Bakersfield fuel tank manufacturer Bryant Fuel Systems LLC was a 3-year-old startup with few sales under its belt when, in late 1991, it got its first big chance to dazzle U.S. Army brass.
It was a hit. Word quickly got around military circles that the above-ground fuel tank Bryant built for Fort Irwin National Training Center near Barstow had slashed the amount of time it took to refuel combat aircraft. Unlike competing tanks, this one could fill up military helicopters while they were still running.
Five months later, the Army solicited bids for more than 20 tanks with specifications resembling Bryant's system to equip its helicopter training base at Fort Rucker, Ala. Half a dozen bids came in but no purchase contract was issued.
In the quarter century that followed, Bryant went through its share of ups and downs, changing hands and gradually building up commercial and government clientele. Then, in 2018 — finally — the Army announced Fort Rucker was in need of 12 above-ground fuel tanks much like the one Bryant had demonstrated all those years before.
Bryant's bid ended up prevailing in what the company views as not only vindication for a plucky little company that could, but also a breakthrough sale that may well lead to bigger and better things.
Looking back, longtime Sales Director George Adam said Bryant would probably be on a different trajectory now if the company had gotten the Fort Rucker contract in the early 1990s.
"That's bittersweet. There's negatives and there's pluses," he said. "Had we landed a replica or replicas of that Fort Irwin system at Fort Rucker, yes, the word would have traveled much farther and much faster and much deeper."
"Yeah, we would've (become) a bigger company and a bigger player, certainly," he added. "But fast-forward 28 years and I'm very, very grateful and thankful that we have the ownership and the management that we now have that understand the significance of our system."
CAUSE FOR DELAY
Over the years he has gathered that the Army took so long to order the tanks not because it decided it didn't want them but because it was going to cost too much money to connect them to the necessary power source. The company says personnel changes at Fort Rucker, the Army's primary training base for helicopter pilots, may also have contributed to the delay.
Bryant has since addressed the power supply issue by building tanks with their own electrical generation. It has sold them to the U.S. military for use in remote regions of Afghanistan, Colombia, Kenya, Panama and elsewhere.
Working out of a cramped shop near the Garces Memorial Traffic Circle, Bryant has so far completed two of the 10,000-gallon, 18-ton tanks for Fort Rucker, and it's in the middle of manufacturing two more.
ALL IN ONE
The 30-foot-long tanks come with a sophisticated fuel filtration system and 40-kilowatt generators mounted on a slide-out platform. There's a lockable, 12-foot-high "doghouse" where stainless steel pipes and electrical equipment are installed.
The system is capable of pumping 200 gallons of fuel per minute with a vapor return efficiency of 97.7 percent — safe enough that one is in use indoors at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Bryant's tanks are certified as meeting the exacting standards of Underwriters Laboratories.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Thrasher worked with Bryant early on to guide the company through government permitting. He said the tanks' above-ground status was more important in the late 1980s — a time of concern about leaking underground tanks contaminating groundwater — than the ability to "hot-fuel" aircraft, which he nevertheless described as "a magic thing."
He noted that while military officials saw potential in Bryant's technology, the company was largely overlooked and badly underfunded.
"The need was there. The technology was there, and they had a unique technology," Thrasher said. "But either the marketing wasn't displayed properly or the right people didn't get the message."
Someone else who was deeply familiar with Bryant's technological capabilities during the early days, retired Chief California Fire Marshal James F. "Jim" McMullen, said the safety and mobility of the company's tanks made them very attractive.
Had the Army moved forward and bought Bryant tanks in the early 1990s, he said, it would have been a "huge order" for the company.
"It would've thrust them right into the big leagues, in my opinion," he said.
ON THE VERGE
By Bryant's count, its tanks can now be found on 61 military bases around the world and most of them serve aircraft fueling. But the individual purchase orders have been relatively modest, generally calling for one, two or three tanks at a time.
That's probably going to change soon, said Sales Director Adam and Sales and Marketing Vice President Jeff Peacon.
They said the company's roughly two dozen employees are busy, sometimes working double shifts, to finish the order for Fort Rucker.
There's so much work that the company is weighing financing options as part of an expansion plan, Peacon said. He added the company's sales pipeline, which languished at $350,000 just three years ago, now is nearing $18 million.
Adam said Bryant is hearing lately from potential customers around the world, sometimes receiving multiple inquiries a day. In all his years with the company, he said he's never experienced such high customer interest.