Martha Deller Special to the Business Press
Six and a half years ago, Carol Van Zandt Jones was a self-described “stay-at-home mom” who had held a paid job only briefly after graduating from Texas Christian University in 1983. Now she runs a business that has more than a hundred employees and recently has expanded from one small office into a second space. Jones’ saga began when a divorce sent her back to work. The mother of two teens landed a job with an Arlington firm that rented construction equipment to businesses and municipalities. Two years later, she took a job with one of her oil and gas customers. When the local energy industry “took a nose dive,” Jones’ employer closed down its Barnett Shale operations in the fall of 2010.
Urged on by other former customers, Jones immediately seized the opportunity to start her own business. “This was a definitely a huge turning point in my life,” she said. “All my adult life, I have prayed to God for a billboard. I said, ‘If you want me to do something, I’m too stupid to get little cues in my life. I need big billboards.’ “When I was laid off, all my skills were in one industry. My customers were telling me, ‘If you build these things, I’ll buy them. I need them.’ If that is not a message from God, I don’t know what is.” Jones used a company started with her husband in 2003 to spin off her new business, VZEnvironmental. She said the “doing business as” designation better fit her new focus on renting equipment to contain liquid spills at oil and gas drilling sites. Working from her Berkeley home, Jones initially shared 20 laid-off workers with a former colleague who had a new firm of his own. Scarcely three years later, the company has 105 workers and more than 50 customers in three states. The short saga started, Jones said, with a request from one former customer to supply containment equipment for his move to a new oil and gas field in Pennsylvania.
She took her idea to Mark Matson, a fellow Trinity Valley School football parent who had experience with the oil and gas industry through his own business, ACF Tarp & Awning. Together, Jones and Matson designed VMatz, a foam-walled mat to contain chemical, gas, oil and even water spills until leaks can be spotted, cleaned up and repaired at drill sites.
Matson patented the new product and manufactures it exclusively for VZEnvironmental. Although Jones’ first customer purchased his equipment, she now focuses her business mostly on equipment rental and service based on input from her Barnett Shale customers who preferred that option to buying. Jones credits her “mommy organizational skills” for her color coding concept that makes VMatz and future products “easy to store, easy to transport, easy to use, easy to clean,” and perhaps, most important to her environmental mission, reusable. VSoxz, the firm’s second patented product, was designed in response to a request from another customer to adapt a “dust sock” used by the cement industry to contain dust.
Pressured by government officials to reduce dust in densely populated Barnett Shale fracking sites, the customer asked Jones to adapt the cement sock to allow better air flow. Glen Pitts, a former employer of the Barnett Shale customer, was pleased with Jones’ efforts and the results. “She’s pretty sharp,” he said. “She kept redesigning it until it got better. It cut down the dust by 90 percent.” VZEnvironmental also offers other products, including an above-ground fracking pond, but focuses on its two patented products, she said. Pitts now uses the VZEnvironmental products in his new job as logistics coordinator at the Mission Well Services’ Eagle Ford Shale operation near San Antonio. As activity declined in the Barnett Shale, many firms moved to south and west Texas, prompting Jones to open facilities near San Antonio and Midland as well as Altus, Okla. Matson credits Jones’ entrepreneurial spirit, dauntless determination and outgoing personality with turning a germ of an idea into a moneymaker – for him and for her.
“Carol made a choice to put herself back in the job market or take a chance,” he said. “She had a son in college and a daughter in private school. She literally started with nothing. “Here’s this former stay-at-home mom running around in a minivan with a pink hard hat selling containments to burly oil-field workers. “She had to be either smart or crazy, but it worked.”
Jones, in turn, attributes her success to a cast of characters that includes members of her family and a colleague who would become her fiancée. Her entrepreneurial mentors include her father, Frank Van Zandt, who founded Van Vending and invented toys; and her mother, Louella Van Zandt, a former teacher who, at 85, still runs the business she took over after her husband died in 1976. “There’s something about being around that kind of mindset,” Jones said. “You’re not afraid to try something new. Who knows? Something could really be better.”
Jones also shares credit with Matson; her brother, Paul, who manages the service technicians; and her fiancée, Guy Yocham, the former colleague who taught her most of what she knows about the oil and gas business. Yocham founded Hat Creek Services, now headquartered in south Texas, about the same time that Jones founded VZEnvironmental. Jones’ son, Curtis, a 23-year-old Trinity University graduate, also works with her. Jones’ 19-year-old daughter, Anna Elizabeth, is an incoming sophomore at the University of Alabama, where she is majoring in economics and international relations. She isn’t sure whether her daughter will join the firm, but Jones hopes she can be a role model for Anna and other young women, just as her family’s “long line of strong women” has been for her.
“I always thought I had a really good story for young women, especially when you find yourself in the situation of being laid off,” she said. Jones said she has been too busy running her growing business to share her story with many people except other gas and oil industry employees at Texas Desk and Derricks chapters. When she retires, Jones muses, maybe she’ll have time to speak to more young women and work in her church nursery. Until then, her message is, “Keep your eyes open for opportunities. If you have the will to survive and think outside the box, you have the ability to start a small company and employ 105 people in three years.”