of the largest and best equipped in the industry, the firm says. It is also proud of a well-stocked warehouse. “We keep a safety stock of common material so that we have it on hand when we need it.”
Hager is thoughtful about the issues that Native people have had with pipelines and feels having Native people in the business can add some sensitivity to the frequent disputes about pipeline routes.
Hager is also thoughtful about the pleasures and perils of entrepreneurship. People often think they are starting up a company for financial gain and to benefit their families. Yet in his case, the money equation first turned out to be a skirmish with bankruptcy. And as far as families go, entrepreneurs often spend so much time starting up their companies that they have little time for their families.
But after going through the ordeal, Hager is happy about the result. “After living it, I have an appreciation for how right it was,” he said.
“What kept me going is knowing [that] starting the company was what I was supposed to do.”