An Oil Field Legacy: “The Values for Success”

Title: An Oil Field Legacy: “The Values for Success”

Author: Holly Sell

Publication: The Outcrop, November 2009, p. 11-12, 14-15


Entrepreneur, business man, and still active in the Oil Industry, Walt Arbuckle partners with Elliott Riggs at Fossil and Associates, here in Denver. With 57 years dedicated to finding oil and gas, Walt still enjoys learning from and working with many geologists.

Walt in the Navy.

Thelma Virginia Arbuckle gave birth to Walt on August 11, 1927, in El Paso, Texas, and named him after his father Walter. Growing up, Walt was an only child, but he had many friends – he would say enough. When he was younger, Walt really enjoyed gymnastics at the YMCA. At 5 years and 1 week old, Walt started kindergarten. He skipped the 4th Grade and began high school at 13 years of age. He attended high school for only 3 1/2 years, until they “kicked him out,” due to the fact that he completed all the courses available. Thus, it was off to college at the Texas School of Mines in El Paso, when he was just 16 years old. After one semester, Walt transferred to Texas A & M. Starting a degree in Chemical Engineering, Walt’s father one day told him that he needed to find a career, where he could be in business for himself. Therefore, Walt thought about the oil business and changed his major to a dual degree in Geology and Petroleum Engineering.

While studying, Walt turned 18 years of age. And just only three days after his 18th birthday, in 1945, Walt felt the call of duty to enlist in the Navy. This was just before the Japanese surrendered in World War II. Walt kidded that the Japanese surrendered to the Allied Forces, just as soon as they found out that he had joined the military service. Walt then served in the Naval Reserves for one year on board of the Hornet Carrie r, but he never saw the theater of engagement. Just like that, the war was over, and the ship, to which he was assigned, was being moth­ balled. Aboard the carrier, Walt was in charge of scraping paint, as the ship was being prepared to be preserved for posterity.

Walt hard at work in his office.

Thus, it was back to school at the Texas A & M. Walt graduated in 1952, with a degree in petroleum engineering and a degree in geology. He found a job right out of college, and was one of only two people from the class who found a job immediately after graduation.

His first job was with British American Oil Producing Company, where he worked for 3 years as an engineer. Walt was part of a work training rotation, and he worked in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Wyoming. Walt quit his first job, when he discovered that the production superintendent was a fraud and a crook. After he quit, Walt went to work for a small drilling contractor, who had an office in Kansas. Walt decided to take this job, because the president of the company allowed him to participate in any oil and gas he could find. Thus, Walt worked Kansas as a geologist, doing completion engineering. The drilling contractor also paid for Walt to get his pilot’s license. He would fly out to the field to visit well-site operations. A little landing strip was built in pastures, with the rancher’s permission of course, so they could land near to wherever they were working. Back in the 50s, operators degassed the wells for the purpose of producing the oil; they had no interest in the gas. Therefore, when Walt flew back to Denver in the evening, the flaring of hundreds of oil wells lit his way home. It was quite a memorable sight. Walt flew small planes for another 40 years, before his eyes forced him to reluctantly give it up.

Before he took the job with this drilling contractor, the company failed to find anything. Walt, on the other hand, made the company quite profitable. The royalties from all the oil he found made for a comfortable living. With a salary of only $450 a month, he managed to bring in $6000, in oil runs per month, in just 18 months.

Three generations of Arbuckle in the oil industry: Clif (Walt’s son), Walt, and Curtis (Walt’s grandson).

However, success often breeds jealousy and covetousness. The family, who owned the company, was not familiar with the oil and gas industry’s practices. They noticed Walt’s success and how much money he was taking home. And while the company and the family were making even larger revenues, they wanted to cut down his royalties from a 32nd to a 64th percent.

As a result, Walt took his talents elsewhere. He quit and went to work at Kimbark. Walt feels – even to this day – that the owner, William Boyd, was a man of character which prompted him to spend a great deal of time there. While at Kimbark, William Boyd and Walt became very active and bought production. Walt had purchased a cable tool company on his own, and when Kimbark bought a company that owned a rotary drilling rig, Walt rolled the rotary drilling rig in to his cable tool company.

Of course, one cannot talk about Walt Arbuckle without mentioning his lifelong business partner and friend, Elliott Riggs. Walt met Elliott just as Elliott had left Texaco and was sitting wells in the late 60s. When Walt was getting ready to drill an area in the Paradox Basin in Moab, UT, he called Elliott Riggs, who came to well-sit for Walt. From that, their business partnership grew; deals were put together, sold, and drilled.

Walt has worked with many great geologists through the years, and he currently works with 8 different geologists in 7 different states. For Walt, every single geologist, he has ever worked with, has been his mentor. When asked of what thing Walt is most proud, he said it was the fact that his reputation precedes him in the industry.

“I think you would be hard bent to find anyone who would say negative things about us, our operations, and our companies that we’ve had, and that’s so important in today’s world. It’s always been important, but in today’s world even more so because when times get good there are always people operating on the edge.”

Citing a general example, Walt mentioned drilling. “When drilling, sometimes mechanical difficulties occur. Who is to pay for the breakdown? It is not always specified in the contract.” In such cases, Walt errs on the side of generosity, so that when they would leave the site, nobody would say, ” Well, they really tried to stick it to us.” The long-term gains from this level of integrity have always paid off the short-term cost and any inconvenience. His companies always made sure, and still do, to treat everyone with fair business practices. “We have always tried to have fair dealings with all the vendors and the people we have done business with,” he would say.

Another good business practice, especially when having partners on a deal, is not to sell a deal out completely, but rather to fund part of it himself. Typically, they fund 30-40 % of the deal themselves. This is a proof of not only Walt’s integrity, but also his confidence in his proposals.

And speaking of proposals, Walt makes sure that he is up to date on the latest computer technology, in order to present the best maps when selling a deal. “You can’t go into a company and spread out a bunch of paper maps, and expect to be taken seriously,” Walt says. “In today’s world, it is just unprofessional not to have the data in a digital format. One has to be able to project the information on a wall, do presentations, etc…., and people are used to looking at that.” Walt marvels at how much time computers save, compared to the old hand drawn maps ad cross sections, not to forget to mention all of the state databases made available. However, as efficient as computers are, they haven’t seemed to shorten the work week any.

Walt’s advice for the next generation is the advice his father gave him: “Get into business for yourself.” Not only has Walt’s son followed in his father’s industry footsteps, working as an independent Landman, but his grandson has done so as well. Walt’s grandson has recently graduated from the Colorado School of Mines and is now working as a geologist for Noble Energy.

Like all wonderfully great geologists, Walt has no plans of ever retiring. He enjoys keeping himself busy with geology which also allows him to keep up with his colleagues and friends. And that is just the kind of thing he values.