Standing Like A Rock

RockPile Energy Services CEO Curt Dacar knows what it takes to make it in the Bakken today and into the future. His story reveals why RockPile Energy has had success in the Bakken and the Permian Basin.
By Patrick C. Miller | May 05, 2016

Five years ago when Curt Dacar began hiring employees for the new company he now leads—RockPile Energy Services—he sought to recruit people who had grown up in the Northern Plains and had worked in either the oil and gas industry or the agriculture industry. He wanted employees with a good work ethic who understood what it was like to survive the harsh winter climate of western North Dakota.

In other words, to staff an oil services company working in the Bakken, Dacar—RockPile’s CEO—wanted people who were much like him. The tough, hardy plains folks RockPile hires is helping the company hold on through difficult times in the oil and gas industry, partly through a commitment to stay true to its roots and partly by exporting its North Dakota success with well completions to the Permian and Eagle Ford basins in Texas.

“The footprint we established in North Dakota has moved to west Texas, and it is proving to be successful there as well,” Dacar says. “North Dakota was on the leading edge of developing longer horizontals and developing multi-sleeve and sliding-sleeve technology, as well as plug-and-perf technology.”

With more than 15,000 stages completed in North Dakota’s Williston Basin, Rockpile’s experience and reputation is catching on with producers in the Texas oil fields.

“We expanded operations to west Texas where a lot of the companies don’t have as much experience with horizontals,” Dacar notes. “When you transition from vertical to horizontal drilling, it’s another whole level of complexity. A good company with a good reputation for completing very complex wells is attractive to a lot of clients. There are a lot of completion companies that struggle with the more complex wells.”

After a 32-year career with Schlumberger, the world’s largest oil services company, Dacar knew what it took to operate a successful full-service well completions company. But he also knew what he wanted to do differently to make Rockpile a “best in class” service company for the oil and gas industry.

Leaving, And Returning, To North Dakota
Dacar grew up on a farm near Scranton, North Dakota. After some time in and out of college, he went to work in the Williston Basin in 1979 hauling bulk cement. Within two years, he was supervising a cement crew. He was one of 250 people working for Dowell Schlumberger in Dickinson when the oil boom went bust in the mid-80s. He expected to receive a severance package, but instead became one of five people the company kept in North Dakota.

In 1987, opportunity knocked and Dacar took full advantage of it when Schlumberger selected him to attend an engineering program.

“They took people from the field who they thought had the skill set and talent to do the engineering part of the business,” he recalls. “They let us work on some course material, and if you could pass a test, they’d put you in the same program that college engineering graduates went through.”

Dacar was accepted to attend the field engineering program at Kellyville, Oklahoma, where he graduated with top-of-the-class honors.

By the late ’80s, Schlumberger’s North Dakota operations had grown back to 30 employees. Dacar spent the next several years in Dickinson running the company’s Williston Basin office. He was transferred to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and later to the Gulf Coast where he was responsible for Schlumberger’s on-shore pumping service operations.

“That was quite the change for my wife and me,” Dacar notes. “We’d only been married a couple of years and had just had our first child with a second one on the way. It was quite a culture shock. It was the first time either one of us had lived outside of North Dakota, let alone traveled several thousand miles away.”

For more than 15 years, Dacar worked at different locations around the U.S. in various engineering, managerial and sales roles, spending much of that time in the Rocky Mountain region.

“I think the only basin in the U.S. I haven’t worked in is the Marcellus,” he says.

During that time, he continued to work while finishing his college education, earning a degree in business administration from Regis University in Denver.

In 2005, Schlumberger again presented Dacar with an opportunity to advance his education and career. He was one of 16 international employees selected to attend a project management course at the prestigious Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. Although Dacar didn’t have an engineering degree, he had more than 20 years of industry experience, which made him eligible for the program.

“It was a great experience to work with a bunch of colleagues from all over the world,” he remembers.

Dacar and his family spent a year in Scotland. He graduated from the university with a project management professional   degree in petroleum engineering.

“Going back to school when I was in my late 40s wasn’t easy, but I was able to dedicate myself to study,” he says. “It was a great learning experience and a great cultural experience to spend a year in Scotland.”

After 32 years with Schlumberger, Dacar decided to leave the company in 2011 to start his own hydraulic fracturing consulting business in California where he and his wife were living. It enabled him to return to North Dakota to work for Occidental Petroleum as a consultant.

The Bakken boom was beginning again and producers such as Triangle Petroleum Corp. headquartered in Denver were having difficulty finding oil services companies to complete wells in a timely manner.

“Triangle didn’t want to spend $7 to $8 million to drill a well and then wait 10 to 12 months to get a crew to come frack the wells and produce them,” Dacar explains. “It’s not a very wise use of capital to invest and take the better part of a year to get your investment returning cash.”

Triangle recognized that the Bakken market needed additional fracking services. They believed there was not only an opportunity for a company to serve Triangle’s needs, but also the needs of other producers. That’s when Triangle approached Dacar about starting the company that became RockPile Energy Services, a wholly owned subsidiary.

“I was a little reluctant to do it because I knew it would be a lot of work,” Dacar says. “The market was booming and all the big competitors were there. For a company to literally start from scratch with some capital and be able to compete was going to be a big challenge.”

As a consultant, Dacar had spent time in the field where he sometimes encountered poorly trained personnel who weren’t being properly developed for the jobs they were doing. This situation led to safety issues from equipment not being maintained properly. 

“Overall, it was an experience that led me to think I could probably do a better job,” Dacar relates. “That’s what compelled me to take the role with Triangle and start RockPile Energy Services.”

