By Carla McKeown
If you’re trying to find Graham Equipment and Manufacturing, you’ll have to look closely. There are no flashy colors or bright lights. Just an unassuming sign on the white wall at 401 Fourth St. identifying the building as the place you’re looking for.
Likewise, GEM founder Brent Mullin is an unpretentious man who has to be prodded into telling the story of how he and his wife, Laura, built the company from the ground up.
The road that brought the couple to this corner of Graham has been long and winding. It started back in Turkey, Texas — the hometown of the late “King of Western Swing” Bob Wills — where Brent Mullin grew up working on his parents’ farm and helping out with their water well business. He was driving a tractor by the age of 5 and helping his brother change out the transmission in a truck at 15.
After high school, Mullin attended a community college and then Texas Tech University, paying his own way roughnecking. But after he and Laura got married, he left school before getting his degree. Yet, he’s never stopped learning, picking up business skills on the job and later continuing his education in textile cleaning and restoration.
“Growing up, I was always having to fix things that broke,” Mullin said. “But, I’ve always been interested in technology. My nighttime reading is technology, not love books.”
In the early 1970s, Mullin used his drilling and oil business experience to start the Mullin Drilling Company, which drilled oil, natural gas and water wells. He came to Graham on business, liked what he saw, and the family moved here in 1980, first to Loving and then to Graham three years later.
But, the oil industry crash in the mid-’80s led to the shuttering of Mullin Drilling.
“Some days you have setbacks, some days a win. You just don’t give up. That’s the bottom line,” Mulllin said. “I’ve always believed, if we’re faithful in the little things, God will reward us.”
After trying his hand at a few jobs, including selling cars, the Mullins went into the carpet cleaning business, opening Graham’s Carpet Master.
When Brent couldn’t find a specialized carpet cleaning truck that he needed, he just built one. That reignited his interest in the creative process of designing machinery and solving problems.
He jumped at the opportunity in 2006 to become a partner in a pump jack business, eventually buying out the other guy and expanding the company. Graham Equipment and Manufacturing was born.
“Brent is self-taught; he thinks like an engineer,” said Ross Roye, parts manager at GEM. “If there’s a problem to be solved, he can work it out on the back of a napkin.”
Roye explained that many small businesses in the oil industry don’t have the resources to hire full-time engineers, so GEM is often able to step in and solve their problems.
Eight years after starting out on a shoestring budget, GEM is a $3 million company that makes custom compressors, pumps and engines, designed to solve specific problems. Additionally, the company holds some patents and has some patents pending for products. The business does all sorts of work, including overhauling injection pumps, repairing pump jack engines and trouble-shooting issues with pumps, engines and compressors.
GEM is the “Home of Mr. Pumper Products,” a line of pumps, engines and compressors designed and engineered by Mullin. The concept came from his desire to design a pump jack motor that ran on natural gas and could re-start itself if it went off for some reason. After several generations of designs, he had created a modern pump jack engine that was more efficient.
The business has grown to include customers around the world. GEM regularly ships products to Hong Kong, China, Jakarta, the United Arab Emirates, as well as across the United States.
Additionally, the company holds full distributorships for many major brands of compressor and pump systems and engines.
Mullin said that through the years he’s become a better businessman, learning to do things such as check out customers before extending them credit. His good business practices have benefited GEM.
“When we first started, our company had a low credit limit with suppliers, but now it’s whatever we want,” he said. “We’re just trying to pay our bills the way the good Lord would want us to.”
Sometimes, though, despite their best efforts, a deal goes bad. For example, Mullin said they have been working with silver mines in south Texas and had ordered parts for a specific job. Then, one morning Roye noticed the price of silver had dropped. Predictably, the mining company canceled the order, leaving GEM with an inventory of specialty parts.
“You can’t foretell what’s going to happen,” Mullin said. “We had a (purchase order). We could’ve made them pay it, but I didn’t. Some of the companies took the parts back while others wanted a re-stocking fee, but I didn’t want to pay that. We’ve been blessed despite several downturns. If the demand goes down, then the price goes down. We have to look at demands worldwide, not just local.”
The mining business is just one area the company has branched out into.
“Every day, it’s a new day,” Roye said. “There’s nothing we won’t try. We’ve worked with tunnels in Houston, and we’d like to get into fresh water drilling for Third World countries. Water purification is going to be bigger and bigger, and we’ve got some things we’re working on in that area. There’s a lot we can do, but people are going to have to step up and pay for it. As far as the necessity of life, water is more important than oil.”
Mullin said that doing the right thing for the environment has been one of his priorities all along. The pump jack engines he designed and manufactures only run when they need to, as opposed to the older models that run all day long.
“This company is capable of a lot,” he said. “We get opportunities all the time; it’s just whether you want to or can do it.”
Roye said it’s that attitude that keeps the company moving forward. “It’s exciting from my perspective because every day, something new comes along,” Roye said. “People need problem-solvers and getter-doners. There are a lot of opportunities out there, and we get it done.”
The innovation, hard work and dedication to the customers has been such a successful business model that GEM continues to grow.
“We’re in need of more space,” Roye said. “There’s some opportunities out there. And, we’re always looking for good employees.”
Although the company does much of its work for national and international businesses, GEM and its employees still are involved with the Graham community. Mullin said the company tries to work with local suppliers when they can. “We look for how we can support local businesses,” he said. “If it helps them, it helps us.”
In addition to Graham Equipment and Manufacturing, the Mullins still own Carpet Master, and, as a testament to Brent’s skills, they’re still using that truck he built.
But, no matter how many of the ideas are Mullin’s, no matter how much of the work he’s done, he refuses to take the credit.
“It’s not me — it’s the whole team. I couldn’t do it all without a good team. We’re all in this together,” he said. “I just thank the Lord for the opportunity to be doing what I’m doing because I love what I’m doing.”
(This story was originally published in Ventures, a business publication in The Graham Leader in October 2014.)