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A Century of Innovation: T.D. Williamson Celebrates 100 Years

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Over the last 100 years, T.D. Williamson has become synonymous with pipeline pigging. However, manufacturing pigging equipment is just one of the innovations that the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based company has developed for the industry since its founding.

T.D. Williamson Inc. (TDW) was established as The Petroleum Electric Co. in 1920 by T.D. Williamson Sr., who studied electrical engineering at the University of Arkansas and then joined the power generation division at General Electric in Schenectady, New York. He worked on the Panama Canal, which opened in 1914, and then returned to Tulsa in 1917 to set up an office under the auspices of GE to drum up business selling electric motors in the booming oil fields, according to Richard “Dick” Williamson, Chairman Emeritus of TDW and grandson of T.D. Williamson Sr.

double STOPPLE system

An early double STOPPLE system in place.

Dick Williamson is a veritable fountain of knowledge when it comes to the history of TDW and the oil and gas industry. He received his bachelor’s in chemical engineering from the University of Oklahoma and an MBA from Northwestern. He started at TDW in 1971 as an engineer and has held positions including executive vice president and chief operating officer, as well as president and CEO. He held the position of chairman of the board from 1994 until his retirement in 2016.

The discovery of the Glenn Pool oil reserve in 1905 was largely responsible for Tulsa being dubbed the “Oil Capital of the World” up until the 1970s. When T.D. Williamson Sr. returned to Tulsa, he began visiting the oil fields to learn about the drillers’ needs.

This practice of talking directly with customers to learn how to help improve their business became a key tenet of the business practices at TDW, Dick Williamson says.

“It was a philosophy of his to always support the customer,” he says of his grandfather. “If you stumble, don’t just leave. Fix it.”

This philosophy is one of the reasons TDW has remained successful over the last 100 years, says Stephen “Steve” D. Williamson, Chairman of the Board and Dick Williamson’s brother.

“TDW has brought in or made improvements to several specific technologies over the years that have defined what we do,” he says. “However, what I believe has made us successful is our focus on our customers. Our people have a passion for taking care of our customers, providing specialized services when needed, making things right when something is not, and making sure that our customers can always rely on us.”

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Steve Williamson is a graduate of Vanderbilt University with a degree in German and history. He also holds degrees in peace and conflict studies and international relations. Like his brother, Steve joined TDW in 1971 and was initially assigned to Williamson International in Brussels to work on international marketing efforts in Europe. He then served in numerous functional and leadership roles during his career at TDW. In 1989, he left the company to operate Williamson Industries, to provide TDW products and services to the Canadian pipeline industry. In 2007, Williamson Industries became a part of TDW. He succeeded his brother as chairman of the board in 2016.

T.D. Williamson Sr. learned that the operating companies working in the Tulsa oil fields needed upgrades to the electric motors that operated their pumps. They were trying to pull more oil from the wells, but they lacked sufficient power to operate their production equipment. T.D. Williamson Sr. took this information back to GE’s district office. What the operators need, he emphasized, was help in building power plants in the oil fields that would provide additional power generation capacity. With the support from GE, he started his own company — The Petroleum Electric Co. — to carry out this expanded mission, providing the engineering, procurement and contracting services needed to upgrade and expand the operators power generation.

From Oil Fields to Pipelines

Throughout the 1920s, Standard Oil of Indiana, part of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust and later renamed Amoco Corp., was involved in the beginnings of the pipeline industry. Standard Oil of Indiana created Stanolind in 1931, and all of its pipeline business would eventually be consolidated under this new company, which was headquartered in downtown Tulsa.

“The pipelines they were building were rather basic,” Dick Williamson says. “They needed to be managed 24/7. The Petroleum Division of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) formed a committee to study how to operate oil pipeline pumping stations automatically. On the committee were two engineers from Stanolind and T.D. Williamson Sr. The committee presented a working model of an automated pipeline control station at the International Petroleum Exposition held in Tulsa in 1930. In the years that followed, T.D. Williamson Sr. began assisting pipeline operators to install such automated control systems.”

