An Oklahoma sun reflects off the rooftops of giant facilities. Inside, sparks fly as massive machinery is designed and fabricated to be shipped across the country. Big Elk is a much-awarded explosively-growing company that is making the pipeline industry sit up very sharply.
It’s a tough industry, and this company, along with its CEO, Geoff Hager, has fought tooth and nail to reach its present status in an expanding and fiercely competitive sector.
Based in Tulsa, OK, Big Elk Energy Systems builds precise measurement systems for the natural gas industry. The company specializes in engineering, systems design, piping layout, drafting and electrical control systems. It fabricates meter skids, pressure/flow control skids, main line valve settings and EMF/GC buildings all built to customer specifications. Occupying over 140,000 square feet of fabrication space, twelve acres of storage, it offers on-site x-ray, hydro testing, painting, NDT and heat treatment.
Nevertheless, despite all it offers, Big Elk has to continuously improve its facilities for clients that need a lot of servicing. And no wonder – the USA has the largest network of energy pipelines in the world, with over 2.4 million miles of pipe. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2018 this natural gas pipeline network delivered nearly 28 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to about 75 million customers across the country.
This commodity is sold between large energy companies, where each year, billions of dollars are transferred. When gas switches from one pipeline to another, a meter reads the volume to ensure a fair transaction. Inaccuracies in these readers can cost millions over the long run. The companies that dominate this industry are mostly large multi-billion-dollar businesses.
Establishing itself in this industry is no easy feat, but Big Elk Energy Systems has lived up to its name and has done exactly that.
Entry with a splash
After just three years of existence, Big Elk earned three first-place finishes in Inc. Magazine: number one manufacturing firm nationwide; number one company based in Oklahoma; and number one company based in Tulsa. When the company won the award in 2018, it had achieved $20.6 million in sales and a growth rate of 3,152 percent.
A big part of the company’s growth can be attributed to its inspiring CEO, Geoff Hager. Hager founded Big Elk after working almost a decade in the industry. Right after graduating with a degree in industrial engineering and management, he started working in the pipeline industry.
At the time, Hager had no ambitions to start his own company, but he had a great passion for working on teams and helping them thrive.
“My mantra is that all life is based on relationships. When I would go to an industry conference, I‘d make friends with everyone,” recounts Hager. Seeing commonality instead of competition, Hager began building networks within the industry. At conferences, Hager networked with his competitors.
Growing up with parents who were pastors, Hager internalized values of community, collaboration and commonality. For him, it was natural to build community, but once he started Big Elk, those connections were essential to its success.
“We’ve got many people on the team who were competitors, but it’s because I spent a career forging great relationships regardless of who worked for whom.” This allowed Hager to recruit the best people he could, who were highly skilled. “Everybody knew the greats were the ones that were going to be on this team and so the other greats wanted to be on this team as well. It snowballed,” he says.
“Our culture is contagious. You can feel it when you walk onto the property. It’s a special thing we have here. We treasure it, we protect it at all costs. When we interview folks, we interview for culture first and skill-set second.”
This work culture helps to promote creative individuals, such as his engineering manager, Dennis McClintock.
“He’s got a beautiful noggin on his shoulders and he’s a true inventor,” says Hager. “I don’t think anyone ever really gave him the opportunity to just sit around and think stuff up. I tried to create an opportunity where he could spread his wings and fly a little bit. His name is on the patent of a lot of our innovations,” he explains.
“He’s surrounded by a team of people that support his efforts and that have been able to add to and speak into a lot of the initial concepts that he’s come up with. So we’re able to take it to the finish line with a final design that’s really going to be revolutionary for our industry.”
This innovative team created the world’s first mobile meter-reading tester, called Mobile Master Meter (M3). Before the invention of M3, companies wanting to test the accuracy of a meter would have to pull the whole meter out of the pipeline and send it to a lab. This process could take days, which is equivalent to millions in lost revenue. Most companies, therefore, don’t get them tested. And many meters are decades old.
“Lots of people have tried to develop this over the years. It turned out Big Elk was the one that figured it out,” explains Hager. “M3 is a giant rig we can take out to the site and run a meter prove on a large gas meter. It’s huge, it’s truly revolutionary.”
At the time M3 was being developed, Big Elk was struggling because the entire natural gas industry was in a downturn. But as with so many aspects of Big Elk, Hager had faith. “It was despite all logic. It was difficult talking to my own board through some of those times because we didn’t really have the money to be doing projects like that. But sometimes you believe that something is there and you need to be willing to sacrifice everything to make it happen.”
Struggle is something Hager is very familiar with. He and his wife invested their life savings of $140,000 to help secure the initial investment to get Big Elk started. When the investment fell through, they lost their savings, and had no company. It was a dark time for Hager, but he didn’t stop knocking on doors, searching for investment.
“I drove this BMW that looked nice, but the truth is it had a cracked windshield and I couldn’t afford another car… I had one suit with buttons that were falling off, but it was all I had. So I would hold my arm in a certain way so that people couldn’t see the broken buttons because here I am, trying to recruit investors, and I’m thinking, oh gosh, I need to look like some picture of success. Because if they could see the rag style I was living behind the scenes nobody would want to put the money in.”
Like the buttons, his entire life was hanging by a thread, until finally a perceptive banker put up the backing. “I would jump in front of a bus for him because he basically wrote me a check for $5 million when I was nothing but a piece of paper.”
Hager bought a parcel of land he’d had his eyes on for over a year, and the seller actually threw in an extra $140,000 after hearing about Hager’s personal financial loss on his first investment. “What multi-billion dollar corporation that size has compassion on a single person? They gave me my money back – and that’s how the Hager household survived the next 18 months.”
As soon as the funding was secured and the property built, the entire industry was hit by a massive downturn. For a small startup, this is usually the first signal of imminent demise. But for Hager, it was just another challenge that faith, persistence, and teamwork could solve.
Forging the team
Hager continues: “The team that I have is united because we’ve been through something together and it just makes us an unstoppable. All of the people that are with me have had a front row seat and seen what that sacrifice means in my own life.”
He led his team through the struggle not only with words, but by example. He didn’t collect a paycheck for two years. While he hid his own struggle to secure initial investments, he shared in every moment of the struggle to get his business off the ground, securing the trust of his workers.
“When you go through a fire together, there’s something about the furnace of affliction that purifies. It burns off the impurities. It burns off all the junk that has been holding you back and affliction can just be one of the greatest experiences if you will embrace the suffering.”
“There was no other way to do it – everybody’s got to be all in. You can’t have it where some people have to be all in and then other people aren’t. We succeed together. We rise and fall together.”
And the blood sweat and tears have proven to be fruitful. With $30 million in revenue, Hager predicts it will grow above $100 million over the next four years. Other sure signs of the company’s promise are already making themselves obvious. “We have the people that everyone wants to hire,” says Hager, “because people genuinely believe we are building something special and they want to be part of that.”
This bond his team has, and the passion, along with the accolades from Inc. Magazine and others, means all industry eyes are on Big Elk. But Big Elk is looking to the future.
“That’s why I say, looking over these next five years, we’re going to do something that’s really crazy, because we paid the price required to get these things off the ground. And the next five years are going to be us reaping the benefits of those investments.”