Mel Grimes changed the landscape

The pumpjack that took over Saskatchewan

Lampman– Melvyn Duane Grimes, who everyone called “Mel,” played a large part in literally transforming the Saskatchewan oilpatch landscape. He passed away Nov.  15 at the age of 69 after an over two-and-a-half-year battle with prostate cancer.

Born Feb. 2, 1947, Mel Grimes grew up the third of five children; Gary, Judy, Melvyn, Barbara and Karen. Since the 1940s, their parents, Clayton and Kathleen Grimes, owned and operated Grimes Sales & Service Ltd., a Lampman-based farm implement dealership. The dealership included brands like Versatile, New Holland, Degelman and Morris Rod Weeder. Clayton Grimes served as mayor of Lampman for 25 years.

After high school Mel found work in the oilpatch, becoming Dome Petroleum’s youngest field operator, at 19, according to his daughter, Stacey Wempe, on Nov. 23.  He would work both in the oilfield and with his father’s business.

In 1968, at age 21, he married Margaret Mayer of Frobisher.

Stacey was born to Mel and Margaret in 1971, followed by Clinton in 1974.

In 1972, Mel’s father Clayton passed away, leaving the operation of the business to his family. Kathleen did the books, and Mel took over running the business, Stacey explained. Once established in the implement business, he left the oilfield. He had offers to go overseas to work, but being with his family was important. Stacey noted he had said, “This is where I wanted to be.”

Margaret would become integral in the family business, with Stacey saying, “Mom was one of the first implement dealers to get a computer. They were always forward thinking like that.”

 “He went into partnership in 1984 with Southern Resources with Paul Grimes (a cousin),” Stacey said. Southern Resources was a junior oil company working in southeast Saskatchewan. 

“Dad got out of implement dealing in 1989, but he still kept his land. Seeding and harvest were his favourite times,” she said. 

Mel bought out Paul eventually, and was in turn bought out by Talisman Energy Inc. in 1995. Stacey recalled her father wondering what he would do with himself.

By then he was buying and selling used pumpjacks.

Around this time the company was a small operation and very much a family affair, with Clinton as the picker operator, Kent Lees as the swamper, Gerald
Garton as the shop foreman/mechanic, and Margaret doing the books. Stacey’s husband, Keith Wempe, was in dental school. He was put to work painting pumpjacks in the summer.

Service

It’s important to note here that in the name “Grimes Sales & Service,” the “Service” part was not an afterthought. Everyone Pipeline News spoke to emphasized how service was absolutely key to Mel Grimes’ way of doing business. “Service was so big for Dad. Reputation was a big thing for Dad. Growing up, we’d get calls at one in the morning and Dad would go to the shop,” Stacey said.

“If there were any problems, he made sure they were fixed right away.”

Mel got his pilot’s wings in 1966, and that became an integral part of his business and life. In a 1983 Canadian Business article, he said, “We’re out in the sticks here. If somebody’s combine breaks down, he wants his parts now, not the day after tomorrow. I can be in Regina in 20 minutes. I’ll take a mechanic with me, pick up the part, and we’ll fly right out to the farm. Most of the farms here are close to landing strips. I used to have a Super Cub that I could land right in the field, but I can’t do that with this aircraft (a Beechcraft Bonanza V35B at the time).

Indeed, in later years one of his favourite pastimes at the end of the day was to hang out with buddies at his private hangar at the Estevan Municipal Airport. Other times he would be seen happily mowing the lawn at the Lampman Airport, across the road from his primary shop and office.

Stacey talked about often going for flights with her dad. Mom wasn’t so keen on flying, but she did it nonetheless. “He loved to fly. He was a very good pilot,” she said.

Tragedy struck the Grimes family in 1997, when Clinton was killed in a vehicle accident with a train. He was 23.

“After Clinton died, it was very, very hard on Mom and Dad,” Stacey said, noting the expectation was he would eventually take over the company. Stacey went on to become a dental hygienist, working with her husband, now a dentist in Estevan. Like her mother, Stacey is the office manager in their family dental business.

The HG pumpjack

Paul Cheung played a large role in Grimes’ life as his business partner in the pump jack business that would become so intimately associated with Mel Grimes. Pipeline News spoke to Cheung on Nov. 24.

A Canadian for 40 years, Cheung was born in Hong Kong, having moved to Canada in 1971. He’s a Calgary
geologist by trade with his own junior oil company operating in southeast Saskatchewan, Grand Bow Petroleum Ltd.

Grimes Sales & Service supplied pumpjacks for Cheung’s company, Grand Bow, before they got into business together.

The design of the HG pumping unit was neither Grimes' nor Cheung’s. It’s actually a Chinese design, for which they acted as distributors.

Cheung explained that in 1997 he was looking for a drilling rig in China, as there was a shortage locally at the time. He did not find one, at first, but he did end up partnering with the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), which had plans to develop drilling contracting operations around the world. They would end up as equal partners with him in what became Estevan-based Advance Drilling Ltd.

“That’s when they showed me the pumpjack,” he explained. “One thing led to another.”

CNPC showed Cheung the pumpjack, and he wanted to bring it to the Canadian market, using it first on his own wells.

The distinctive shape is due to its curved walking beam. According to promotional material on the Schlumberger website, “The HG curved-beam pumping unit uses two counterweights instead of one: the conventional crank weight and an adjustable beam weight positioned at the end of an engineered curved walking beam. This innovation increases energy efficiency in a number of applications. 

