In the North American oil exploration industry, they’re known as “roustabouts” and “roughnecks.” Hard living men pursuing a hard dollar, they’re the workers who’ve traditionally performed the grunt labor and routine maintenance from the Canadian fields to the Texas rigs. As the colorful epithets suggest, they typically lead transient, hardscrabble lives, toiling outdoors in all kinds of weather, often taking on 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, engaging in work as arduous as it is hazardous.
For some, the job is a temporary stint, one of many gigs that help mark time while awaiting fortune’s smile (Clark Gable was one of several famous people who worked the rigs). But for most, the work forever remains their main livelihood, and their transitory existence takes them from region to region, camp to camp, rig to rig. In between, home is a camp bunk or hotel room.
If Derrick Big Eagle, president, general manager and co-founder of Eagle Drilling Services Inc., has accomplished nothing else – and he has indeed accomplished plenty in the three short years that he has been in business – he has improved the roughnecks’ lot. His business approach and subsequent impact on their lives is almost revolutionary. One might even go as far to say that Eagle Drilling created a workers’ revolution initiated by management.
“One of the things that we have done is to help turn oil industry labor positions into a viable, lucrative and practical career choice,” says Big Eagle, a member of the Ocean Man First Nation in southeast Saskatchewan (his Carlyle-based enterprise is the first Canadian drilling company owned by an aboriginal). “We provide workers with stability in their lives.”
Stability is the key descriptive. “The way it used to be, someone would say, ‘I’ll go work the oil rigs to make some quick money,’” he points out. “But we have turned it into a respectable career choice.”
And one that provides someone a place to call home – in the professional, emotional and physical sense. “That’s very important to our company,” says Big Eagle. “Someone who works for us doesn’t have to follow the camps and live in hotel rooms. We’ve established ourselves in the Saskatchewan area and provide a place where workers can settle. They’ll still be doing shift work, but they can earn enough money to buy a home and raise a family. That’s a big advantage in this industry. Generally, it’s not the way things happen. But it’s what we make happen here.”
As he suggests, the work can be lucrative. “Someone could conceivably make wages equal to that of a doctor or a lawyer, and that’s without having to go to school,” he reveals. But he quickly adds, “Don’t get me wrong; not everyone will reach that salary level. Oil money isn’t just going to flow into your jean pockets. You have to work for it. But we are turning it into a good career choice.”
That makes the company unique, he says. “When someone comes to work for us, they can work an eight-hour shift and then go home to have supper. Anyplace else, they’d have to go back to a bunk in a camp.”
COMMITTED TO SAFETY AND HEALTH
Stability is not only fostered by decent wages. Working for Eagle Drilling brings with it considerable safety and healthcare benefits, too. The company has committed itself to each employee’s personal welfare, with prevention of occupational injuries and illness a priority. In three years, it has achieved an impressive track record through laudable implementation of safety features that include hydraulic catwalks and enclosed mud tanks to protect operators. “Safety was a major issue when we started building our rigs,” says Big Eagle. “We wanted to offer the highest-possible safety levels in a hazardous industry and make sure everyone feels comfortable working for us.”
As far as benefits, Big Eagle describes his company’s package as “second to none” in the industry. “It’s not just geared to the individual worker. It’s very family oriented and focuses on the practical things that people really need to have addressed,” he explains, “eyewear for children, for instance, and dental benefits. Both children and adults in every walk of life need help with dental costs. It’s one of the biggest health-related expenses people face, and it’s something that’s always left out of typical benefits packages.”
In return, Big Eagle asks for only one thing in return from his employees: “Dedication,” he succinctly states.
The company’s commitment to worker welfare not only benefits employees; it has been a big plus for Eagle Drilling as well, as far as stabilizing its workforce. “We’ve built our rigs to be worker-friendly, and if you create a healthy and happy work environment, people are more apt to stick around,” Big Eagle comments. “You can have the best rigs, but if you don’t have the people to work them, you really have nothing. With our safety commitment and benefits package, we attract and keep the best employees. They know that Eagle Drilling is a safe operation. That’s why we’ve been so successful.”
RISING THROUGH THE RANKS
Though he thrives in a rough-and-tumble business, Big Eagle exhibits a compassionate and empathetic nature. No doubt, his strong identification with workers and their welfare results from his own experience. Big Eagle followed his father Jake into the oil industry, and he secured his first job on an oilrig when he was only 15 years old, attending school during the day and working a graveyard shift on the rig. He then worked his way up through the industry. After he graduated from high school, he became a full-time “roughneck” – albeit an ambitious one: By the age of 20, and working with various contractors, he became the youngest driller in Saskatchewan’s regional oil industry. When he turned 25, he achieved status as the youngest toolpush (i.e., someone responsible for all operations on a land drilling rig). Only five years later, he became the region’s youngest drilling supervisor. When he turned 35, he became the youngest drilling contractor.
That was in 2005, the same year that he went to work for Rob MacCuish, an area superintendent for Northrock Resources Ltd. A Metis (someone with mixed Native American and French-Canadian ancestry), MacCuish hired Big Eagle as a drilling supervisor. More importantly, the two men perceived the need for more rigs for smaller companies and decided to become partners in a new enterprise. Raising $7.5 million from private sources, including family and friends (they never solicited as much as a dime of government money), Big Eagle and MacCuish established Eagle Drilling in January of that year. By June, they initiated operations. In the process, the 35-year-old Big Eagle became the youngest owner of a Canadian oil drilling company.
The timing proved perfect. “The Saskatchewan area needed some new, advanced drilling rigs,” Big Eagle recalls. “Also, oil was only going for about $50 a barrel and the price was about to skyrocket. So, it turned out to be the right time for us to get in the door and make the appropriate contacts.”
As such, the company grew quickly in a short period. At first, the two founders envisioned building one rig a year in Eagle Drilling’s first three years. But in less than two years, the company expanded from one to five rigs, and its employee roster ballooned from 23 workers to 125. “We’re currently constructing our sixth rig,” reports Big Eagle. The company, which services the burgeoning Canadian Bakken oilfield area, is looking to increase its rig fleet to eight in a couple of years.
Currently, with its fleet of Canadian-made drilling platforms, Eagle Drilling can provide service levels unmatched in the region, thanks to its sound management, solid business strategy and state-of-the-art technology. Its rig fleet is comprised of fast-moving, 750-hp telescoping doubles, which the company fabricated itself, that are capable of drilling into the deepest or shallowest depths, depending on what’s required. Thanks to its commitment to employees, the company is able to staff its operations with the industry’s most experienced and best-trained individuals. Further, with its advanced technology, the company ensures the fastest, most efficient and cost-effective drill operation possible. Companies that Eagle Drilling serves include TriStar Oil & Gas Ltd., Medora Resources Inc. and Aldon Oils Ltd. It also works with smaller companies on a short-term basis.
Moreover, Eagle Drilling brings the same level of commitment to the environment that it extends to its employees. “All of our rigs are constructed to have zero impact when we would move it off of the ground,” says Big Eagle.
That’s just one of many reasons why Eagle Drilling became one of the most respected contract drillers in North America. Combine that with the unparalleled service levels it provides to the Canadian oil industry and the consideration it shows its employees and you have a business prepared to soar to even greater heights.