Wyo-Ben marks its 70th anniversary in 2021 and topping the list of what company officials are most proud of during this incredible run is that the bentonite company has remained family-owned and family-managed for the entirety of its existence.
Not all family businesses can tout such a fact.
Today, the Billings, Montana-headquartered company is run by the Brown family’s third generation but also maintains a board of directors, with a majority comprised of outside, independent board members.
“It’s really quite remarkable because it rarely happens,” says Wyo-Ben president and CEO David Brown, grandson of company founder Rockwood Brown Sr.
Brown — who joined the family business full-time in 1978 after he graduated college — credits his grandfather’s vision and leap of faith that bentonite would one day be the key to his family’s future and legacy.
And it was.
“We are continuing to grow and that growth is in the traditional markets to the extent that those markets are growing but there are also new markets,” says Brown. “We’re an innovative company but we also realize that in this kind of business when you are a base materials supplier, you have to be diversified. In our humble beginnings, we were one-market focused and that was oil and gas drilling. It’s really the essence of what we became, not only from the mining and manufacturing standpoint but all of the drilling technologies.”
Today, Wyo-Ben is diversified with interests outside of the oil and gas markets and trenchless markets. That diversification has kept the company strong and steady over the years and will continue to do so. The company currently exports bentonite-based products to all seven continents and credits its research and development as a critical component to keep the innovations coming in the small and competitive field of bentonite.
Key products for the HDD industry include its flagship product Tru-Bore, which was introduced in 1992 and remains its top drilling fluid product. Others include SW101, which is designed specifically for drilling projects in salt water, as well as HYDROGEL for the oil and gas markets and EXTRA HIGH YIELD BENTONITE, used in mineral exploration, water well and HDD operations.
Rockwood Brown Sr., was a lawyer from Vermont who, in 1911, moved to the Billings, Montana, area. In addition to his obligations as an attorney, Brown was also involved in several other business ventures, one of which led to him acquiring a sole proprietorship that included mill property near Greybull, Wyoming, and a few bentonite claims nearby.
Although Brown retained ownership, little was done with the property over the next few decades. By the early 1950s, he decided to hand over the ownership to his children. His sons Keith, Neal and Rockwood Jr., along with his daughter, Barbara, spearheaded the effort to transform the mill and bentonite claims into an operational, money-making business.
In 1951, a partnership consisting of the four children, along with R.E. Dansby – a former Halliburton employee familiar with the bentonite business – legally acquired the mill property at Greybull and the bentonite claims held by the sole proprietorship. The partnership was carried on under the name of Wyo-Ben Products Co.
“Granddad was very, very industrious,” remembers Brown, who himself started working for the family business at a young age. “He was in a lot of businesses in addition to his law practice. He and his friends decided that bentonite, at some point, would be a good play. [In 1951], bentonite was hardly used in anything but in the foundry industry for metal casting.”
And they were right. Today, the number of industries and markets that use bentonite is long and diverse — from HDD and oil and gas to cat litter and wine clarification to the U.S. Mint, which uses Wyo-Ben product to treat the hazardous ink wash on our U.S. paper currency.
The company evolved significantly over the years. Today, Wyo-Ben has three bentonite processing plants in Wyoming and the number of industries that the company services is diverse and vast. That Wyo-Ben is based in Wyoming is no accident as the state is home to an incredibly unique clay material used in bentonite. “It’s only found in Wyoming,” Brown says. “That’s why there are very few of us in this industry.”
In its first year, Wyo-Ben Products processed 15,000 tons of bentonite, which was sold mainly for oil well cementing mud. Over the next several years the business grew steadily, supported by an expanding economy and a rapid increase in the growth of oil well drilling technology. By 1956, the company experienced demand for its product in excess of 50,000 tons per year. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, several of Wyo-Ben’s mills and plant equipment were replaced numerous times to accommodate the continued growth.
By 1978, a 66-in. mill was installed at the company’s Lovell, Wyoming, plant to supplement the Greybull plant output by an additional 150,000 tons per year. With the acquisition of large bentonite reserves located near Thermopolis, Wyoming, and a continued increase in the demand for bentonite by the taconite pelletizing industry, a decision was made to construct a new plant that would provide additional milled production of 300,000 tons annually. Upon completion of that plant in 1980, the total milling capacity for the company reached 650,000 tons per year. That capacity ranked Wyo-Ben as one of the top producers of Wyoming bentonite, also known as sodium bentonite.
In January 1978, the company’s corporate name was changed to Wyo-Ben Inc. Despite challenges experienced throughout the early 1980s due to the downturn of the oil and gas industry, the company has remained competitive and is now one of only five Wyoming bentonite producers. Today, Wyo-Ben has since gained considerable presence in several other markets, namely HDD.
Drilling fluid is commonly touted by HDD contractors as an essential component to the drilling process. In essence, drilling fluid is made up of a mixture of bentonite, water and other additives to achieve a desired level of viscosity.
“The trenchless market is very important to Wyo-Ben and is a large part of our total dollars,” says Wyo-Ben vice president of sales and marketing John Wornom. “Ton-wise, the trenchless technology market makes up about 20 percent of our business. Dollar-wise, it is significant.”
Keys to Success
Critical to the longevity of Wyo-Ben are the company’s employees. Brown and Wornom both attribute the company’s success to the second and third generation employees who continue to work at at the plant. Rockwood Brown Sr.’s son, Rockwood Jr., continues to work for his father’s company and serves as chairman of the board — a nearly 70-year employee!
“The culture of our company from the very beginning was that our employees are family,” David Brown says. “You take care of family. If you take care of your employees, they take care of your customers. And at the end of the day, if you have good customers, they are taking care of shareholders.”
Plans to Celebrate
Wyo-Ben officials plan to mark this milestone anniversary in 2021, celebrating with employees and customers. The ongoing global pandemic has pushed in-person celebrations to the second half of 2021 but Brown promises they will take place.
“A lot depends on how soon we can get out of COVID-19 lockdown,” he says. “We’ve been very fortunate. We took a fairly aggressive posture on the pandemic from the beginning to ensure that our plants would continue to run and they have.”
The company is also putting the finishing touches on The Wyo-Ben Chronicles, a digital look at the company’s rich history. “It’s focused on our employees, shareholders and customers,” Brown describes. “It goes through the very fascinating history of how a company in the base materials business 70 years ago came to be when there was very little use for bentonite and to bring it forward to today where there are so many uses for it. It’s really a compelling story.
The Wyo-Ben Chronicles launches on the Wyo-Ben website in September.