This year marks the 70th anniversary of the introduction of the Burmass Directory. An article from a generation ago tells the tale of the directory, also known as the Bible of the Basin, and tells it better than any living individual could. Much has changed, and yet so much remains the same. The story of the Burmass is also the story of the Permian Basin.
By Russ Mabry, with updates by PBOG staff
Editor’s note: The following article by Russ Mabry was written and published more than two decades ago in the Burmass Directory, sister publication to Permian Basin Oil and Gas magazine. We reproduce it here to share the interesting and important background of the Burmass, an indispensible guide to the business resources within the Permian Basin.
How does one distinguish a real oilman from the drugstore variety? Simple. Ask to see his Burmass. If he gives you a blank stare, he’s a counterfeit—don’t do business with him.
No oilman worth his salt would be without a Burmass, even if it’s a couple of years out of date. Even if it’s so dog-eared and coffee-stained that it’s all but unreadable. Even if he’s got a shiny, brand new edition to take its place. You see, to a real oilman, the Burmass becomes a journal, a companion, a centering point. It becomes a record of his successes—that 400-barrel flowing wildcat in Yoakum County; re-entering that “dry-hole” that stands to put his daughter through grad school; as well as the failures—that “sure thing” in Hockley County that he’d risked (and lost) all that he dared on; that joint venture that went way far “south” down in the Chalk country.
In reality The Burmass Oil Directory is just a 5” x 8” book—full of names, addresses, email address, website addresses, and phone numbers, but somehow it has become much more than that. The oil business just wouldn’t be—couldn’t be—the same without it, good times or bad.
The Burmass is a regional bestselling paperback, and while most folks would find it pretty dull reading, its devoted users, decades ago, dubbed it The Oilfield Bible, owing partially to its sheer volume (over 1,000 pages in some years gone by), and partially to the essential—almost religious—role it continues to play in the conducting of business in the petroleum industry. It is a directory of over 5,500 listings, including everyone who has anything to do with the oil business, from geologists to refineries and beyond. And more than just those primary industries. There are also listings of products and services ranging from office supplies to computer software and hardware to travel agents, all compiled as a service to today’s oil business.
It’s been noted that The Burmass is like having all the telephone directories of all the towns of the Permian Basin—only better. The book grew so large, physically, that it couldn’t be bound, necessitating a format change to double-column listings, per page; the books are still 700-plus pages.
The book derives its name from its founding partners, Burl Self, and John Massey. Their partnership was named Burmass Sales Company, which was changed to Burmass Publishing Company years later. In 1947 the pair published the first Permian Basin Oil Directory, an 82-page spiral-bound volume whose success confirmed Self’s hope that area oilmen would recognize the role that a regional directory could play in their often-far-flung work. Massey, however, did not share his partner’s optimism and sold his interest in the company to Self after publication of the first edition.
The first two editions of the directory were produced in a back room of Self’s Wall Street gas station in Midland, but with the continuing success of the book, the mechanic-turned-publisher was able to move the operation into new facilities on South Pecos Street, the location that Burmass Publishing still occupies.
The industry’s acceptance of his work prompted Self to initiate the publication of other directories, as well. There was, at one time, Oil Directory, The Southern States Oil Directory, The Four Corners Oil Directory, The Iron Peddler’s Guide, and The Tex-Ok-Kan Oil Directory, providing coverage of 80 percent of the oil-producing areas of the “lower 48.” Self had become the largest publisher of oil directories in the world, and his books were being distributed throughout the country. (However, The Tex-Ok-Kan, which covered oil operations throughout the rest of Texas—outside of the Permian Basin—as well as Oklahoma and Kansas, was the only other book the company published, in addition to the original Permian Basin Oil Directory.)
Like many Midlanders, Mr. Self found Ruidoso, New Mexico, an agreeable location to spend time, and purchased a second home for his family there. In time, the Permian Basin book was produced at the “vacation” address, while the Tex-Ok-Kan and Southern States books were produced by a staff in the Midland office. The publisher spent most of his latter years among the cool pines of Ruidoso, enjoying the climate and horse-racing.
Self was well-suited to the publishing business, and continued to find new ways to improve the effectiveness of his books for their users. The listings in the books were free, whether they were three lines or three pages long—a policy that still holds today. He offered display advertising space in the book, at reasonable rates, for service and supply companies to tout their wares.
The books were divided into 20-odd categories to cover the wide diversity of disciplines and products involved in the oil business. Index tabs were added to make it faster and easier to locate the categories. Times were good.
Then, in December 1981, shortly after completion of the 35th edition of the Permian Basin directory, Burl Self passed away in Ruidoso, leaving the legacy of “The Burmass” to his only child, Sandra Self Wright, who continued as president of the company until her passing some years later.
Taking the reins of the operation did not prove to be that difficult a transition for Ms. Wright, as she had shouldered much of the responsibility for producing the books for several years, and was almost as familiar with the oil business as her father.
While continuing business as usual, Ms. Wright managed, in the early going, to renovate and redecorate the company’s Midland offices. “I’d be putting it kindly to describe the decor as merely ‘inelegant.’ It’s hard to describe, really, but just to give you an idea—there were three layers of carpet, four different kinds of paneling, and turquoise drapes and paint! It was really something else,” she said.
