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Sivalls ‘rolls with punches’ to keep firm hopping - Odessa American: Lifestyle

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Sivalls ‘rolls with punches’ to keep firm hopping

Oklahoma native survived bust selling equipment to Russia

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  • Dick Sivalls

    C. Richard "Dick" Sivalls stands in the company shop during a recent tour.

Posted: Sunday, November 26, 2017 5:45 am

The establishment in Odessa of Sivalls Inc., now a national and international oilfield equipment manufacturer, hinged on the purchase of a washing machine 70 years ago.

The company dates all the way back to 1900 at Findlay, Ohio, where James Sivalls made redwood water and whiskey barrels and moved them on mule-drawn wagons. With the discovery of oil, Sivalls took on partners and began making wooden tanks for the industry in Bartlesville, Okla., in 1904.

His son Charles reached Odessa in 1947 and, needing land to build a shop, was negotiating with Oso and Helen Pool for 20 acres on the south side of the 2200 block of East Second Street. “My father and his partner went down to sign the papers,” said C. Richard “Dick” Sivalls, 82, president of Sivalls Inc. and Control Equipment Inc.

“Oso signed, but Helen said, ‘I’m not signing! This cheap guy has all this money and he won’t even buy me a new washing machine.’ So my father went to Sears & Roebuck and said, ‘I want the best washing machine you’ve got put on her porch.’ She signed the next day.”

The industry was transitioning from bolted metal tanks to welded ones for use in the Spraberry Field south of Midland, and Dick Sivalls began working here in the summers while living in a boardinghouse owned by Millie van Horn at Ninth Street and Sam Houston Avenue.

“When we first came here, mother spent three nights at the Antlers Hotel and went back to Oklahoma City,” he said. “We had a couple of movie theaters, one or two decent restaurants and a grainy black and white TV set in the living room of the boardinghouse; so there wasn’t much to do but work hard, eat and go to bed.”

Sivalls Tanks progressed to general manufacturing and now makes equipment “for everything between the wellhead and the pipeline,” said Sivalls, who has led the company since 1974.

With 300 employees in six states and annual revenues of $100 million, it manufactures separators, treaters, water knockouts, heaters, gas production and dehydration units, gas and water treating equipment, emission control technology and offshore production and storage gear. Control Equipment, across the street at 2311 E. Second, generates $60 million to $80 million per year.

Sivalls took a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Oklahoma in 1957 and served in the Army for two years at Fort Gordon, Ga., where, among other duties in the industrial engineering and signal corps, he was a greens marshal in Augusta, watching golfer Arnold Palmer win the Masters Tournament in 1958. He and his wife, Lura, have a son, Tracy, and a daughter, Stephanie Latimer, who are the vice presidents for administration at at Control Equipment and Sivalls Inc., respectively. They have three grandchildren.

Asked how the firms have survived all the booms and busts, Sivalls said, “You don’t buy boats and lake homes and airplanes.

“Put money in the bank and save what you can so when the downturn comes, you can ride it out. Pay your employees well, pay your shareholders and hold onto some reserves because you know that sooner or later, it will go ‘zap!’ down and then come back up for any one of a thousand reasons. We’re well capitalized. We don’t owe any money, and we try not to lay off anybody.

“The booms used to last for a year and a half to two years and you’d be down for five to seven years. Now the cycles are closer together. We survived the downturn of 2008 and ‘09 by selling overseas. We’ve done business everywhere they sell oil, Russia, Canada, the Middle East, South America and Asia.

“We don’t sell anything to China because they’d just copy it. You wouldn’t sell but one.”

Sivalls said oil and gas boomed from central Russia to the far eastern side in Siberia after the Cold War ended because the Russian military stopped getting all the money. “They knocked on our door with an American agent, and now we have a Russian engineer in Houston who travels back and forth,” he said.

“I’ve been to Moscow and St. Petersburg, and we’ve got people who go clear to Siberia, setting up equipment there and around the North Sea.”

Sivalls said a heater treater, which separates the oil and water, must be well-insulated to operate in 50 below zero weather. “The Russians have good engineers,” he said.

