In an article for OGGN Perspective, contributing writer Stephen Forrester talks about the current state of the world, looking at everything from the lingering vestiges of COVID-19 denial to gun control and the future of the office. Though few would argue that the times we’re living in aren’t a little crazy, the moment is ripe for us to cast aside our pettiness and come together to affect meaningful change.
When I look around me and really think about the world we’re living it, I’ve recently been coming back to a simple phrase: “What the hell is going on?” A celebrity getting slapped onstage at an awards show—only attended, of course, by the ultra-wealthy and hyper-privileged—garnered national attention akin to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, with other stars wailing in distress that they didn’t know if their lives would ever be the same after this horrific tragedy.
Meanwhile, the cracks in the real world have been growing deeper all around us, chinks in the armor that we’ve built for 30 years telling us that everything will always just be great. My thoughts on this topic were born from a recent talk Fareed Zakaria gave to Hines where he asserted that our current concept of reality—economic flourishing, a world without war, “life is good” on everyone’s lips—runs contrary to all human history. What we’ve been experiencing is the outlier. We must wake from the dream, but the thing about the world outside the dream is that it’s gone a bit crazy.
We’re living, as it were, in a strange time.
We’re looking across the ocean as a democratic country goes to war with a despot, and though the U.S. has been sending resources, most Americans have watched in helpless horror as the refugee crisis escalates and the innocent fall dead in the streets of once-beautiful cities, culture and history reduced to ash. Millions across the planet have perished due to the ravages of a pandemic that struck suddenly and violently two years ago, yet there still exist those who think it “fake news” and those who deny science and want to take medicine designed to treat parasitic roundworms.
It’s a strange time.
We watched as a group of children were mercilessly gunned down where they’ve often felt safest—the sacred halls of the school—in Uvalde, Texas by a lunatic who went to the store and bought assault rifles days before his grisly act. Sandy Hook, which the nation screamed about for years until sinking back into gun control complacency yet again, came to the front of the collective conscious. “Thoughts and prayers” were offered up ad nauseam by politicians with no desire whatsoever to change the status quo, even though mass shootings in the U.S. are at their worst point in recorded history. And though some legislation looks like it has the potential to pass, the question remains: is it too little, too late?
We’re not even halfway through June and we’ve seen at least 246 mass shootings in the country—far more than have passed days in the year. This harrowing statistic, sadly, won’t cause a sudden change of heart. That’s why satire site The Onion changed every single news story to read “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” on its homepage after Uvalde—and every story was from a different mass shooting. There were enough mass shootings to take over the entire site. The only thing that roused me from my speechlessness as I scrolled on and on and on down the page toward oblivion was when I eventually came to an article with a different headline and chuckled a bit: “Bad Time for Greg Abbott to Reveal New Machine Gun Legs.”
It’s a strange time.
Prices have risen through the roof due to unabated inflation, and supply chain and logistics nightmares are still making it difficult to transport and deliver goods. Shelves at any given store may look relatively barren due to various food and material-related shortages, and it seems no asset category is immune—you can’t even go into your local Spec’s and buy a bottle of Macallan anymore because of issues with glass. And don’t look at your 401k, because it probably isn’t doing too well—after years of growth, markets are staring down a recession, retreating from once-unheard of highs. “Everything will be fine” has become the inspirational mantra du jour, only it’s like that meme where the dog is drinking coffee while the room burns around him.
It is a strange time. But hey, we’re alive, right? I mean, we’re here on God’s green earth and given a chance to make a difference!
And look—not all is bad. Sure, it’s a strange time, but those high prices you’re paying at the pump—now eclipsing $5 for regular gasoline in some parts of Houston—mean that corresponding commodity prices are high, too. WTI and Brent crude benchmarks have achieved some sort of equilibrium well above $100 per barrel, and as I write this, they’re hovering around $120. Henry Hub natural gas is at a staggering $8.85.
Is it boom time, baby? “Lawd, just give me one more boom in the oilfield—I promise not to blow it this time?” Let’s haul out the dusty Amex cards and get back to lunches, and hunting, and fishing?
I’d offer that it is, but it isn’t. The big boys are making money again, both on the operating side and on the service side. Shell earned somewhere around $9 billion in Q1 2022 with an adjusted EBITDA of $19 billion, and our friends at Big Blue saw higher revenue ($6 billion) and higher EPS than the prior quarter. I would caution being too quick to announce a new “boom,” though, until meaningful change trickles down to smaller OFS providers and, most critically, to employees at these companies.
Are we seeing change in talent attraction and retention? Do people want to work in oil and gas again? Some indicators show an openness to it, while others—declining petroleum engineering degree programs, declining membership in professional organizations—show otherwise. Progress, though, is even being able to attract any new talent to the sector, especially while it suffers from a battered reputation and horrible PR that makes it look like drillers are going into the forest themselves to burn down trees. The ridiculousness of the cross oil and gas must bear merely for existing is apparent to anyone who’s ever worked in the industry, but for the public—well, they still need a lot of help to get there.
The other aspect to talent is the obvious thing: money. Is oil and gas paying the big bucks again? What about the fat bonuses? I don’t know, honestly, but I would welcome that knowledge. Compensation and total rewards must catch up to other industries to ensure that oil and gas remains relevant, and I hope there’s some progress on that front happening as we speak. I hope that this thing the industry is experiencing now—something like a boom, but not really a boom—will help the sector continue to grow, until it truly booms again.
Tech, on the other hand, is as perplexing as ever. I covered the bizarre issues around hybrid working facing tech right now in an article I wrote for Hines. Apple, for example, was allowing full-time remote work throughout the worst days of the pandemic, but in April of this year switched its stance to requiring employees to come to the office one day a week. In late May, this changed to three days a week in the office. Employees are balking at these demands despite the fact that they are largely seen as reasonable by those in most other industries, threatening to quit and seek jobs at other tech firms. Meanwhile, Elon Musk has gone the other direction, wanting to eliminate remote work entirely. The billionaire owner, in a leaked memo, accused remote workers of “pretending” to work, saying that he would assume those who didn’t return to the office had resigned. And finally, you have companies like Salesforce that have prioritized flexibility above all else and are allowing employees to make decisions that best suit their personal and professional needs.
So, whether you’re in oil and gas, or commercial real estate, or any other industry, you’ve got a lot to think about. The world around us can seem like it’s going crazy—hell, it seems like that frequently. You may feel powerless to affect meaningful change in this crazy world. You may feel anxiety and depression when you turn on the news and are met with death and sadness at every turn. You might be a fierce liberal or fierce conservative and want action to be taken that aligns with your views, yet constantly frustrated by things that go the opposite direction. You might be trapped in a dead-end job or work for a terrible boss or engage with companies that don’t represent your values. You might simply want more out of life than what it’s currently giving you.
To all this, I’d say that you’re not alone. Keep your chin up and walk forward proudly. You’re awesome, and I want you to stay that way. We all have things we must bear, but that’s why we’re stuck in this crazy world and these strange times together: to lean on one another. Let’s meet each other where we are and find common ground. Let’s chart a path, not meander blindly.
I believe in us—do you?
In an article for OGGN Perspective, contributing writer Stephen Forrester explores how elevated commodity prices—whether artificially increased in the short term or here to stay for the long term—cannot solve the oil and gas industry’s problems with attracting and retaining talent. He argues that crude oil prices at above $100 mean little to the employees of oil and gas companies until average workers see meaningful change in the way they’re treated and how they’re compensated.
A friend reached out to me the other day and, as we chatted, offered this simple quip when we started talking about jobs: “Hey, I bet you’re sorry you left the oil industry now, huh?” He was, of course, referring to the fact that a confluence of many factors has led to the price of crude oil skyrocketing—as I write this, prices are hovering around $110 per barrel for West Texas Intermediate (WTI)—and that now, the golden age has returned for the oil and gas industry.
I have never more quickly said, “No.”
There is an odd misperception that elevated commodity prices are entirely indicative of the industry’s overall health. Surely with oil at record highs, the good times are upon us once more, right? This might have been true decades ago—heck, it might even have been true in the early 2010s—but nowadays, the overflowing money that once permeated the industry isn’t going to employees. I remember when I got my first job that a friend worked down the road at bp in an internal communications role, and she made upwards of $80,000 per year to do what was effectively an entry-level job. We laughed about it because she recognized how absurd it was. “Boy, oil and gas sure is great!” we exclaimed jubilantly—even though my salary wasn’t even remotely close to hers—and I’d remembered how my dad’s success as an English graduate turned mud engineer and scientist had inspired me to join the industry.