Wright’s smart sense of decorating is evident when one visits the efficient, sophisticated, and tastefully antique-appointed workplace. “It’s really a fun place to work now,” she offered.
The end of August is not the best time to try to arrange for some of the publisher’s time. She motioned to the mountain of paperwork occupying her office couch, “That was all sitting on top of my desk, until I heard there was a photographer coming over. The ‘PB’ goes to press next week and things get a bit crazy around here about this time every year. That’s when we put our tongue-in-cheek ‘Publishing Is Fun!’ to good use,” she said with a laugh.
Discussing the beginnings of Burmass, Wright fondly reflected on her father. “My daddy had his own way of doing things, and I wish I knew just how he did them! He had two typists working for him and that was it—never even had a Xerox machine. Two typewriters. He’d eat breakfast at 6 a.m. at The Spot, get the mail, spend a couple of hours pasting up (smoking Sam Houston cigars, drinking various beverages, and watching TV game shows all the while), and then at 11 o’clock, to the minute, he’d leave the office for either the pool hall or the domino club, and that was the end of his day!
Now I’ve got five crackerjack fulltime people, a couple of part-timers, computers wall-to-wall, every office machine known to man, and my days end at sundown, if I’m lucky! So what am I doin’ wrong?” She laughed. “Not that I want to hang out at the pool hall, you understand… But Burl Howard was a mess. Just a mess!”
Procedures are indeed different at Burmass today. Modernized production procedures are built around a computer network, linked to state-of-the-art phototypesetting equipment, one of only a handful of such data-gathering, sorting, and publishing systems in the country. “I guess it would be easiest just to describe it as a monster data base with all kinds of output options,” Wright simplifies. “We’ve refined this system over the years to the point that it can do pretty much everything we want.”
Her earliest experience at Burmass? “Well, when I was 12 years old, there was a man who came in to my Daddy—another ‘last minute’ deal—no, way past the last minute—the book had already been printed, and he wanted desperately to have an ad in it. Daddy told him that it was just physically impossible to do that, since the books had already been printed and bound. Well, the guy left then, but he came back the next day with two rubber stamps. He was a man after my Daddy’s own heart—he figured out that the ad could be rubberstamped on the edges of the book, and Daddy thought it was a wonderful idea. Well, guess who ‘got’ to stamp those books?” Wright sheepishly inquires. “For years after that, there were always ads stamped on the books… but, you understand,” she grinned, “that’s one thing we don’t do anymore.”
The “new” Burmass has capabilities that Wright’s father, ever the salesman, would have been impressed with. Among the options available now is the ability to draw from the immense computer data base for any number of user applications.
“We had a man who is in the clothing business call from Hong Kong last week wanting a list of oil executives in Houston and Dallas,” Wright explained. “I guess he wanted to sell them suits or something. But there are all kinds of uses for the information that we have on-line here. There’s a man in the Panhandle who runs a hotel, and won’t extend credit to oil companies who aren’t listed in the book; it’s his equivalent of Dunn & Bradstreet. There’s no end to what people use this information for.”
There is, come to find out, an unwritten rule that one should never throw a Burmass away—even when the shiny, new edition turns up. “Sometimes,” Wright noted, “old information is more valuable than new! We got a call from a lady in St. Louis the other day hoping that we could help her locate an oil company that at one time, existed. Her father had died a few months earlier, and the family found, going through his things, a substantial amount of stock in the company. We were able to put her on the track to finding out what she needed but I don’t know how it turned out. People phone us all the time, trying to track down companies and individuals who have been in the oil business at one time or another. Sometimes we feel as though we’re Finders of Lost Oilmen.”
So how’s the oil business getting along? “In recent years, we’ve seen a decline in the number of companies listed—the hardest hit, obviously, being the drillers,” Wright said. “However,” she enthused, “we were pleasantly surprised at the relative stability we found in compiling the 1990 book, compared to the 1989.” The row of archival directory copies in her office bookcase is a graphic representation of the history of the oil business—booms and busts, alike.
What effect did the “bust” have on Burmass Publishing? “The year after I inherited the company, the bottom fell out,” Wright recalled. “I threw away $35,000-worth of directories that year. Orders had been placed in July, and then in September when the collapse came, most companies cut their orders drastically. That really got my attention let me tell you. We felt it just like everyone else.”
Asked what she sees as the biggest change in the oil business over recent years, Ms. Wright responded, “Certainly it has slowed and people who didn’t really know their business, or who were over-extended were hurt, and that affects us all. But,” she continued, “the best information that we have is that the coming years should be very good ones for the larger independents, who can 1) make decisions and take action quickly—and 2) take advantage of the still downturned pricing situation as far as mineral leasing, drilling, and service activities are concerned. There is still a lot of activity going on.
“Natural gas seems to be the coming thing, and with a little bit of luck, we could see considerable improvement in the energy-producing states’ economies, in the not-too-distant future.
“As far as the directory is concerned, the last few years have made a big difference in its use. At one time, a company could rely on the books being accurate for a couple of years. Not anymore. The turnover is enormous, which makes our homework more critical than ever.”
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