Bobby Loar and Dave Mathes are good to go.
By Hanaba Munn Welch
Not every oilfield glossary acknowledges slang. Check with Schlumberger. There’s no such thing as a swamper. Or a hotshot truck. Not as one word or two.
Hotshot drivers Bobby Loar and Dave Mathes, former swamper, don’t find themselves diminished by being left out. They don’t need to be defined. They already are—by their jobs, present and past.
Both men currently work for Wilson Hotshot, headquarters Elk City, Oklahoma.
Loar’s definition of a hotshot truck is what it does:
“If you need something right away, but you don’t need a big truck.”
But these days Wilson Hotshot and some other hotshot companies also run big trucks—18-wheelers like the one Loar was driving and the trucks Mathes was coordinating for Wilson one day in April. The job? Hauling pipe from one Texas drill site to another.
Mathes and Loar weren’t just on time for the pipe-moving job. They were early—good timing for impromptu interviews with PBOG. “I’m always early,” Mathes said. “I’d rather be two hours early than ten minutes late.”
He relies on punctuality to help him build and maintain relationships in the oilfield. If Mathes could add some extra terms to every oilfield glossary, they’d probably be “reputation” and “relationship.” He might include “family” too. All three words are what it’s all about in his book. And Loar’s too.
“You’ve got to take care of business,” Loar said. “Your reputation goes a long way out here in the oil patch. You do what you tell them.”
Besides being on time, performing the job efficiently is equally important, Loar said. “You build relationships after several years,” he said.
It’s the “people” side of the industry that’s overlooked when businesses are appraised, Mathes said. “Look at the bottom line,” Mathes said. “How’d they get that bottom line?”
If the profitability of a company depends on relationships built by employees, the bottom line can take a hit when the business changes hands and the employees don’t stay on board. “The work goes with the employees,” Mathes said. “A lot of people don’t ever think about that.… Two moves that I have made, I’ve taken all my customers with me.”
Technically, they weren’t “his” customers. But they might as well have been. He treated them like they were his own; not surprisingly, most stuck with him rather than transfer their allegiance to a new owner.
“Everybody’s important,” Mathes said, referring to the workforce. “Everybody can be replaced.”
But replacing relationships is a different matter. “Relationships can’t be replaced,” he said.
Mathes’ advice to anyone buying an oilfield service business is to do more than evaluate equipment and client lists. “Check the office personnel and field reps,” he said.
If they are working together to make good things happen, they are vital to the continued success of the business. “It’s a group effort and it’s a family deal,” he said. “I couldn’t do the things the secretaries do. No one person is more important than the next, I don’t think. Like the military says, if you’re going to make it over that hill, you’re going to have to do it together.”
In fact, it was discipline learned in the military that helped Mathes launch his life as a responsible adult—not that his time in the service is something he likes to think or talk about. As a teenage field medic in Vietnam, he grew up in a hurry. “Fight and raise cane” is how he describes the direction his life was taking before he signed up.
Vietnam was meant to give him a new direction. It did. Along the way, he got a Purple Heart too. “I was 16 and a half,” he said. “I had my 17th birthday before I shipped out. They were taking anybody and everybody.”
After the mayhem of war, the oilfield looked good to him.
“I went to work for Jackson Construction moving drilling rigs,” he said. The setting was familiar. He’d worked in the oilfield before—at age 12. “I was swamping for my dad,” Mathes said. “He had swamper trucks leased to J.H. Rose.”
Mathes’ definition of swamping:
“You follow the truck around,” he said. “When he stops to pick up something, you tie it on.”
Mathes stayed with Jackson for about five years and then went to work for Turner Brothers of Oklahoma City. “They had yards everywhere—Woodward, Sayre, Houston, Laredo, Odessa,” he said. “I moved all over the country for them.”
Mobility was a feature of the Turner operation. “The reason Turner survived so long, wherever the boom was, he’d move,” Mathes said.
Enter the term “family.”
“We called ourselves one big family,” Mathes said. “The nucleus of the big rig-movers, we stayed together.”
The names of many of the guys still roll off Mathes’ tongue, even if he’s not sure of spellings: Jim Williams, Bob Williams, Jim Sullivan, Jerry Lowrance, Jerry Rathman, Dave Matthews, Billy Voyles, Larry Britton, Beau Shaw, Buster Hatton, Max Branson. Mathes and his wife had their first baby when they were living the gypsy life of the Turner family of workers. Mathes was surprised to discover he wouldn’t have to come up with a strategy to pay the bill, thanks to Jack Turner, company owner. “Your insurance didn’t pay for it,” he was told when he checked on the cost. “Mr. Turner paid for it.”
