“I had a dream, I’ve seen it move forward, and I see the possibility of it living after I’ve gone.” —Don Sparks, PBPA Top Hand Award Winner 2022
With 50 years of service both in the oil industry and the community, Discovery Operating, Inc., cofounder and Chairman of the Board Don Sparks will be recognized as the PBPA’s Top Hand for 2022. Over the years, Discovery has become a true family operation, with three generations working together. With wells in Midland, Upton, and other counties, and plays including the Spraberry, Wolfberry, and more, the company has focused on “discovering” and developing its own production more than on buying existing wells.
The Story Begins
Sitting across the conference table from his wife, Gwyn, and sons Jeff, Kevin, and Todd during the conference call interview for this story, Don Luther Sparks could see a part of the family legacy he started in 1973’s founding of Discovery Operating, Inc. And in his mind’s eye he could visualize the larger legacy, which also includes some grandchildren, a granddaughter-in-law, a niece and her husband, along with some longtime trusted friends. With that in mind Sparks mused, “You can’t look out and be any more blessed than to have everybody working together, in not only the business, but community service—and at the same time, we watched all 11 of our grandchildren grow up here in Midland.”
Those kinds of family concerns were what caused Sparks and his wife, Gwyn, to put down roots in Midland rather than continue the promotion-in-motion track common to oil majors.
After graduating from the University of Texas with a petroleum engineering degree in 1962, Don worked for a short time for Shell before being called to service in the Navy later that year. He served there for about three years, then returned to Shell. In both the Navy and with Shell, he and Gwyn (they married in 1961) moved frequently. Landing in Midland in 1967, they decided that it looked like a good place to raise a family.
From there they decided in 1973 that Don would start his own company. He’d left Shell in 1969 to work with Freeport Oil before moving to Baily, Sipes, Williamson and Runyon, also in Midland, as a consulting petroleum engineer. He did that until mid-1973, when he formed Discovery Operating with his friend, Ernest Angelo. Longtime Midlanders will recognize Angelo as a respected oilman and former mayor.
Don is currently Chairman of the Board of Discovery Operating and, since the boys grew up and moved into their own homes, Gwyn has worked in the accounting office.
Let’s Give It at Least a Year
“The beginning time was really pretty scary,” Gwyn recalls, “but I had a lot of confidence in him. I really thought that, whatever he decided to do, he was going to do.” With $10,000 in savings, she figured they had enough money to live on for about a year. “In my mind, I felt like we’d try this for at least a year and see if it worked, and if it didn’t look like it was going to work, I knew he could always get another job.”
They both took on extra income opportunities, with Don doing consulting work in the evenings after a full day at Discovery, and Gwyn taking on extra piano students in the afternoons after school. They also prioritized family, rearing the boys among all the business interests. This often involved working “well into the morning hours,” in Gwyn’s words.
Said Don, “We decided we could take a shot at doing this.” He and partner Ernest Angelo began by taking on some producing properties. “At the same time, there were three of us that started what we called Discovery Exploration. That was to help bring in people and projects, and hopefully bring some investors into the business.”
With all that extra work, she also recalls being financially stable. “We never missed a paycheck.”
Sparks and Sheikh Yamani
The year 1973 was also the year OPEC shook the energy world by beginning to recognize and exercise its power. Sparks did not at first see the coming earthquake, but he was put in position to witness the temblor’s birth.
Beginning a lifelong commitment to working in the community, Don and Gwyn had already been active in the Republican Party, which led to them meeting then-senator John Tower. The senator asked Sparks to attend an upcoming oil conference in Washington, D.C., and report back, Sparks recalled.
Upon arriving there Sparks learned that Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the Saudi Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, who was also an OPEC minister, was there with a type of ultimatum. It was “that OPEC was not going to continue selling cheap oil to the western industrial nations. They wanted to begin to be involved in refining and competing with the major oil companies. Saudi Arabia specifically wanted to do it in the United States.”
A State Department official speaking next refused the demand, Sparks said.
That evening, during a state dinner at the Lebanese ambassador’s home, Sparks overheard the sheikh declare that OPEC was raising crude prices. The reason was, in Sparks’ recollection of Yamani’s words, “We’re not going to give away cheap energy to western nations, because all we’ll have left is to be sheep and camel herdsmen when our minerals are gone.”
A Time Magazine story from April 2, 1973 confirms this thinking, saying “…the shrewd Minister of Oil and Mineral Wealth, Ahmed Zaki Yamani, negotiated a new policy of ‘participation’ by his government’s oil agency, Petromin. Within three years, Petromin will acquire a 25 percent share in Aramco, the huge producing company through which Exxon, Texaco, Standard Oil of California, and Mobil have been pumping Saudi Arabian oil.”
In those days oil prices were set by the seller, not on the commodities market as they are now.
From that encounter Sparks learned a lesson that he still lives by. “When you really think about it, they pretty well had control of the price of oil. He made it very clear what they were going to do.”
