Ken Travis, 38, is one of those remarkable success stories where a young man starts with little but his enthusiasm, keen intellect and a drive to succeed and parlays them into millions.
In Mr. Travis's case he went to work in Alberta's oil fields right out of high school 20 years ago, worked his way up to director of operations at a major oil and gas service company, came up with a way to make wells more productive and in 2003, with a partner, Lyle Filliol, started his own company.
That company, Strata Energy Services Inc. of Red Deer, Alta., will do $50-million in business this year, employs 120 people and has teams working in about 22 different locations around the world.
Strata's forte is extracting the maximum oil and gas in so-called "underbalanced" wells (referring to the way pressure is unequal in a certain drilling process); over the past 17 years it has worked on more than 500 of them. Traditionally wells were filled with a mix of mud and liquid, in part to preserve the surrounding rock formation and in part to keep the oil and gas under pressure.
Mr. Travis and Mr. Filliol saw a way to better protect the integrity of the rock formation and increase yield by using a mix of nitrogen and fluid instead. They raised $200,000 from family and friends to create a prototype, another $200,000 to start producing equipment and by the end of their first year in business had sold a pair of their new systems into the Middle East.
"Word of mouth about how well this system worked started orders coming in," he says.
"The business just took off."
In fact, Strata's approach to maximizing yield from oil and gas wells has proved so popular that, despite last year's recession, company revenues rose by 15 per cent.
"Anyone who was drilling came to us," he says. "We picked up about 90 per cent of the business in Canada. Today even our largest competitor - a company that does about $1.5-billion a year - buys its equipment from us."
Becoming that big is not in the cards from Strata, he says. "What I want to do is maintain our culture. I want to grow but never grow so big so we lose that.
"The thing that has driven our success to date is the people who work here. They are our most important asset."