“They could understand what we were talking about, but it was taking them 60 days for a whole bunch of people to get 10,000 barrels of oil out of the ground and into the pipeline. I said, ‘We’ve got this horizontal heater treater that will handle 10,000 barrels a day,’ and they couldn’t believe it.”

Citing American sanctions on Russia, he said, “With the international transfer of money, it’s tedious to try to ship and get paid for it.”

Sivalls wears a suit and tie to the office but remains an engineer at heart who is never happier than when one of his half-dozen engineers asks him to help with a problem. He has a shop at home and says his hobby is “tools.”

His high-ceilinged manufacturing plant’s original 100-foot-long north-south layout has been expanded to 400 feet, and there’s a 300-foot-long east-west bay with cranes that can lift 60 tons. A sandblasting-painting building, where most products are tinted forest green or desert tan, stands to the south.

“I think we’re the largest family owned company doing our kind of work,” said Sivalls. “Contract trucks take our shipments to Houston. One Russian unit with accessories takes five truckloads, and we can get it from here to St. Petersburg and the location in Siberia in 60 days. We go to Houston to get 20 truckloads of steel off one ship.”

Other leaders are Executive Vice President Jack Zuerker, Chief Financial Officer Bob Nolan, Vice President of Engineering Jim Bradley and Vice President of Marketing Danny Brister.

Former Odessa-based crane company owner Dick Gillham said Sivalls “is a good businessman who is devoted to the City of Odessa and its betterment.

“I can’t think of anything he has been called on to do that he hasn’t done,” Gillham said. “He’s been on the City Council and the United Way and Workforce Development boards. I understand from employees of his that he treats them with respect. He has been fair with them, and they’re loyal. You need a vision to have people following you and believing in you.

“Dick has seen the opportunities the oil business has afforded and reacted to them, cut expenses, overcome the down times and kept a viable company going. His success in Russia is a tribute to him and the quality of work his plant puts out.”

Former gas company owner Charles Perry, a University of Oklahoma-educated chemical engineer, was Sivalls Tanks’ vice president of marketing until 1967. “Dick enjoys what he’s doing, even though it is frustrating at times,” Perry said.

“You have headaches anytime you go overseas, but he has managed it well. Anytime you’re working on a community project, you can count on him to support it. He is so low profile away from Odessa that few knew him when I nominated him as a distinguished graduate of the university’s College of Engineering three or four years ago.”

Former Mayor Larry Melton said Sivalls “is a great businessman who doesn’t mind putting on a suit or getting his hands dirty.

“He rolls with the punches and does what needs to be done,” said Melton, who attends the First United Methodist Church with the Sivallses. “Dick runs quite a big international operation and does a lot of good for our community.

“He has a family owned business that his daughter has apparently got a good sense of, so it ought to continue. He brings Odessa a lot of international clients.”

Latimer has worked in the company since graduating from Trinity University in San Antonio in 1979. “I’ve learned a lot of different things,” she said.

“You can go to college and get a geology degree and end up working in insurance and human resources. I try to earn my pay.”

Sivalls said a family firm is more likely to have an employee-friendly culture. “We treat them right and promote from within when we have the opportunity,” he said.

“We provide good benefits, and they know they’ll still have a job if things slow down.”

Like most Odessans, Sivalls watches oil price fluctuations, but he says the rig count is less relevant now that the fracking revolution lets drillers get multiple wells with one rig. “You could do anything to make money with $100 oil in 2014, but now we’ve become more efficient,” he said.

His Odessa plant is running 55-60 hours per week with five 10-hour shifts during the week and weekend work. He also has plants at Brownwood, Pampa, northeast of Amarillo, Casper, Wyo., and Williston, N.D., and sales offices in Houston, Hobbs, N.M., Rock Springs and Evansville, Wyo., Wheatland, Okla., and Vernal, Utah.

Work isn’t Sivalls’ only interest. He has gone on cruises with his wife to the Mediterranean and North Baltic seas and other places. He said he likes Odessa for its climate and rural atmosphere and would not prefer to live anywhere else.

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