Ken Chickering’s affinity for the oil industry came naturally. “My father, for whom I had a lot of respect, worked for Oilwell Supply. My great grandfather helped start that company in 1862. Three generations of the family worked for the company in Oil City, PA. I didn’t work there, but I started my oilfield roustabout work near Oil City and spent other summers as a roughneck and working for Halliburton.”
Flying into a Career
In 1962, Chickering was a petroleum engineer with Exxon in Mississippi. An avid aviator, he had learned to fly in the Air Force, and once he returned to civilian life, supported his love of flying by buying and selling airplanes on the side. As luck would have it, just about the time that Chickering was ready for a move to Houston, General Valve was looking for a sales engineer. They also had a company airplane, the clincher that lured the promising young man into the valve industry. “They were a pretty small company,” he said, “and they were based in Houston. I didn’t like being a reservoir engineer, chained to a desk. I wanted to be an outside guy. And I was getting married so it was good timing.”
One of General’s biggest customers was Daniel Industries. “They [Daniel] were making big crude oil skids for Saudi Arabia. Those were big jobs, so during that time I started going to Saudi Arabia quite a bit with General. Then Daniel hired me in December of 1976.”
At Daniel Valve, Chickering became involved in the design of a four way valve and an expanding plug valve. “We hired some engineers and together we designed the expanding plug valve and a special four-way valve used in metering oil and gas,” he remembered. “The meters are used a lot in Saudi Arabia when they’re loading a tanker, or when they’re pulling oil off a big U.S. pipeline and putting it into the storage tanks. The meters tell how much gasoline or jet fuel that a company bought that day.”
Early Travel in the Middle East
Chickering reminisced about the early days of traveling to the Middle East. “When I started going to Saudi Arabia in 1972, trying to find a hotel or a motel was difficult. For a while, I’d stay in a company house with a friend who worked for Aramco. But driving conditions were terrible back then. There were a lot of wrecks, and of course security was altogether different than it is these days. You could walk right into the offices.” He chuckled as he recounted, “I was in Dubai when the tallest building was two or three stories. Now look at it!”
The camps for American oil company workers were much like big army bases, said Chickering, who last traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2003. “The employees lived in the camp, where it was much like in the States. Outside the Aramco camp, women couldn’t even drive, but inside they could wear shorts, do pretty well anything they could do at home. There were church services in the gymnasium, that sort of thing.”
In 1977, Daniel Valve bought M&J Valves. “It was in Houston, and so was I, so I became the number two man there,” Chickering said. “I became Executive VP and got heavily involved in sales. I travelled a lot, and got involved in developing a couple new types of gate valves. But most of my activities were in sales. Then I became president of Daniel Valve Company in 1988, and stayed there until I retired in 2004.”
When asked what he considered his biggest professional achievement, Chickering was quick to reply. “Growing Daniel Valve from initially a single product company to a larger company, I would have to say that’s it. Instead of one product line, we made four different products and the company became very profitable.”
Thoughts on the VMA
Chickering was an active member of the Valve Manufacturers Association for many years and devoted much time to it. He is a former Chairman and was also honored as a “Man of the Year”. “I attended many meetings, starting in 1977,” he said. “It was different back then. There were really no women in the association, but the wives came to the annual meetings, and my wife got really involved in re-invigorating the women’s program at the annual VMA meetings. It was probably in the mid 1980s when she started having get-togethers and welcoming teams for the women, trying to make first-time attendees feel welcome.” Nancy Chickering has also been recognized by the VMA several times for her contributions.
When asked if he was going to be attending the 75th Anniversary meeting, Chickering chuckled. “My wife has advised me that we will be there. She made a lot of good friends there, and we’ll be going.”
A VMA Man of the Year and former Chairman, Chickering spent some time talking about the value of the association. “It was really helpful for networking. We shared ideas and learned about things to try or not to try. Sure, we were competitors in many ways, but we just had good discussions, either with fellow members, or speakers. As a trade association,” he said, “the VMA was good about putting out notices if something had come up with the environmental laws, or if we needed government forms or something. That was a lot of the benefit.
“A lot of trade associations, their business segments dwindle or die, or have problems, but the VMA has been a real success story. I think the health of it is due to some of the major companies and smaller companies that supported it. I think the staff has done a good job of watching expenses and going along with the interest and needs of the member companies.”
While he has officially retired, that does not mean that Chickering spends his days rocking on the porch of the family home in Oil City, PA. While he does play a bit of golf, he stays active, involved in charity work and as an advisor and consultant to Chromatic Industries and Western Valve. He is also on the board of directors and spends a fair amount of time at HII Technologies.
Like so many valve industry veterans, Chickering stays up to date with the industry and the VMA, and had this parting advice. “I would definitely encourage people to get involved in the association. Just like anything else, if you put in the effort, you get the rewards, and you really get more out of the VMA if you’re involved, not just a member paying your dues.”