Interview with J.B. Bleckley – founder of Banks Environmental Data

The Banks Group has been in business now for over 30 years. I recently had an opportunity to sit down with J.B. Bleckley – founder, president, and CEO of Banks Environmental Data – to talk about how the company has evolved.

Where did the name “Banks” originate?

J.B.: I named the company after my daughter. Her name is Sarah Banks Bleckley. We call her Banks, which is also a family name on her mother’s side. When she was young, she thought the name Banks was sort of stupid. Now she loves her name. We’ve had the name Banks associated with our oil and gas consulting firm since the early 1980s, environmental data resourcesand it’s just a name that people remember. I hear anecdotal stories all the time from people who remember Banks from 30 years ago.

How did you start the company?

J.B.: My wife and I worked for the Carter administration. We were both political appointees. I campaigned in Texas and met many oil and gas guys especially in Wichita Falls and Lubbock. Something registered with me that this would be a good business to get into if I ever moved to Texas. The political atmosphere was much the same as it is this election cycle. The economy was bad, and it seemed like everything that could go wrong did (with the Carter administration). I like to say Carter was “turned out” of office by Reagan in the 1980 election.

So we moved to Texas. My wife’s dad was an independent oil and gas operator in Dallas. He always said, which I’ll always appreciate, “If you ever want to learn this business I’m here for you. I’ll teach you the ropes.” So I started commuting up to Dallas from Austin, I’d leave early on Monday morning and spend the week in Dallas out in the field. I did that for 4-5 months and gained a real understanding of the oil business. One of their vendors needed a sales guy, the oil business was booming then, and I had an interview. They offered me a job on the spot and said, “All of south Texas is yours. Go for it!” I was selling tubing, casing, tank batteries, and pumping units in the supply business. And as an added service, I would help operators with researching or permitting wells at the Railroad Commission since I lived in Austin. But just as I was getting into it, the oil business started to decline, and they asked me to transfer to San Antonio. I knew I didn’t want to transfer. So we went our separate ways and I ended up staying in Austin and I hung out a shingle calling it “Banks Information.” My father in law, Bud Mandell, would refer clients to me. I would send out direct mail, way before email, and it gradually grew. I was doing everything back then. At some point, I hired my first part-time employee, and it just continued to grow.

How did you get started in the environmental data business?

J.B.: A guy came to me who worked for one of the pioneers in environmental data resources. He had been laid off and was going around to several oil and gas consulting firms asking them to start an environmental division. And in those days, oil and gas guys just thought environmental people were just full of it. But I listened to him and he said to me, “J.B., we need to start a division. Give me a stipend and six months and let’s see where we are.” So for some reason, I said yes and I really don’t know why – and we started Banks Environmental. He did what he said he would do. He worked hard and built up a clientele. He loved the clients and they loved him. So he became a full-time employee. This was in the mid-1990s. Things contined to grow, but back then we really just did research and due diligence for the environmental business. Then in 1999 some guys from Boston with a company called FirstSearch contacted us, and that’s when we added the ASTM database report and became part of a nationwide network. Our initial coverage area included EPA Region 6, which encompasses Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Now we have our own ASTM database report and expanded coverage.

How do the different divisions of the Banks Group work together?

J.B.: The oil and gas business has remained consistent for the last 15 or 20 years. It is an important part of our business. I noticed in the early 2000s, oil and gas companies became more aware of the environmental impact of things that they were doing. Chevron was one of the earliest companies that stands out in my mind that has tried to do a good job environmentally in their production operations. It makes sense. They’re a California company and probably a little ahead of their time. For various oil and gas projects, we would run area reviews or pipeline studies, and the oil and gas related environmental work became more and more important to our oil and gas division. I saw it as a great asset. I had a vision that if we stayed the course, we would become the go-to environmental firm for oil and gas – because we knew more about oil and gas than our competitors. Fast forward to 2012, and that is the truth. I don’t believe there is anybody who does what we do or is as plugged in to the oil and gas environmental business as we are. And the different divisions work together and share a common goal of creating a profitable, interesting place to work. With our GIS department and CEA, our sister company, it all seems to work and mesh in a way that has been more successful than I ever thought it would be. We all help each other. Each division is a business within itself. Each division is expected to turn a profit and to grow. But in the end, each division pitches in and we work as a team on the common goal. I’m really interested to see how the environmental division grows as we continue to be the experts our clients go to for data and maps.

How has the industry evolved over the years? Where do you think it’s headed? What roles will technology and innovation play?

J.B.: It’s still very, very difficult to put the databases together, to clean them up, to process them in such a way that they become a part of a report that is useful to the end user which is the environmental engineering firms and consultants. I don’t know of any way to streamline that process. It seems like everyone’s trying, we’re certainly trying on our end. But the data is everything that it was in the 1990s and the early 2000s. It’s still important. If you don’t have good data with good locations, you’re dead. And I think we do a good job providing the best data that’s out there. There are so many uses of environmental data, and it is still evolving. We have a data application in the oil patch that no one else is even attempting to do. Then there are the banking guys and everyday citizens who at some point will be able to go to a source and pull up their own data for whatever reason they want it. Government uses it for infrastructure and other projects. I see that it’s worth the effort to compile it and put it into a format that is really easy to read and understand.

Connect with J.B. on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.

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