REND LAKE COLLEGE – Brad Gesell of Benton will be honored as the 2007 Rend Lake College Foundation Alumnus of the Year when ceremonies of the Foundation’s Annual Dinner are held at 6:30 p.m., Dec. 6, at the Mt. Vernon Holiday Inn.
Gesell, 47, is a member of the RLC Class of 1980 and is a 1978 graduate of Benton High School. The Gesell’s family-owned oil corporation, Gesell’s Pump Sales and Service Inc., based in Whittington has been an economic powerhouse for the area. The path to success started more than 27 years ago.
From humble beginnings in dad’s garage, Gesell and his brother, Mark, propelled the family company into an oil-drilling operation overseeing more than 150 wells in Jefferson, Franklin, Williamson and Hamilton counties.
“Rend Lake College has made a great contribution in my life,” Brad said. “After graduating high school, I felt a need to stay in the area. An important motivator for me was a part-time job. By going to Rend Lake College, I was able to continue my education close to home, hold down my job and keep with the plan of starting our own business.”
He likened the situation to the life of a local farmer who plans to work the family farm while going to school.
“In high school, my brother and I were both actively working after school in the oil fields,” he said. “If I would have gone away to college, I would have lost that. It would have been detrimental to the business we were planning to start.”
With about $5,000 each, Mark and Brad – along with their father, Kenneth, who passed away in 1996 – started Gesell’s Pump Sales and Service in 1980. It was the same year Brad graduated from RLC with an Associate’s Degree in Applied Science.
They started out primarily operating as a service provider, but by the early ‘80s the Gesells began looking into the production side of the Illinois oil industry. In 1986, Gesell’s Pump Sales and Service was incorporated, primarily drilling for oil but still a bona fide service company that offers three service rigs, backhoes, trucks and service personnel. Brad’s sister, Brenda, is also a partner.
The corporation is now heavily into oil production, averaging four new wells per year and ever-growing. In 2006, Gesell’s Pump Sales and Service Inc., achieved a remarkable milestone by being named that year’s Illinois Oil and Gas Association “Wildcatter of the Year.”
“That’s where the Association annually gives one of its members an award for the most significant oil discovery in the state,” Brad explained.
The IOGA is made up of about 600 members through service companies, individual producers, companies and oil corporations, according to Brad, the organization’s current president. Besides getting the attention of fellow oil producers, the award caught the ear – or more importantly the eye – of television producers with the London-based and globally- recognized Discovery Channel.
One hundred hours of oil-drilling footage later, Gesell’s Pump Sales and Service had their 15 minutes of fame. In fact, it was exactly 15 minutes in an hour-long episode of the Discovery Channel’s program “Wildcatters” featuring the Gesells’ business and others from around the U.S.
According to Brad, a loose definition of a wildcatter is a person or company who goes out and drills oil wells located more than a mile away from any known oil production area.
“They were looking for small producers where the owners were hands on,” he said. “Another criterion was that we had to be drilling in February. We were actually drilling wells in February 07. So, they shot teaser tapes and sent them off to London.”
The makers of “Wildcatters” looked for appealing and unique qualities in their subjects that would compel viewers to identify with them. In Gesell’s case, it was his passion for riding.
“They showed me riding one of my Harleys.”
Watching himself and the business being featured on a global television program was nerve-racking, he said.
“I had it all out on the line. They sent a team out to film and I signed a release to have no control over the content. My personal business reputation was on the line, not to mention I was representing Illinois oil. I thought, if this thing turns out poorly, the [IOGA] members are not going to appreciate it. After it was over, I let out a huge sigh of relief. As it turned out, we received a lot of compliments.”
Gesell’s Pump Sales and Service Inc., did not profit one penny from the Discovery Channel visit. The reward, according to Brad, was in the exposure.
“I thought it turned out to be a great way of promoting the oil industry in Illinois,” he said. “We came across really well. I’ve even heard people from other states say, ‘You guys looked really good.’”
