A family affair lives on at GBR Oilfield Services
Billy Reynolds is often short on words but long on hard work.
It’s a combination that has helped him navigate 50 years in Alaska’s oil industry, most of which have been spent working for and running the Reynolds’ family business, GBR Oilfield Services.
One might question Reynolds’ Alaskan bona fides when he does speak, as his West Texas roots come through in every word as if he flew up from Midland yesterday. That is, until you get past the drawl and listen to the decades of history he recounts matter-of-factly.
“I came up in ’67 when I was 17 years old,” Reynolds said of his arrival to Alaska. “First I went to the Inlet in ’68 to work for Reading and Bates. Then I went to work up on the Slope on Rig 20 and Rig 25 for Reading and Bates — roustaboutin’, roughneckin’, you know.”
Reynolds’ mother Rita Reynolds and his three brothers Jim, Bobby and Mike made the trek north from Midland a few months later with the family’s German shepherd in tow.
“Man, that was a trip I could never forget,” Rita recalled while chatting in GBR’s South Anchorage offices. “I think I asked God every step that I wouldn’t have a flat (tire) because the backseat of that car was filled with clothes and boxes.”
“Miss Rita”, as everyone in the GBR office affectionately calls her, arrived with her sons to a trailer home in Anchorage’s Mountain View neighborhood on Christmas Eve 1967. Instead of toys, her children got winter coats and galoshes that year, she said.
Rita’s husband John Reynolds had already been in Alaska about a year working on the platforms in Cook Inlet for Reading and Bates Drilling.
After a few years as a “company man” with BP, John joined with fellow oil hands Jim Gribbons and Jack Barr to form a tool rental company, GBR Equipment, in 1973. Barr soon moved on to other work but Gribbons and Reynolds kept the original name. And when Gribbons passed away in 1976, GBR became the Reynolds’ family business.
By 1984 John was able to recruit his sons Bobby and Billy away from industry giant Parker Drilling to help their brother Jim run the well casing services the family business had expanded into a few years prior.
The challenges of the oil business in Alaska have chased off some of the biggest players in the industry and doomed numerous smaller companies, but the Reynolds have navigated GBR through the ups and downs.
Now president of GBR, Billy acknowledged the price crash of the mid-1980s was a struggle— oil went from about $30 per barrel in late 1985 to $9 in 1986 — but the small company continued getting at least some work.
“We had to cut back on wages. We had to cut back on our prices for the oil company,” he said. “We were able to keep most of our hands. Some of them quit; you can’t blame for that but we were able to keep going.”
Well casing is still GBR’s primary business, but the Reynolds added welding services to the company’s work in early 1994, Billy said.
When patriarch John passed away in 1997, Billy and Bobby took over the operation.
GBR’s business has generally followed that of most of the industry in recent years, Billy said, noting the last couple years have been slow but demand for the company’s services is gradually picking back up.
Over the years GBR has had a hand in developing the iconic Prudhoe Bay and Kuparuk River oil fields. The company has also done substantial work at the Endicott field, according to Billy, and its 20 employees are now split between working on Italian major Eni’s ultra long-range exploration wells at the offshore Nikaitchuq field and for ConocoPhillips at various locations.
“Now that the price is going back up more oil companies are interested in the finding,” Billy said of the status of exploration on the Slope.
As someone who has witnessed North Slope oil go from literally nothing to powering the largest state in the union, he said most of the evolution in the industry has been for the best.
“It used to — back in the ‘60s — take almost a year to drill a well. Now it takes about two weeks,” Billy said, noting that personal safety requirements have gone hand-in-hand with equipment comforts.
“Back then they didn’t make you wear ear plugs or safety glasses and the clothes wasn’t really qualified for that cold, cold weather up there,” he added.
“I’ve seen a crew from Oklahoma came up and was supposed to relieve us on the drilling rig so we’d go home, but they got off that airplane in cowboy boots and a Levi jacket,” Billy recalled. “The only time they got out of that airport was to get back on that airplane back to Oklahoma, you know. They just caught it at the wrong time.”
As someone who at times spent six months on the Slope at a time and was regularly there for six-week stints, he said one of the biggest advancements, aside from environmental sensitivity, was shortening the work rotation.
What started as six weeks on and three weeks off was first cut to four-and-two, Billy said, and eventually the current two-and-two split to prevent workers from becoming homesick, which can lead to accidents caused by wandering minds while working.
“Two and two really hurt the wages, but that’s the way it’s going to be,” he said simply.
Billy still travels to the Slope occasionally, but he now spends as much time as he can fishing on his boat out of Seward, particularly since his son-in-law Jim Wohlers, GBR’s general manager, took over the day-to-day operations about 10 years ago.
Despite semi-retirement, Billy said he doesn’t see himself returning south; 50 years in Alaska has made Texas just “too hot” for him, even though his drawl still says he should be at home there.
And while they won’t say it, Billy and Rita are clearly but quietly proud of the business they’ve helped support over 45 years.
“Man, has it been that long? I quit counting somewhere along the line,” Rita said when asked to reflect on GBR’s 45th birthday.
“GBR’s been up here for a long time and I’ve got to say that we’ve been pretty blessed to keep going like we’re doing,” Billy said. “One thing I like to say is — like I tell my hands, I said, ‘You know, you don’t talk bad about nobody; you don’t talk bad about our competitor, you know.’ To me, it’s bad karma to do that. Just keep your nose clean and do your job.”
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].