Dick Williamson went on to further explain that during the 1920s, the Petroleum Electric Co. expanded its support of oil field and pipeline operations. The advent of the Great Depression in 1929 led to a decline in new investment in the oil fields and pipelines. T.D. Williamson Sr. shifted the focus of his company to provide products and engineering services required to support existing oil field and pipeline infrastructure. This culminated in his forming of the Petroleum and Engineering and Equipment Co. in 1933.

The new business moved its offices to a room in the family home and his son, T.D. Williamson Jr., was asked to take a year off from his engineering studies at Purdue University to assist his father as a salesman. In a speech given by T.D. Williamson Jr. in 1986, he reflected, “One day in 1933, our family car was repossessed by the loan company. I recall that my father showed no signs of discouragement. In fact, he remarked that we were fortunate to live within walking distance of the downtown area.” A year later T.D. Williamson Jr. enrolled at the University of Kansas to continue his studies as an electrical engineer.

In 1937, T.D. Williamson Jr. completed his studies and returned to the company as vice president and salesman. By 1938, the company had grown to the point that they were able to open an office in downtown Tulsa. Not only had the company represented a number of suppliers of products for the industry, they began working closer with Stanolind and other pipeline companies to develop improved designs and materials for cleaning pipelines.

When World War II began, the United States needed a better method of transporting oil from the wells to refineries on the East Coast. At the time, tankers would carry oil from Texas to the Northeast United States by sea.

“The tankers were getting sunk by German U-boats, so the U.S. government determined they needed to build pipelines,” Dick Williamson says. “An emergency act was passed to build the Big Inch and Little Big Inch pipelines to carry crude oil and refined products to Philadelphia and New York.”

Not long after the Big Inch and Little Big Inch pipelines went into service, a problem arose when the hot crude coming from the wells would cool inside the pipelines. Paraffin would build up and start clogging the line. While there was a tool to scrape out the paraffin, Dick Williamson explains that there was a need for a better solution to clean out the pipelines. Once again T.D. Williamson Sr. and his son talked to their customers to learn what was needed.

“My grandfather and father came up with a tool that we now know as a pig,” Dick Williamson says. From then on, T.D. Williamson, the men and their company, began serving the pipeline industry.

Not Just Pigs

The 1950s were a productive decade for TDW. While the company is well known for its pipeline pigging solutions, which now range from batching and cleaning pigs to gauging and other specialty pigs — not to mention inline inspection tools, which are sometimes referred to as “smart pigs” — perhaps the company’s biggest contribution to the pipeline industry was pioneering hot tapping and developing the STOPPLE, a line intervention technology.

The TDW team in 1956

The TDW team in 1956, during a highly productive era for the company, as it expanded and developed new innovations.

“It [the STOPPLE]has changed how the industry has approached challenges such as the repair, relocation and maintenance of in-service pipelines. In the 1950s and ‘60s this approach facilitated the construction of interstate highway crossings without interrupting the flow through existing pipelines,” says Steve Williamson. “Today it is considered by many pipeline operators to be an integral part of their maintenance and emergency response capabilities.”

The STOPPLE allowed for the expansion of the pipeline industry, Dick Williamson adds. Operators were looking to build laterals and branch lines to the mainline transmission systems, and the STOPPLE allowed those expansions to be built while a pipeline was still in service.

Since the introduction of the STOPPLE system, TDW has continued to innovate, driven by customer needs. Its isolation portfolio includes safety-driven designs such as double block and bleed and non-intrusive isolation solutions.

TDW booth at the IPE in Tulsa

TDW booth at the IPE in Tulsa when the French delegates came to Tulsa in 1959. Shown here is a STOPPLE (left) and the company’s largest pig (right).

Facing Today’s Challenges

Over the years, the pipeline industry has changed, and TDW has changed along with it.

“From our perspective as a service company to the industry, the biggest change has been the increased focus on quality and safety,” Steve Williamson says. “It has been our privilege to help our customers meet their inspection needs and a challenge to meet the increasingly stringent quality expectations of our customers, a challenge we heartily endorse.”

Pipelines are facing a number of challenges today, from effectively managing aging pipelines to addressing environmental and regulatory concerns. However, one of the biggest challenges is personnel.