And in some cases, it really was good. A subsea BOP surveyor in Lloyd’s Register’s Drilling Integrity Services division (now Vysus Group) who was looking for a new job once cracked up when I told him a buddy of mine was hiring at Helix. “Do you think they can pay me what I’m making now?” he said, as though I would have known. “Hell, of course they can’t. I’m making $450,000 a year!” Times were good, and most technical people enjoyed salaries that had consistently grown due to their specialized skills and knowledge. Even some office dwellers could expect good pay and a decent upward trajectory; my first year at NOV, my business unit performed so well that employees got the biggest bonus they’d ever seen. I didn’t start till December, so I missed it, but seeing all my colleagues rake in the cash and then head off for holiday vacation made me think, “Could this be me next year?”
That day never came. Oil prices went down, oilfield service (OFS) companies saw their revenue consistently declining, and everyone was racing to understand what the next steps were for an industry that desperately needed to change and course-correct. The stagnation that resulted from an inability to navigate those murky waters led to layoffs and widespread dissatisfaction. ESG concerns and shareholder fury after years of lackluster returns also came to a head, with those who’d invested in the companies (individuals or institutions) demanding cash generation and better stewardship of the planet’s resources. This did not bode well for employees. I can remember opening a bonus check one year, which also contained a letter telling me I was receiving $0 for my bonus—and then congratulating me on a year of hard work. Yikes.
Fast forward a bit, and the situation was much the same. Layoff forums were abuzz with gossip on police showing up at manufacturing facilities—a sure sign of a reduction in force (RIF)—and mismanagement at all levels. Blame was thrown about with reckless abandon, but it was always this or that person’s fault that you were getting laid off. If you survived a given purge, you breathed a single sigh of relief before preparing for the possibility that the next one would finally bring your turn around, your professional life little more than an exercise in trying to avoid getting let go because of market volatility. The concept of employee loyalty died on the altar of those repeated RIFs and furloughs, with those who could do so switching industries or abandoning ship, and those who couldn’t trying their best to constantly ensure their value to the organization was well-known, thus justifying their salary, even if meager.
Now, it’s 2022, and the wild ride that is commodity price volatility has temporarily settled on the upswing. Global logistics and supply chain issues, critical resource constraints, shifting monetary policies, a pull-back in the severity of the pandemic, and the looming shadow of the war in Ukraine further escalating have caused a massive boost in crude oil prices, once again highlighting humanity’s reliance on hydrocarbons and petroleum products. Operators that were struggling before are emerging from the pits of despair and reinvesting in the infrastructure necessary to more effectively carry out their work and fulfill their obligations to their customers and shareholders. All this is happening, but what’s going on with OFS companies? Is the renaissance coming for them, too?
I would argue all these factors coming together in this way have created a situation that looks good from the outside (especially to energy industry nonparticipants) but that industry veterans can tell is a transitory state of affairs. I would further argue that even with oil prices at $110 per barrel, there will be little to no meaningful change in employee relations and talent attraction and retention at all but the most progressive of oil and gas companies. Corporate profits are at records highs across industries despite significant inflation, and growth is occurring once again in sectors previously battered by the pandemic. The rich are getting richer, as well, as reported by the Wall Street Journal: Autry Stephens, CEO of Endeavor Energy Resources, for example, is now worth more than $10 billion. How about the average employee, though, the building blocks of the organization making the whole thing possible? Are they seeing meaningful growth, either in career progress or in their total rewards package (compensation, benefits, etc.)? Everyone I’ve talked to has said they have not.
This is important because what the industry has isn’t a money problem—it’s a people problem. I’ve shouted this from the rooftops to all who would listen, oh you proud few, but I’ve seen little to no action on this front. If commodity prices being above $100 per barrel are supposed to mean that the industry is doing well again, where are the raises? Where are the bonuses, the promotions, the organizational growth? Are the companies building culture, or just proceeding with business as usual? Operators, in many cases, may be attempting to build culture, but their misguided efforts at PR cause the public to feel even greater anathema to their existence while giving employees little more than platitudes, would-be inspirational messaging scribbled on walls in cute font and pithy statements added in slide decks and marketing swag.
You cannot create culture this way, nor can you manufacture inspiration.
OFS companies are in an even more complicated situation, as they aren’t recovering as quickly—operators are still squeezing them dry, trying to extend a yearslong period of depressed pricing even further while refilling the coffers to return money to shareholders and the business itself. An already fraught relationship with talent acquisition and retention becomes more so when the business is barely self-sustaining, a phenomenon for many smaller OFS providers that struggle to stay afloat when the industry falters and budgets are cut. You can’t recruit high-level talent in this situation, and you can barely try to keep what you have—you’re on the whim of your employees and whether they can find something better sooner than later. This is true for the most deskbound of office dwellers to the most mobile of field staff—everyone always seems to be looking for that next opportunity, the big raise to push them to another level, and that often doesn’t come without an exit. Companies would rather watch someone leave and need to rehire and retrain than give that person 10 to 15% more salary. It’s true.
This may be a point where I pause and remind those who feel offended by anything I’m saying that I’m an energy industry advocate. Though I left my previous job to work outside the industry, I’m still very much tied to it via my freelance work, like this article you’re reading, or pieces for energy companies and contributions in various journals. Oil and gas also still fascinates me. I was recently reading an article about Quaise Energy and their plans to drill 20 kilometers or more into the earth—the deepest wellbore ever—to tap into natural geothermal energy in the planet’s core, where temperatures are around 932°F. If successful, the theory is that this will allow access to a virtually unlimited wellspring of clean energy, a feat that could be replicated in other locations across the world. All of this—made possible using technology for drilling oil and gas wells.
If this doesn’t sound cool to you, folks, I don’t know what will.
And that’s the saddest thing: the oil and gas industry does amazing things. I believe that except for aerospace, no other sector is as “cool” or technologically advanced. Drilling a hole into the ground and then out horizontally for seven miles to access resources that power our lives? Setting up entire subsea production systems on the floor of the ocean? Automating rigs to operate with giant robotic arms that take humans out of the equation and make them safer? Check, check, check. These things remind me why I loved the oil and gas industry in the first place, and why I still engage with and speak on behalf of it.
And yet, to continue on and attract the interest of current—and future—generations, the industry must refocus its attention on its people while simultaneously balancing financial expectations of shareholders and investors. Employees in oil and gas, whatever their position, have the same needs and wants as those in all other industries. They want to be heard. They want to have a career. They want more money for themselves and their families. They want to be known by their peers. They want people to understand what they do and why it matters. Some of these things can be, and are being, addressed by oil and gas companies, especially those that are more modern or forward-looking, as I mentioned earlier. In other areas, however, they are so sorely lacking that it’s a wonder employees stay at all.
Balance must be sought between the two extremes currently encountered by employees—on one hand, people are lured by the amazing technology and work, thinking they have a chance to make a huge difference but then finding all other aspects lacking. On the other, they are drawn in by an impressive starting salary and then find the work unrewarding or unfulfilling. In both cases, care must be taken to maintain the competitiveness of the entire package—experience, total rewards, work environment, potential for career progress—not just within the company itself and other companies within the oil and gas industry, but also relative to companies in other sectors. It’s a tall order, and there’s a lot of work to be done, but if there’s any industry able to work itself through a tough situation and emerge victorious, it’s the scrappy oil and gas industry, right?
My advice would be to always bring it back to employees, understanding what they value and what they don’t. No more talk of billionaire CEOs getting richer because WTI prices are high. No more tone-deaf marketing and PR campaigns trying to shift public opinion despite literal decades of failure in this regard. Bring it back to how your employees are making a difference in the world every day. Make sure you do market research and pay them what they’re worth so they don’t jump ship after years of wage stagnation. Stop thinking of people as numbers and more as individuals, practicing what you preach as laid out in those clever “Company Values” statements. These are all easy things for me to type, but they require the collective effort of many people in many departments at many companies. I refuse, however, to believe that this is an impossible task.
The oil and gas industry does amazing things for humankind; it’s time companies do more amazing things for their employees. Only in that way will the industry truly be made “great again.”
In an article for OGGN Perspective, contributing writer Stephen Forrester had a chance to talk to Austin Staton, Senior Account Executive at Pierpont Communications, about loving baseball as a child, growing up and working in the world of sports journalism, transitioning to communications for the oil and gas industry at bp, and eventually settling into a position overseeing a client portfolio at Pierpont Communications. Austin also covers his adventures in podcasting, which have yielded three successful shows, hundreds of episodes, and a lot of new friends along the way.
