Notching its 50th anniversary, Saulsbury is the archetype of the classic Basin-grown business. And for the folks at SI, growth with integrity is not an option—it’s an imperative.
By Paul Wiseman
People often ask Saulsbury Industries founder Dick Saulsbury if, in 1967, he thought his little two-person electrical company would grow to employ hundreds of people across several states and in multiple industries. To that question, Saulsbury answers, “I didn’t think it would get this big or not. I really never concentrated on how big we are.”
It may not have been about “how big,” but stagnating at any level was never an option—and still isn’t. Along the way Saulsbury has insisted that company leadership be dedicated to growth because, in his view, a company never stands still—it either goes forward or backward.
“I think you need to keep growing, I think you need to run things with the highest degree of integrity and morality,” he said. “We tend to get caught up in evaluating everything by money—and you know, there are lots better ways to value your life on earth than with money.” He added that, materially speaking, he and President Trump, along with everyone else, will leave this life with the same thing—nothing.
Today the company still does electrical work for the oil patch, but its reach—both in variety of work and geography—now cuts a wide swath across Texas and the Gulf Coast, South Carolina, and elsewhere. All growth has been organic, with only a few small acquisitions early on. Those included a pipe inspection company, an instrument and control firm, and a construction company, all of which were very small additions made by the early 1980s.
In 1980, “I bought the assets and all of WRB Construction. People had been pushing me to become a general [contractor] and I pushed back and didn’t do it.” With the asset purchase he did do it, forming Saulcon Construction, Inc., in the process.
In 1994, also due to customer requests, the company added an engineering department, forming Saulsbury Engineering and Construction, Inc. In recent years Saulsbury has branched out into construction of cryogenic gas plants, nuclear plant construction and repair, insulation, scaffolding, and other fields that are diverse yet still energy-related.
Dick Saulsbury’s South Arkansas oilfield upbringing taught him the value of hard work—a lesson he’s never forgotten. “I worked derricks when I was 11—we had our own oil wells. Everybody thought that meant you were rich. It [actually] meant you had a real hard way of making a living. We worked like the dickens and I could overhaul, fix, or do anything.”
He worked hard, but also never let that ruin his fun. He says it was one too many school-day hunting trips that dropped him from valedictorian to salutatorian in high school. And, like many other highly successful entrepreneurs, he spent little time (one semester) in higher education.
He moved to Odessa in 1961 to learn the electrician’s trade from his uncle, who was working for an established Odessa electrical contractor. Deciding he liked West Texas because of its friendly people and sunny weather, Saulsbury never looked back.
In October of 1967 Saulsbury decided he liked making his own decisions, and he launched Saulsbury Electric with himself and one employee. He incorporated the next year.
After the changes in the 1980s and 1990s, the company added a power division supporting nuclear, fossil, and renewables in 2012. Now they also do construction and maintenance for petrochemical plants, pulp and paper facilities, and more.
Also in 2012, Dick Saulsbury realized that most clients saw each of the company’s divisions as part of one whole, even though there were actually several separate companies. So that year they merged everything back into Saulsbury Industries.
Most of their business today centers on the construction of midstream plants. Over the last 10 years they’ve built approximately 38 natural gas cryogenic processing facilities and about 25 200MMSCFD projects.
Today Saulsbury has a total of 14 offices around the nation, in locations that include Abilene, Dallas, Henderson, Houston, La Porte, and Port Arthur, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Farmington, New Mexico; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Greenville, South Carolina. The workforce that started at two now counts approximately 2,000 to 3,000 people companywide depending on current workload. About 700 of those work at the company’s Odessa headquarters.
The company long ago passed the point where any one person could manage all that. Believing that family members were the best ones to understand the company’s founding principles, Dick Saulsbury decided to give his four children: Dianne, Mark, Bubba (Charles Richard Saulsbury, Jr.) and Matt a shot at sharing some of the responsibility.
“They took to it,” Dick recalls. “They went to schools—not college… but they went to different [classes] to learn about bigger corporations, about boards (of directors)—what they do, how you hire people; because I said, ‘That’s what we have to do.’
“We can’t stay where we’re at—I kept pushing that,” and with the non-family members who had previously occupied leadership roles, progress was not happening to the elder Saulsbury’s satisfaction. Today, Bubba is senior vice president—business development, Mark is senior vice president, corporate administration, Matt is vice president of project services and Dianne (Zugg) is manager, community relations. All of them also serve on the board of directors.
Company President Rick Graves came on board in 2012. Graves points to a yearly market evaluation he calls their “annual strategic process” as their growth model. In this situation they look into “what the market was [for the preceding year], the needs and gaps in the market, and what some of our clients needed.”
Through that process they noticed that, since 2014, their client base was morphing—transitioning from consisting of a large number of small clients to a small number of larger clients. Larger clients think differently and have different requirements from the smaller ones. Larger companies look for higher safety standards and greater experience in resource development. Saulsbury was already a leader in safety standards and they were developing a strong resume in resource development.
Those larger clients look for providers who are large enough to handle their requirements—and companies with the integrity to be entrusted with those projects.
They are also looking for the efficiency of long-term relationships, in which vendors like Saulsbury already know the corporate culture, the requirements, and the typical job specifications. This allows new work to begin quickly and to be completed more efficiently.
Graves and company saw the changes coming even during the depths of the downturn. “When you start watching who’s buying the rights and who’s preparing for the next upswing, then you start having discussions with those clients, asking, ‘When it does come back, what are you going to need?’”
It was those conversations that led the company to start its latest venture, a field services group. Because the company had come to rely so much on midstream projects, Graves sees the field services endeavor as a way to diversify back into the heart of what the company centered on for many years.
Graves refers to the idea of matching the customer needs with Saulsbury’s services as “fit for purpose.”
In the near future, the company’s main course will continue to be cryogenic gas processing plants in the 200MMSCFD range. Bubba Saulsbury says, “The value proposition I believe Saulsbury has that has made us so successful in the midstream market is—in the midstream business, it’s all about speed to market. How fast can you get this plant installed?”
That’s because midstream companies are often competing for gas from new fields being opened by operators. So the one who can most quickly add capacity, including the processing plant, has the jump on competing midstream companies. So Saulsbury needs to be able to promise speed and efficiency.
He says they accomplished that by becoming an EPC (Engineering, Procurement, and Construction) company or, basically, a turnkey provider. That means no waiting for a third party contractor to complete work—it’s all done in-house.
Founder Dick Saulsbury is partly retired now, but he still gets regular updates and his voice is still heard in the hallways and in the minds of everyone in the company. He’s happy to have delegated the day-to-day reins to family and trusted employees and to see his vision poised to continue into the future.
“I don’t have a specific idea of where we’re headed,” he said. “I’m kinda leaving that in their hands. Whatever they do, they generally run by me.”
One has the impression that Dick Saulsbury’s influence will continue long after things are no longer run by him directly. And everyone’s perfectly okay with that.
Next month: We continue our look at Saulsbury in its 50th year, and we share the company’s experiences with its ambitious projects on the Gulf Coast—projects that were hit by Hurricane Harvey.