Today’s operating pipelines have been built from the 1940s to the present day, Dick Williamson says. Engineering practices and materials have evolved over the years to better construct and operate pipelines of longer distances, higher pressures and traversing more difficult terrain. Those who built and operated these pipeline systems understood what they had created, their capabilities and limitations. Over the last 60 years, the pipeline industry has relied on a partnership between well-established industry practices and emerging technologies to sustain the safety and reliability of pipeline operations.

TDW shop on East Latimer Street in Tulsa

T.D. Williamson Sr. and T.D. Williamson Jr., circa 1940s, inspect products at their shop on East Latimer Street in Tulsa.

As Dick Williamson has emphasized, “the pipeline industry, like most industries, are facing the challenge of the great crew change.” Older veterans with “tribal knowledge” are nearing retirement, and the younger generation, with newer skills and perspectives, are joining the industry ranks.

“We had a couple generations that were huge in terms of birth rates, and that fueled expansions of the industry,” Dick Williamson says. “We had the Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y, then the Millennials. Generation X and Y weren’t huge populations. The Millennials are huge, but they didn’t grow up with the industry. They have different aspirations and thoughts.”

The task, he adds, is to build bridges of understanding and competencies so that the younger and older generations continue to operate the pipeline systems properly.

The ongoing challenge of TDW, he says, is to support the pipeline industry in its efforts to design and operate pipelines in a more technologically reliable, environmentally sound manner — participating in the development and implementation of constructive regulatory practices. This philosophy has been incorporated into the operations of the business since its founding.

Family and Legacy

Since 1920, TDW has grown from a small, family-run business to a global corporation. With its headquarters in Tulsa, the company has locations, either directly or indirectly, on four continents. The company is led by CEO Robert McGrew, who joined TDW in 1999 as vice president and chief financial officer. He was named president and CEO in 2016.

T.D. Williamson Sr., T.D. Williamson Jr. and Edna Mae Williamson

T.D. Williamson Sr., T.D. Williamson Jr. and Edna Mae Williamson

Representing the third-generation of Williamsons, three members of the family serve on the TDW board of directors — Dick Williamson, Steve Williamson and Barbara Kay Bucholtz — while McGrew and six independent directors make up the rest of the board. Additionally, members of the fourth generation of the family hold various positions at the company, ensuring that the Williamson legacy will live on.

“Personally, I believe our legacy is that we have built an organization from my grandfather’s day to the present guided by simple values around integrity, service to our customers, respecting and supporting our employees and accountability for what we do,” Steve Williamson says. “In today’s more cynical environment, I hope TDW can be a role model of what a company can be.”

TDW employee handles a V-Jet pig

TDW employee handles a V-Jet pig, which helps pipeline operators maintain integrity.

As part of its efforts to celebrate the TDW centennial, the company announced plans to host festivities during the Pipeline Pigging and Integrity Management (PPIM) in Houston in February 2020 and at the International Pipeline Expo (IPE) in Calgary in September 2020. The centennial will also kick off an ambitious community relations initiative aligned with the company’s robust culture of charitable giving. Together, team members around the world will complete 100 community events by the end of the year.

A 1960s TDW demonstration van.

A 1960s TDW demonstration van.

“T.D. Williamson Sr.’s greatest legacy is, I believe, in how he built his business, from The Petroleum Electric Co. to T.D. Williamson Inc.,” Dick Williamson says. “Always with respect and support for those with whom he chose to partner, from his customers to his employees. It was that culture of accountability, fair dealing and collaboration that has been the foundation for TDW and its employees. It has helped us see our career at TDW as a shared experience, a ‘family’ of similarly like-minded people, committed to serving our customers so well that they cannot imagine doing business without our support, encouraging and supporting one another in their journey as fellow employees and supporting the communities that have sustained us, to help those communities address their greater challenges. These principles are what bind us together today and will help prepare us for tomorrow’s challenges.”

Bradley Kramer is managing editor of North American Oil & Gas Pipelines. Contact him at bkramer@benjaminmedia.com.

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