Growing up, the oil and gas industry was the furthest thing from Austin Staton’s mind; instead, he dreamt of being a professional baseball player. “That was my dream, and I had it all mapped out,” he said with a laugh. “I was going to be a Hall of Fame baseball player and win a World Series with the Houston Astros. That was the plan.” The dream was more of a journey than a destination, as Austin also wanted to retire—after his legendary baseball career—and become a broadcaster for the Astros, as well. “I wanted to be like Milo Hamilton, the former radio play-by-play voice,” he explained. “He was actually the one who called Hank Aaron’s historic 715th homerun back in 1974.”
While his plans to enter the annals of baseball history didn’t exactly pan out, Austin’s passion for communications remained strong, even in those early years. “I would be that nerd when I was a kid who would watch baseball games on mute and record myself calling the games,” he said. “When I was 10 years old, I would call into the Astro’s post-game show.” As he grew up and the middle school years gave way to high school, sports were still a big part of his life, but he also developed new interests in politics, foreign policy, and debate. “I found that I really loved debate,” he said. “I was even nationally ranked at one point. So, I decided I’d on a career pivot into international business law.”
After making his way to Baylor University and majoring in Political Science, Austin thought the next step was law school. His passion for sports, however, remained an itch that he couldn’t quite scratch, especially as he watched his fraternity brothers regularly on the sidelines at sporting events. “I always wondered how they got down there, how I could get paid to be down there,” he recalled. “Then I found out that they worked at the Athletics Communications Office as student assistants. So, I applied for a job with the Athletic Media Relations department and was hired on.” His love of sports didn’t go unnoticed, with Austin quickly given a lot of responsibility. It opened his eyes to the fact that communications was a viable career path, and Austin worked anywhere from 20 to 40 hours a week while employed as a student.
Despite the joy of this work, it was a bit late for Austin to change his major, so he stuck with Political Science. He points to some of his success in later years being due to the fact that he juggled with communications and media relations working with Baylor athletics while pursuing a degree that taught him about history, politics, literature, and social issues. “I never took a journalism or communications class,” he explained. “Everything that I learned about communications, I learned from those opportunities given to me at Baylor and mentors like Heath Nielsen and Chris Yandle, like being able to work with national media outlets. And I already had the writing chops and public speaking abilities from my earlier work, so it was a natural transition.”
Degree in hand, Austin’s first job was at Louisiana Tech University, where he barely made enough to live on despite working 75 to 100 hours a week during the peak of the sports season. It was a difficult year, one where his spendable income after paying his bills every month was about $75. Although the generous package was hard to say goodbye to, Austin moved back to Houston and started looking at roles in sports that would pay a decent salary. He also decided at this point to look at a corporate job. When a recruiter contacted Austin about a contract communications role at bp after he’d posted his resume on Rigzone, he was at a crossroads, as he was simultaneously interviewing for a social media position with the Dallas Cowboys.
In the winter of 2011, Austin left Valley Ranch—then the home of the Cowboys’ headquarters and training facility—feeling like the job was in the bag. “As a native Houstonian, I hated the Cowboys,” he said, chuckling, “but I thought I was going to end up working with them.” The next day, Austin was back in Houston on an interview with the hiring manager at bp, but he didn’t think he’d gotten the job. When 2012 rolled around, he got the call from the Cowboys that they’d decided to go with the other candidate, and not two hours later, the recruiter called congratulating him on bp deciding to hire him for the contract role. “It was weird how it worked out,” he said. “Then, the six-month contract turned into one year, and after that I was hired on full time.”
Initially, the work was largely focused on internal communications, with Austin managing content on the company’s intranet. He also played a part in introducing video as a content medium, which has since become an integral component of bp’s strategy. Austin then transferred into the press office, where he oversaw “the fun stuff,” as he called it. “These were the things that would impact the company’s reputation in communities in which we lived and worked, like STEM education, university relations, veterans outreach, and our partnership with Team USA,” he said. Through this focus, Austin was often insulated from more technical and operationally focused communications, though even he wasn’t immune after the devastating Deepwater Horizon blowout. He was hired after the blowout and wasn’t responsible for running media during that time, but even his proximity during litigation and settlement provided him with ample opportunity to develop knowledge and skills in crisis communications, which he’s taken forward as he’s moved on in his career.
Near the end of his nine years with bp, Austin found himself the arbiter of significantly more content than when he’d started. “I still did media affairs stuff, but I also co-led media training and crisis communications in North America,” he explained. “I helped oversee a lot of our content creation in the U.S., including work with video, photography, and graphic design, as well. And it’s funny, because I can trace so many of the fundamentals that enabled me to be successful in such a multifaceted job to my work at Baylor. Working in sports, you have to wear a lot of hats, which is something I’ve seen lacking in many students today who focus narrowly on one functional area.” Doing so much work with such limited resources, he said, ultimately prepared him for the challenges of a job that layered several roles into one.
Austin’s time at bp also gave him a chance to travel—including stints in Brazil and Oman—and put him in front of some noteworthy folks, both within bp and through the media. “I got to work with Susan Dio, the first female Chairman and President of bp America,” he recalled. “I got to interview congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher on stage. And being on the Communications & Advocacy team meant I could meet and connect with some really incredible people, especially at such a young age. These are the kinds of experiences that change you as a person.” He also worked with Geoff Morrell, bp’s former communications and public relations (PR) leader, before Geoff moved on to lead corporate affairs for The Walt Disney Company in Los Angeles. Figures that were out of reach to the average employee were a phone call or text away for Austin, a phenomenon he still appreciates even today.
In early 2021, Austin moved on to work for Pierpont Communications, an agency managing a portfolio of clients with diverse communications and PR needs. The variety of clients, as well as the fact that many don’t have dedicated company communications resources, stands in stark contrast to what he encountered during his tenure at bp, where verticals across communications subdisciplines existed to support every facet of the business. “It’s been very different to work for an agency after working for a corporation,” he explained. “It’s not energy clients every day, but energy is still a part of the portfolio. I could be working with an offshore drilling company and a natural gas compression company in the same day, helping them with crisis communications and media training. It’s fun to be able to use my knowledge from my time at bp to help new clients build better communications programs.”
It’s not all work, all the time for Austin, either, as he’s also something of a serial podcaster. “It all started when my friend Zack and I were on the phone one day and started talking about politics before catching up on life and transitioning into a discussion about Baylor football,” he said. “After that, I was thinking about how much I enjoyed the conversation, how well it flowed, and I wondered if other people would be interested in hearing us talk about sports, politics, and pop culture. I shot him a text, and he agreed to do it, along with another friend of ours, Jeremy.” Though Zack had to drop out not too long after starting, Austin and Jeremy continued down the path, with the two launching a podcast called “The Weekly Brew.”
Though they weren’t sure how the show would perform, it ended up doing extremely well, eventually reaching 30,000 to 40,000 listeners per week. This success led to a 120-episode run where even notable political figures and sports celebrities joined the show from time to time. “This went back to me wanting to be a sports broadcaster and call games,” Austin recalled. “This was kind of like that—I got to sit around with friends and talk and people actually listened to us. Some of my close friends today I met through that podcast.” Eventually, the show became too big for the two to handle, as it hadn’t been properly monetized and was incredibly time-consuming to produce. To continue to grow, they were faced with a choice: quit their day jobs and focus on the podcast or keep working their day jobs and forego it. With bills looming large, the pair made the decision almost three years after starting the podcast to say goodbye. Though that iteration is dead, Austin hinted that there may be a future for “The Weekly Brew” yet, with a friend at the NFL Network wanting to see it brought back to life.
The next podcast was “The Business Communicators,” which Austin originally dreamt up while he was President-Elect of the Houston chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). “That one was basically me just interviewing interesting people in the comms space, whether they were local to Houston or global,” he explained. “For the first two seasons I did it by myself, while in the third I added two new co-hosts. We don’t have a massive audience, but it’s fun to get together and talk about issues directly affecting the communications industry.” With Hattie Horn and Thomas Baen now regularly joining Austin behind the mic, the podcast serves as a gathering place for communications professionals to learn about trends in the industry and best practices they can implement to better do their jobs. It’s a win-win for the hosts and the listeners.
