Record Weather Tests The Unflappables Up North

March 2012, Vol. 239 No. 3

Lew Bullion, Senior Editor, Pipeline & Gas Journal, Houston, Texas

While much of the contiguous U.S. enjoyed a mild winter this year, Alaska suffered through its worst in decades. A 30-day stretch when the thermometer bottomed out below -30° F provided special challenges for Richard Schok, President of Flowline Alaska Inc., based in the interior town of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Raw material shipping delays, skyrocketing fuel costs and increased cold weather maintenance issues tested Schok and his veteran team, but like most Alaskans, they always are prepared for the unexpected.

Adversity is nothing new for Flowline Alaska. It has nearly a 30-year history working for the oil and gas industry on Alaska’s North Slope. It began providing pipeline insulation services in 1982, but since has diversified to add corrosion coatings, pipe spool fabrication, double-joint welding and module/skid fabrication to their list of offerings. Schok estimates Flowline has insulated more than 2,000 miles of pipe in its plant for shipment 500 miles north to “The Slope,” as Alaskans call it.

Schok’s father saw potential in Alaska’s booming oil industry as crude began flowing through the trans-Alaska oil pipeline in the late 1970s and started Flowline Alaska.

The elder Schok settled his family in Fairbanks in 1982, and young Richard had his first job sweeping floors at the plant as a teen-ager. Over the years, he has done every job at the company, including quality assurance and estimating. He became company president six years ago. Today, Flowline remains a family enterprise. Two sisters work there, a brother works for an affiliated business and the founder, though mostly retired, still offers assistance from time to time on intriguing projects.

The company’s main customers today remain Alaska’s big oil producers: ConocoPhilips, BP and ExxonMobil. The bulk of the work is pipe insulation and corrosion coating for above-ground installation as part of ongoing maintenance and pipe replacement for the big operators. Flowline provided onshore and offshore insulated and corrosion coated pipe at Ooguruk for Houston-based Pioneer and at Italy’s ENI Petroleum’s Nikaitchuq project. The company in 2009 also fabricated for BP four large production modules weighing 105 tons each. They were 65 feet long, 23 feet tall and 18 feet wide – the largest ever produced in Alaska.

Schok attributes the company’s continued success to its skilled workers, commitment to quality and its reputation for being “as reliable as concrete,” a phrase his father coined. Today, Flowline employs 60 and generally that number ranges between 40 and 100. Looking ahead, Schok sees the company’s reputation for quality and its special status as the only large-scale provider of pipe insulation services in the state as its core strengths. Shell’s exploratory drilling off Alaska’s north coast is a source of potential growth, he said.

Alaska’s geographic isolation makes the connections Schok has made through NAPCA membership even more valuable. The organization helps him stay on top of new technology and trends but also is a place to seek practical advice.

“In theory we are competitors but, in practice, through NAPCA, we are friends and I value the opportunity to discuss business issues with colleagues from other companies,” he said.

The upside of Alaska’s geographic isolation for the Schok family is the unique lifestyle it offers. An avid hunter and fisherman, Schok is an experienced pilot who owns a Piper Super Cub and a Cessna 185. He and his wife, Beth, teen-age sons Nick and Andrew, and even 9-year-old Lyndsie crisscross Alaska by plane and boat, hunting moose, wolf, caribou and sheep and fishing in remote streams for king salmon and grayling.

So, while Alaska’s climate can be unforgiving at times, enjoying all that Alaska offers has become a Schok family tradition.

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