Sheehan Pipe Line Construction Co. Celebrates 110 Years
By Bradley Kramer
Pennsylvania’s energy industry is booming, just like it was when John “Jack” Sheehan moved to Bradford, Pa., at the age of 22. A dozen years later he will get his first crack at laying pipeline for the United Natural Gas Co. Once complete, the project will be recognized as the longest natural gas pipeline in the world at 87 miles, from McKean County in Pennsylvania to Buffalo, N.Y. The year is 1886.
Jack Sheehan was born in New York City in 1852. After his fateful experience in Pennsylvania, where the U.S. energy industry was born, he followed the work to the next oil and gas boom in the Southwest. In 1903, he moved to Oklahoma and formed Sheehan Pipe Line Construction Co. The company laid some of the first pipelines in the midcontinent region while working for such industry pioneers as Joshua Cosden, who was reported to have earned and lost two fortunes in the oil industry, and Harry F. Sinclair, who started Sinclair Oil Corp. and made the company’s “Dino” dinosaur logo a household image.
As the search for oil and gas took Jack Sheehan and his gang across the United States, he built the company’s reputation and formed strong ties with those early industry leaders. Sheehan Pipe Line Construction built thousands of miles of pipelines for companies like Empire Pipe Line Co., Prairie Oil & Gas Co. and Stanolind Pipeline Co. Now, 110 years after Jack Sheehan founded the company, the family-owned business lives on, as his great grandson, Robert D. “David” Sheehan Jr., represents the fourth generation to run the company.
Sheehan Pipe Line Construction is recognized as the oldest pipeline construction company in the United States. With so many companies coming and going in that time, chairman and co-owner David Sheehan says the company outlasted the competition “through the unwavering commitment of its management to its people.” Its people are part of the family.
“Sheehan has always considered the men and women who worked for it our greatest asset, and they have never let us down even in the middle of the Great Depression when there were only two employees,” David Sheehan says. Today, the company employs 88 full-time workers and up to 2,000 more during the height of construction season.
Based in Tulsa, Okla., Sheehan operates throughout the lower 48 states. Over the last century and a decade, the company has constructed more than 23,000 miles of pipeline and experienced all the changes in the industry, from improved installation techniques and better equipment to the growing concern about safety and pipeline integrity.
One of the biggest shifts in the pipeline industry over the last 10 years has been the discovery of shale oil and gas, which is driving pipeline construction throughout the United States, says Robert A. Riess Sr., president, CEO and part owner of Sheehan Pipe Line Construction. Along with increased production of Canadian oil sands, the shale plays are changing the nature of energy supply in North America. Throughout all the changes in the industry, however, Sheehan has remained a constant.
The Family Line
David Sheehan grew up in the pipeline business. He worked summers in the field while going to college. His father, Robert D. “Bob” Sheehan Sr., managed the company for more than 52 years until his death in 1998.
Bob Sheehan was the son of John B. Sheehan, one of two sons — the other being Ray Sheehan — who inherited the company from their founding father, Jack Sheehan. Ray and John B. Sheehan shepherded the family business through extensive growth years of the U.S. pipeline grid. During their reign, the company was among the first to install major cross-country gas transmission lines from the Hugoton Basin in Kansas to the Midwest and the East Coast. During World War II, the company contributed to the completion of the historic War Emergency Pipelines, which established an interior transportation network and helped secure U.S. fuel supply from attack by Nazi U-boats.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Bob Sheehan made the company a truly national contractor, working for almost every major oil and gas transportation company in the United States, installing a large portion of the pipeline infrastructure that now crisscrosses the country. Bob’s son was soon being groomed as a successor.
After college, David joined his father’s company full time and worked up the ladder from foreman, parts manager, project manager, superintendent until becoming a partner in the business in 1976. He became assistant managing partner around 1990, he says, before taking over the company eight years later.
Over the next decade, Sheehan would continue to grow, taking on bigger and bigger projects. In 2009, David sold the company to GFI Energy, but he remained on the board of directors. In 2011, he and Riess bought the company back.
Riess has twice been part of the Sheehan family. In his 35-year career in the pipeline industry, he has only worked for three companies. He started his career right out of college at Texas Eastern Transmission Corp., working there from 1979 until he joined Sheehan for the first time in 1991. In 1995, Riess left to work at a competitor, ARB Inc., then returned to Sheehan in 2004.
Today, Sheehan Pipe Line Construction is not only the oldest pipeline contracting company in the United States, but it’s also among the largest. The company boasts an equipment investment that exceeds $45 million, with more than 250 major pieces of equipment and more than 250 trucks to complete the jobs that were once done by horse and ox. Still, the thing that endures is the company’s sense of family.