The latest and greatest from Austin is a podcast called “Cautious Coffee,” an idea that he first started with his friend DeRae Crane while at bp and has now brought into the mainstream. He recalled how an interaction with DeRae, not only a former colleague at bp but a U.S. Army veteran and Olympic boxer, inspired him. “After George Floyd was killed, DeRae posted something on Instagram about how he was concerned, for the first time in his life, to go out into the world wearing a hoodie,” Austin said. “And I hated that. So, I reached out and told him if he ever needed to talk, to let me know. We ended up on the phone a week or two later and just talked about life, everything going on in the country.” The name Cautious Coffee was brilliantly crafted by DeRae after poking fun at Austin’s fascination with lattes in the office and Austin “slurping” the coffee to cool it off. Come to find out, DeRae began drinking coffee during the pandemic and reached out to Austin with the subject line “Cautious Coffee” shortly after their Instagram exchange—admitting that he, too, slurped his coffee to cool it off, and noting that no apology was too small to make.
At the time, bp was going through a reorganization as the company adapted to changes in the marketplace and shifted its strategy to be able to achieve its 2050 ambitions. The company was also focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), which made it seem like a good time to launch a show that could boost morale while creating a forum for people to voice their experiences, as they’d seen and understood them. Austin and DeRae launched Cautious Coffee at bp so that people who wanted to have real conversations to address those topics that might be awkward or uncomfortable could do so. “We wanted to create a forum where people could just talk openly about things that were happening, whether the election, COVID-19 vaccines, working from home, racial inequality in America—whatever they wanted,” he explained. “And we wanted it to be a dialogue where people could learn from each other, not get angry because their opinions differed.” Though it wasn’t required for employees to attend, all were welcome to be a part of the conversation. So, every Friday morning, Cautious Coffee was held to much fanfare, jam-packed calls reinforcing what Austin and DeRae already knew in their hearts: people wanted to be heard.
After leaving bp, the two gave the forum new life as a podcast, separated from the constraints of being at bp. The format is still much the same; the two have conversations about life, encouraging others to consider that just because they don’t agree with someone doesn’t mean their ideas aren’t valid. In the era of polarization, Austin said, he felt this was all too important. “So many people get upset if someone has a different viewpoint,” he continued. “I feel like members of our generation can’t communicate with each other. And I don’t know if it’s because of social media, access to phones, outrage and cancel culture, or what—but I want to get to a place where we can talk to people with whom we disagree and try to get to know one another better, to figure out where the person is coming from.” Sure, there are many times in which wavering on something would mean compromising on an ideal—but sacrificing your beliefs or engaging on topics on which you fundamentally disagree isn’t really the point. Rather, it’s to look at all that space in the middle where we really can learn and grow.
And now for the meat of the issue—why do his efforts to amplify communications in energy, and otherwise, matter? In an industry where marketing and communications is often unfairly viewed as little more than a cost burden, with many a technical person chuckling, “Oh, another email from marketing!”, has Austin been able to solidify for his peers at bp and in general why what he does is important? Fortunately, the career communicator felt that he had made progress. “I think communications is absolutely critical,” he declared. “If a company isn’t sharing their narrative, their values, what they’re doing to make the world a better place and lift people out of poverty, someone else is. If you can empower your people to share your company brand and values via storytelling, that’s huge. Communications can definitely add value and really help enhance the company’s reputation.”
With energy companies setting out ambitious net-zero goals and refocusing efforts around their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) programs, the time has come for the industry to take control and reshape its identity. While beleaguered oil and gas companies have long fought against the increasingly negative tide of public opinion—much of it formed precisely because those same companies have failed to control the narrative—some challenges are of their own making. Trust, Austin said, is a major concern. “Data has consistently shown that people want their CEOs and businesses to speak out on issues that matter to them,” he explained. “You have to be proactive. Stakeholders and members of the community, they’re demanding accountability on a variety of metrics, and you have to communicate them transparently. Trust is such an important part of being a communications professional, but you have to earn it. We have to use trust to move the conversation forward.”
What’s next for Austin? As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to abate, he’s hopeful that he can start traveling again, another passion that he’s nurtured over the years. “I didn’t travel a lot as a kid,” he said. “But since 2013, when I really got the travel bug, I’ve been to six continents and more than 50 countries.” Fortunately, he’s something of a professional price optimizer, if you will, finding insane deals that would make other would-be globetrotters jealous. “I took a flight from Houston to Sydney for $500,” he said. “For a 17-hour flight! That’s incredible. I just love traveling, and my fiancé does, too, so I’m really looking to getting back out there and seeing more of the world now that the virus is slowing down a bit.” Speaking of fiancés, Austin also needs to get married at some point in the future, though he hasn’t settled on a date yet. What he does admit is that he hit the big time with Katie Hirvela, his future wife. “There’s a term we use in sports called ‘outkicking your coverage,’” he began, a smile turning into a huge grin. “Yeah, she’s amazing. She’s smart, she’s beautiful, and she’s got an incredible job. She’s awesome.”
In a special bonus article for OGGN Perspective, contributing writer Stephen Forrester had a chance to talk to Jean-Jacques De Paep, Technical Project Manager at FlightAware, about moving around as a child, growing up wanting to be a military jet pilot, and finding a place in the oil and gas industry. He also explores how his passion for technology, nurtured by his years in oil and gas, ultimately led him to combine his love of tech with his love for flight into one incredible job opportunity.
Jean-Jacques De Paep, or JJ for friends and the foreign language uninclined, was born to a British mother and a Belgian father. Their whirlwind younger lives, JJ said, present an amusing contrast to the rather humdrum end result, with the couple settling down in Magnolia, Texas. “The idea that they would even end up in the U.S. after the lives they lived—much less in Magnolia, Texas—from where they started would seem impossible,” he explained. “Their young life was like something straight out of Casablanca.” Meeting in Morocco while both working as tour guides, they were eventually married in Gibraltar and then moved to Costa del Sol in Spain.
When his dad got a job that was going to take him to Mexico City, they packed their bags and moved across the world. Not too long after, JJ was born, and when the company decided to move its headquarters to the U.S. to penetrate a new market, Texas was the next stop on the journey. “My dad spent his career in tourism—specifically in hotels and resorts in the Caribbean region—and back then, travel to that area wasn’t what it is today,” he said. “Cancun wasn’t a thing.”
When opportunity struck to move back to Spain, the young De Paep family put everything in suitcases once again and flew to Barcelona. Spending several years in Spain, JJ learned Spanish and the local Catalan dialect—which he admits he unfortunately no longer speaks—and went to a local Catholic school. When he was entering the first grade, however, the family moved back to the U.S., with JJ noting that all the travel wasn’t glamorous for a child trying to get his feet on the ground. “I had a noticeable accent from all the time in Spain, which caused people to make fun of me,” he said. “So, I decided that I wasn’t going to speak Spanish anymore. My dad was always traveling, and my mom didn’t really speak it as well then as she does now, and without practice, I just kind of lost the language.”
JJ noted that this period in his life almost feels like a dream, something that happened to someone else. It’s distant, he explained, and almost entirely disconnected from the rest of his experiences as a child and into young adulthood. At that point, JJ lived in The Woodlands and, around the time he entered high school, Magnolia, but the European influence stuck with him. “You move to a place like Texas, but we’d never watched baseball or football or American sports in general,” he said. “We watched tennis and Formula 1. So, I was never involved in sports or really interested in what was going on. It just wasn’t my thing.”
With his mom from the north of England, though, horseback riding and fox hunts had been a big deal, so JJ rode horses and competed throughout his middle school years, with the family even owning their own horses. Something else, however, loomed large in his dad’s mind—the desire to be a pilot. Unfortunately, Papa De Paep wasn’t tall enough to meet the criteria for military aircraft, but when a chance encounter with a local flight group at the Woodlands Mall provided an opportunity to fly gliders recreationally, he jumped. JJ followed suit, transitioning away from horse riding into flying. “At 13 years old, my folks decided to get me flying lessons,” he said. “It was kind of serendipitous, because at that point my dad had stopped flying. With gliders and sail planes, you could actually fly by yourself at 14 years old, so we decided to start with that. Then my dad got back into it with me. Growing up, we’d go out to Waller every weekend and fly together.”
