Oct. 05--The way John Holdridge tells it, Odessa Babbitt Bearing got its start when someone made him mad.
It was 1962. He worked as a machinist. His boss one day reminded all the employees to vote Republican and ride with him to the polls. Holdridge -- in those days an FDR-era Democrat loyal to his dad's post-Depression ideals -- refused.
So they argued, and then Holdridge quit.
But "in those you didn't stay unemployed but a couple weeks," Holdridge says now, and so he went starting out for himself. A friend named Tiny Erp from Crane called upon Holdridge for some engine work.
Holdridge worked through Thanksgiving weekend before he finished, plus a few days on either side of that. When it came time to invoice Erp, Holdridge remembers that he was stumped: $5 an hour sounded good, about $650 for the job.
Erp told him he'd normally pay $5,000 and offered to split the difference.
"He said 'If you're gonna be in business for yourself, you're gonna have to learn how to charge,'" Holdridge laughed in a recent interview.
Apparently he did.
He was 24 years old then. In a year, he'd incorporate his business, which he ran out of a garage. In three years, he'd earned his first million.
Bearings, used in large engines like gas compressors, were a specialty of his. Babbitt is a soft alloy inside the bearing, which is ideal for internal combustion engines because it acts as a sort of lubricant. Odessa Babbitt Bearing sounded right.
Now, the company sells bearings throughout the country. It's facility at 6112 N. West County Road, has several shops and 55 or so employees. There are the smaller bearings for hydraulic fracturing equipment that sold individually cost about $450. Then there are the giant bearings for cement crushers or ships that can run into the thousands.
The expansions delved into more and more of the bearing process, including a foundry now for example, which helped Odessa Babbitt tighten up its expenses.
Holdridge talks with pride about building up his company: how he never went into bankruptcy like so many of his oilfield friends over this years, how he never had to lay somebody off because business slowed down or for that matter, had to cut anybody to less than a full week.
"Once you go into business for yourself," Holdridge said in a recent interview. "You never want to go back to working for anybody."
In fact, you want to hold on to it, Holdridge said. But next year, he says, he'll sell it to his son Ray Holdridge and to Greg Masters, who've been running the company for about 20 years as CEO and general manager, respectively.
The talk now is for a price tag at a fraction of the company's value because John Holdridge said he wants the business to stay in the family.
Many employees have been there for decades plus, like Roy Scribner, who was spotted working a lathe on a recent tour of the facility. Scribner's in his 37th year, Masters said. The jobs are different, using computer numerical machines to shape the bearings, which require fewer people (But still no lay-offs. Masters said they simply reduced personnel by leaving vacant spots vacant through the years).
On this recent day, there are two carts stacked with smaller bearings headed for the Gardner Denver Well Servicing Pumps. There, they bearings will become part of stimulators and fracking pumps, that shoot the water and sand into an oil well, said Jacob Rupp, a sustaining engineering manager with Gardner Denver.
"They are definitely a very key part of our pumps," Rupp said. "They won't work without them."
If they get Odessa Babbitt, Masters and Ray Holdridge say that in the long-term, they'll start seeking more work for government projects and electric plants. The Babbitt machine business is in a slow-decline, they say, as technology advances. But for now, the diverse customer base ensures that the "cash cow" John Holdridge described remains, and it's unfettered from the ups and downs of oil and natural gas.
"It's still a real vibrant business," said Ray Holdridge, 54.
Over the years, Holdridge branched out into a number of business ventures around Odessa. He started Western National Bank in the mid-1970s, for example, which he'd wind up selling a few years later. He also developed real estate, which he still does.
All this made him wealthy, able to buy ranches and farms and hundreds of head of cattle. He developed condos in the Caribbean, then hold comfortably onto the land when Hurricane Hugo wiped them out. He has travaled all over the world, including several big-game hunting trips in Africa.
Now, Holdridge works from an office outside Odessa Babbitt, managing his assets, which include a residential development in east Odessa. In that office, on Kermit Highway and Brazos Avenue, there are two giant elephant tusks. There are five pictures on the wall -- of Holdridge with the "Big Five": a lion, leopard, cape buffalo, rhinocerous and elephant. All of them he killed after he turned 70.
"I've lived an interesting life," he said. "It's been an interesting 75 years."
In this office, he's also planning a big party for Oct. 19 to celebrate Babbitt's 50th anniversary, which happens to coincide with his 75th birthday.
"Ain't that many businesses that have been around under one owner for 50 years that I know of," Holdridge said. "Fifty years has been a pretty good accomplishment."
Contact Corey Paul on Twitter @OAcrime on Facebook at OA Corey Paul or call 432-333-7768.