Sunbelt Equipment Marketing, Inc.
Relationships make it work
Business View Magazine interviews John Fry, VP of Sunbelt Equipment Marketing, Inc., as part of our focus on the pipeline construction sector.
Sunbelt Equipment Marketing, Inc. (SEMI) is an equipment and solutions provider to its customers in the oil and gas pipeline construction sector. The company was founded in 1980 by J.W. Gully, who had spent years in the pipeline construction industry and decided to start his own equipment rental company. “We’re still a family-owned operation,” says Vice President, John Fry. “The product line has been added to; new innovations have come about; but the underlying goal is to support pipeline contractors in their construction efforts. That’s our niche – oil and gas pipeline construction.”
SEMI has two main locations – a corporate office in College Station, Texas, and a facility in Louisville, Mississippi. “In Mississippi, we do our manufacturing,” Fry explains. “We build trailers and other items that support pipeline construction; we do custom fabrication; depending on what the customer needs, we do modifications on our company-owned equipment in our rental fleet. Having operations in Texas and Mississippi allows us to quickly respond to pipeline construction demands in different regions.”
“We go where the job is,” Fry continues. “So, if they’re working in a certain region, such as Houston, or Tulsa, or somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, or northeast, we support them wherever they’re at.” Fry adds that because SEMI is a relatively small company, with only 20-30 employees, it also relies on additional partners throughout the country that help support its operations. “We’re always looking to identify strategic partners to help us when we’re in a location that’s not close to our home office in Mississippi. So, we’ll work with our logistics partners and the clients to make sure they’re taken care of wherever the job is.”
In a highly competitive market, Fry believes that what gives SEMI an advantage is that the company evolved out of the pipeline construction industry. “We were not an equipment company jumping into the pipeline space,” he adds. “It was the other way around. Our owner was on the pipeline contractor side for many years, then jumped into pipeline equipment rentals. So, he brings years and years of domestic and international experience working for a pipeline contractor to the pipeline equipment side of the industry. This provides a unique perspective to the equipment demands of a pipeline construction project. He understands the equipment needs of contractors and important issues such as safety, reliability, quality, service, and schedule. He understands all of that and brings that perspective into the equipment rental side of it. It gives us a very unique perspective that our customers value and trust. Also, because we’re family-owned, we’re able to be agile. We can make decisions quickly. A lot of equipment companies are big corporate operations. We’re not constrained by multiple levels of management and board members to make a decision.”
Fry also gives credit to SEMI’s employees: “Our team members are what keep people coming back,” he notes. “They can get a quality product from a lot of places, but several of our people in our company have experience in different aspects of pipeline construction. It started with our owner, but we’ve got other employees that have also been on pipeline jobs as welders, or on the integrity management side of the pipeline space in terms of hydro testing, cleaning, and drying. So, we’ve got some people who have been out there and I think that being in the field, and doing what you say you’re going to do in a timely manner – I think the customers have a real trust of what we can do to help them do their job.”
“A lot of equipment companies can have the same product line and support it,” Fry adds. “It’s those nuances of walking in their shoes that give us a little bit of an advantage in seeing things before somebody else would, or anticipating what the need might be. Also, when it comes to innovation, it’s anticipating what would help make this product better, or help them in their job in a more cost-effective or safer way.”
Fry insists that constant innovation is a way of life at SEMI. “We’re always looking at what’s one more way we can assist our customers to do their job better,” he states. “That’s what is always on our minds. It’s not just about the transaction of ‘You need a piece of equipment; I have the equipment; let’s do a deal.’ It’s ‘How can I anticipate what they need and maybe improve on an existing process?’ So, we’re always looking to innovate and create new solutions for our customers.”
Of course, there are challenges in every industry and over the past few years, the construction and implementation of oil and gas pipelines have become a flashpoint for those in the environmental movement who see potential danger in possible pipeline breaks and spills. Fry notes the dilemma, and remarks, “We’re on the side that believes that pipeline transport is one of the safest means to transporting natural gas and oil, but we’re also aware of the national dialogue for and against pipeline construction. And so, if it affects our customers, it affects us. And ways that it might affect them would be delays in permitting to start a job, and so that, naturally, will delay us putting equipment on the job. So, we do see some of that. It hasn’t, necessarily, been a huge problem for us, but if it affects our clients; it does trickle down. We are seeing more and more of our clients run into delays for whatever reason – right of way acquisition, or permitting issues, or protesters creating hurdles for construction to begin. By and large, though, our day-to-day operations haven’t changed that much, but we follow the contractors; if they’re slow to get working, we’re slow to get working.”
That being said, Fry still believes that the outlook for pipeline construction over the next few years is strong, and going forward, says, “We would like to strengthen our position as a market leader in the pipeline crawler equipment space, continue to improve our product and service offerings and solutions, continue to focus on innovation and safety, and maximize our clients’ ROI when it comes to their equipment rental and purchasing needs. In the end, though, no one person makes this thing work. It’s our clients, our employees, our logistics partners, and our suppliers. And I feel that we have really good relationships, across the board.”
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AT A GLANCE
WHO: Sunbelt Equipment Marketing, Inc.
WHAT: A solutions provider to the oil and gas pipeline construction sector
WHERE: College Station, Texas
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