UND alum and third-generation North Dakotan Joel Brown continues family legacy in oil industry
You could say oil runs in the Brown family just like it does deep beneath the western North Dakota soil they call home.
Grandpa Al Brown became an oilman as a young cattle rancher growing up east of Watford City, the epicenter of today's booming oil play in North Dakota's Bakken formation.
Things were a bit different in the oil patch then, but the work still was rough, raw and dangerous. Al learned the business from the ground up; his classroom was the hard knocks of the drilling rigs.
Years later, he would parlay his expertise into a business of his own that specialized in "fishing" for broken parts and debris lodged 10,000 vertical feet below the surface in drilling holes ― a costly part of life in the oil industry and something that brings drilling activity to a standstill.
Today, that business, Northern States Fishing Tool, is one of the most respected names in the region in its line of work.
Eventually, Al's son, Gary Brown, who'd grown up in his dad's shop but who'd decided to leave the state to pursue a college degree in finance and accounting, moved his family back to Watford City to be closer to his roots.
Gary rejoined the family business, but this time instead of mopping floors and sorting tools like he did as a kid, he took on more of a business management role.
The menial chores of Gary's youth fell to his son and Al's grandson, Joel, now 22 and a UND alumnus.
Gary and his wife, Cheryl, brought their family back during a bit of a lull in local oil and gas development. Life was quieter then in Watford City, but there was still enough oil activity taking place to give young Joel a taste of what his future might entail.
Like his dad, Joel would initially leave Watford City to go to college out of state. Also, like his dad, Joel soon developed a longing to be closer to home to work in some fashion of the oil industry. But where? How?
Joel's questions were answered when UND launched its fledgling Petroleum Engineering program in 2010.
"I hopped right on it," said Joel, about his shot to get back to his beloved home state.
Joel became one of the first students in the new Petroleum Engineering program at UND. He graduated in only three years, paving the way for others who would follow in the program ― part of the UND College of Engineering and Mines' Institute for Energy Studies (IES).
In just three short years, the program has grown from a handful of pioneering students, including Joel, to a whopping 135 now.
The UND Petroleum Engineering program is the only one of its kind in the state and is among a small number of accredited programs ― about 20 or so ― in the nation.
"We anticipate the classes that follow will likely have more than 20 graduates each year," said Steve Benson, chair of the UND Department of Petroleum Engineering. "Our faculty also is increasing in size to meet the demands of the additional students."
The boom of students in the program is being spurred largely by increased and sustained oil activity in western North Dakota.
Joel has seen firsthand evidence of that activity on Main Street in Watford City. The once sleepy ranching town of his boyhood has grown from about 1,500 people to an estimated 10,000 today in just a few years. More than 17,000 trucks cross the town's main intersection every day.
Demand for petroleum engineers also is being driven by an anticipated surge in the number of oil industry retirees in the next few years.
The industry has taken notice of what's happening at UND, and students are benefitting when it comes to job prospects after graduation. It doesn't hurt, either, that UND has solid connections to the oil industry.
UND puts its aspiring petroleum engineers in the field as much as possible as interns ― the best of all classrooms.
"Other schools focus more on the teaching side of things," Joel said.
Because of UND people, such as Benson, Joel was able to secure a coveted internship with Whiting Petroleum in the North Dakota oil patch.
"He called them up and the next day they emailed me with an offer," Joel said.
Experience plus degree
His education at UND, the internship and the know-how he's absorbed growing up in the heart of the North Dakota oil fields have all paid off for Joel as he prepares for his first real job as a reservoir engineer in the Denver office of MBI Oil & Gas, a North Dakota-based company.
Joel recently married, Emily, a native of Bismarck. The couple is moving to Denver so Joel can start his new gig in the oil industry.
Joel speaks in bittersweet terms about moving away from the state he loves and about the exciting opportunities ahead. He says he wants to gain experience now elsewhere but vows to return home to continue the Brown legacy.
"Someday I will come back to North Dakota and bring something to the table here working with dad and grandpa," he said. "But for right now, Denver is the place I want to be."
Gary said that would be good for the family and the business, as each generation of Brown brings his own expertise to the mix.
"Dad (Grandpa Al) is a very respected fisherman in the oil industry around here, but he had to learn all of it on his own by doing it," Gary said. "I came along and brought something different on the business end. And now Joel comes along with his engineering experience.
"It was my goal to always come back here, too," Gary continued. "If Joel comes back, that would be great ― but if not ― his experiences here and education will be a great springboard for him whatever he does."
Grandpa Al agreed, saying that experience in the field coupled with the scientific knowledge of what is happening underground is a rare combination. But they're things his grandson is gaining quickly.
"When you've got a college degree and the experience to go with it ― you've really got something," Al said.
University & Public Affairs writer
Joel Brown started his oil career doing grunt work for the family business, Northern States Fishing Tool company. Brown now has a degree in Petroleum Engineering.