Estevan – Bert Baxter Transport Ltd. has been in operation for 60 years this past year, and most of that time it has been under the ownership and operation of Graham and Nancy Shirley. The couple spend most of the winter months down south in Arizona these days, having gradually stepped back as their three sons, Todd, Darryl (“Buzz”) and Vaughn took over operating the company.
Pipeline Newsspoke to Nancy and Graham on Nov. 10, before they headed south. The two often finish each other’s sentences.
Bert Baxter Transport was incorporated in April of 1957.
Bert Baxter, the founder of the company, started in trucking in the late 1920s with a single truck. He worked on the Alaska Highway during the 1940s. He established a gravel pit near Saskatoon, was a bulk fuel agent in Southey for four years, and ended up in Regina and Swift Current. The Baxters and their son, Donald, came to Estevan in 1956 with the birth of the Saskatchewan oilpatch. Bert and his wife, Helen, only intended on staying five years, according to a 1986 article in Pipeline, a predecessor to this publication. Helen was a full partner in the business, he said.
The company’s business also included hauling oil, coal, and moving furniture. (See the full story on pipelinenews.ca)
For the Shirleys, their start in the oil business came around the same time.
Graham said, “I was down here in 1952, working on the rigs. Bert was in business in Swift Current. He moved here in 1953.”
He started working on the rigs near his home, at Frontier. Nancy and Graham grew up eight miles apart. “She trapped me,” Graham quipped.
Graham’s family rented some farmland and had some dairy cattle and horses, then them moved into town. Nancy grew up on a wheat farm south of Climax.
He started working on the rigs when he was too young. The toolpush found out, and he only worked one day. Three months later he lied about his age, telling the push on another rig that he was 18 when he was actually 16. He was hired. In 1953, he moved from Frontier, when his rig started drilling at Tilston, Man., before the rig moved back to Consul.
“A well they are doing today in four days, max, took us 2.5 weeks, on those shallow wells,” he said.
Graham was working derrick on Commonweath Drilling Rig 6 in the southeast in 1955-56. “You could look around the country and see 60 rigs, in the Steelman area,” he said.
In 1956 after an injury Graham returned to Frontier and began driving truck with N.E. Stenson Transport, hauling crude oil and pipe in southwest Saskatchewan in the Rapdan field at Dollard. They also hauled scrap metal from various points on Saskatchewan and the northern United States. “When working for Stenson, Graham hauled the second load of scrap into IPSCO,” Nancy said. He was beat out by the boss’ son, because his truck had more horsepower than Graham’s.
Graham and Nancy met on a blind date in 1957 when Nancy was 16. They were married in 1960. She was 19, he was 24. Nancy attended teachers’ college in Moose Jaw at age 18, with an engagement ring on her finger. She was a teacher until she started having kids, and she never got back to it. She taught one year in Scotsguard, and two years in Frontier.
Vaughn was born in 1963. Darryl was borne in 1965, and Todd in 1966.
They moved to Estevan in 1964. He came during roadban time, having quit his job with Stenson. His brother, Murrough, worked in Estevan for Oilwell Supply, and his sister, Marion, and brother-in-law, Ron Davis, lived in Oxbow, where Ron pushed tools for Commonwealth Drilling. Graham had been planning on looking for work in Alberta, when they suggested he look for work around Estevan.
So he went to a few trucking companies, and no one would hire him. Graham said, “I went down to Baxter’s, because I knew Bert and Don Baxter. They said, ‘What are you doing down here?’”
He replied he was going to look for a job in Alberta.
“You mean you’re not working?” Bert said.
“No,” was the reply.
“Be here Apr. 1, 7 o’clock, and you’re going to start working for me.”
Initially Graham still planned on going to Alberta. He found a place for them to live in a basement suite, so he returned to Frontier for Nancy and baby. Bert allowed him to use a company moving van for the cost of the fuel. When he got back with the loaded van, Bert sent him to work and had other workers unload the moving van for him.
Nancy pointed out Bert hired Graham during road ban, when most people aren’t hiring. Bert Baxter Transport was running seven trucks at the time, hauling oilfield equipment, just like the company does now. Moving pipe, and setting pumpjacks with gin-pole trucks was common work. They hauled mud from a warehouse in an old hangar at the old airport, south of Estevan. “We loaded mud by hand, no forklifts, and unloaded it by hand at the rig,” Graham said.
Pipe was rolled onto the semi by hand, not loaded by picker. “Three guys, rolling 8-5/8-inch casing up 2x6 planks, by hand,” Graham said. Sometimes they would use a rope tied to the hitch on an Oldsmobile to pull it up.
“Can you imagine what OH&S would do?” Nancy laughed.
“They’d throw you in jail!” Graham replied.
He recalled unloading 25 rail cars of pipe with just two guys, picking up tubing and hand-bombing it onto the trucks. A long string would take five single-axle trailer trucks, and earn $9 per hour for the truck, trailer and driver. “I got $1.25 per hour when I came out here. After three months, I got a ten cent raise and thought I was richer than hell!” Graham said.
“It wasn’t a big wage, but in ’65, we were able to buy a brand new Meteor,” he said.
Nancy noted his nickname was “Speed.”
Edmonton is the supply depot of the oilpatch. Calgary is the head offices, Edmonton is the supplies,” Nancy said.
Graham said, “The white collar workers are in Calgary, the blue collar workers are in Edmonton.”
“Back in 1964, there were six of us. Bert called us in the office one day. He said we were going to start a freight run, to Edmonton. I was the low man on the totem pole. I had just started. He asked who wants to do it? There were six of us there. They said, ‘I don’t want it. You can’t make no damned money at it. It’s too many hours. Do this, do that.’
“So he said, ‘Graham, do you want it?’