JJ knew flight would influence his life moving forward, but he wasn’t exactly sure how. One thing he was interested in was becoming a Marine Corps jet fighter pilot, but the years of travel and so many varying curriculums had left him, through no fault of his own, a less-than-average student. “I didn’t have the best educational foundation,” he explained. “I wasn’t the best student, and I struggled in school—not because I was a bad kid or anything, but just because I found it difficult. It didn’t come easily to me, so I really started to fall behind.” Flying was his escape, but you couldn’t get into the Marines and fly fighter jets just because you liked planes.
Realizing that he would really need to up the ante if he wanted to fly—or even go to college, for that matter—JJ became laser-focused to do better, immersing himself in almost nonstop study. He noticed that reading and writing had become a passion, with literature and poetry his favorite courses and math and science still being brutally difficult. Incremental improvements by his junior year, however, were proving that JJ had what it took to be successful academically, even if the journey there had been extremely challenging. So, his parents decided that a college prep school would be best for his senior year. “I got to go to the John Cooper School in the Woodlands, which was an incredible school,” he says. “It really prepared me for college. Honestly, I’m pretty sure my senior year at Cooper was more difficult than my first year at college.”
Through the years, he’d kept flying, a metaphorical guidepost amidst the constant study. He didn’t get into the Air Force Academy, though the dream was very close, as he even got a Congressional nomination in the mail. “I was devastated at the time,” he said. “But in hindsight, life is what it is, and things happen for a reason. If I’d went to the Academy, I wouldn’t have met my wife. I wouldn’t have had a lot of the great things in my life that I have now.” With that path blocked, JJ decided to go to Texas A&M, where he joined the Corps Cadets to try the military path that way. Freshman year was 2007, and he admitted it was a very rough balance between everything. “I had to talk myself off a ledge a lot of times,” he said with a wry grin, “or, my parents had to talk me off the ledge, telling me not to quit.”
After majoring in English and Creative Writing and graduating, JJ said that the degree was questioned by many. “I didn’t do it because I didn’t know what to study,” he said. “I did it because I loved it. And as long as my grade point average was high enough, you could still follow the military path. So, I figured that I could study something I really enjoyed and still become a pilot.” Unfortunately, the demand for military pilots at that point had dipped from previous highs, with slots incredibly hard to come by. A friend of JJ’s who graduated from the program was unable to find work as anything other than pilot for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—essentially, military drones—and apparently this was a common issue. It made JJ nervous, because while he wanted to serve and respected the military, he had no interest in flying a UAV.
Without getting commissioned, JJ knew he’d have to find another route to the skies. When conversations with a small oilfield service company owner sparked his interest, he decided to simultaneously look for pilot slots while also perusing jobs in the oil and gas industry. He’d interviewed for the NextGen program at National Oilwell Varco (NOV), which was then a rotational early career program for fresh graduates, but he hadn’t gotten the job. They’d kept the resume, however, and a call from Paul Cotterell saw him directly hire into the project management group for drilling rig newbuilds. Though he’d also received a call from a fighter squadron in Portland—even flying up to meet with them—the two available slots went to others, though they hoped he’d come back next year. In yet another close call with his original dream, he said OK, flew back to Texas, and started at NOV.
The first few months were incredibly busy, as the oil and gas industry was booming in the early 2010s. “We were project managing jack-ups and semisubmersible rigs being built in Korea, China, and Singapore,” he said. “I went into that as a low-level project coordinator, but things were nuts.” The benefit of being in an overarching project management group, he said, was visibility into so many things going on at the company, which then had upwards of 65,000 employees worldwide. “We looked at everything—drilling tools, power systems, topdrives and pipe-handling systems, and lots of other capital equipment,” he recalled. “I got to go to Orange, California when Varco still had its landmark topdrive facility there. Working with so many people across so many disciplines and countries was incredible.”
JJ said that the English degree was a scarlet letter of sorts, and that in interfacing with so many technical people, he was almost compelled to hide his education, lest they inexplicably think less of him for not being an engineer. Much as he had with school years earlier, he threw himself at the job, taking in as much information as he could, learning and growing constantly so that he would be considered an expert—even without the technical background many employees had. He was successful in this endeavor, as he was promoted from the original project coordinator role into a project manager position.
The demands of the job put a toll on his passion for flying, as with all the travel, he was really too busy to fly recreationally. The fighter squadron, as well, fell into the background, as he was happy with what he was doing. “I’d tell myself that when things calmed down, I’d apply to that job with the fighter squadron again, or that I’d get back into flying more regularly,” he explained. “It was tough, but I really enjoyed oil and gas and learning about everything we were doing. I came to realize that though I’d thought I wasn’t technically minded, I really loved technology, and I did have an aptitude for it. So, I began to focus on it, trying to guide my career in that direction.”
The years at NOV saw JJ moving up through the ranks and into different departments, beginning with his time in Rig Technologies and ending up in the Wellstream Processing business unit within the company’s Completion & Production Solutions operating segment. With the downturn of 2014 turning into a years-long period of decreased activity, JJ had a bit more time on his hands, so he made the decision to return to that first love: flying. “I was finally able to get back into flying,” he said. “I started to fly regularly again, and I even had the opportunity to buy my own glider.”
Toward the end of his time at NOV, JJ realized that though he had a soft spot for the oil and gas industry, what he’d come to enjoy so much was technology, in all its forms. “Oil and gas had been a great introduction and exposure to technology, but I really wanted more,” he explained. “I was interested in programming, and also in product and project management of software development.” He’d worked on a few smaller projects at NOV, including with the company’s RigSentry system for subsea blowout preventer condition monitoring, but he wanted to shift entirely to technology as a career focus. Oil and gas both showed him the magnitude of his interest and provided ample opportunity to learn, something for which JJ is thankful even today. “Oil and gas inspired me,” he declared. “In a way, I also met my wife because of oil and gas, since she’d been born and raised in Midland, Texas. Marrying her was one of the biggest joys in my life.”
In early 2020, JJ moved on from NOV and went to a small oil and gas service company as a technology program manager, specifically reporting into an IT group. “I thought that it would be a good first step,” he said. “If you wanted to pivot from oil and gas into tech, it wasn’t the easiest thing to do at the time. So, I thought this would help me as I continued to move into a new sector.” With the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic that March, JJ’s time with the company was short lived as they began reductions in force. Fortunately, two weeks later he was able to find work with CSAT Solutions, which was a major partner with Apple.
“I was assigned to that business unit, and so I suddenly found myself being the direct interface with Apple’s application development and technology team for their global repair operations for laptop devices,” he recalled. “It was a really great opportunity to get into what I wanted to do. How Apple operated was totally different than anything I’d encountered in the oil field—the culture, the approach they took to business. I really enjoyed that. It was a high intensity environment.” He began to work with internal teams of software engineers and developers and integrating with Apple’s systems, while at the same time working with an oilfield technology startup called Astra Innovations, which was doing predictive analytics for drilling operations.
“It was so cool to be at a company and really help build things from the ground up,” he said. “They’d been in business a couple years, so it wasn’t like I’d been there at the beginning, but it was still a small team. It was a whole different ballgame, and it taught me a lot about the human element, how to work with people. Building a highly complex software product isn’t an easy thing to do, even in the best of times.” Through his time with Astra, though, aviation was inching its way further and further toward the front of his mind. He’d long since passed the age cap for the fighter squadron program, but flying jets wasn’t the dream anymore. How, then, to get into the industry without flying the planes themselves?
The answer came when JJ saw an open position with FlightAware, a digital aviation company that operates the world’s largest flight tracking and data platform. JJ’s varied experience across project management, software development, and customer service, blended with his passion for technology and history with aviation, made FlightAware a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and his background was also of great interest to the company. After a rigorous interview process, JJ landed the job, becoming a technical project manager.
Despite its small size, FlightAware is anything but a mom-and-pop shop. With global connectivity to every segment of aviation, the company provides more than 10,000 aircraft operators and service providers, as well as more than 13,000,000 passengers, with global flight tracking solutions, predictive technology, analytics, and decision-making tools. The company receives data from air traffic control systems in over 45 countries, a network of automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) ground stations in 195 countries, Aireon global space-based ADS-B, and datalink (satellite/VHF) via every major provider. Though acquired by Collins Aerospace in late 2021, the company still acts as it formerly did, providing JJ the unique opportunity to work for a small technology company with the resources and financial backing of a global aviation powerhouse.
