Case study: Cokebusters

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It’s hard to believe that a firm that services the world’s oil refining industry is based in the UK, and actually here in Chester.

Founded in April 2005 by John Phipps, Cokebusters Ltd is a manufacturing and service provider, sending skilled engineers out to oil refineries across the world.

“We provide a very specialist service; in fact we are a primary ‘metal bashing’ manufacturer, fabricating specialist machinery and equipment for our own use, and for export to associated companies,” said John, Chairman of Cokebusters.

“We work hand in hand with oil refineries to ensure their furnaces are performing as efficiently as possible. Refinery furnaces and boilers typically deposit hydrocarbon/coke contaminations which form layers on process tube interiors, thus inhibiting heat transfer. In a modern and environmentally favourable activity, Cokebusters operates a decoking process which uses powerful water pumping machines to drive scraper pigs through tubes to break off and collect coke linings.”

Based at Hawarden Airfield in Chester, the 25 strong team work with oil refiners including those based across the USA, South America, the Middle East and throughout Europe. They even work occasionally at our local Stanlow Refinery!

The company has gone from strength to strength and in testament to this in 2013 set up a new standalone USA Corporation - Cokebusters USA Inc, which is based in Houston, Texas and employs more than 20 staff.

“To aid technology transfer, our British operators spend time in the USA training American employees to high standards,” said John.

“This type of decoking is a niche environment; fewer than 10 companies in the world can do it.”

The oil industry demands total commitment and reliability, and in order to stay ahead of its competitors (albeit only a handful), Cokebusters has ‘three essential ingredients for success’: 

  1. Design and manufacture of bespoke water pumping machines. These may be containerised or road trailer-mounted: typically 44 feet long (13.50 metres).
  2. Design, patenting and complex casting of scraper pigs (a plastic type device which is sent down tubing to remove coke).
  3. Direct employment of operations personnel, allowing close training and development of worldwide experience.

World-leaders in technology, Research and Development (R&D) is at the heart of Cokebusters, designing and manufacturing (in-house) a host of specialist machinery from the Cokebusters Series 21 Double Pumping Unit to the Merlin ‘intelligent pig’.

The ‘Merlin’ uses ultrasound to scan and record tube wall metal thickness and condition, taking 10,000 measurements per second as it is driven through the narrow bore tube system at a speed of approximately one metre per second.

“Our small team of talented and like-minded individuals refuse to accept current technology, as good as it may be,” said John.

“All our employees are very important to us here at Cokebusters, we have no subcontractors. We look after our staff, we listen, train and hopefully also pay them well.”

John admits Cokebusters is unusual in terms of its accounting books: the company is a manufacturer, a researcher and developer; welder; an employer and 90% of the business is export.

“We know we can call Robert Ellis (director of Ellis & Co) and talk to him about tactics and policies. We like to have his guidance; and professional guidance without frequent interference is very valuable,” said John.

“We became a client of Ellis & Co four years ago.

"I had met Robert a few times at various functions, so when our accountancy firm was taken over and the customer service collapsed, with price increases - we moved over to Ellis & Co.

"It has been a good move.

"Behind Robert, the team is competent and they do what needs to be done.

"I would highly recommend them.”

So what’s next for Cokebusters?

“From here I foresee potential for doubling turnover during the forthcoming two years,” said John.

“We are progressing well in Europe, with impressive growth in the Middle East as the Arab Nations build new refining capacity.

“Then, looking at the United States – they have 150 oil refineries.

"We work at their biggest, yet currently we are only known at about 20 refinery sites.

"Meanwhile, Canada beckons.

"New opportunities are presenting, with possible expansion beyond the oil refining industry which we know so well,” he added.