Beating the Competition

Finding success in the family biz with Scott Van Vliet, copresident of Environmental Refuelling Systems

Environmental Refuelling Systems Inc. (ERS), a full-service fuel-management firm in Calgary, doesn’t have a big sales force. Instead, it focuses on managing customer needs. Rather than massively promoting its services, ERS concentrates on how to make every project smoother, faster, more efficient, more productive. Then it creates new systems, even new companies, to those ends.

Scott Van Vliet, copresident, says if there is not a strong market pull toward a particular area of need, the company can’t push its way into the shark-infested waters. The market must be pulling hard. Since its inception, in 2005, ERS has spun into six companies—all interrelated—serving pockets of need from procurement and project administration to on-site fuel delivery that helps protects workers from the hot zone. Van Vliet chats with Advantage about these opportunities and more.

Advantage: You started your career in the cattle industry. Miss those days?
Scott Van Vliet: Surviving in the cattle business for so many years established the foundation for my success. I loved the work and the life. However, it was hard work, long weeks, low pay, and never-ending challenges—the market, weather, closing boarders, rising costs, tight labour. In fact, these are all the same problems we face in the oil patch, but the financial rewards are much greater in this business.

Why did you make the leap to oil?
In 2004, I started to help my father, Maury, with a jet-fuel company he had. A year later, my dad, my brother Todd, and I started Environmental Refuelling Systems as equal shareholders. It was prompted because I was able to land a contract with Nexen to supply a fuel station for phase one of its Long Lake project.

How did you turn one contract into a thriving company?
That first project kept evolving. With the patent-pending card-lock system developed, the fuel contract was awarded to us as well. We quickly realized that we needed to control the logistics and transport of the fuel to the site, so we bought some trucks. Shortly after that, we were awarded the drilling contract and had opportunities to look after fueling the stationary equipment on-site. We then needed to maintain the equipment, so we started the maintenance division that specialized in repairs, maintenance commissioning, decommissioning, and regulatory requirements of aboveground petroleum systems. Eventually, we entered the lubricant business, as it often goes hand in hand with the fuel requirements.

CAREER MILESTONES

1991
Graduates with a BS in agriculture from Montana State University

2005
Starts ERS with brother Todd and father Maury

2007
Wins Entrepreneur of the Year from CETAC-WEST and Royal Bank

2011
Is elected to the PSAC Board of Directors

2012
Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Prairie finalist

It sounds like your growth was a bit happenchance.
There was a strategy to it, but it was driven by market necessity. We ended up with a complete fuel-management company—buying fuel, transporting it, storing it, dispensing it on-site at projects, and managing that whole process. There are a lot of companies that will handle the individual pieces, but very few will take it on as a turnkey operation. But that’s what the customers’ pain was telling us, and those are the signals we followed.

How have you played off of one another’s strengths in a family business?
I come from an outdoorsy, practical background, and Todd comes from an academic world as a lawyer. Our skill sets complemented each other extraordinarily well. I focus on operations, business development, and sales and marketing. Todd handles risk and administration. Our father is at the tail end of his career, so he has a lot of wisdom, strength, and mentoring to offer us. He was never really involved in the day-to-day operations but has acted as a guide to calm the waters in stormy weather, which is incredibly valuable to any partnership.

Is working with family ever too close for comfort?
In the early stages, because we had such a strong relationship and could communicate so well, not only were we on the phone six times a day or whatever it took, but we’d get together on the weekends and evenings to talk about the business and to plan. The result was that we could make decisions quickly, almost immediately. We’d call each other and say, “We’ve got this on the table: go or no—what are we going to do?” Being able to react really quickly is one of the things that has kept us competitive—so competitive that we knocked the socks off a lot of companies working in the fuel industry. We could see the opportunity and figure out a way to find money if we needed to buy a piece of equipment rapidly to land a business deal.

A hyper-fast pace isn’t sustainable in the long run. How are you keeping up with the demands?
We’re finding that, as we grow, we need to slow down decision-making. Now we have a group of management to include in the process and other perspectives to consider. We can no longer manage explosive rates of growth. For the first three years, we averaged about 250 percent growth. In the first year of operations, we were growing at 100 percent per month. When I say we had a tiger by the tail, I really mean it.