If you have a fancy educational background, the tempting thing is to go into a glamorous field, full of smart people with equally good educations. Maybe investment banking, consulting, or a stint with a hedge fund? I tried all that. Because I’m a slow learner, I realized late that there’s got to be a better way. It took me a while to figure out the following: Dirty jobs might be a smarter bet for making money.
What I really wish I could do is invest in my friend Bryant’s business, but I’ll tell you his story as maybe it helps you make money starting or investing in your own business.
Bryant’s Ivy League education initially took him to book publishing in Brooklyn, which – while not as lucrative as other high-status jobs – is definitely full of bright shiny minds. Then a buddy lured him down to the Eagle Ford shale in South Texas in 2007, and he’s been knee deep in the oil field services business ever since.
I took a field trip 30 minutes south of my house where Bryant is currently building a new oil-field services business, called CRU Railcar services.
He and his boss got inspired because they move sand into the oil field in South Texas via rail, and they found existing services to periodically clean their train cars expensive, slow, and unreliable.
Here’s some background on cleaning railcars: Railcars that move the products of the oil and gas business have to be cleaned before being used for carrying anything else and/or before being put into storage. If the railcar previously hauled diesel but will convert to move heavy sour crude in the future, then a professional cleaner has to completely scour the inside of the car. If the car moved propane before but will be retired into a rail yard for storage, the whole thing has to be cleaned as well.
This is a dirty job. It’s also dangerous, scary, and complicated.
During our visit, Bryant and his team of five other roughnecks all wear the company uniform: The left-pocket nametags stitched on nylon with reflective safety stripes give them a look somewhere between an Astros throwback jerseys and a bowling team. It’s the kind of thing his book-publishing hipsters buddies might wear in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but for them in a totally ironic way. There’s no irony to Bryant’s pret-a-porter style. This job kills.
Two cleaners in Illinois died after succumbing to fumes in 2014, while another two in Nebraska were blown up in 2015. Materials left inside the cars are highly explosive. Two brothers in San Antonio died in June this past year after inhaling fumes inside a tank car they were cleaning.
A Houston Chronicle investigative report in 2014 found the tank cleaning business highly risky, with the main regulatory agency OSHA unable to keep track of cleaning companies or their safety standards.
In reading reports of accidents on the job, a haphazard approach to risk appears common.
Bryant’s attention to detail when it comes to risk, by contrast, impressed the heck out of me.
Bryant walked me through the process he’s created for cleaning fuel cars.
First, they assume the air inside a fuel car is totally incompatible with human life. All cleaners breathe only from oxygen tanks, like scuba divers under water. As a backup, they carry 5-minute emergency tanks in the event of a failure. A spotter stands over a hole in the top of the train car at all times, watching for any signs of trouble. The spotter stands next to a crane for lifting an unconscious body, while an electronic monitor for air toxicity runs at all times. In addition to the spotter, a rescue person stands by, with his own oxygen supply at the ready, in case of trouble. That covers the air problem.
Then there’s the explosion problem. To hack at dried petroleum that might cake the fuel tank floor, the cleaners use a spark-proof shovel. Shovels are just one method.
Train cars arrive in a wide variety of dirty states, having carried any number of oil and gas products. In tests, Bryant’s team has found that only trial-and-error can determine what cleans the cars best. Sometimes a splash of diesel loosens up the gunk. Sometimes a high-pressure water hose that would cut your limbs off works best. Sometimes, he reports, the simple household cleaner Dawn is magically effective.
Seek dirty jobs
Thomas Stanley, author of bestselling personal-finance book The Millionaire Next Door urged “dirty jobs” for successful entrepreneurs. Stanley tells the story of junk-yard owner Richard with his $700,000 annual income and $10 million net worth as the quintessential model to follow. Seek businesses with that might have little to no competition, Stanley urges, because they lack the prestige that attracts the brightest minds.
Many things will determine the success of failure of your new business venture: The cost of materials, your ability to make the big sale at the right time, the difficulty of finding investment capital, your skill in hiring and retaining key people, and of course the sign of the zodiac under which you were born.
But one of the things that could save you – as you screw up everything early in your business venture – is the quality of your competition. In a sense this is just another restatement of the old “bear and the two hunters” joke. You don’t necessarily have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun your competition. If you can choose a field where the competition is thin, you’ve got a good chance of thriving.
Bryant’s railcar cleaning business is dirty, dangerous, claustrophobic, and complicated. I would not do it for anything in the world. I also have a hunch they’re going to clean up on the competition and make a lot of money.
A version of this ran in the San Antonio Express News and the Houston Chronicle.
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