Big Elk employees have grown to more than 100 in the four years since the firm has been in business. (Courtesy Big Elk)
Big Elk Energy Systems has hit the trifecta.
On the just-issued Inc. magazine top 5000 lists, the Tulsa-based firm was ranked number 1 in three categories: manufacturing firms nationwide, companies based in Oklahoma, and companies based in Tulsa.
Overall the 100-plus employee company ranked number 123 out of 5000 on the Inc. rankings, with a whopping three-year growth of 3,152 percent, to $20.6 million in revenues, which it hopes to increase to $100 million in a few years.
After the news of the Inc. rankings, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum recently traveled to the company’s plant to recognize the achievement of Big Elk Energy and congratulate the firm and its employees.
Founder of the company and general manager Geoff Hager is a direct descendant of Osage chief Big Elk, who he honored by naming the firm after him.
In an interview with Native Business Magazine, Hager detailed his company’s complex manufacturing processes and products, the role of faith in his business’ struggles and eventual success, the company’s Native investor and Big Elk’s willingness to hire Native workers, and his sympathy with tribes who see pipelines planned across or near their homelands without the proper consultation. (Big Elk is in manufacturing for the pipeline industry.)
Hager said Big Elk has a “go big or go home” strategy, and he means it literally. The carbon steel parts the firm manufactures in its 140,000-square-foot facility are as big as semi tractor-trailers.
“This is really large equipment,” he emphasized. Explaining by analogy, he points to the familiar meter that homes have to measure the gas that is delivered by their utility and to regularize the pressure of the gas in order for it to be usable in the home. (Eighty percent of Big Elk’s business involves gas.)
Big Elk manufactures similar things, vastly larger in scope, for pipeline companies. Its custody transfer meters are used when one pipeline company sells gas to another one, and they have a similar pressure-regulating function as the humble residential meter, again hugely larger in scope.
The firm said its focus is on engineering, systems design, piping layout, drafting, and electrical and control systems. It provides services in measurement systems, pigging, fuel gas skid, electronic flow measurement and gas quality analysis.
It also has a new venture launched in January of this year, M3 Energy Services, a service company focused on in-field meter verification for large flow natural gas meters.
With equipment as big as it builds and handles, “safety is a major protocol,” Hager said. Big Elk has never had any major incident, because of a “safety as a culture” philosophy. The company set an “extremely strict” procedure and qualified for the International Standards Organization (ISO) 9001 standards in just nine months.
His firm came to be called Big Elk because his grandmother, Big Elk’s granddaughter, passed away just as the company came online. Instead of calling the company after himself, he named it after his ancestor “because of the extremely important part of my personal heritage” his Native ancestry is.
“Everyone really rallied around that,” he said, and he heard from Big Elk cousins of his that the name meant something important to them.
And when looking for investors to help finance the firm, Hager turned to a Native venture, Onefire Holdings, a unit of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, as he had heard that the tribe had allocated money for investment through that operation.
His human resources department is in regular contact with that division of the Creek tribe in order to generate job applicants. “We certainly have some success stories from that program,” he said.
“Without a doubt the percentage of Native employees at Big Elk is above the median for the area,” he said. He described one tribal employee who started out doing custodial work, moved to grinding, which is a manufacturing role, and now is a structural welder.
Head count has increased rapidly (it is now above 100) and a labor shortage leaves Big Elk with about 15 open positions right now, Hager said. “We need more people,” he asserted. He is hoping to expand employees into the 250 to 300 range over the next three years and has started an internal training operation to bring people along.
He described his workers as “a dream team,” and noted only a handful of people have ever left the company voluntarily.
His success was not achieved easily, though, and it was helped along by his faith (he is the son of pastors and has done ministry work himself). After graduating from Oklahoma State University with a degree in Industrial Engineering and Management he worked for a couple of firms before what he described as a divine intervention pointed him in the direction of starting his present company.
It didn’t come together all at once. “I went two years without a paycheck and one year without medical insurance,” he said, and spent a lot of time praying he and his family would not become ill. He also liquidated his retirement account. But, ‘I felt one hundred percent I was doing what I was supposed to be doing,” he said. “I had to trust that what I was doing had purpose behind it.”
Now, he has found success, despite the longest and deepest energy downturn in many years. He believes the values he tries to instill in the company are manifested in how Big Elk handles its manufacturing process. And good quality is matched by good price and a rigorous on-time delivery philosophy.
As to tribal problems with pipeline companies, especially the Dakota Access Pipeline standoff last year, Hager said “I completely understand” how tribes feel.
“My heart goes out to the tribal nations impacted,” he said. “Native people should have a say.” He called it “a travesty” when tribes are not properly consulted on projects.
Again using an analogy, he compared pipelines to highways (he feels these are the safest ways to transport people and energy across land). No one would build a highway through tribal land without consulting the tribe on its sensitivities, he said.
“I am opposed to pipeline infrastructure being laid anywhere that does damage to indigenous people,” he said.
The Inc. rankings aren’t the first honor the energy company has received in the past year. In November of last year, Hager received a “Forty Under 40” designation from trade publication Oil and Gas Investor.