If the rig-movers were like family, the boss was too—as much patriarch as owner.
Eventually Mathes went to work on his own, leasing his truck to haul nitrogen and CO2. “I had lots of customers,” he said. “I did a lot of work for Cudd—Bobby Joe Cudd.”
Then his friend Terry Willis asked Mathes to sell his truck and go to work for him to help him build his business. Mathes complied.
Willis started with four trucks, a forklift, and a wench truck. By the time he sold the business, the fleet had grown to 25 trucks, three forklifts, and five wench trucks. Mathes profited too when Willis sold out.“He was one fine fellow,” Mathes said.
Mathes also respects his current employer, Aren Wilson, owner of Wilson Hotshot—partly because he knows Wilson has worked his way up through both good and lean times, building a reputation and the requisite relationships to be successful. In the business of hotshot trucking, delivering what’s needed when it’s needed where it’s needed is the kind of work that can make or break a company’s image.
Despite the size of the oil patch in North America, companies like Wilson Hotshot maintain connections far and wide.
Loar can rattle off a list of places he’s worked in the business: Elk City (home base), Wyoming, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Broussard, Louisiana.
The Permian? It’s a given.
“We go out there all the time,” Loar said. “I just got back from Odessa.”
Like Mathes, Loar started working at a young age. “I was 11 years old, and I wanted a motorcycle,” he said.
By age 12, he had his Honda 100, although his dad had to loan him $100 when the price turned out to be more than he thought. Still, he worked it out.
But he learned the value of money and keeping his word even sooner from a farmer who’d paid him a quarter just to ride around in the pickup he was pulling behind a plow. It wasn’t really a job but rather a way for the farmer to help Loar make a little money, knowing the boy wanted a motorcycle. Then, when the man heard young Bobby ask his grandmother to take him to the store so he could spend his 25 cents on candy, he asked for the quarter back.
It’s a lesson Loar remembers well.
He never got the quarter back, but he remembers the lesson as a turning point in his life. It’s a lesson that’s served him well, especially in the oilfield. “If you tell someone something, you’ve got to stand behind it,” he said.
Through the years, it was a work ethic that helped him support his motorcycle habit, including the acquisition of three Harley Davidsons—a 1948 Knucklehead, a 1957 Panhead, a 1982 Shovelhead. Now seemingly past the motorcycle phase, Loar still works hard. He knows no other way. “I don’t really have any story except I’m trying to make a living,” he said.
But he does have stories—plenty of them. And not unlike many men of his ilk, he tells one story that traces his earliest connections to petroleum industry to his childhood and his kin. “My grandpa started the propane business in ’42,” he said.
But in the 1940s, the product was butane instead—fuel for the underground storage tanks of families who lived in rural areas not served by natural gas. “I’d ride in the bobtail with Daddy,” Loar said.
Even at just three cents a pound, not everyone had the money to pay. “Grandpa never let any family get cold,” Loar said.
Then, as a teenager, Loar’s first experience as a truck driver was in the wheat patch—not the oil patch. Like lots of other boys his age in Southwest Oklahoma, he drove wheat trucks.
Later he graduated to running dozers, trackhoes, and blades and working as a pipeline equipment operator. In the oilfield, his specialty has been truck driving. “I’ve never worked on a rig,” he said. “Been around them, been on them.”
At one point, he went into business in a hotshot trucking operation that served the needs of the then-current boom. “They pulled the plug in ’80 or ’81,” he said.
He’d already gotten out of the partnership, lucky to lose only $40,000 and blessed with enough mechanical ability to find work. “I picked up a wrench and started working on trucks and cars,” he said.
But when work picked up in the oilfield in the 1990s, he was back—till things turned down again. “It went slow to nothing,” he said. “Tool pushers were floor hands.”
Now times are booming again, and Loar is back, driving a truck for Wilson Hotshot. Even if he never buys another motorcycle, there’s a living to be made in the oilfield. And a life.
It’s an existence that claims both Loar and Mathes and other workers like them and makes them part of a family that knows the meaning of reputations and relationships. No glossary needed.
Freelance writer Hanaba Munn Welch writes regularly for PBOG. She maintains a website at www.hanaba.net.