Gary E. Allison proved that it was possible to make money in the oil and gas industry during the oil bust in the mid 1980s.
General manager of an electrical services company, Allison lost his job shortly after the 1982 Penn Square Bank Collapse when the company he was working for folded. He and a co-worker then set out on their own.
“We decided there were still opportunities and that surely two people could find them,” Allison said.
They found many opportunities.
Nearly three decades later, Tri-State Industrial Group has grown from a two-man operation into a company of more than 200.
The company provides electrical services and builds oil and natural gas well pad sites.
Allison, 61, recently discussed his company and his other aspects of his life with The Oklahoman. This is an edited transcript:
Q: How did you first get into business?
A: I had the best job I had ever had. I was a maintenance man at the Ramada Hotel next to Crossroads Mall. I was a handyman, and I was pretty good at it. When I had a really big problem with the electrical system or plumbing, I would call the electrician or the plumber. Those guys were like kings to me. They made good money and had nice tools.
I went to Moore-Norman Vo-Tech. I was a very good student. I studied hard and completed the course. Then I went through the classifieds and found wanted postings for electricians. It's just coincidental that the company that hired me was in oil and gas. If I would have read another posting, I might have ended up wiring houses.
Q: What lessons did you learn from the 1980s oil bust?
A: The primary lesson I learned from watching companies fail and other companies succeed was that the companies that failed were heavily leveraged. The most critical lesson I learned was to not be stupid with money. The first thing you have to do in business is work hard, and a close No. 2 is to manage your finances well. Don't get heavily leveraged.
Q: How have you dealt with ups and downs in the oil and natural gas industry?
A: Any time the price of oil and gas plummeted, we would plummet with it. Any time oil and gas would rise, we would find success. We have experienced three uncomfortable dips. During those times, we had our good people trimming bushes at my house and putting lights in my attic. We kept paying them to stay with us. It was an exercise of how long we could hold our financial breath, but we kept our company together.
We have since diversified our business. Hopefully we are positioning ourselves to handle downturns better in the future.
Q: Why was it so important for you to keep your employees on the payroll even when they didn't have work to do?
A: If you find good people, you do whatever you can do keep them.
Q: Do you have a philosophy that has led your life or management style?
A: I could wrap it up in four very brief points: Work hard, manage your money, study diligently your industry and whatever you did today, and associate with people who do steps one, two and three.
Q: What do you like to do when you're out of the office?
A: I'm pretty fortunate that my wife and I like the same things. Mostly we get a kick out of the arts: musicals, the philharmonic, ballet.
Q: What is your favorite musical?
A: “Les Miserables” is my favorite and my wife's favorite. I judge a musical by how many of the songs engage you in the length of the musical. I also like “Phantom of the Opera”, “Cats”, “Big River”. I enjoy musicals. Don't tell the guys, but I also enjoy ballet and adore opera.
When I'd drove up to a drilling rig 30 years ago, I'd be listening to Beethoven. I'm always going, always doing. If I'm going to listen to something, I want it to be peaceful. I like the classics and the opera. I'm not a student of it. I can't even pronounce some of the names. I'm just an admirer.
Q: Can you tell us about your family?
A: I'm a one-month-old's grandpa. I have one daughter. Her mother passed away when she was very young from leukemia. My wonderful wife now is her mother. My daughter married my favorite son-in-law. I consider him not my son-in-law, but my son. He's the best.
Q: If you weren't running Tri-State, what would you be doing?
A: The most fun I've ever had at work was in the technical side. I loved fixing things. I loved going to a well when they were stuck on the bottom and everyone was in a panic, and I'd walk up and tell everyone to step aside. The most fun I ever had was as a troubleshooter.
Q: Did you take that “troubleshooting” mentality with you into management?
A: In business, you are daily fixing problems. It's not as clear as when you walk in and the motor's not running and when you walk out it is working. When you're dealing with humans it's more complicated. When a department is experiencing failure, hopefully I can walk in and walk out with a turnaround. Hopefully I've brought in people who will do that.