DE BEQUE – Six years ago, Davey Graham thought his new natural gas water pumping and transportation company had failed on its very first day in business.
“We had bought these pumps that we were told were brand new, but it was pretty clear they’d been painted several times,” Graham, the owner of Gonzo, now a water management subcontractor in the industry, recalled in his office in De Beque on March 17.
When the pumps were taken to a well site operated by Encana, south of the Colorado River in Western Garfield County, and turned on, they quickly stopped working, Graham said.
“Nothing ran right,” he continued. “I thought we were done, because we had sunk everything we had into these pumps, and they didn’t work.”
Fortunately, Encana gave Graham another day to make things right.
“Everything we did from then on worked perfectly,” he said.
Today, despite the downturn in gas development, the closure of many other local subcontractors and migration of even more to other gas fields and other states, Gonzo employs 87 people, has more than 100 pieces of equipment and just opened a second office in Roosevelt, Utah.
“I’ve always thought that if you’re ambitious and use a lot of common sense, you can be a success,” Graham said.
Graham, born and raised in De Beque, lives in Grand Junction. He attended what is now Colorado Mesa University for a time, along with the University of Colorado – Denver, but left school 15 credits shy of a double major.
“So, I’m a college dropout,” he said.
After living and helping build custom homes in California and spending time overseas, Graham returned to take over the company when his father grew ill.
When the drilling rigs left the area in 2008 and 2009, Graham said no one wanted to rent his company’s water pumps. So, with the help of his employees — whom Graham gives much credit to for helping the company grow and succeed — several different ways to help gas operators save money, while still keeping his company going, were developed.
“We found a significant way to save them money instead of always trucking their water off site,” Graham stated. “Now we’re up to 8.4 million barrels of water pumped out, from Silt to Parachute, in the last year.”
For example, Graham said his staff and employees helped come up with a customized vacuum pump that made it possible to house containment ponds and a pump in a single trailer.
“That saved [WPX Energy, the only remaining major gas operator in the area and Gonzo’s top client] $40,000 this winter,” he said.
Gonzo is not an employee-owned company, Graham said, nor does it offer profit sharing. His workers are all paid salaries or by the hour, with benefits.
“We’ve been so blessed, too,” Graham said. “Whenever a job ended and we didn’t have anything else, the phone would ring.”
Graham also had high praise for his mother, Cyndie Graham, the company’s chief financial officer. She previously worked for Occidental Oil Co. in the 1980s, when that company was among several pursuing oil shale in Colorado and Utah.
“She flew around in a helicopter with Armand Hammer,” the company’s CEO at the time, Graham said.
“I just helped out with management and projecting where we wanted to go, slowly,” Cyndie Graham said of her role with Gonzo.
The company’s name (it’s simply “Gonzo,” Graham said) grew out of a childhood nickname.
“It looked good on paper, once we had a logo,” he said. “But I never thought it would turn into this.”
Graham, now 32, was 26 years old when he took over the company his father started.
“There were times when I thought I was way in over my head, but with the people around me, we always seem to make it work,” he added. “We’ve always tried to show our customers a viable way to save money without harming the environment, or putting anyone’s safety at risk and yet still support the company.”
Graham said Gonzo had gone 28 months without a reportable spill and 12 months without any injury to a worker.
Graham also credited his “pump mentor,” Michael Loser (pronounced loh’–sher) with Wagner Rents, for critical advice to solve problems that cropped up over the years.
“He’s never asked for a dime, either,” Graham added.
Looking forward, he said he hoped Gonzo would continue to expand at a rate that allows them to continue to provide quality service.
“Anything we need to do, we’ll find a way to do successfully,” Graham stated. “I’ve seen a lot of companies cut their own legs after things went down and they’re out of business. We may not be the cheapest, but we want to be the best.”