It was fifty years ago this November that a young Vic Brandl purchased his first piece of equipment and went to work on a construction project on the Graham River in northeast British Columbia.
It was a slow year in the oil patch. So, Vic was pretty fortunate to be supervising the work on a fairly large project for another contractor, a first job that was the beginning of 50 years as VE Brandl Construction, one of the most successful companies of its kind in Fort St. John over that period.
"I can even remember the serial number," Vic said, reminiscing about that first machine.
It hasn't been an easy 50 years.
"With the oilfield, it's always up and down," said Barry Brandl, the current Vice President of VE Brandl.
Barry and his brothers became shareholders of the company in 1992. Vic stayed on for another ten years before turning the reins over to his boys completely, although he still holds the title of President.
"There's never a steady pace," Barry continued. "It's usually really busy or really slow. And we usually have, it seems like, about three or four good years followed by a couple slow years.
"I guess one of the things that's helped us most is that practice of keeping debt low so you're not in a bind having to sell off assets when things do slow down. We've grown to about 85 pieces of equipment now."
Their core business is building roads and lease sites for oil and gas companies. That work takes them into Alberta and up to Fort Nelson. Business has been good lately, too.
"Nobody expected to be this busy this year.," said Barry. "Last year was so-so. And we thought it would be maybe a little busier this year, but the companies we work for were really busy."
Vic can remember harder times such as the early seventies when B.C. had its first NDP government.
"We were down to three drilling rigs at one time here," he said. "That's all the activity there was in the oil patch. So, that's about as quiet as we've ever had it in this province."
Another bad spell hit in the eighties.
"The hardest years were during the eighties, of course," said Vic. "But I was liquid. I had my debt load at just about nil. I could see this coming. I could see it couldn't go on the way it was forever. We had double-digit inflation and double-digit interest rates. At one time they hit a high of 21 or 22 per cent. And I knew this couldn't go on. But those conditions were compounded by that National Energy Program, which practically killed the oil patch. Those were the toughest years."
During the slow years, Vic supplemented his workload and his income by clearing land for farmers and making use of his inventive mind to build new equipment.
"This kept things going in between the flat spots in the oil patch activity," said Vic.
"There have been good years and bad years," added Barry. "Of course, natural gas price has been down for quite a while. But, in 2008, when everything else crashed, it crashed here too, but all this unconventional gas being here really made this area weather it a lot better than some areas."
"This area got kind of lucky with this unconventional gas," he continued, "because even with low gas prices people are trying to lock up the fields. They believe it's a long term investment. And with the talk about LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminals in Kitimat, that should help this area."
VE Brandl is a family business, but they have benefited from bringing in good people like operations manager Art Smith and quality supervisors and operators.
"We've got about ten people working in our shop now just on maintenance and repairs," said Barry.
"So, our equipment's probably in better shape than a lot of the other guys. We stay on top of repairs and that. So, that helps keep people too when your equipment's not breaking down on the job and that. So, it's tough even with the amount of mechanics we've got. We could probably use another one or two just to stay on top of it."
Improving their safety standards have been a major priority in recent years and their scores on annual safety audits are proof of those efforts, which is important when it comes to getting contracts with the big companies.
The future looks promising for VE Brandl with the emergence of the LNG industry in B.C.
"Right now, gas is at a ten year low," said Barry.
"You'd think there would be nothing going on here with those kind of gas prices. In the past, it's always been really slow. But with big players with deeper pockets that are looking longer term, you can sustain this [activity]. So, with the amount of money they're putting in to build these pipelines, it sounds like more of a long-term kind of thing. And that should stabilize things once they can find other markets besides [the U.S.]"
"Right now," he concluded, "natural gas totally depends on domestic and U.S. consumption."