Also a former member of the Illinois Petroleum Resources Board of Directors, Gesell’s newest honor will place him in the company of an exclusive group of RLC greats.
Past Alumni of the Year for RLC include Walgreen’s Distribution Center - Mt. Vernon Manager Chris Johnson (2006), Southern Illinois University Carbondale Assistant Professor and Promoter Bill Shields (2005), Federal Correctional Complex Warden Linda Sanders (2004), Freeman Energy V.P. Donald H. Dame (2003), Rose M. Myles (2002), Carl Rowley (2001), Holly McCann (2000), Laird D. Wisely (1999), Mark Michalic (1998), Jonathan Thomas (1997), Tim Wills (1996), Courtney Cox (1995), Flo Dudley (1994), Sen. J. Bradley Burzynski (1993), Cinda Chullen (‘92), Craig Sinclair (‘91), Gloria Sloan-Reel (‘90), Kevin Davis (‘89), Carol Dilley-Jaudes (‘88), Dr. Mary Kay Witges Bengtson (‘87), Dr. Gary R. Sweeten (‘86), Dr. Harl E. Ryder (‘85), Dr. Leslie Johnson (‘84), Robert L. Brown (‘83) and David Junkins (‘82).
As an RLC graduate, Gesell returned to take classes in computer science, business and accounting that would develop his ability as president of the family corporation.
“If you’ have never been in business before, it is a pretty rough road learning the ropes. At RLC, I could take classes and learn from people. The education I gained there made it a lot easier to do business. I could take the accounting and business principles I learned and quickly apply them.
“Rend Lake College gave me the understanding of computers and how they could help our business,” he added. “I saw a need to learn as much as a I could to run the business. Classes in accounting and business gave me a footing and a feeling of ‘Yeah, I can do this!’”
The college also became a resource for personnel. He has hired RLC students in the past and said he will continue to hire them in the future. In one case, he needed someone for the corporation’s finance department. He called the college and was able to fill the position with an RLC alumnae who had transferred to a four-year university and obtained a bachelor’s degree in finance. In another situation, his instructor at RLC was able to connect Gesell with an individual who helped the business set up a computer database for operations.
“Rend Lake College is a tremendous asset to the community,” he said.
The corporation has about 16 employees and focuses on hiring from the local workforce. It is a community asset that makes a positive economic impact on the area. When other drilling operations were plugging wells and selling, the Gesell’s were buying and using their resources to keep the wells going. They adopted many local wells that had fallen on the Illinois Department of Mines and Minerals orphan well list. As oil prices improved, the Gesell’s were able to buy more and eventually drill more.
“We look primarily at Jefferson and Franklin counties,” he said. “When we make this our area of concentration, we can make a darn good living here.”
When asked about his first thought after hearing he was to be honored as Alumnus of the Year, he said, “I was extremely surprised. I thought, ‘Why are they calling me? What have I done to deserve to be Alumnus of the Year?’ I was kind of shocked.”
RLC Foundation CEO Pat Kern said it is a delightful bonus that this year’s recipient is an individual who started out, succeeded and stayed local.
“I think it adds a personal touch when a local resident receives the Alumnus or Alumnae of the Year Award,” she said. “And it is exceptionally memorable when it is someone who can stay in the area and become as successfull as the Gesells have. I think it is really a plus that he has earned all of his accomplishments with an associate’s degree.”
Gesell will receive his award at the 2007 RLC Foundation Annual Dinner, 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 6, at the Mt. Vernon Holiday Inn. The public is always welcomed and encouraged to attend the annual event. Tickets are $30, covering admission and a three-course meal. To reserve, one may call the RLC Foundation at 618-437-5321, Ext. 1214.
Over the years, Brad’s role in the family business has gone from looking over field operations to being the business manager. He has a 23-year-old daughter, Samantha, who lives in Marion and a 13-year-old step-son, Harrison. He lives in Benton with his wife, Susan. While he couldn’t pin down his proudest moment so far in life, he indicated that it may be a long list.
“Here lately, there have been a lot of them,” he said.