Editor's note: Estevan Meter Services founding partner James "Doc" Stephen passed away at the Pasqua Hospital, Regina, Sask. at the age of 95 years.
A Celebration of Doc’s life will be announced at a later date. This story ran in our June 2017 edition. Here it is, reprinted in its entirety:
Estevan – The Stephen family has been involved with Estevan Meter Services from Day 1. James “Doc” Stephen was one of the founders, and in 1984 he sold out to his son, Reg Stephen. Reg is still an inactive shareholder in the company, having sold out his active interest over several years.
This interview is probably Pipeline News’ longest-distance email interview, as both father and son reside in Mexico, where they play a little golf. As for how James Stephen came to be known as “Doc,” Reg said, “We have asked many times, and he has never told us.”
Pipeline News: Doc, you founded Estevan Meter in 1967. What was the oilpatch like in Estevan then, compared later years and today? How did the company start out?
“Doc” Stephen: We purchased the company from Ed Moe and Ralph Sinclair in the summer of 1967. I was working for Surplus Oilfield Equipment, my partners were Dick Sprecher of Dominion Supply and Gail Nelson of National Tank Co.
P.N.: What products and services did you offer?
“Doc” Stephen: We sold and repaired Barton flow meters, pressure gauges and Guiberson tubing anchors.
Can you explain a bit about how the early years went?
“Doc” Stephen: We went a few months without pay checks and I was thrilled to be able to finally write us our first pay checks in November of 1967. I was happy that my career choice was starting to work out.
P.N.: In the mid-1970s, the Allan Blakeney NDP government brought in Bill 42. Can you explain how that affected your business, and how you survived?
“Doc” Stephen: When the NDP passed Bill 42 in the early 1970s I remember local business owners, led by Royce Reichert of Badge Services, moved massive amounts of service rigs and oilfield equipment to the front of the Legislature building in protest of the bill. We were fortunate to survive the downturn and filled our days doing small personal projects at the shop to pass the time.
P.N.: What were the best parts about running a business in the oilpatch? And the low points?
“Doc” Stephen: The best business years for us was after the federal government legislated the change to metric. We were kept very busy changing all the flow meters and gauges over to metric. We used to joke that we hoped it didn't work out and we would get paid to change them all back. As we know, that never happened, but it was a good time to be in the meter business.
P.N.: Is there anything you’d like to add?
“Doc” Stephen: Back in my day we were very proud to be oilmen. I enjoyed the comaradarie of the oilmens association, also the great friendships that were made with customers and business associates. We were able to contribute to many projects in various communities in southeast Saskatchewan.
I was fortunate to have the time to volunteer coaching minor sports and various positions with the Estevan Bruins.
P.N. Reg, did you essentially grow up in the business?
Reg Stephen: I started my first job the day after my high school graduation at Schindle and Bazin Construction. Roger Bazin was a family friend and he told my mother, “Pack his lunch, buy him some boots and gloves we will put him to work.”
After a couple of years with Roger I moved over to Computalog working in the downhole completion department.
P.N.: You took over Doc’s ownership in the mid-1980s. What is like then?
Reg Stephen: I purchased my father’s interest in March of 1984. I worked with Dad for two weeks for training and to meet his customers. After that time Dad retired and left me to fend for myself. That way, he thought, I would learn to be independent. He said I was welcome to call for advice but by no means was he coming back to work.
P.N.: Most people I’ve spoken to who have been in the oilpatch for several decades said the 1986 downturn almost sunk them, and it was the worst downturn until the one we’ve seen in the last three years. That came a few years after you became a partner in Estevan Meter. How did you deal with that challenge?
Reg Stephen: In 1986 we were suffered a large downturn in the industry. Our best clients spent their days playing cribbage in our shop as there was no work to be done. I was very fortunate to be involved in an established company with very low overhead expenses. I was also fortunate that my debt holder was related to me and flexible with the payment plan.
P.N.: The historical piece from 1985 talks about Estevan Meter offering just meters. But now you do so much more than that. When did that occur, and what brought that on?
Reg Stephen: After the downturn I felt there was a need to try to expand our services and customer base. That led to buying out my partners and building a new facility in the early 1990s.We needed to try and keep up with changing technologies and customer demands.
P.N.: Over the years, the southeast Saskatchewan oilpatch used to have a lot of major oil companies, but that eventually transitioned to mostly junior players until recently. How did that impact your business, if at all?
Reg Stephen: The major producers in our area were the driving force behind work place safety, work procedures and the bidding for services process. They were committed to helping the small independent service suppliers transform into compliance. I watched owners like Ron Carson grow exponentially because he was a leader in compliance with the major producers. The companies that fought the compliance usually failed.
P.N.: What stands out for you during your time with the company where you were actively involved?
Reg Stephen: I think what stands out in my mind the most is the transformation of our business. When I started we were three owners with one employee in a dingy rental shop. That progressed into sole ownership and a few employees in a new building with improved services and then progressed to where we are today.
Eventually Estevan Meter’s ownership changed again, yet the company has stayed independent. Has that independence always been important?
Reg Stephen: I believe that being independently owned is a great driving force for the company. We pride ourselves in being part of southeast Saskatchewan and now also a part of southwest Manitoba with our Virden location.
P.N.: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Reg Stephen: We are happy to be able to give back to our local communities we serve. We are proud to contribute to children's programs, town facilities and many other community projects. I would like to thank our ownership group, management and staff for their dedication. Our management and staff are a direct reflection of us and we are proud of their commitment to customer satisfaction.