- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 15, 2016

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - Oil can be cruel.

The business can take time, money, just the right amount of knowledge and just the right amount of luck, the Casper Star-Tribune reported (https://bit.ly/1XkUVkZ).

“It’s really easy to go broke,” Reed Merschat said about the industry he’s worked in since the late 2000s. “It’s really easy to have a lot of defeat.”

The defeat and decline of oil in Wyoming has led Merschat here, in the shadow of his old high school, running Survivor AC Dealers in Casper. He’s one of many across the state working to create some financial breathing room during the roller coaster of Wyoming’s boom-and-bust cycle. Some move out of the state to chase energy elsewhere. Others pull up stakes and leave it all behind. And then there’s Merschat, keeping one foot in a flailing industry while trying to build an entirely different business in the downturn’s wake.

He’s gambled on energy, and these days he’s betting on a store with old motorcycles and vintage Pinocchios to help him make it through oil’s collapse.

The new business helps his income, he said. It helps his sanity.

“It’s easy to really get down and depressed in this sort of downturn,” he said. “Every day you go in and you look, the revenue is down and oil prices are down and we have a tough project or two. It’s, you know, hard to keep your head up getting through these situations.”

When he was a kid, Merschat collected ballpoint pens and matchbooks bearing the insignia of Casper establishments that have been closed for years. Long after they were gone, the businesses left pieces of themselves scattered around town.

He was one of three partners to help open Metro Coffee Company in the early 2000s, and also helped fix and flip properties before entering the software development business for managing construction loans. He also helped co-found The Corridor Gallery. He started in energy in 2007 and works with his father, Walter, for an oil and gas exploration and consulting company, Tetrad Resources, and the family company, Merschat Minerals.

Being his own boss was an easy decision for the 40-year-old entrepreneur. But starting another business didn’t mean he would leave oil behind, even during the downturn. Merschat still helps manage Merschat Minerals. He communicates with more than a dozen investors about Tetrad’s projects and wells.

“I don’t think people leave the energy industry with the intent of never coming back,” said Joe McQuade, Tetrad’s chief financial officer. “But I do think the people who are self-starters and successful find a way to channel their energies in a downturn time.”

Both companies work on a project basis, meaning there are fewer personnel costs and overhead. There’s no traditional payroll and no set hours.

“They’re not obligated to spend all their day at the oil company fighting fires,” McQuade said. “You know, they can be gone. Ours is a consulting business and we go out and find deals, we get them done. We do the deal and then it’s over with.”

When it comes to crude oil, state economist Jim Robinson said it appears Wyoming’s prices have reached the bottom. Maybe the worst is over, he said. Given the state’s economic climate, he said the Merschat’s decision to stick with oil while adding another business on the side makes sense. Leaving oil during a bust would make it difficult to come back when the industry is on the upswing.

“It sounds like they’re kind of hedging their bets,” Robinson said. “They think that there’s kind of a long-term optimism to producing in the state, and so they want to try to keep their hands on things as much as they can.”

Sometimes it’s small businesses with no relation to the energy industry that open during a downturn to fill the void, Robinson said. But with mining jobs declining and the price of oil suffering, those small additions often do little to help the economy.

“Whatever new activity you see, it probably pales in comparison to what you lost,” he said.

Hidden in Merschat’s store, among the old typewriters and faded posters, lay mementos of Casper’s past. A book of black and white photos shows Texaco employees in the mid-1950s enjoying life in a Casper far different from the one seen today.

Every once in a while someone will take home a forgotten relic of a dismantled old oil company, maybe a sign, or an aging piece of equipment, that has far outlived the company that paid for it when they were both shiny, young and new.

There are about 16 different vendors at the mall, with everything from vintage comic books to motorcycles and western clothing. Merschat’s parents, Walter and Sharon, have items for sale at Survivor, including antique lighting and an old voting booth that Walter estimates is from the 1930s. He even has a plaster cast of the top of a grizzly bear’s head that used to belong to a local taxidermist. The Merschat patriarch said he’s spent a lifetime in oil and gas, working as an exploration geologist in Illinois, Texas and Wyoming.

“I’ve been through so many booms and busts,” Walter, 70, said. “There’s always an avenue to take your business desire and do something. And when one of them’s a little down, you can go in another direction, but you don’t throw it all away. We’re not just going to dump everything and go to work at McDonald’s.”

It’s not the same kind of adventure, or risk, of hitting it big with oil, but Merschat still finds a thrill in hunting for items and flipping them for a profit in the Oil City.

“It’s similar to drilling a wildcat well, right?” he said. “You don’t know what’s there.”

The clientele here is never quite the same, Walter said. Some are collectors, some are thrifters. Some are young, some are old.

“It probably could be better,” Walter said about the store’s foot traffic. “But anything could be better, right?”

A man recently came by the store and bought a $4 1981 Dean Morgan Junior High yearbook. The store has sold roughly 40 yearbooks since it opened. Nostalgia can be strong in a place where oil brings money and people one year and then empties it the next.

“I think people are always impressed about what was,” Merschat said. “You know, and I think as our culture progresses and goes down the road, we quickly forget about what was.”

Oil brought the Merschats to Wyoming.

And even in a downturn it’s kept them here, committed as ever. For better or worse, they’ll stick with Casper. They’ll stick it out through the downturn. They’ll stick with oil.

“You learn to live with the oil business,” Walter said. “The ups and downs, the boom bust. But there’s something in both of our bloods, the adventure of doing the oil business. We’re still working on wells.”

The antiques mall’s name comes from the idea that the odds and ends in the shop have survived long enough to make it here. And in their own way, the Merschats are survivors as well. Walter looked over to his son as he talked to a customer.

“I haven’t retired,” Walter said, pointing to Reed. “And he’s not about to.”

Casperites have to do more with less during a downturn, something Merschat thinks could help the mall gain a foothold. Why buy new and expensive when you can buy vintage and affordable? He plans to emphasize the mantra that “they don’t make them like they used to.”

“Our market here isn’t as strong as some of the big cities,” Walter said. “But it’s a Casper market.”

Merschat doesn’t know what will happen if and when oil comes back. There are days when the stress of juggling retail and energy businesses causes him to take a breather, leaving Walter to run the shop as he hikes around Wyoming to find a moment of zen and peace. Even those breaks are few and far between.

“Is it a smart time for me to start a business? I don’t know,” Merschat said. “But it was a good time with my schedule to do it.”

If working in antiques is his passion, then working in energy has become his habit. Even when the economy has fallen and the money has slowed, the risk and reward of Wyoming’s energy industry can be too enticing to leave behind for good.

“I’m always going to have some sort of attachment to the business,” Merschat said.

At the front of the store there’s a bowl of matchbooks with the Survivor AC logo printed in deep black lettering. In a place that could double as a museum of all that left Casper, the matches are one of the few things that come close to being new. And if this all fails, there’s a chance they could become relics like the ones Merschat collected when he was a kid. It could be another reminder of a Casper store killed by the bust, another store in the Oil City that’s vanished and been swallowed up by time.

He knows nothing’s a given in the state, the city or the economy.

It’s all a risk.

___

Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com


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