The Road to Success
Discovery’s careful but steady growth over the next 40-plus years brought them to today’s status: 31 fulltime employees, operating approximately 420 wells within 300-400 miles of Midland. The company’s operated production totals 10,700 BOPD and 13 MMCF of natural gas per day.
Across those years they have discovered a number of fields. They pioneered the use of cut brine systems in Schleicher County and worked with Halliburton to develop logs for Wolfcamp and Spraberry Shales, which are still used to pick landing zones in horizontal wells in the Midland Basin.
In 1980, Sparks merged his consulting business with Don and Ronny Platt’s firm, forming Platt, Sparks & Associates Consulting Petroleum Engineers, Inc. Headquartered in Austin, the company has an office Midland as well.
Discovery’s family vibe started in 1979 as Don’s brother Bynum joined the company.
As the boys grew up and finished their education, all three landed at Discovery Operating, Inc. Firstborn Jeff is Chief Operating Officer, Kevin is Chief Executive Officer, and Todd is Chief Financial Officer. The elder two graduated from UT, while Todd earned his diploma at Baylor.
A family business has its joys and challenges—and stories. One of their favorite stories involves Jeff and his son Jared.
In Case of Emergency Break Glass
In the late 80s, after the three boys had joined the company, they were all among those who rotated the job known as “pumper” on weekends. One particular weekend when Jeff was on call, he’d gone to a site that had a certain issue. He and Kevin had discussed that well’s problem, and Kevin was expecting a call from Jeff’s radio phone installed in the car (this was before the cell phones of today).
Kevin recalled, “I didn’t hear from him, didn’t hear from him, so I called him—he didn’t pick up.” This continued for a while, to Kevin’s increasing frustration and concern.
Out at the well, Jeff was also frustrated, almost to the point of panic.
“My two-year-old went pumping with me that day,” he said. As he prepared to leave, Jeff couldn’t remember whether the site’s tank valve was open or not. He left the car running, jumped out with his pipe wrench, and climbed up to check the valve.
Upon returning to the car he discovered that, “My son had figured out how to lock the doors with the electric locks. The car’s running; I can’t leave; I can’t get in the car.”
No matter what he said or how he motioned to the boy, Jared, demonstrating how to push the other end of the same lock button to unlock the doors, it didn’t work. “About this time, Kevin would call and the car horn would start honking [to alert him of the phone call], and it scared him [Jared] to death.”
After 15-20 minutes of this, Jeff made a hard decision. “I had to take the pipe wrench and knock the window out.”
Apparently the ordeal did not scar Jared, as he now works for the family business.
Don Sparks credits his own father, Willoughby J. Sparks, and Sparks’ uncle Luther with instilling both a strong work ethic and a sense of family and community. Don’s mother’s (Helen) oldest brother, Luther was 12 and Helen was a baby when their father died, so Luther had to lead the family’s farming endeavors from then on.
The young Don spent summers working with Uncle Luther. “He taught me how to work” and how to drive all the heavy farm equipment, among other lessons.
Willoughby Sparks owned a dry cleaners shop at a hotel in Amarillo, where Don worked Saturdays starting in 8th grade. “One of the things he taught me was [that] you should work hard, with ethics. If you were able to do that, you could keep a family together, and Christ should be the head of the family.” His father also taught him the benefits of working with the family as a unit.
The dry cleaner experience also showed Don the benefits of the oil business. One customer, who always wore the nicest clothes, took the best room in the hotel, and was the most generous tipper, caught his attention. Don learned that the man was a shooter in the oil business.
The man was paid well because the shooter was responsible for the highly volatile nitro glycerin used for stimulating wells. That was by far the most dangerous job in the field. More than one shooter was blown to bits in the field—hence the high pay. So while Don decided not to do exactly that, it inspired him to learn more about oil. In that process, he read about petroleum engineering and decided that was a much safer way to be in the oil business.
Don and his family, including his wife, sons, and their wives, have spent many of their nonworking hours in community service. They have served on boards, in elective office, and in other forms of serving the community. The full list of the family’s service efforts could fill a whole story itself.
Willoughby gets the credit for instilling that as well. He taught Don, “When you stake your claim in a community and you work in that community, you should be involved in the community and give back in your time, talents, and, if you can, financially.” While the family was not wealthy, his father was deeply involved and gave where he could, Don said.
Built to Last: The Future in Challenging Times
With now the third generation coming on board, the family legacy seems set for at least the near future. Said Don, “I see Discovery staying in business. I’m not ready to quit. So as long as the boys allow me to come and be part of it, I plan on doing that. At the same time, I have two grandsons, a grand daughter-in-law that work here, I have a niece that works here, her husband is the comptroller, so as we move forward I see Discovery Operating continuing to be around and be involved long after I’m gone.
“The way I see it, I had a dream, I’ve seen it move forward, and I see the possibility of it living after I’ve gone.”
That is indeed the dream of the family as a whole. When combined with vision and hard work, dreams can indeed come true.
Paul Wiseman is a freelance writer in oil and gas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.