Last week, we sat down with Brian Pancher, co-founder of the Pennsylvania-based engineering and environmental firm WallacePancher Group.
Q. Can you tell us about your business… how you got started and where you are now?
Brian Pancher: Well, we’re truly a basement startup business. My business partner is an engineer, and I’m a biologist. We worked together at a large consulting firm for a while, and then we started up on our own in his basement in 2001. It was just the two of us with one computer then.
Getting started like that was pretty rough. Because we didn’t really leave with any clients, we had to start from scratch. But the thing about our business that worked was combining the disciplines of biology with engineering. They are two areas that are required in any project that moves dirt, whether it’s an oil and gas project, or coal development, or a Walmart. You name it, they all require some degree of involvement from each of those two areas.
So, it started off with residential development, small things like that, where we could go in and I could do the wetland investigation, stream investigations and work on the permitting, while Dan would work on the engineering design site layout for the project. Little by little, we grew a business around that.
What was kind of the break for us was a presentation on natural stream channel design at a conference. I ran into a guy who did work for the longwall mining industry, and he came up to me afterwards and asked if I could come down and look at a stream they had, which was having some de-watering issues. I went down, and I helped them out on that project and then boom, boom, boom… one thing turned to another and before you know it we’re hiring five, six, seven people at a time and buying vehicles just trying to keep up with the industries needs at that point. … And as the gas came in we were already there. So, it was a natural transition to get into that.
Q. When gas development started, did you think, “Here’s an opportunity for us. We’re already in the energy space, and we can provide these services”?
Brian Pancher: Yes, because as a business owner I’m looking at my percentage of revenues and I see that 85% of them were tied up into coal. That’s a great thing but a scary thing. To run a good business, you have to be able to diversify. So, we put a plan into motion, and started to get involved in the oil and gas end of things going on all around us.
For the first wave of oil and gas, I would say we kind of missed the boat. We were too small to really accommodate the number of pads and volume of work that was going on with the different developers. They wanted the bigger firms that could do seven to ten sites at a time. We were about thirty-five people at the time and we just couldn’t accommodate that. So, we dabbled in a few projects but that wasn’t yet our strong suit at that point.
Q. When did you all see the second wave? And what changed – you were bigger and just able to better keep up?
Brian Pancher: Well around 2012, we got in with a few small oil and gas developers and really learned the industry through them, because they gave us the opportunity to work on all facets of what they did on their projects, which was perfect for our business. We got opportunities to do things that you wouldn’t normally get to do with other producers because they have other larger consulting firms doing it. That led to us becoming more educated on the market, and then we got involved in the MSC.
Q. Is your work all here in Pennsylvania and West Virginia?
Brian Pancher: Our service area is Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio, and Northern West Virginia. That’s 90% of our service area. We’ve ventured out into doing work in Minnesota and a few other states, but the bulk of it is in the tri-state regions. We focus on the coal industry, the oil and gas industry, and residential/commercial development. So, between those 3 sectors, offering full-service environmental and civil and then add in landscape architecture in the past two years, we’re a pretty diversified client able to offer a suite of services. We’ve got an equal number of engineers and biologists in the group.
Q. Can you talk about how the gas industry has helped you and how it helped your business grow and get to where you are today?
Brian Pancher: It has allowed us to hire more employees. And we’ve been able to grow not only our understanding of the industry but also it has exposed us to customers that have been really good to us. I have direct access to operators here that I normally wouldn’t have outside MSC, and MSC leadership has been very helpful at introducing me whenever I need an introduction. I’m able to develop that relationship and that network – it naturally leads to work. If you do good work and you’re good to people, word spreads and you’re going to get work.
Q. If you had one thing to share with a neighbor or a friend or maybe a lawmaker about the industry what would it be?
Brian Pancher: In general, there’s a negative perception out there about energy, and energy development. I’ve been doing this now for quite a while, and I can tell you that that the developers that I work with are very conscientious about what they do.
Sometimes you really have to work with the public to try to help them understand. Natural gas, coal, renewables… they’re all part of our energy picture. And, I don’t believe that we should be slamming any one portion, because they all contribute to the energy picture moving forward, which is something we should all be aware of.
Natural gas today is not what is was 20 years ago here and that’s testament to the ever-changing energy picture. And how it has all developed here in the Marcellus and Utica is just phenomenal. The things that I’ve seen pop up around it… holy cow. All you have to do is drive down through places like Monaca and see the cracker plant going up, or go down through Cadiz, Ohio – just to see what’s going on… it’s amazing. We should be applauding the industry for all the money that they have invested in the region and we should be proud of the work that all of us are doing. I’m blessed to be right in the middle of all this action and I look forward to what the future holds for this industry and my own growing business.
To learn more about WallacePancher Group, please visit www.WallacePancher.com
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