Launching a well-testing company in the middle of a downturn has its rewards

Sherry Hall and her husband Tim decided to take a gamble that better days are ahead for the industry.

It’s tough enough to start an oilfield service company at the best of times. But in the middle of a punishing oil and gas downturn might seem a little hard-headed. Especially after the last two well-testing companies Tim and Sherry Hall worked for went belly-up and couldn’t pay them. Most people would find a cautionary tale in that.

Not the Halls.

The couple started Leann Testing in September 2016 when they saw a good deal on a separator.

To buy it, they sold their house and moved into their second half-finished house that they had started building in the good ol‘ days of $100 oil. The house didn’t yet have power or water, so now they were building both a company and a home at the same time.

The Halls didn’t expect it to be easy. What they wanted was to work together in well testing. Tim got into the trade when he was just 15. As a 41-year-old well-testing veteran, he had no problem finding work—even in the downturn. But his wife didn’t take up the trade until 2011 when the couple’s two daughters were grown. Less work experience and prejudice around woman in the oilfield made it hard for her to find work.

“So we decided to take a gamble. Oil had to come back sometime,” Sherry says.

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Oil prices came back, more or less, and today Leann Testing has six employees, three separators and five flare stacks. In fact, the biggest challenge it faces now is finding good workers as the company grows.

“A lot of people left the province. Experienced [testers] went back east to work in factories. So we’re mainly training young people from town, friends and their kids,” says Tim, the director of Leann Testing.

The name of the company comes from the blending of the Halls’ middle names, Lee and Anne. It’s a partnership that doesn’t involve Tim doing all the fieldwork while Sherry tends the phones. She works in the field, and apart from sometimes being mistaken for a medic, she doesn’t have a problem dealing with some of the misconceptions people have about women working in the oilpatch.

“’I’m not here to save you,’ I tell them,” she says. “Mostly you do your job, and it’s fine.”

Based in Valleyview, Alta., about an hour east of Grande Prairie, Leann Testing does all forms of well testing except for frac recovery. The company’s niche is primarily in the Leduc sour oil play, providing quality service at a lower cost than the competition thanks to the type of equipment it runs.

“A lot of [producers] have been trying to reduce their costs. Trucking costs can be up to $300/hour when moving some of the big separators to site. We move our equipment with a pickup. We charge $0 for trucking. So right away, we’ve got one up on the competition,” Tim says.

With the three sizes of equipment they own—two-cubic-metre, four-cubic-metre and eight-cubic-metre separators—Tim says he can do all the same jobs that larger equipment can.

“Ours have the same capacity of fluid production,” he says. The main difference is that an operator working on smaller equipment has to pay more attention to what he or she is doing.

But lower prices mean nothing without quality work. So picking the right employees, properly training them and working safely is the cornerstone of their business. Tim proudly shows off his Small Employer Certificate of Recognition, issued by Alberta Safety Council. “That’s hard to get,” he says. “It can cost up to $30,000 for a firm to get a Certificate of Recognition. We stayed up till 2 a.m. every night making our safety program. It cost us around $500.”

Tight budgets dictate that kind of work ethic. The upside of doing the safety work yourself, rather than farming it out, is that you know the safety code inside and out by the time you are done. That pays dividends when training employees, which Sherry says is about a four-year process in well testing

Five-year plan

There isn’t a lot of new drilling in the Leduc sour oil play, but there’s plenty of production work. “Lots of these wells have been here since the 1950s—about 1,000 of them here in Valleyview. These things need regular workover. There’s also a big gas plant here that has been around since the 1950s and a bunch of pipelines. We’ve got Pembina Pipeline up here. Tervita has a well disposal facility here as well,” Tim says.

While there’s no shortage of competition for well testing in the area, the Halls aren’t too concerned about it. Their value proposition has found traction with the local producers and businesses, and business is steady.

The Halls also don’t plan to “take over the world.” They are happy in the niche they’ve carved out for Leann Testing. They expect to continue doing the work they love and modestly growing the company’s capabilities.

“I enjoy the travel, meeting lots of people and learning,” Sherry says.

The five-year plan is to find a buyer for the business and retire to Stirling, Alta., a half-hour southeast of Lethbridge, where Tim grew up and where they both have family.

In the meantime, there’s more work to do than there are hours in a day. This year, they might finally finish the house. It’s getting there. The lights are on, the water’s flowing, and “most employees stay at our house and help finish it after work,” Tim says.

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