By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | Jun 08, 2016
Oil and gas industry equipment components
After immigrating to the U.S. from Germany, Norbert Vogler bought the manufacturer that evolved into BVM for $5,000 in 1956.
"I borrowed the money from my sister," Norbert recalls.
He took on machining and tooling jobs before finding a focus in oil and gas, initially providing parts for pumps and motors on drilling rigs.
By the 1970s, other customers emerged. "They were begging me to build oil tools," says Norbert. A company mainstay emerged: tongs for handling pipe. "That's how we got started in the oil business."
Today he's BVM's retired CEO, and his son, Andre Vogler, BVM's president, and Ken Bartlett, operations manager, run the company on a day-to-day basis. "He started sweeping the floor at 10," says Norbert of Andre, and laughs. "Cheap labor."
The company boomed through the 1970s, but hit a snag when a big client took tong manufacturing in house. Norbert launched with his own brand -- BV Oil Tools, BV being short for Bert Vogler -- and started marketing them to the entire industry.
Through the 1980s, Norbert grew the catalog to include elevators and other tools that help roughnecks manipulate pipe, but hit the wall with the oil bust of 1986. The company lost everything and reorganized as BVM Corporation in 1987.
"Up until 1996, it was a struggle," says Andre. "He had other ventures and I was running a medical device business. In 1996, we made a pact to build the company up. From there, we doubled sales every year."
The company moved from its 11,000-square-foot facility to its current location in 2004, which has since been expanded to 80,000 square feet.
In the early 2000s, BVM moved away from manual machining, says Bartlett. "As sales increases, we realized we weren't going to keep up with demand with manual machines." Resultantlye, the company now has 20 CNC machines as well as an automated FaroArm for measurement and an emphasis on digital solutions, but the products remained manual tools for roughnecks to manipulate pipe.
"Our specialty was international," says Norbert, estimating exports to such countries as Indonesia, Canada, India, and Vietnam at 85 percent of sales in recent years. "All over the world, we sold tools."
BVM's 100-ton TA elevators for smaller rigs have been a flagship product. "They filled a niche and the quality was a lot better than our competitors," says Bartlett.
Adds Andre, "At one time, we had a 1,700-elevator backlog."
Until recently, BVM employed more than 100 people, mut recently had to lay off and furlough most of its staff due to rock-bottom oil prices.
"The company is based on crude prices," says Andre. "If crude goes down, they don't drill." He says the financial crisis of 2008 led to a 40 percent downturn, "but it was nothing like this. There's nothing coming in." He does see some light at the end of the tunnel: "The glut isn't as much as they expected."
Regardless, the Voglers and Bartlett are positioning BVM to pursue opportunities in other industries. "We can make anything," says Andre, citing the in-house machine shop, fabrication shop, and sandblasting, welding, and painting capabilities. Targets include machine shops with overflow, medical, aerospace, and other industries, and BVM is now bidding on projects ranging from filtration systems for hot tubs to lamppost fabrication.
"We can take anything from concept straight to production," adds Bartlett. "We're hitting all the local trade shows, doing cold calls, just trying to get our name out there."
But BVM isn't starting from scratch, he adds. "We have a lot of experience in-house. A lot of people come from a lot of different industries to start with. That kind of knowledge definitely helps us."
And comebacks are part of BVM's DNA. This isn't the first bust for the company. "My father and I made pretty good partners," says Andre. "He's old school, I'm new school. He always said, 'Watch the money.' That's a huge part of us surviving the crude downturn."
Challenges: A changing energy industry. With the emergence of fracking, tar sands, and alternative energy, there's a shift away from crude oil and traditional drilling, and more automated rigs dampen the demand for BVM's manual tools. "It's one guy in a booth operating everything," says Bartlett. "The energy market's changing."
And Norbert says legal marijuana in Colorado isn't helping with workforce issues. "It's bad," he says. "It's changing the thinking." Andre calls it "an HR nightmare."
Opportunities: Diversification. "We're just really starting from the ground up again," says Norbert.
Bartlett says there's a steep learning curve associated with every target industry involving "making contacts, quoting processes we haven't done before, and finding vendors."
Needs: The big need is to pivot BVM's business model, but Bartlett identifies a need for skilled labor, even with a reduced staff. "We've seen it in the last couple years," he says. "Very underqualified people apply for jobs."
Andre says skilled CNC machine operators are especially hard to find. "They just don't teach that in school anymore," he says. "It's a dying breed."