Building The Foundation
With $29 million in capital, the goal was to have the company up and running within a year. Fortunately, Dacar was able to convince some highly experienced people he knew at Schlumberger to join his management team.

“They were all about the same vintage as I was with 30-plus years. None of them were really ready to retire, but all of them very entrepreneurial-type individuals. They were all very excited to come over and join me,” he says.

After assembling a team with more than 300 years of combined experience that included a veteran Williston Basin frack engineer, a procurement manager and a seasoned human resources recruiter—among others—RockPile was open for business in less than 8 months.

“I started late in the fall of 2011 and we had our first frack fleet on the ground and pumping by July 2012,” he says. “The idea was to start with a 12-hour crew and cut our teeth with the Triangle work. From there, we grew the business with other third-party customers that needed 24-hour/365 services.”

Starting from the ground up, RockPile had the ability to determine what type of company it wanted to be, which Dacar said has been a key aspect of its success.

“As we sat down and started putting all these policies and procedures together—and getting input from a lot of the other senior folks we hired from other companies—we developed a great program that focused on the best practices of all the service companies in our sector of the industry. That allowed us to deliver a higher level of quality than most of our competitors.”

Based on his consulting experience, Dacar emphasized health, safety, environment and quality control as part of Rockpile’s culture. Hiring the right people became a key aspect of the company’s success.

“Our strategy was to draw staff from the region. I knew from my own experience that North Dakota is a very difficult place to work in the winter months. The winter is brutal and our crews spend a lot of time outside,” he explains. “Being a small company, we didn’t have that ability to draw from other U.S. locations like our bigger competitors that could keep pulling resources and pushing them into North Dakota.”

While some companies had attrition rates of 30 to 40 percent, RockPile kept its attrition rate to well under 20 percent, according to Dacar. Retaining employees for the long term has been one of RockPile’s objectives.

“We really strive to bring them on, train and develop them to RockPile culture standards and reassure them that we’re doing this to build a career for them—just not a stop on their career path,” he says. “We spent a lot of energy-building our own employee housing in Dickinson. We spent a lot of time trying to attract the right people to our community.”

The years Dacar spent in Dickinson also taught him the importance of being active in and supporting the community, another part of RockPile’s culture that’s heavily encouraged. The annual Fireman’s Chili Cook-Off launched by RockPile has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the local rural fire departments vital to the oil and gas industry. The company’s employees are frequent participants in other charitable activities.

Competing With Giants
As a small company, RockPile can be nimble and innovative, which is also encouraged as part of the company’s culture. For example, the containerized Sandbox technology developed by RockPile and a partner company has led to much greater efficiencies in moving proppant and delivering it to the wellsite, evolving the way industry has transported and handled sand the past 60 years.

“We have done things quite differently than most of the industry,” Dacar says. “That’s the luxury of being a small company. You can be very versatile and reactive with the ability to change quickly. We have patents pending on other technologies that we think the industry will find very applicable. We’re striving to bring some of that innovation to our industry.”

And although the industry is currently experiencing hard times, Dacar believes it will serve to spur more and greater efficiencies, reducing costs and significantly advancing the industry.

“Every time we come out of a downturn, the technology that comes out is just fascinating to me, and it’s happening again,” he says. “The last year has been very tough, but people have their noses to the grindstone. The amazing thing about this industry is that it bounces back every time. It always comes back stronger than the last.”

RockPile is maintaining its presence in the Bakken and plans to be there for the long haul when prices rise and activity picks up. Dacar thinks that could be another year to 18 months. For now, the expansion into Texas is helping to keep frack crews busy and RockPile’s business growing. 

“I love North Dakota, and it’s my roots. To be able to go full circle—start there and come back 32 years later—start my own business and be part of that community again was important to me,” he says.

Some of the children of those Dacar recruited to work at RockPile—including his own son—are now beginning to work in the oil and gas industry in the Bakken.

“It’s like passing the torch off to the next generation,” he says. “I felt very good about seeing a lot of the second generation hitting the oil patch. Seeing them come from the community and starting to grow with the community has been very exciting and very satisfying.”

Author: Patrick C. Miller
Staff Writer, The Bakken magazine

Photos by: Jason Hallmark
Hallmark Photos



Staying on course for the oil turnaround

Howard Rough, vice president of marketing and sales for Rockpile Energy Services, estimates that there were once more than 70 hydraulic fracturing fleets operating in North Dakota. Today, he believes that number is less than 12.

“We had four frack fleets, six workover rigs and eight wireline trucks operating in North Dakota. We just couldn’t keep them busy because significant reduction in the quantity of work,” Rough explains.

The dramatic reduction in the need for well completion service brought about by low oil prices caused Rockpile to look at the Permian Basin in Texas. Many on Rockpile’s management team had previous experience in the Midland area when they worked for other service companies.

“We’ve really wanted to be core to North Dakota,” Rough says. “During the time when we could have gone other places, we didn’t. The downturn in the Williston Basin was a catalyst for us to travel outside the region.”

Rough says that unlike some of the larger oil services companies, Rockpile doesn’t have the option of stacking equipment and moving people to locations where there’s more oil and gas activity. The company has moved approximately 65 percent of its resources to the Permian Basin where they’ve kept busy.

“There’s no money to be made in any domain,” Rough notes. “It’s more about trying to breakeven and keeping your people so when the turnaround comes, we’ll still have the skill set that we have today.”

Because it’s a small company, Rough says that Rockpile must operate at a high standard and innovate to drive its competitiveness. “We are always finding ways to move the needle past our peers,” he says.