When most people think of Amarillo, images of the Old West come immediately to mind. Intrepid settlers confronting the harshest of conditions, rugged cowboys leading their cattle on long, often treacherous journeys, and determined ranchers protecting their homesteads and families from and number of dangers and threats.

What do they have in common? Grit. The very grit that helped to settle Amarillo and turn it into a thriving center of commerce remains deeply embedded in the DNA of today's Amarilloans. The same grit that helped to settle the West is now building new and thriving businesses.

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Take Sage Oil Vac, which had humble beginnings on farmer Gary Sage's West Texas homestead. It all began with a basic farming necessity: irrigation. In order for their irrigation engines to run smoothly, farmers must change their oil on a regular basis.

This was "a very nasty, arduous job," says Aaron Sage, Gary's son and now CEO of the company, of the oil changes for the 30-or-so irrigation engines spread out across the 15-mile radius of the family farm.

In addition, because there was nowhere else to put it, "We would just take the oil and dump it in the dirt, right in the middle of the field. That's not really cool."

When Aaron came back from college one summer, he saw that "[my dad] had this contraption which he called an 'oil vac'. It literally hooked up to those engines and vacuumed the oil out of them--like a mobile Jiffy Lube--in about half the time." Thus was Sage Oil Vac born.

Soon neighboring farmers started to commission similar machines. Over the next few years, word of mouth helped Sage Oil Vac build a strong regional customer base... all the while still manufacturing the machines on the family farm "out in the middle of nowhere," as Sage puts it. This was no exaggeration as the closest town was Texline, a full 20 miles away.

Realizing the growth potential, Gary Sage relocated the company to Amarillo in 2001, in order to take advantage of the city's strong labor market and immensely supportive business environment. In fact, Sage Oil Vac would become the first tenant of the WT Enterprise Center business incubator

Since then, the company has grown by leaps and bounds. In 2004 the company secured a business partnership to build custom systems for the Army Reserves and, in 2007, Sage created the first wind gearbox oil exchange (GOEX) for wind turbines, completely transforming how oil is changed in the wind turbine industry. The company grew so exponentially that it was recognized in 2014 with the President's "E" Award for national export expansion.

Today, Sage Oil Vac distributes its products around the world, and is one of many Amarillo multi-million dollar success stories.

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This same kind of grit pervades Amarillo-based Altura Engineering & Design (Spanish for "elevation"), which provides engineering and design services, primarily to the oil and gas industry in the Texas panhandle.

Co-founders Jacob Moreno, Chris Lopez and David Salas--who were industry colleagues long before they became business partners--saw an obvious market opportunity when it came to engineering design.

Says Moreno, "The larger companies were all using engineering services from outside the area. So they were coming from the coast down in Houston, maybe Oklahoma... but there was nobody local servicing these refineries."

The trio realized that, with significant budgets at the refineries' disposal, they could provide an extremely cost-effective and equally high quality alternative. "When we did our business plan, we recognized we could save companies about 25 percent just on non-productive travel expense time," says Lopez.

And that's exactly what they did. They created Altura, and essentially financed the business by entering--and subsequently winning--the Amarillo EnterPrize Challenge in 2013.

"When we won, we had no business bank account, we had nothing," Moreno recalls. "So, they handed us a $100,000 dollar check, and it just sat there."

To this day, Moreno can't remember whether the check sat at his house or Salas' as they waited a while before finally opening a business bank account.

The company has come a long way since. Today Altura works with such storied names in energy as Phillips 66, Valero, LINN Energy and Energy Transfer. And the founders credit, in no small part, Amarillo with their company's success.

Says Salas, the firm's managing partner, "What we've found is that there's a big business community in Amarillo that's willing to help you out in all aspects of your business.

"One of our mentors told us, 'Go out and make a mess.' Meaning, go out and find a lot of work, then you'll figure it out," he says.

And make a "mess" Altura certainly has. Initially grossing about $275,000 in 2013, it has grown by about $1M every year, recently ranking #434 on the 2017 Inc 5000 list. While its rapid growth trajectory awes even its founders, they have no plans to stop.

Because winners--like Sage Oil Vac and Altura--keep going. It's just what they do.

While both companies may be in the energy business, each is fueled by grit.

Published on: Nov 15, 2017