“At the beginning of the upstroke, when the horsehead is down, the motor and the counterweights have to do the most work to bring the rod and fluid up. The curved walking beam places the beam weight at the furthest distance from the samson post to provide maximum leverage, helping the crank weight and motor in bringing the horsehead back up. The result is lower pump energy consumption, as well as reductions in the net torque curve.”

The name HG is derived from the Chinese words for River North Machinery, the manufacturer, according to Cheung.

Looking for someone local to work with, Merlin Skjonsby suggested to Cheung that he work with Mel Grimes. Grimes and Cheung became 50/50 partners in the pumpjack venture.

Stacey said that Cheung was the visionary, and he and Grimes worked really well as a team to get the product going.

They brought in six pump jacks initially for testing. Two went directly to Cheung’s own wells near Carlyle. That was in 2000. Several years were spent in refining the pumpjack, with Stacey noting there were binders full of notes and lots of calls between her father and Cheung.

Using rough numbers, he said, “The first year (2001), we ordered 20. The second year it was 80. The next year was close to 200. And then the next year was 400. Then that was the time we bought into the plant,” he said. Grimes and Cheung bought into the factory, near Beijing, that was manufacturing the pumping units.

By the time the Bakken boom was in full swing in 2008, HG pumpjacks dominated the landscape.

 “Our best year was 2012. We did 1,400,” he said.

By that time, Mel once told Pipeline News that the HG jack had about 90 per cent of the local market. A drive down any highway in southeast Saskatchewan would bear his words out.

Mel told his daughter that over 11,000 HG jacks have been sold. Indeed, the HG pumpjack, in 14 different sizes, would spread beyond southeast Saskatchewan to other parts of the province, and into Manitoba. Its largest units could be found south of the border, in North
Dakota. It’s now in Utah as well. They’re also sprinkled throughout Alberta.

In 2014, Pipeline Newsencountered a large pad of numerous HG jacks near Rocky Mountain House, Alta.

While the company’s sales grew by leaps and bounds, all was not well in Lampman. Mel lost his wife, Margaret, to cancer in 2009.

In 2011, Stacey and Keith accompanied Mel and Paul Cheung on a trip to the Chinese factory. “They threw a party for Dad and Paul,” Stacey
said, noting it was Chinese New Year. “They were very grateful for Dad and Paul.”

That year Pipeline News asked a production foreman in southwest Saskatchewan why they were using HG jacks there, too. He explained they were more energy efficient and less expensive. But just as importantly, the service was unbeatable. When they got a new jack, they would call up Mel Grimes, give him the size of the well, the rods and weights expected, and he would tell them right away how to set it up. It would be working properly right away, without fuss.

Cheung agreed with those statements. “We had this belief that if anything was wrong with the product, we would replace it,” he said. That would often go beyond a one-year guarantee.

 “The product itself was good,” he said, but the market dominance was due to Mel Grimes, saying it was because of Grimes they had such strong market penetration in the southeast.

Working with Grimes, Cheung said, was “Really easy, as long as you are doing things that didn’t hurt the sales. It’s all about the sales. It’s all about the business. That’s fine. He was pretty adamant … If it’s not good, he wouldn’t let it happen.”

Stacey noted that the company had a very small employee base. Jackie Steinke worked alongside Margaret from 2004 to 2009, and took over as office manager that year after Margaret passed away. Steinke said they peaked at 25, but most of the time, including now, the company ran with around 20. Many were long-term employees.

It’s telling that Steinke, not Mel, had the largest office in the building. Mel’s small modest office was the second one, one without an outside window. “Come on in and have a coffee. The coffee’s always on,” she recounted him frequently saying.

In the spring of 2014, the business, including interest in the factory in China, was sold to Schlumberger, the largest oilfield services company in the world. It happened at a time when Schlumberger was snapping up pumping businesses, including Platinum Pumpjack Services and Kudu Pumps.

Cheung said, “Schlumberger approached us.”

Stacey noted that around the time the sale took place, her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He stayed on as a consultant, and his last day worked was Oct. 11, a month before he passed away. Kent Lees remains as operations manager, and Jackie Steinke continues to run the office. “He was very good to work for,” Steinke said. “He was a very generous person…He will be missed by many, many people.”

Community

Mel Grimes was, in many ways, a private man who in later years would eschew publicity. He was a frequent and generous philanthropist who strongly preferred to give anonymously, often to hospital charities. Once, in support Estevan’s new skating arena, he donated a pumpjack for charity auction, but he told Pipeline News he regretted the attention it brought. He preferred to be anonymous. 

“He was always very community-oriented and all about the community,” Stacey said.

She concluded, with a smile, saying, “He had three children – me, Clinton, and his business, his baby. I grew up with the love, and the passion, mom and dad had for their business … I was very close with Dad. Clinton was the same way … His grandchildren were the love of his life, Katie and Garrett, as well as his family … and his employees. Dad would say, ‘The number one reason I’m successful is because of my employees.’”

Mel Grimes is survived by daughter Stacey and son in law Keith Wempe and his grandchildren, Garrett and Katie, his special friend Norma Hudye, many family and friends. Stacey said he will be missed by his many family, friends and customers throughout the years.

At his request, Mel Grimes’ funeral will be held on May 13, 2017, at 2 p.m. at Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Parish Cemetery, Lampman. A luncheon will follow at his Lampman home, beside the Grimes Sales and Service shop. And in keeping with his style, KFC will be served under a big tent.

© Copyright 2018 Pipeline News

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