Ken Pelt has been around the oil-and-gas business in Texas long enough to know that sharp swings from boom times to bust are par for the course. But even Pelt, 43, CEO of Petroleum Well Services Inc. (#127), in Sour Lake, Tex. (near Beaumont), an oil-and-gas service company specializing in consulting work, lease maintenance (repairs, new-well hook-ups, etc.), vacuum servicing, and tool rental, says he was surprised by the suddenness with which the bottom fell out of the industry in the early 1980s.

"There were plenty of signals out there," he admits, "like too many new fish in the pond and too much funny money [i.e., non-oil money] coming in hoping to finance new equipment. When the highs got too high, some of us got cautious and a whole lot more got burned."

PWS was not immune to the heat. Pelt concedes the recession "knocked a big hole in our profits" and forced him to take his last order on a new rig in February of '81. The rig arrived 13 months later, just as the roller coaster began plunging in earnest. So how is it that he has managed to keep his company on reasonably level ground?

Two reasons, he says. First, PWS was well established enough to hold the confidence of its long-term customers, which helped when companies began to get much choosier about whom they gave their service business to. Second, he had judiciously resisted the temptation to beef up his staff during the good times of the late '70s.

"I've seen that happen again and again," Pelt says. "The problem is, it gets so tough to trim the fat later on when it comes down to cutting people you've already put on the payroll."

Most of his business is now in the Gulf Coast area, but he hopes to branch out into east Texas and southern Louisiana as well. Other possibilities? "I think we'll stick with the more-established drilling sites and leave the frontier areas alone," he says. "They're better left to the people who are looking for excitement."