Blairsville-area company finds 2nd calling in shale gas service industry
Business has surged at Twin Pines Manufacturing Corp. near Blairsville since it got in on the ground floor of the region's natural gas boom five years ago.
“We were specializing in plastic and rubber molding equipment for the auto industry. But things slowed down” during the recession, said CEO Bob Kovalchik. “Then we got a few orders from gas companies. I dug into it, and now it's our biggest thing — 80 percent of our business is from gas and oil.”
Twin Pines is a standout among companies that changed their products and services to pursue opportunities in the shale gas industry. Hundreds of companies in the region are pursuing that business, experts say.
Kovalchik doubled employment at his small machine shop from four workers to nine, and he's been able to invest in computer-controlled machining equipment that increased quality and productivity, he said.
Twin Pines pinpointed the fracking part of the gas business. Kovalchik sells hydraulic fracturing spare parts and repair services needed by oilfield service companies such as Halliburton and Baker Hughes — consumables known as cement plugs and hammer union seals and repairs on equipment used in high-pressure pumps.
Working with such companies are Catalyst Connection, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that helps manufacturers improve operations, and the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a North Fayette-based trade group.
“They hear the stories — all the wells that are going to be drilled; about their neighbors who've had significant sales — and they want to know, ‘How can I break in?' ” said Connie Palucka, managing director of business growth services at Catalyst Connection.
Since last summer, Catalyst Connection has held six, one-day workshops for such companies — with another scheduled for next week — that have been attended by about 170 people from more than 70 companies. The workshops cost $95 and are underwritten by the Richard King Mellon Foundation.
“It helps owners develop an action plan, and coaches them on new product development,” Palucka said. “It's a 24/7 business with no patience for mistakes. When they break in, they have to do it in a smart way.”
Kovalchik at Twin Pines said his experience supplying spare parts and repairs has given him ideas to get more business.
“We are introducing a hammer union seal — our own special mouse trap — that costs one-third of what fracking companies are using now, and we're introducing it to a lot of big players,” he said.
A hammer union seals the connection between lengths of pipe used in fracking and other oil and gas operations. And the rubber seal inside the union is specially formulated to perform at high pressures used in the fracking process. The hammer union is like a big wing nut, and roustabouts hammer on the wing to tighten the seal.
Twin Pines helped develop the new seal with Federal-Mogul Corp. of Southfield, Mich., which supplies parts that Twin Pines resells to well sites in Pennsylvania and surrounding states as a master distributor.
Katherine Klaber, CEO of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said her group has held about 20 supply-chain events across the state during the past three years on how to break in as a supplier. Typically 150 to 200 attend an event.
“Frankly, we thought we'd be done with them by now, but there's still an appetite,” she said, pointing to one event in Westmoreland County last winter for which more than 100 people showed up in a snowstorm that closed the college where it was being held.
Bill Powers, founder and CEO of PixController Inc. in Murrysville, said he's going “full bore” to supply his company's remote security and video equipment to the gas industry. “It's a big opportunity for us.”
PixController specializes in outdoor, self-contained, battery-operated, wireless monitoring systems. He started in 2001 with the idea of capturing wildlife photos and movies using unattended cameras at remote sites without power or Internet.
Customers included the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, the World Wildlife Federation, The Discovery Channel and National Geographic.
“We have to reinvent ourselves continuously,” Powers said.
PixController, with five employees and $600,000 in annual sales, has supplied units to companies in the Bakken and Barnett shale fields in the Midwest, he said. He has demonstrated equipment to Marcellus companies and hopes for bigger results.
John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or firstname.lastname@example.org.