“As we said before, our people are like family to us,” David Sheehan says. “We treat them just like Jack Sheehan treated his crews, knowing that in order for him to profit, his men had to be motivated to do his work on schedule and on budget. To get that, you have to have a great relationship with all your workers, just like a family.”
Riess agrees, calling the company’s employees its “No. 1 asset.” Throughout the year, the company sponsors a number of events for its employees, such as attending minor league baseball games and company meetings.
“From my perspective, it’s pretty simple,” Riess continues. “Working for a family-owned business truly teaches you what people are all about, from the generosity of people to how the company operates. Sheehan cares how its people are treated. We’re all part of a family. I have been part of the family with the fourth and fifth generation. It’s all about the people you’re surrounded by and being part of their lives, not just in a business sense but personally as well.”
Those family values are instilled in how Sheehan operates as a company and is a core part of its success.
“For us, we like to keep things simple, and I mean simple to the extent that our core workforce understands where we are going as a company,” Riess says. “We have three guiding principles that everyone knows. First is to do the job right the first time. Some people might relate that to quality control and other fancy buzzwords. Second, be yours and your brother’s keeper. Some say that’s just part of some big fancy safety program. The third principle is two-way communication, which without having that from the top down and the bottom up, you can’t have the other two. That’s what we talk about to our team members and our customers, and people can relate to that. It seems to motivate them and make them feel part of the team.”
Jack Sheehan moved to the Southwest and based his company in Tulsa because that’s where a majority of the pipeline work originated for many decades. Recently, though, the industry has started to shift.
“The biggest change we’ve seen in the past decade has been a result of these shale plays that have been discovered and developed by the producers,” Riess says. “Ultimately, the work that we did back in 2006-2007 to build takeaway pipelines out of the Barnett, Haynesville and Fayetteville regions created a need for large diameter pipelines in 2008-2009. Back then, we thought we were nearing the depletion of our natural gas resources.”
The more recent development of the Marcellus, Utica, Eagle Ford and Bakken shale regions has created a demand for new pipeline construction, as well as the need to retrofit older pipelines and facilities to facilitate exporting natural gas products, Riess adds. Furthermore, recent pipeline mishaps and concerns about aging infrastructure have created increased demand for robust integrity management programs to ensure the safety of existing pipelines.
“The industry has experienced some significant devastating pipeline failures, such as the oil spill last year in the Kalamazoo River, the tragic explosions in San Bruno, Calif., and Allentown, Pa., and the events just recently in Mayflower, Ark. These events change the way we look at pipeline safety and challenge operators to see that they’re doing things the right way,” Riess says. “The pipeline work in the United States today is really two-fold. There’s the new construction as a result of the shale plays, and then there’s upkeep and maintenance on the existing pipelines.”
Between the projections of the amount of shale gas that’s coming out of the Marcellus and Utica plays and the contracts that involve pipeline integrity, Riess sees “tremendous longevity” for pipeline work in the United States for “many years to come.”
Some examples of the type of contracts Sheehan is getting in recent years is one the company has undertaken in a residential area of Nashville, Tenn. Sheehan is building a new pipeline to replace an existing line that PHMSA deemed not up to code.
Additionally, the contractor completed five jobs last year for Kinder Morgan that involved taking 30 miles of pipeline out of service to perform hydrostatic testing, dewatering the lines and then placing them back in service. In the process, Sheehan also removed and replaced old valves to upgrade them to accept pigs for cleaning and inspection.
“Those two projects are classic examples of what makes us unique,” Riess says. “The projects we did for Kinder Morgan were $1.5 million contracts. The job in Nashville is $60 million. No job is too small and no job is too large that we’re willing to undertake. We have people in our organization who can lay 100 miles of 36-in. pipeline, and we have people who can lay three miles of 10-in. pipeline. You have to have enough tools in the toolbox to address a variety of projects in this industry.”
The effectiveness of a tool is in part a result of being in the right place at the right time. To that end, Sheehan has branched out from its Tulsa headquarters. The company has a maintenance facility and repair shop in Lawrenceville, Ill., where a crew of 12 to 14 take care of the equipment fleet. In the last three months, Sheehan has opened a new regional office in Belpre, Ohio, to better address demand in the shale plays in the Northeast.
In a way, Sheehan has now come full circle. Belpre is a just few hundred miles southwest from Bradford, Pa., where a young Jack Sheehan got his first taste of the pipeline industry that has provided a steady livelihood for his family for the last 110 years.
“The employees of team Sheehan are proud of our 110 years of existence,” Riess says. “We’re proud of the reputation and the name we have in the industry. And we hope to continue that for another 110 years.”
Bradley Kramer is managing editor of North American Oil & Gas Pipelines. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.