“I’d used FlightAware’s products for years, like most pilots, but I didn’t really understand that they had a whole other side of their business,” he explained. “They’re partnered domestically and internationally to provide customers with enterprise-scale data and predictive analytics on flights. They can select an arrival time for an aircraft with a predictive model that takes into account a myriad of potential factors. It’s amazing the level of accuracy and complexity that goes into a model for even a single airport.” Though JJ has only been with the company a couple months, he’s been impressed by the caliber of his colleagues, the supportive culture, and the potential for continued innovation in the sector.
His childhood dream and later passion—flight and technology—now united, he couldn’t be happier. “I’m excited to see where this takes me,” he said, right as he pulled into the parking lot in Waller, Texas where, at 13, he first dreamed of being a pilot. “Maybe there are surprises still yet to come. The sky’s the limit.”
In a special bonus article for OGGN Perspective, contributing writer Stephen Forrester had a chance to talk to OGGN’s own Justin Gauthier, host of the Oil and Gas Onshore Podcast and Account Manager at AES Drilling Fluids, about his childhood, his love of the outdoors, his journey from rig floorhand to oilfield salesman, and a lifelong entrepreneurial bent that’s seen him become a fitness coach and professional podcaster. Justin also talks about moving around before setting down roots in Texas, his love for his family, and how proud he is of wife Nicole Gauthier for pursuing her own entrepreneurial dreams.
Justin Gauthier, the bearded Canadian known and loved across the oil field, was born in Calgary and raised in British Columbia. When he was young, Justin and his mom moved to Vernon, a smaller city nestled right in the middle of Vancouver and Calgary. Vernon is the commercial hub of what’s called the North Okanagan, a region known for its dry, sunny climate, grassland hills, and lakeshore communities. When his mom remarried, she started a business with Justin’s new stepfather, a venture that was focused on countertops and cabinetry. “So, from an early age, I was living in an entrepreneurial family,” Justin explains.
Growing up, Justin was very involved in sports, including basketball, baseball, and football, while he’d spend the winters in the colder north, skiing and snowboarding. “I actually started skiing when I was 2 years old,” Justin says. “There was a small mountain near Calgary called Nakiska, and my mom put me in lessons at an early age. She loved skiing, too, so she made sure I was exposed to that life.”
Living 10 minutes from Kalamalka Lake, water skiing and wakeboarding were also a short drive away. Because Vernon was surrounded by so much nature—mountains, fresh water, trails through the hills—Justin instinctively gravitated toward outdoor activities, a love that’s persisted well into his adult life. While he may be in Houston now, which is almost comically flat, Justin admits that you can’t take the outdoors out of the outdoorsman. “Down here in Texas, there aren’t too many mountains,” he says with a laugh. “But the love of the outdoors, it’s just in me—it’s part of my DNA—to be on a board or a pair of skis.”
When he was 18 and about to graduate high school, the young Justin had no idea where his career would take him, but he did know that he needed to leave his hometown and head out into the world. A cousin working in sales for FMC (now TechnipFMC) in the Wellhead division seemed to be living the dream—the cliché salesman, constantly going golfing, fishing, on trips all over the country. “It was everything I liked to do, except he was getting paid for it,” Justin says. “So, I told him, ‘When I’m done with high school, can you get me a job? Because whatever you’re doing, it sounds amazing, and I think I could crush it.’ He was skeptical and asked me if I really wanted to get into the oil field.”
He was quick to remind Justin that he didn’t just start in a cushy sales job, but Justin was still interested. So, his cousin recommended he take a 2-week training course at a local trade school of sorts that introduced attendees to being a floorhand on a rig. He convinced close friend Trevor Kostrosky to join in, so they packed up, got in Trevor’s truck, and drove from Vernon to Nisku to attend the training course. “You went in every day, and they’d get you to execute different job tasks on a rig,” Justin explains. “They had a kind of dummy rig at the facility, and you could practice using tongs, tripping pipe in and out of the hole—a lot of the basic tasks a floorhand would do.” The 2-week schedule was intended to mimic the typical 2-on, 2-off schedule of most land rigs, and Justin notes that thanks to that early training and the friendships he made, he felt set up for success early on.
With the course in the rearview mirror, Justin and Trevor started looking for work. With Nisku being an area of bustling industrial activity, many of the major drilling contractors—Precision Drilling, Nabors, Savanna Drilling, Patterson-UTI—were already in the region. Trevor found a spot in less than a week, but Justin’s search took a bit longer, as hiring was slow at the time. He finally got an interview with Nabors, but after the drug test, he was told they’d let him know when they had a spot for him. Irritated, it was a make-or-break moment for Justin, as he either needed to go to a rig or go back to Vernon and call it good.
Fortunately, fate was on his side. “I remember it vividly: I was in the parking lot of a McDonald’s, it was cold and raining, and I just didn’t know what to do,” he begins. “So, I called my mom, and asked her if I should drive 7 hours back to Vernon, stay here, go to Calgary—what should I do? She said I needed to stay and get a job. Not 15 minutes later, I got a call from Precision Drilling wanting an interview. I went to the interview and was hired on the spot—not even a drug test. That was how it all started.” They had a rig lined up for Justin already, telling him to call the toolpusher and tell him that he was going to be the new leasehand. Two weeks and a bit of partying with friends later, Justin was in Drayton Valley on Precision 257—an old, conventional Kelly triple with no topdrive, no automation, none of the standard features of today’s land rigs. “It didn’t have a wooden derrick,” he laughs, “but it was definitely more manual labor than most of the rigs today.”
A couple years passed, with Justin living the on-again, off-again life of your average roustabout. One day, it just kind of hit him—wasn’t he supposed to be living the dream, like his cousin? All he was doing was backbreaking physical labor, a seemingly unending list of things to do, tasks to complete. His cousin took 10 years to get to his sales position, but Justin knew that he couldn’t do this kind of work that long—he wanted, and needed, more. “I knew I couldn’t wait 10 years,” he said. “I always find a way to speed things up. So, one day we were drilling for Petro-Canada, and I was talking to the company representative. I asked him how I could get his position, because all the people I worked with were miserable. Honestly, they were people I aspired not to be like: many were divorced, had several personal life challenges, spent their money frivolously, and then they’d beg when they realized they couldn’t even pay for their hotel when they weren’t on the rig.”
While he recognized and respected the rig crew for their hard work, the way they led their personal lives just didn’t align with Justin’s values, or how he wanted to live his own life. The company man said that to do what he wanted to do, he was going to need a petroleum engineering degree, but Justin had neither the grades nor the qualifications to get into a good university. He quit after around 3 years with Precision, moved to Calgary, and lived in a townhome he’d bought earlier with generous support from his parents. Eventually, he did go back to school to get that degree, though at the time, the oil and gas industry was in a downturn. Burning through the money he’d made as a roughneck on his mortgage and school loans, Justin started the job search anew—a rebirth, of sorts, since he would really have to start over. “I’d quit my roughneck job to go back to school—left a job making good money to basically live on credit,” he says. “I was back to doing manual labor to get by. I kept asking myself, what the hell am I doing with my life?”
Fortunately, Justin now had both field experience and the technical qualifications to get a better job. “I wanted to get on as a drilling engineer,” Justin says. “I’d been on drilling rigs and had a background in the field, so I knew it would be a fit. Unfortunately, at that time none of the operators were really hiring.” When his friend Chad Hayden was asked by an uncle—then COO of Canadian Energy Services (CES) Energy Solutions—if he knew a good hand looking for work in anticipation of higher activity, Chad gave Justin a call. One interview later, and things were beginning to look up: Justin got the job, so eager to start that he offered to work for free while HR went through onboarding and paperwork. While they might not have taken him up on that offer, it made a strong first impression. That was 2009, and Justin had made it from field work to oilfield services, on the drilling fluids side.
He started working as a well data technician, but there was one last itch waiting to be scratched: his desire to get out of Canada and see a bit more of the world. While CES didn’t have operations in the United States at the time, Justin’s boss let him know that expansion into new markets was always a possibility. Sure enough, less than a year later—on a press release dated on my birthday, no less!—CES entered into an agreement to buy a company called Fluids Management II, Ltd., or FMI, which gave them an immediate presence in the U.S. market. FMI was based out of Houston, but they were kicking things off in the Marcellus Shale. When COO Ken Zinger asked Justin if he was interested in heading down to the States to the new Pittsburgh office, Justin replied at the speed of light. “I told him I was interested and that I’d pack my bags that night and get ready to go,” he says. “Of course, there were a lot of other considerations we had to work through, but I was super excited for the opportunity.”
