Trucking Transformation

By Luke Geiver | March 28, 2013

Laurel Nelson, co-founder of Red Rock Transportation Inc., a crude and saltwater carrier based in western North Dakota’s oil fields, never planned on running a taxi service or managing a housing operation. When the company formed in 2007, the goal was to operate 20 trucks in the region, hauling crude and saltwater for oil production companies. “We surpassed that goal relatively quickly,” Nelson says, and today the transportation company employs over 75 people, runs 41 trucks and houses workers in an RV park at the company’s shop outside Watford City, N.D. To meet the challenge faced by so many service providers in the region, Nelson and her team have found a way to staff their continuously growing outfit. “We have drivers,” she says, “who do nothing but drive our drivers out there.”

The vision for Red Rock Transportation came from two men who both have extensive experience in oil field transportation services. One worked in the oil retrieval effort in the 1980s, and the other spent several years working for Cargill Inc.’s transportation unit. Both men help to manage the on-site operations at the facility. Their vision, realized in part from the financial support of Laurel and Brent Nelson, who operate a car dealership, Nelson Auto Center, out of Fergus Falls, Minn., has reshaped the company into a Bakken-based transportation carrier that exemplifies how success is made and challenges are overcome.

“It certainly wasn’t what we anticipated having to do at the start,” Nelson says of the company’s evolution. In addition to building the RV trailer park for staff, Nelson has tapped into Fergus Fall’s workforce. Every week, an Econoline van or Ford Expedition transports five to six fresh drivers to Watford City where they will work a two-week shift. When that shift expires, the drivers make the commute back to Fergus Falls in the van or Expedition. The trek from Fergus Falls to Watford City happens multiple times per week.

Since establishing the housing units and the shuttle service, Nelson and her team have begun to focus on operating costs and future expansion. “Sometimes rapid growth can get you a little sloppy in terms of your expense structure,” she says. “We put in our own fuel source so we can have a little more price competitive fuel out there,” she says. The team currently hauls crude to rail sites or pipelines, and saltwater to disposal wells. Long-term contracts, roughly one year, are typical for the company, but Nelson says they work on a spot basis as well. Although crude transport was responsible for the company’s early success, Nelson says now the fleet is heavily involved with saltwater transportation.

“We want to adapt to whatever needs that our customers have,” she says. To do that, most of the fleet may be fitted with new computer software to improve efficiencies. The software will help track driver time for the Department of Transportation, and will also allow dispatchers to minimize wait time at rail heads or pipelines.

Brent and Laurel travel to Watford City once or twice a month in addition to weekly conference calls with Thompson and Pfiefer. To continue the success of Red Rock’s operations, Nelson believes combining quality and timely service with safety will be crucial. In addition to mechanic and driver safety training, the crew has a constant eye on the changing infrastructure of the oil patch.

“We want to keep our finger on the pulse out there and what the need will be in the next year or two,” she says. “We want to know where the oil fields are and what is happening with the liquid transportation, and, we want to constantly redesign ourselves around that.” The team monitors new technology or spinoff services that will help Red Rock remain a dependable service provider that can haul a few loads on short notice or enter a long-term agreement. “Our goal is to try and stay open to the next thing that is going to be out there,” she says.