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Banks Gas Services finds success in jobs outside shale industry

| Monday, Aug. 25, 2014, 10:39 p.m.
“If it were not for Marcellus, I promise you, I would not have a contract with the big players right now,” said Banks Gas Services owner Tom Banks of North Versailles. The company works as a commercial gas line contractor, helping larger utility companies such as Columbia Gas, Peoples and Equitable upgrade their infrastructure.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
“If it were not for Marcellus, I promise you, I would not have a contract with the big players right now,” said Banks Gas Services owner Tom Banks of North Versailles. The company works as a commercial gas line contractor, helping larger utility companies such as Columbia Gas, Peoples and Equitable upgrade their infrastructure.
Banks Gas Services owner Tom Banks explains how a directional drill operates on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, at the company's headquarters in North Versailles.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Banks Gas Services owner Tom Banks explains how a directional drill operates on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, at the company's headquarters in North Versailles.
Gas line tubing sits in the lot at Banks Gas Services in North Versailles on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Gas line tubing sits in the lot at Banks Gas Services in North Versailles on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014.
Banks Gas Services laborer Fred Ashbough, 28, of North Versailles tamps the spot hole on a job on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, in Chalfont.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Banks Gas Services laborer Fred Ashbough, 28, of North Versailles tamps the spot hole on a job on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, in Chalfont.

Tom Banks isn't interested in chasing work in the Marcellus shale.

Instead, he wants the business that Marcellus pipeline contractors have left behind.

“We're really good at what we do in the city,” said Banks, owner of Banks Gas Services, a gas line contractor in North Versailles. “I don't want to leave our strengths to go into the Marcellus.”

The past five years have brought constant expansion for Banks. His company, which has grown from about 10 employees in 2008 to more than 50, works with utilities such as Columbia Gas and Peoples to upgrade the gas distribution lines running through neighborhood streets.

They aren't the lucrative drilling or transmission line projects that attract all the attention within the industry. And Banks likes it that way. As larger competitors sought bigger rewards in the Marcellus, Banks Gas Services has stepped in to fill a void for more modest-sized work, offering an example of the ancillary job growth within the gas industry that has nothing to do with fracking.

“We're by far the smallest company competing in this industry,” Banks said. “But we're growing every day.”

Shale-related jobs account for less than 1 percent of all employment in Pennsylvania, according to the Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg. A recent industry survey by the Marcellus Shale Coalition touted the growing number of high-paying engineering and construction jobs that were becoming available as the industry matures.

But the opportunities for smaller companies such as Banks often are overlooked in discussions about the natural gas boom.

It is becoming more common that smaller firms in a variety of industries, from gas line contractors to milk truck drivers, are picking up the slack as competitors seek opportunities in the Marcellus shale, said Rose Baker, a researcher at Penn State's Workforce Education and Development program.

“It happens quite a bit,” Baker said. “This is like someone being given an opportunity for advancement in a position.”

Banks began as a one-man outfit in 2001. He did small jobs, running gas lines to homes. It was the kind of work that didn't appeal to distribution contractors. To do so “was stepping over dollars to pick up nickels,” Banks said.

Banks grew his business steadily until a confluence of events opened the spigot for larger commercial jobs. The past few years, Pennsylvania's Public Utility Commission has been pushing utilities to upgrade their aging infrastructure and replace old steel and cast iron distribution lines. Meanwhile, natural gas exploration in the Marcellus shale took off, and gas line companies sought contracts for building the infrastructure needed to get gas out of the ground and moved through large transmission lines.

It would be like local road crews suddenly winning contracts to upgrade the Interstate highway system. But local roads still needed paving, offering opportunities for the guys who, until that point, had been paving driveways.

In other words, guys like Banks.

“Our infrastructure needs replacing whether shale is going on or not,” Banks said.

Banks got his first commercial contract with Equitable Gas in 2007, followed by one with Columbia Gas in 2008, just as shale was taking off. These days, virtually all of his business involves upgrading distribution lines — the local roads — mostly for Columbia, but also some for Peoples Gas.

Banks has added about 10 employees annually for the past few years. Revenue topped $5 million last year, and the company is on pace for $6 million this year, he said.

The company has put together a young workforce that has opportunities for advancement, said D.J. Jarvie, Banks' superintendent.

Banks may not be working directly in the Marcellus shale, but the economic opportunities spreading out to smaller firms are reminiscent of an earlier era, Jarvie said.

“When the steel plants died down, it was rough around here,” he said. “There's finally something around here for people to sink their teeth into.”

Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or cfleisher@tribweb.com.

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