How Did We Get Here?

Cactus Drilling is the largest privately-held domestic land drilling contractor in the United States. Customers expect premium equipment and results-driven success. We are safe. We protect the environment. Our employees are competent, dependable and experienced. If you’re going to read a story about the origins of Cactus, the biggest question to ask is, “How did we get here?”

There’s only one logical source who can answer this question from a historical point of view. And his name is Jim Willis.

We caught up with Jim at his farm in Ketchum, OK. He stares out of the windows in the back of his house overlooking Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees and transports back in time over a span of more than four decades. If you want to discover the real history of Cactus Drilling, you have to start with the biography of the man who started it all.

The Story of Jim Willis
Jim grew up in Auxvasse, Missouri where he graduated from a small public school in Mexico, Missouri just north of his tiny town. He studied at the University of Missouri, majoring in chemical engineering, until an accident at the end of his second year caused him to be hospitalized. Discouraged, he quit school. After driving a semi-truck four years, he finally went back to school, majoring in accounting this time.

While attending school, Jim drove a semi 12 hours per night, three nights a week to support his growing family. When he was recruited by the accounting firm Arthur Young (now Ernst & Young) he couldn’t turn them down.

“Arthur Young came after me several times,” Jim said. “I finally decided to go to work for them on one condition. They had to move my family from Missouri to Oklahoma. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to move. My stuff was in storage and I could not pay for the storage bill. They agreed, making me promise I would keep it a secret. That’s how I ended up in Tulsa in early 1965.”

Jim worked as an auditor before being promoted to management consultant at Arthur Young for several years. In 1970, a co-worker mentioned that a man named Robert Hefner in Oklahoma City was looking for a financial officer. Assuming the co-worker needed help giving advice on recruiting, Jim went with him.

“One day I got a call from Hefner asking me to come over and talk about the job,” Jim said. “I thought he wanted to clarify what he wanted. Instead, he offered me the job. I was on the fast track at Arthur Young and not interested.”

Jim quickly became interested when Hefner asked what it would take to get him to leave?

“I told him I wanted $30,000 per year and a car. He called his partner and I was hired. I worked for The GHK Company for seven years fighting creditors. It was stressful.”

Hefner was an explorationist and tried using seismic to find “bright spots” he wanted to drill. After an initial success, Hefner proposed four more wells for which there were no funds available to drill. Tired of not having any money and sick of hassling with creditors, Jim quit on the spot.

“Along the way, one of George Kaiser’s lieutenants had approached me to work for their small oil company,” Jim recalled. “I met with them, closed the deal and celebrated with Kaiser at lunch. We ate at McDonald’s.”

According to Jim, he basically did whatever Kaiser told him to do, since he didn’t have specific duties.

“I went to work for Kaiser-Francis in 1977,” Jim said. “I didn’t have an office. I shared a small conference room with a secretary, an auditor and part-time help. We had one phone and no filing cabinet. You just stuck your stuff
in a corner.”JIM WILLIS

The Story of Cactus
Over the years at Kaiser-Francis Jim helped acquire oil and gas properties. In 1981 they bought a drilling company named Pilgrim, which included two rigs. These were the boom years and it didn’t make sense to run just two rigs. So the company bought two new large SCR rigs.

“We got our new rigs in place just in time for the bust in 1982,” said Jim. “Pilgrim #3 (an Ideco 2100E) cost us $6 million to build. Companies started going out of business so we started buying. We purchased another Ideco 2100E for $1 million. We thought we had hit a home run! We were completely wrong. To give you some perspective, we bought a bigger, better Ideco 2100E that had only drilled one well in 1986 for $240,000. That was the bottom.”

In 1989 Kaiser purchased Cactus Drilling. The 20-rig company was dormant at the time and it remained dormant. In the meantime, Jim was also buying and acquiring lots of equipment for cents on the dollar and trying to sell the equipment at a profit.

A decade later, Kaiser decided to quit selling equipment and start refurbishing rigs to operate as a drilling company.

Cactus seemed like a good name for a drilling company,” Jim said. “They had been around forever, so I knew that was positive. I was an accountant and didn’t know anything about rigging up so I learned everything I could by osmosis. I studied composite catalogs and other reference material. And most importantly, I hired a guy named Ron Tyson.”

Needless to say, Ron Tyson turned out to be a great fit.

“I knew Ron was capable,” said Jim. “What I didn’t realize at the time was that Ron is exceptionally good with people. Although good drilling rigs are important, Ron correctly pointed out to me that we are in the business of managing people who happen to run drilling rigs. That’s a good philosophy. And it’s the truth. It has made Cactus run successfully for years.”

Jim is 76-years-old. He “retired” three years ago, but still consults for the company.

“I feel like Cactus is mine,” he explained. “We’ve had our ups and downs but this is a cyclical business. Business is not going to be great forever. Everyone knows that. But it’s funny how people forget it along the way. I’m really proud of what we have accomplished, but I’m more proud of the exceptional people at Cactus who have made this their career. It’s not about the iron. It’s about the people.”RON TYSON & JIM WILLIS