From 1958 to Present

Continental Laboratories has come a long way since its humble beginnings as a bare-bones operation in 1958. Today, Continental celebrates its 48th anniversary as a supplier of mud logging services. That's just one reason for the multi-faceted Calgary company to celebrate, however. The anniversary comes at a time, with the economic upswing in the petroleum industry in Canada, when business can best be described with one word: robust.

The road to success was not always so easily traveled. Continental Laboratories survived a wild roller-coaster ride during the oilpatch bust in the early 1980s that saw an empire of six international offices--active in locations at opposite ends of the continent--fragment and spin-off into separate businesses. The newly-orphaned Calgary research and development outpost was snapped up by a high-tech electronics company in what can best be described as a bad fit. Ultimately, the new owner wasn't prepared to wait out the economic downturn to reap the rewards of its investment. So when Continental was put back on the block in 1985, a core group of the company's senior management leapt at the opportunity to buy Continental outright. What was once an isolated international outpost was now a 100% Canadian-owned private company.

It was a fortuitous development, for both the new owners and the oilpatch. Since 1985, Continental Laboratories has grown from employing just three geologists to 30; altogether, it employs 56 specialists in jobs ranging from hydrocarbon logging analysis to programming to sales. It owns outright its headquarters, a spacious 5,500 square-foot building near the Calgary airport.

Continental Laboratories chairman James (Sandy) Pennington attributes the company's financial muscle to many factors, but says most of the credit must go to Richard F. Mercer, who managed the company from 1962 to 1983. Considered a pioneer in the industry, the John Hopkins University-educated Mr. Mercer is credited with bringing the mud-logging hydrocarbon industry into the mainstream and extending that professional credibility to Continental Laboratories. "He really pulled Continental up by the bootstraps and got it going," acknowledges Mr. Pennington. "He was a real driving force and, of course, I worked with him right and left all through the company."

It is fair to say Mr.Pennington, a fourth-generation Albertan and the first Canadian ever hired by Continental Laboratories, shares Mr. Mercer's dedication and vision for the company. He continues to use the ultra-conservative style of his predecessor to successfully steer Continental and its wholly-owned subsidiary, CL Consultants Limited, through the oft-stormy developments in the petroleum industry. Such cautious management has kept Continental Laboratories and its core offerings--mud logging services, complete well site geology services and equipment manufacturing--solvent through the years while its main competitor has gone bankrupt four times. While Mr. Pennington admits this conservative attitude may have cost the company some opportunities, he says it is a risk Continental was willing to take. "The industry is very unforgiving," he says. "You can do 100 jobs well, but make one mistake and the whole patch knows about it."

Still, that doesn't mean Continental Laboratories shies away from innovation. Quite the opposite. The company helped revolutionize the oilpatch by creating the MP 2100, one of the first-ever computer based portable gas detectors. Improvements over time have resulted in the development of the MP 2300 and the latest MP 2500, a remote analytical unit which employs radio transmissions of the results to the geologist's working quarters.

Continental is also an industry leader in the creation of in-house interpretive software programs. Its Geo-Print and Geo-Print M software incorporates data produced by the instrumentation, and generates the strip logs and hydrocarbon logs. Well-site geologists are now able to upload accurate data from the field to the office in a matter of minutes. The company is considered a premier training ground for the mud-logging industry. In addition to designing and manufacturing all its own instrumentation and owning valuable industry resources like a mud-log library with over 3,500 records, Continental provides free industry seminars annually while CL Consultants offers up-to-the-minute training for short-term or extended contracts.

Moreover, Continental Laboratories is the only mud-logging company in Canada which offers a highly specialized well review. Once the well is finished, two of Continental¹s leading experts, president   Alex Finnie and senior technical representative Deno Adams, conduct a complete review of the data and present a detailed log to the client. "We have two of the best experts in the industry here in our office," says Mr. Pennington. "It is a service that I know our competition can't match. This is what makes us number one in Canada."

Still, providing outstanding services does not mean much without the proper support, and Continental Laboratories excels in customer service. The company prides itself on its ability to do any job no matter the time of day, even those last-minute jobs which inevitably drift in late on Friday afternoons. All employees, including Mr. Pennington and Mr. Finnie, are on call on rotating weekends. And they deliver. On one recent Saturday, the company encountered difficulties trying to fly some much-needed equipment to a client in the United States. Mr. Pennington rented a truck and drove the equipment across the border himself. "Titles don't mean anything here". "We all do anything, anytime for a customer" Indeed, Mr. Pennington says going above and beyond the call of duty is what has earned Continental Laboratories such a favourable reputation within the industry. "You need three things in order to run a successful company: good people, enthusiastic people and a common mandate," he says. "Our mandate is to give service."

Ask employees at Continental Laboratories what makes them go the extra mile for their customers and they will tell you the company's relaxed and respectful management style has a lot to do with it. There is no common company head at Continental Laboratories, nor is the company run with a presidency-down-to-the-employees attitude. Everyone is encouraged to take an active part in the company by regularly submitting suggestions for ways to improve the services provided by Continental and its subsidiaries. Mr. Finnie says this equal-responsibility approach has fostered a positively charged and enthusiastic work environment which is second to none. "Yes, we have offices and there certainly are doors, but you rarely find them closed," he says.

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Continental's people share the company's vision. Mr. Pennington has been with the company for 40 years, Mr. Finnie for 33 years. Most of the support staff are in their 14th year or beyond.

There is even a field hand with 29 years with the company. The result is an incredibly stable operation. "I think the best indication of our stability occurred when the oilpatch was tightening up". "We had about half-a-dozen customers come to us looking for jobs." Mr. Finnie notes having such a dedicated staff is a true rarity these days, especially in an industry subject to so many swings. "I really wish I could outline the recipe for it," he says. "But honesty and fairness are two words I think I would attribute to each and every employee here."

The value of stability guides the company's corporate philosophy as well. Though the company was active in Costa Rica, West Africa, Scotland and Australia prior to 1985, Continental has resisted the lure of going it alone in the lucrative but often volatile international markets, preferring to take low-risk jobs in a piggyback arrangement with credible operators known to the company. Still, Mr. Finnie hardly considers such a conservative approach a detriment to the company. "When you have survived things like the downturn in the oilpatch, you get rather guarded about where you direct your money," he confesses. "Going international requires a significant amount of funds. We've enjoyed a number-one status in our industry with our clientele, even through the downturns, because we avoided these capital-intensive commitments."

Mr. Finnie is equally guarded about disclosing the privately-held company's financial volumes, and all Mr. Pennington will admit to is that the past five years have been "exceptional."   Such modesty is simply a reflection of the company's corporate image: Continental is a company which prefers a low-key approach to making a show of its success like some sort of strutting peacock. "We're not a glitzy oilfield company," he says. Even our trucks are low-key. They are white and our logo is about four-inches high by eight-inches long on the door." The measured success and earned respect has helped Continental Laboratories come full circle in its 48th year. The company undertook   organized expansion by purchasing a controlling interest in NorAm Wellsite Drilling Services of Billings, Montana. Like Continental, NorAm was an outpost of the international empire which splintered in the early 80s. Mr. Pennington says the operation will offer the same high-quality products and services offered by Continental to those Calgary companies with drilling prospects in the U.S. With modern technology, our well site geologists can transfer data from a well in Utah and print the logs and take them to a company in downtown Calgary in a matter of minutes," says Mr. Pennington. "This is just another way to satisfy our Canadian customers."


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