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Breaking into the Bakken: Companies in Oil Patch find there is no business as usual

GRAND FORKS -- Dick Edgar said western North Dakota oil development has kept his Grand Forks concrete plant in operation and offers millions of dollars in opportunities for other companies, if only they can find a way in.

"My plant in Grand Forks right now would be shut down if it wasn't for the Bakken," said Edgar, the business development director for Wells Concrete in Grand Forks, referring to the Bakken oil play, the main driver of petroleum production in North Dakota.

Edgar was speaking Thursday at a meeting of the Highway 2 West Manufacturers' Association, which hosted a group gathered to learn how businesses can take advantage of the oil boom.

The opportunities are numerous in the boom, but the huge demand for services and products and the rush of companies trying to meet it forces companies to abandon their usual marketing strategies and exploit whatever connection they have to the area to break in, speakers said.

"The whole thing right now looks like the opening day of Christmas at Walmart," said Tom Rolfstad, economic development director for Williston, the main hub of oil activity in the state.

Hard to break in

Several years into the oil boom, demand in the Oil Patch for everything ranging from train cars to Carhartts is only growing, Rolfstad said.

"Somebody's got to make everything we need from somewhere," he said. "I'd rather have it made here."

Companies trying to find work in the boom have to be able to compete against global companies operating there and be able to deliver results immediately, speakers said.

"They don't want to talk to any salesmen. They just want to get it built," said Edgar, who found his initial efforts to break into the market "like banging your head against a brick wall" despite the huge amount of money flowing through there.

"You could smell money in the air," he said. "It was crisp. It was like right off the printing press."

Wells eventually won jobs in the area and avoided the lack of housing and intense competition for labor by manufacturing its concrete components in Grand Forks and shipping them west by truck.

During a construction downturn that squeezed many companies in his industry, Edgar said Wells has found more work than it can handle and even has its Albany, Minn., plant making concrete components for the west.

"The Bakken can be a stepping point for a lot of manufacturing companies to go global," he said.

'Insane' logistics

Aside from its business opportunities, western North Dakota has also been known for the challenges of its breakneck development.

"The logistics to get anything done out there is insane," Edgar said.

The insanity comes from the region's expensive housing and the challenges to provide infrastructure and services in an area where the number of jobs is rivaling the workforces in the population centers of eastern North Dakota.

"It's absolutely our most exciting business initiative that we have in our company but it's also our most difficult business initiative we have," said Steve Burien, CEO of AE2S engineering company in Grand Forks.

His company has been in western North Dakota since the 1990s, but the economic boom has helped it launch new construction and water solutions companies and add another layer of management in Bismarck to handle work in the region.

Speakers told the audience not to rely on traditional marketing to connect to clients in the west but exploit any connection they have to the area, including employees with roots in the area, to build a reputation.

"All they're looking for is people who can get the job done," Edgar said. "Go out and see what you can offer."