In a time when businesses can shutter within six months of opening, an El Campo company will celebrate 40 years in operation later this month.
Mark’s Machine Company, Inc. has not only endured the lean periods within the oil and gas industry, but founder/president Mark Pratka and his sons Brent and Kurt, with ingenuity and hard work, have diversified the company manufacturing while selling various products throughout the United States and abroad.
The 53,300 square-foot main facility, once a Coors Lite distribution center, sits on a 12-acre site in an El Campo industrial park with another 35,000 square foot indoor storage facility that sits just blocks away.
Mark’s 90 employees keep different businesses going working on oil field equipment to custom truck and UTV parts that appear on personal to law enforcement to military vehicles. The main business remains Mark’s Machine Company, but Brent, the eldest son, and Kurt also run Tough Country with its line of heavy-duty front and rear bumpers and LED lighting, Tough Country Outfitters, and Tin Roof Kitchen & Home, selling wooden cutting boards and furniture from wood cut at their sawmill in Lane City, and made at the woodshop in El Campo.
The company also has retail locations for Tough Country Products and Tough Country Outfitters in El Campo. Mark’s has acquired more land on U.S. 59/IH69 with plans to expand its retail and manufacturing facilities.
It all began when Mark started his own machining business in 1979 after working in the petrochemical industry.
“The machine shop business started with him and one machine in his garage and one manual lathe,” Kurt said.
Mark initially concentrated his efforts in the compressor valve repair business, making it a full-service division, before adding full service machining, manufacturing and powder coating. The company has become the vendor of choice for a growing number of petrochemical, oilfield and offshore industries.
As a result of many years of compressor valve repairs, Mark designed and developed a maximum performance valve (MPV) that features a radius disk plate to allow the passage of more gas with less restriction in flow also reducing horsepower and temperature requirements. This valve also eliminates the 90 degree flow turns that are standard with traditional valve plates and rings that reduce heat, turbulence and valve loss.
“Dad doesn’t want to be here (Mark’s) as much. For the past year or so, I’ve devoted more time to this (MPV) division to carry the torch forward on that front. Brent and I want to give this department more credit than what it has been given in the past,” Kurt said.
“We’ve had more growth in the MVP department in the last six months than in the last 20 years because me and him (Kurt) finally dove into it and tried to do a big sales and marketing push. It was always a small, but profitable department,” Brent said. “It was out of site and out of mind.”
“Now we want to put the full appreciation into it that he (Mark) put into it,” Kurt added.
Continuing that entrepreneurial spirit
Brent, who is also the CEO for Tough Country and vice president for Tin Roof, was 12 years old when he began working in the valve shop.
The bumper business took off in 1998 when upon graduating from college, Brent came home to work as the company’s human resource manager. A downturn in the oil industry threatened a lay off of one of the machine shop’s two welders.
“I told my dad why don’t you let me take over the welding shop and we’ll utilize these guys’ time by making bumpers that I made in college.”
What began with sales to local vendors has now increased to include a dealer in every state who sells Tough Country products. Brent wants to introduce the business to the global market. Celebrities Ted Nugent and Kevin Fowler are customers.
The brothers built bumpers in the machine shop before turning their talents into a business venture.
“We built bumpers for our company and personal vehicles, not for looks, but because we needed it,” Kurt said. “A lot of the stuff out there at the time was not as heavy duty built.”
The brothers feel customizing the bumpers sets Tough Country apart from its competitors.
“A few of the highlights that make us stand out is the diverse product line. We offer four different styles of front replacements for trucks. We have running boards, steps, headache racks and rear bumpers,” Brent said.
Ten years ago, they began offering front and rear bumpers for UTVs.
“We are probably the industry leader in the side-by-side market for the fronts,” Brent added.
Their machine shop background made the tolerances tighter than the competition, and the fits and finishes stand out, too.
“We put a lot of time and pride into certain things on a bumper where a lot of other manufacturers will just punch a hole. We take care to add all of the brackets that will hold special factory equipment like the lights and sensors,” Brent said.
Kurt, who is vice president for Mark’s with Brent, began sweeping the company’s floors at age 6 and eventually joined his brother in the valve shop. Tin Roof began with cutting boards Kurt made as Christmas gifts in 2009 with wood from the family’s sawmill.
With word-of-mouth, orders started flooding in and the retail outlet opened in 2011, he said.
In four decades’ time, Mark does not show any signs of slowing down.
“Dad is the hardest working person I know, and he tried to instill that in us the best he could,” Kurt said.
“His semi-retirement is working in the woodshop. He comes into the machine shop very early to see if we have any major issues, and by 7 in the morning he wants to go to the sawmill or the woodshop,” he added.