Barry Smith opened the doors of Baron Oilfield Supply in Grande Prairie in 1986 on the strength of a handshake and a bet on the region’s economic prospects. It was only the second job for young Smith who had fortuitously met Al Side, a local businessman and investor. Side, whose impact on Grande Prairie cannot be overstated, saw promise in Smith and his partner, Randy Tolley, and took a chance on their two-man operation. The rest is history.
Today – 37 years later – Baron is a staple of the Grande Prairie community. With roughly 100 employees in 12 locations (a head office, branch offices and distribution centres) across Alberta and northern B.C., Smith has led the company since inception through exponential growth, always guided by a philosophy centred around people, service and quality.
“Family is very important to me,” Smith reflects. “At Baron we are like a family. It’s what keeps us grounded.”
And despite being in a very competitive business market, which suffers the busts and enjoys the booms of Alberta’s oil and gas industry, Baron has played on its many strengths to attain great success.
“Fortunately for us we are in Grande Prairie, one of the busiest centres in Alberta and in the heart of oil and gas country, and we’re very well known locally,” notes Smith. “We’ve been able to manage through tougher times, like product shortages, by locating and buying product in advance. We’ve ensured our products are safe and always relevant for our customers. We were one of the first companies to implement an ISO program for quality assurance 25 years ago.”
Baron works directly with manufacturers from all over the world, but predominantly in North America, to procure high-quality products at the best prices. It sells fittings, valves, lubricants, industrial products, pipe, production equipment and testing equipment.
Fundamentally though, Baron’s advantage comes down to its people. “Most of them have been trained from the ground up,” Smith notes. “They’ve come through with the growth of the company. We have 25-, 30- and 35-year employees. Our people component – our knowledge – is our strength.”
He notes you can’t get a ticket in oilfield supply, so Baron employees learn by experience: “That’s what makes us different. We have an assistant manager at one of our branches who came to us right out of high school, through the work experience program. He’s been here 12 years now.”
And because there is no trade program in the oilfield supply business, finding people can be a challenge. “Most of our stores are open from 6:00 to 6:00 for 37 years [a short exception during COVID when operating hours were from 6:00 to 5:30],” Smith explains. “The labour market is so demanding right now. So we try to find good people and grow them from within.”
Baron’s partners, too, are key: “We trust our logistics team, our freight partners, the trucking companies we rely on. You build a team in all different aspects, be it your suppliers, your truckers, the oil companies, and they become part of your team.”
Originally from Brooks, Alberta, Smith grew up in in a hardworking trucking and farming family. A work ethos drove him to land his first job at Chaparral right out of high school. He moved to Grande Prairie with the company a year and a half later. “I finished high school on a Friday and I went to work on Monday at a Chaparral supply store,” he says. “I learned from the ground up.”
He spent 10 years at Chaparral where he met Tolley. When their employer went into receivership during the early 1980s oil downturn, the two young men went looking for new employment. Side hired them at his company Northern Metallic, and the infamous handshake occurred. (Tolley left Baron a few years in.)
“I’ve been in the industry for 45 years and this is just my second job in all those years,” Smith muses. “Ultimately because we are part of the Side Group of Companies, we have strong stability in the community. Thank you to Al and the family for giving us the opportunity to be who we are and how we do our business.”
Side remained involved in Baron for many years, well into his 80s, forging Baron’s ‘Freedom 85’ plan. He passed away last October at 90 years of age.
Reticent to admit it, Smith’s leadership has been key to Baron’s success. “Because I have been involved in all facets of the supply industry for 45 years, I understand each and every role that our team has,” he says. “So being compassionate, understanding and a teacher all the time gives me an opportunity to interact with the staff and with our team. And it’s not our staff, it’s our family.”
Smith and business partners Linda and Rhonda Side credits their experience at the ‘School of Hard Knocks’ or, the ‘University of Al,’ as Smith calls it, for giving them invaluable practical and hands-on experience. This provides Smith with a better understanding of how to communicate with the younger staff.
Compassion and understanding are essential: “You have to understand what people – customers and staff – are doing and why they’re doing it. After 45 years in the industry, my grey hair is starting to pay off.”
Baron’s commitment to the community, particularly its younger members, is something it expects no accolades for, but deserves. The company is involved with many different initiatives, specifically those that benefit children. “As part of the Side Group of Companies we participate in the Grade Three Reading University,” Smith explains. “This is something my business partners created years ago to help with grade three literacy. That learning helps you throughout your whole career.”
“We need to give the younger generation opportunities to learn and be involved in the community,” he continues. “One focus is on sports because we like to hire sports-minded people, they know how to work in a team. So we work with the younger generation to progress and grow and give back to the community.”
A family-man with nine grandchildren of his own, Smith is always happy to support those who are willing to ask for it, and has supported several with their rodeo and horse riding endeavours.
Indeed, the Side Family has a long history of supporting horses and chuckwagons. “My wife and I had a lot of interaction with the Calgary Stampede and the chuckwagon races for 10 years,” he reminisces. “And there again, it is so family connected. It’s about looking after each other and after families.”
Smith is proud of the industry he’s a part of. “We don’t get enough recognition for the great things we’re doing here,” he laments. “We are very conscientious of the world and our environment, and as Canadians, we wish to help the world be better.”
The industry is always up for the challenge, provided it receives some base-level support from our governments. “I’ve been around when the price of oil was $10, when it was $110, and when it was zero,” he notes. “But if we don’t invest in our industry we won’t survive.”
Smith is likewise proud of his home city. “Grande Prairie is an amazing city, a growing city,” he remarks. “I came here when there were 17,000 people, and now we’ve got 80,000. It’s a fast, vibrant city. We’ve got all the things that everybody wants.”
Baron will continue to grow, based in Grande Prairie, particularly in its ability to offer new technologies and materials to the industry. “We’re growing for the future,” Smith says. “I’m not going anywhere soon. The company is strong, it’s well known and well positioned. We’ll continue to update our expertise.”
“Al’s gone,” he concedes, “but the Side family is amazing. What grounds us is the family and the opportunity to work with all the business units.”
As Grande Prairie has grown and changed over the past 37 years, so too has Baron. Today it is larger, more well-known, and has a greater impact on the community than ever before. Yet it has remained true to its values since the beginning. Committed to its people, service and quality, Baron is a jewel in Grande Prairie’s crown.