A few meetings and a bit of paperwork later, Justin and Ken were on a flight down to Pittsburgh, where Justin met the team. Everyone hit it off, so Justin received an offer to work from their office—and, if he liked it, to move to the U.S. permanently. “They anticipated being busy for years to come, and thank goodness they had the foresight to see that the Marcellus shale was going to be a big deal,” he explains. “At the time, the shale revolution was kicking off, so there was a lot of uncertainty, but a lot of hope, too.” In all the excitement, Justin made just a very minor mistake—he went through all of this without really involving then-fiancée, now wife Nicole, who was a bit shocked when the pumped-up Justin returned home to announce their move. “We’d been building a home, we were engaged, we were both working downtown and making good money, and then I came back one day and said, ‘Hey, we get to move down to Pennsylvania so I can work in the Marcellus!’” he recalls with a chuckle, before somberly admitting, “Yeah, yeah…that didn’t go over so well.”
After explanations, apologies, a lot of convincing, and a couple of nights in the house they never truly lived in—which, fortunately, sold for a market premium and netted them some profit—Justin headed south. He worked in the office for about a year before transitioning back into field work as a mud engineer, which he did for another 3 years. During that time, he and Nicole traveled back and forth between Canada and the U.S., but they knew that Pittsburgh wasn’t where they wanted to settle down. So, Justin asked to go work in Texas, eventually winding up in Houston. Nicole quit her job and moved down, as well, with the young Gauthier family deciding the time was right to build their home in Katy. When Justin got the call to work in Denver, this time he knew that packing everything up and selling the home wasn’t the right choice. “We didn’t know if we wanted to uproot ourselves from Katy to move up there,” he says. “I felt like there was a lot of potential and opportunity in Katy and Houston for the future, and that Denver was probably just a steppingstone.”
He was right. He transferred back to Houston in 2014, and he’s been here ever since. Nicole got pregnant with their first daughter, and Justin began working full-time in the office as a salesman for AES Drilling Fluids. That entrepreneurial bent, however, never went away, with the soon-to-be dad getting involved with several other ventures outside of his day job. “I can’t get comfortable with being too comfortable,” he explains. “It gives me anxiety. So, since I’ve been here, I cofounded a gym—because health and fitness, human performance, biology, are all really interesting to me—called KTX Fitness, and in 2018, I got involved with OGGN. I was invited to be a host on one of their podcasts, and I told Mark LaCour I’d love to do one. He knew my background, and we really believed in the massive value of podcasting. So, I started Oil and Gas Onshore.”
The popular Oil and Gas Onshore podcast is one of OGGN’s most-listened shows, with Justin interviewing folks from all walks of the oil field, the tech industry, and other adjacent businesses and consistently putting out content highlighting the people he meets in his personal and professional life. The success of the show is due in part to the way Justin conducts his interviews, which focus on personal stories and the interesting parts of the individuals’ lives without getting too lost in the weeds with technical jargon or sales pitches. The other part of the show’s popularity is, understandably, the charisma of the host, with Justin inspiring his guests to dig deep and talk about those moments in their lives that have been transformative, steps on their journeys that may just get others to think more critically about their own stories. With no shortage of people trying to get on the show, Justin stays busy with the work, which he finds very rewarding.
Meanwhile, he also dreamed up a podcast for AES Drilling Fluids called “The Flowline,” which is a more educational offering that Justin likens to an audio version of a mud manual. “A mud manual is this huge textbook that a company has that’s kind of like a mud Bible,” he says. “So, I figured, why don’t we take the concepts from that and build it into a podcast? That way, while people are driving, they can learn about drilling fluids.” Justin also went back to school at the University of Colorado Denver to get his master’s degree in global energy management, expanding his knowledge and skills and improving his career. He’s almost done, which he’s happy about, noting the intensity of the program and how much time and effort it’s taken. The payoff, he believes, will be significant.
Now Justin has a second child, and Nicole has started her own journey into real estate investment. “She focuses on syndications, various types of rentals, new development, and the thing she loves the most: helping others passively invest in real estate to create wealth for themselves and their families,” he explains. “She started her own company, called Wicked Holdings, and now she’s getting great attention. She’s been on six or seven podcasts, and she even wants to start her own. I’m so proud of her. She’s crushing it.”
Justin credits his parents for their inspiring him with their work ethic, for always pushing him to do and be more. “They made me work my butt off growing up,” he says. “I never had a day off. But that sort of work hard, entrepreneurial, do-everything-to-the-best-of-your-abilities mindset has been important. It’s been quite a journey, and I don’t even know where it’s going next. But it’s exciting to be a part of something.”
Thank you to Justin for sharing his story and for his incredible efforts with OGGN. We’re so glad you’re part of our team, and we can’t wait to see what you do next!
“So, what’s it like on the other side?”
This question has been asked of me by a handful of friends and former colleagues since I departed the oil and gas industry—at least for my day job—a month ago. As I’ve thought about it more, what really stood out to me is the concept of everything outside of oil and gas being the “other side”; or, in another sense, the “Other.” As a student of literature and, at one time, a reader of post-colonial theory, I wanted to explore this in a little bit more detail.
My desire with this article is to accomplish two things: first, to examine the oil and gas industry through a critical lens, and second, to provide some broad thoughts that take a deeper look at what I’ve witnessed in the admittedly short time since I jumped ship from oil and gas to move to my current job at a commercial real estate and investment management firm.
One of the most influential and credited post-colonial critics and theorists was Edward Said, whose landmark text Orientalism still serves as a major structural analysis of the field. While I don’t want—and almost certainly wouldn’t be able—to delve into a true analysis of the work in its entirety, for my purposes I’m interested in what Said viewed as the Other: that which lies outside of the Self. This concept, as it were, ties back to the very core of the issue plaguing the oil and gas industry today: the constant struggle between us and them, the familiar and unfamiliar.
In my discussions, the idea of being on the “other side” of oil and gas belies at least a subconscious belief that the industry exists for and by itself; it is, that is, the Self, while that which falls outside of it is the Other. This simple binary exists within many fields and broader theories, but in the context of Said’s work, the Self (or the Occident) represents what society views as normal: the standard, male-dominated hierarchy, typically white and European. The Other (or the Orient) is all that doesn’t fit these narrow criteria: minorities, women, non-Europeans.
I’m not writing this to discuss some of the inherent racism and sexism in the oil and gas industry, nor am I making a claim that all individuals within the industry fit into the construct I’m exploring. Instead, I use this as a framework housing my own thoughts on the intersection of Otherdom and oil and gas. This has manifested in both macro and micro instances.
Take, for example, the bizarre and defeating tendency of professions outside of technical domains to be considered somehow less significant. I cannot tell you the number of times, during my eight years in the industry, that I was told something to the effect of, “You wouldn’t get it; you were never a hand”; though, ironically, the entire purpose of my job was to get whatever “it” was and communicate that to the world. This not only impacted my own interpersonal relationships but the very fabric of how the industry attracts and retains talent.
Ask, if you will, why so many oil and gas companies must hire outside resources for functions like marketing, communications, PR, graphic design, and so forth?
I’ll tell you my opinion: because the people who hold those positions are frequently underpaid and undervalued, viewed largely as overhead. How many memes did we writers and artists view about our silly functions? “Oh, there’s the marketing department again!” might be the response to any given request. Yet, our output must hold some value, or companies wouldn’t seek to employ the services of outside agencies when talent is let go or departs, right? In fact, this is a big business: according to one report, oil and gas industry trade associations in the U.S. spent almost $1.4 trillion on public relations, advertising, and communications from 2008 to 2017.
Why, then, would the same organizations spending huge sums on agencies refuse to adequately compensate their own personnel? It may very well go back to the Self versus the Other. The perception of those in nontechnical functions as the Other betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the way human beings coexist and interact, but it returns to the struggle between that which is known and that which is not; that which is familiar, and that which isn’t. When you don’t understand something, you tend to underestimate its true worth.
On a much higher level, the oil and gas industry’s positioning against the world—its constant battle to validate its existence—also highlights its Otherdom, yet in this instance, perception is everything. To those in oil and gas, especially blue-collar workers, everything outside of oil and gas is the Other, even those who would often be allies. To all those outside of the industry, however, oil and gas itself is the Other: not understood, something to be feared. The negative reflection in this construct is pervasive and almost inescapable for those in the industry, creating a never-ending loop of attack and defense that ultimately accomplishes nothing.
