Dairy Farming and the Three-Man Crew
It was his can-do attitude that launched our founder Jerry Libolt into the world of refinery services in 1982. A dairy farmer by trade, he made a reputation for himself with Soil Conservation Services because of his expertise with manure lagoons. Glamorous, right?
“I worked very closely with Soil Conservation Services,” explained Jerry, “and I got a call one day that said, ‘Hey Jerry – there’s a refinery out in Ferndale doing land farming that might need your help.'”
Never one to back down from a challenge, he told them he would come on down and check it out. He started by teaching them how to farm, and it quickly evolved into more work. Jerry and his crew successfully tackled any projects the refineries threw their way, and they became an important presence there. By 1990, he had renamed Western Services to Western Refinery Services, and sold off the other parts of the company in order to concentrate on the refinery work.
“I was a hands-on kind of guy,” Jerry says, “If there was a tank to clean, I’d be the first one in. That was who I was. That was what it took.” It’s one of the reasons that WRS grew the way it did – Jerry and his crew were the epitome of perseverance. “My office was my pickup,” Jerry laughs. He only had three or four employees at the time, and he wrote payroll checks right from his front seat.
“You Bet, We Can Do That”
When Jerry talks about his initial projects, he explains that the refineries were “just looking for someone who was willing to do it.” But as he goes on, it’s clear that he and his (at the time) three-man crew also offered an unmatched level of innovation. He remarks, “They wanted people who were willing to think outside the box for solutions.” So business continued to grow, and so did WRS’s list of services.
Jerry remembers fondly:
“One day they came to us and said, ‘Hey Jerry – do you think you could pave for us?’
And I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know… I’ve never paved before.’ But I said, ‘Heck yeah!’
That was always my attitude. My attitude was always: ‘You bet, we can do that.’
Good People and More Growth
With growth and time came a new set of challenges. WRS needed to hire more people for office work, and the systems needed to be digitized. Jerry recognized the importance of adapting to the times, which had been a hallmark of WRS since the beginning. He says: “I’ve always taken the approach in business that you’ve got to be willing to try. You may not how exactly how you’re going to do it, but then surround yourself with people who can help you with that.”
As WRS grew, fostering positive relationships with employees was always at the forefront. He explains: “Your employees are your company. They represent you every single day, in every job, every place you work. Employees are the most valuable asset a company has.”
By 1992, felt called to bring in more leadership at WRS. Billy VanZanten, who was one of Jerry’s first employees back in 1982, became Jerry’s first official partner. Billy had started at WRS as a truck driver and operator, then worked in the refineries as a site lead.
The 90s brought another key player onto the scene at WRS: Ryan Likkel. Ryan graduated from Lynden Christian in 1990, and took a “two week summer job” at WRS. Well, that two weeks quickly turned into a year. And after a short break to study business and accounting at Davenport University in Michigan, Ryan returned in 1993. From 1993 to 1998 he filled a variety of positions from refinery work to bookkeeping to office management, and then in 1998 he officially bought into the company.
Billy and Ryan Take the Reins
In 2000, Jerry decided to sell his portion of the company and retire. By 2001, Billy and Ryan were sole owners of WRS and filled the positions of CEO and COO, respectively.
In 2003, Ryan’s dad was diagnosed with lung cancer, and Jerry (a long-time friend of Ryan’s dad) offered to come back on board to help out so that Ryan could spend more time with his family. A year later, his dad passed and Ryan moved to more of a half-time role at WRS. When Ryan did return full-time, Jerry expressed that he really enjoyed being back, and they decided that he should stay on to help with the financial side of things so that Ryan could focus on growing the business.
No Stopping Now
Obviously Jerry chose his successors well, because between 2010 and 2020, the company experienced another period of incredible growth. In 2012 WRS had grown to a team of 92, and then by the end of the decade that number had more than doubled to reach over 200 employees.
Jerry served as the full-time CFO from 2010-2017, and then moved to a lighter workload once again. Cody Bormouth joined the team in 2019 as CFO in order to oversee the financial strategy and direction of WRS.
Looking Forward to a Bright Future
Today WRS employs more than 220 people, and offers a wide variety of services: paving, seal-coating, civil construction, concrete construction, technology and design, industrial maintenance, land-leveling scrapers, UAV mapping and inspection, emergency response, demolition and processing, landscaping, and hydro excavation utility location. Who says you can’t do it all, right?
As for Jerry, he continues to emphasize that although he’s now less involved in the day-to-day operations at WRS, he’s still extremely proud of the company and the direction that Billy and Ryan are taking it in. He says: “I’m very happy with how things are going now, with what happened, and with how Billy and Ryan are doing. It’s been a great run… it’s been fun.”