“I said, “You damned right.’ So I ran Edmonton for 10 years for him.”
That meant often 2 to 2.5 trips per week.
“I always felt I was lucky. Gals who had toolpushes for husbands, never saw their husband to the end of the hole they were on. At least I got to see my husband twice a week, Wednesday night and Saturday night,” Nancy said.
“One year, I put in more hours overtime then straight time.”
He did a lot of local work, too, whenever he was home. There wasn’t a lot of sleep in those days.
The Edmonton run has been a cornerstone of Bert Baxter Transport’s business ever since 1964.
Supervisor, then owner
In 1974, Bert pulled Graham off the road and offered him a good deal to come into the office as a supervisor and dispatcher. “His son, Don was there for a while. Then in ’77, Bert and his son both wanted to retire. He said that to me and Elmer Vicary, who was on the police force, so we formed a partnership and bought Bert and Helen out in October of 1977. Nancy was hired as office manager, receptionist,book keeper, payroll clerk, whatever,” Graham said.
Nancy said, “Mr. B. gave me training in doing the books, for about three days. The next morning, he came in and said, ‘Well, she’s all yours.’ He had a deck of cards in his hand, he went to the seniors centre and that’s where he stayed.
“Elmer remained on the police force for a while and then he became too busy and found it difficult to handle both jobs. ” Graham said.
Nancy becomes a partner
Nancy said, “In 1981, I bought Elmer out. He wanted to go back to the police force, so I bought him out and continued to work. “I had taken some courses on bookkeeping. He was 65 and decided that’s it, I’m retiring.
“I did a lot of extra things in addition to the office work. I didn’t go out and drive truck, but I counted a lot of pipe in my life, dispatching and even went out and did deliveries with a small truck on a few occasions.
She was an early adopter of using computers, keeping track of pipe digitally on an old Radio Shack Model 4 computer (a TRS-80). Graham’s first cellphone was what he called a “log phone,” one of the earliest cellphones. An early pager was heaven.
“Graham has a fantastic memory. He knew everything about that pipe out there, and how many joints had gone to this rig, and how much had come back. I wanted some way of keeping track. It was Bill Roach who clued me in, saying, ‘You should have a computer!’”
They got on with a company in Saskatoon, Axon Development Corporation, that created an integrated package for truckers. It was founded by two truckers’ sons. “They did an excellent job, and that’s what we’re running today,” she said. “We’re now hosted in Regina, with our servers with SaskTel.”
Every invoice and manifest, going back decades, can be pulled up with this software, she said.
Expansion in the 80s
In the 1980s, they set up a shop in Melita, Man. which they had about five years. They got their first big picker, a 15-ton, around 1981. There was a lot of activity in nearby Waskada, Man. But that area slowed down, and that operation was closed. They moved the building to Estevan.
That was also the decade the boys started becoming part of the business. “They all started out as swampers,” Graham said.
“They all started when they were young. Vaughn went away for a couple years and took a business course in Regina, which he didn’t like. But he was driving when he was home on the weekend. They got their chauffer’s licence when they were 18, all of them,” Nancy said, referring to Class 1A licences. Todd took his driver’s test with a long string loaded on the truck, and then drove it straight to the rig. “He got to the rig on time, with the pipe,” Nancy said.
Darryl apprenticed under a mechanic who worked at the mines and Bert Baxter Transport. Todd got his picker ticket.
“We needed someone to be up in Edmonton, and (Vaughn) was the one we asked to go,” Nancy said.
“He’s been up there 29 years now,” Graham said.
Originally in Edmonton, the operation was moved to Leduc eight years ago, where they built a building on five acres of land.
Todd runs the overall operation, and Darryl runs the maintenance division. “When push comes to shove, they fight together,” Graham said.
Over more than three decades, the company ended up with seven pipe yards throughout Estevan.
“Can you imagine running forklifts all around?” Nancy asked.
When the bought the company, Bert had three yards which he eventually sold to them. One yard they had to buy in a hurry, in the middle of January.
Being spread out, and with their main office on a busy street, led to its share of headaches. “It’s always been a problem. Getting out onto Kensington Avenue, with the traffic, has been a problem,” Nancy said.
By 2010, the first moves were made to consolidate all that into one yard, northeast of the city, adjacent to the then-upcoming truck bypass. Dirt started moving in 2011, but the oil downturn has slowed that project down tremendously. (See relate story, Page A???)
Running a company that’s been in business for 60 years, the Shirley family has seen all the ups and downs. But this most recent downturn, which hit in the second half of 2014, has been the worst.
It saw Bert Baxter Transport’s shops that were established in Fort Nelson, B.C. and Grande Prairie, Alta., shut down.
Nancy and Graham say this downturn has been worse than the one in 1986, and even worse than 1972, when the then-NDP government brought in Bill 42 which almost completely shut down the Saskatchewan oilpatch. However, in 1972, they weren’t owners.
“The toughest has been the last 3.5 years. We had 10 good years before that,” Graham said. It was tough in 1998, and really bad in 1986.
In 1986 they took their first holiday down to Mesa, Az., in February. “When we left, it was busy. When we got back, you could have fired a cannon down 4th Street and not hit a hair on anybody,” Graham said.
“It wasn’t easy,” Graham said, when asked how they survived.
Nancy said laying people off is really, really hard.
“Everyone you lay off is one you can’t get back, and some damned good people.”
Nancy and Graham have pretty much fully stepped back from the business now, a gradual process that started 22 years ago, when they started going south for longer and longer periods in the winter. “We’re just consultants. I call myself senior consultant now,” Nancy giggled.
“I go down and raise a little hell once in a while, but they don’t pay attention anymore,” Graham said.
“It’s like baking a cake. You can’t go in and mess up the recipe. You need to back off, and we have,” Nancy said.