The oil and gas industry’s challenges to renewable energy/the energy transition—manifested most commonly, at least in my experience, by those in the oilfield service and equipment sector, rather than at operating companies—perpetuate this us-versus-them mentality. Have you ever seen a post about how those who dislike oil and gas should freeze in winter? Did Liberty’s campaign trolling North Face after the retailer’s disastrous mishandling of an order—which, I’ll say just in case, I do believe was hypocritical virtue-signaling at its finest—shift public opinion at all, or did it just make those within the industry feel better? Is Energy Transfer’s educational yet slightly condescending campaign highlighting what a date looks like without oil and gas going to change perception? It may, but most likely, it will not. When we cast things into “the garish light of obviousness,” as famed Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert once wrote, making people out to be stupid, they typically do not react well; they retract into an existing worldview and hunker down even more than before.
The fact that hydrocarbon E&P and the petroleum products developed with the resources coming out of the earth are critical to human happiness and flourishing is an axiomatic truth, yet it is also denied or ignored by many. In pushing to significantly alter society’s view on the industry, however, is oil and gas actually doing more harm than good? I would argue that sinking deeper into being the Other—though in its own mind, perhaps, embracing being the Self—does indeed run counter to the industry’s goals, serving as an unfortunate impediment to dialogue and collaboration. Of course, this is also the fault of the other side for demonizing the oil and gas industry. While it’s flawed, the oilfield also does incredible good for the people of this planet, and it’s making significant strides in better environmental stewardship.
There are additional implications in Otherness around how the colonized (the Other) and the colonizers (the Self) view the world. Said argues that the colonizers treat the colonized as less than human; they are what lies outside of the center. In dehumanizing that which is unfamiliar, the Self is validated as being “true,” while the Other becomes just that: something other than human. There is a sense of inferiority in this description, a dichotomy that furthers the divide. Said noted that in many instances, though, the Other is something created by the Self precisely to strengthen the Self’s own identity, and those in oil and gas are most certainly interested in bolstering the industry’s identity.
Worth saying is that there is generally, at least in the context of this discussion, no inherent maliciousness behind what is happening; most people living their day-to-day lives are not invested, on either side, in spending precious time and energy to actively belittle each other. There are exceptions, of course, but I think that in the broadest sense, this statement is true. However, as there is a struggle between oil and gas and that which lies “on the other side,” so too must there be an identification of “us” and of “them.” Both sides attribute stereotypes to the other in defense of their argument—windmills kill birds, for example, while oil and gas is populated by nothing more than greedy executives indifferent to the planet’s woes—and attempt to portray each other as the Other. Thus does the cycle I mentioned above continue.
Another interesting trend I’ve noticed is that some people have felt in some way that I “abandoned” or “gave up” on the oil and gas industry. While this may not have been said outright, it’s been clear to me in several conversation that the individuals felt this way. This highlights a duality in the oilfield that most have probably witnessed firsthand: the perilous walk on the razor’s edge between loyalty and fervor.
I can say with confidence that most of the people in the oil and gas industry are phenomenal human beings, individuals who get up every day and, in some form or fashion, contribute to making sure we live our lives comfortably and happily. Many of these people do backbreaking labor in some of the harshest, most dangerous conditions on the planet, despite rarely being thanked for it. Loyalty to these people, and thus to the industry and cause they serve, makes sense, and is something to be admired.
The problem is that when this loyalty extends beyond its rational limit, you find fervor. You find those who cannot, or will not, accept any viewpoint outside of their own. You find those who will challenge any and all resistance to their beliefs, even if they’re objectively wrong. This, too, occurs on both sides of the debate, and indeed it occurs throughout many things in life. For me to be called out as the Other for pursuing a better career for myself, however, showcases what happens when loyalty is taken too far. Now I am part of the problem—even though I am in fact part of the solution—because I have left that which is known. I’m no longer familiar, no longer contributing to the narrative on a daily basis.
I only hope that through my continued work in the industry, those who have felt this way will change their minds.
I don’t have a solution to the issues highlighted in my rambling text above, but I do have high-level thoughts on what I’ve seen while in my new job at Hines. One thing that stood out to me since the first day—indeed, since the first interview before I’d even gotten the job—was that this was a company with culture. This organization stood for something that didn’t need to be explained, something beyond the cut-and-paste copy around company values provided by HR departments in typical onboarding materials. There was a legacy here, something to be proud of.
I actually posted about this when I got a surprise package in the mail with a hardbound biography of Hines’ founder and longtime Houston philanthropist, Gerald D. Hines, three days after starting. While companies often try to get their employees to feel what I felt when I opened that package, much of it comes across as fluff, hollow attempts at manufacturing inspiration. You cannot create culture with words alone; some things simply must be felt. I found that in the oil and gas industry, the idea that merely saying something meant your employees would believe it was relied upon far too much.
Another obvious difference, but one worth noting, was in the way employees are treated, both in compensation and professional development. The millennial generation remembers stories of “the good ol’ days” of oil and gas, when headcounts were high, bonuses were huge, and company parties were many. My dad used to walk around OTC and drink Crown Royal at booths while smoking cigars and schmoozing with fellow drilling fluids engineers. I remember when I was a server at Willie G’s and BHP rented our entire event room and had a catered party for 150 people when someone received a promotion.
Is that excessive? Perhaps, but where’s the happy medium? I would regularly converse with friends who were getting promotions, salary bumps, and bonuses, often tied to their overperformance. Yet when working in oil and gas, we were made to feel that we should be thankful simply to have a job when “times were tough.” Salary cuts and furloughs happened as what started as a cyclical downturn extended into a years-long period of capital constraint and reduced activity. The most unfortunate were simply cut altogether when companies did reductions in force, usually to appease shareholders after years of unimpressive earnings.
Is oil and gas the only industry beholden to the vagaries of commodity prices? Absolutely not, but it just might experience the wildest swings.
Where there is room to improve is in remembering that your employees are always your greatest asset; without them, there is nothing. As I mentioned earlier, saying this is one thing, but meaning it is another. Simple acts of kindness reminding employees that they matter go a long way. At Hines, we have a free breakfast for our Houston employees every other Thursday. This isn’t expensive or outlandish, but it reminds me that they care about me. I can walk into the office that morning knowing there’s a warm meal waiting for me. That’s a really nice feeling, and it’s not fake; it comes from understanding what makes people tick.
Companies might want to cut into those profit margins just a little more to keep those awesome employees, whether they’re writers or field hands, data scientists or equipment assemblers, salespeople or drilling engineers. They’ll be thankful that they made that investment when their talent sticks around to take the company to new heights, and at that point, maybe escaping being the Other will become far more feasible. There will be no Self and Other, no us versus them; there will only be energy, in its myriad forms, powering our lives and our potential.
The oil and gas industry is a critical piece of the energy puzzle and will continue to enable human civilization to evolve even as we look at a rapidly shifting world, one where net-zero targets, reduced drilling activity, and rigorous ESG standards become the norm. Even in this world, technology and people will chart the path forward, and I’m proud to support them however I can.
I was chatting with a good friend of mine the other day when he asked me, “How do you find the time to write so much? How do you manage everything?” Well, managing everything is actually quite challenging. I often work late at night, when I’m most creative, and on the weekends. Many would argue that your professional life bleeding into your personal life is simply the way of the world, given our “always-on” society, and I agree, to an extent. Finding ways to use your creative energy after the workday has ended is critical if you’re a driven person, but even those of us who do so have to be careful that we don’t overdo it.
Thanks almost entirely to how efficient I am with my work, I’m typically able to complete tasks for my day job during standard working hours. However, I also write freelance for not one, not two, not three, but four organizations outside of my full-time job, and there are other opportunities constantly popping up. This puts me in that precarious spot where turning down work could mean that the customer will go somewhere else and not come back; a risk I can take, thankfully, since I’m employed. Still, the desire to consistently produce good content for those with whom I work is strong, especially as many of them are friends and former colleagues. In doing well for them, I help them shine. I lift them up in front of their bosses and employers by giving them a high-quality product. It’s a win-win situation.
Since I started writing for OGGN in February, I’ve published 17 stories on everyone from industry leaders and executives to product line managers and manufacturing employees. My goal in doing this has been to not only highlight the phenomenal ideas and innovations coming out of these folks but to briefly shine a spotlight on their personal lives. I believe there is clear value in allowing people to step out of the technical and business-focused conversations that dominate their interactions and focus on who they are, what they believe in, and what inspires them. I hope that through these stories, my readers can reflect on their own journeys through life and reconnect with what really matters: people, passion, and purpose.
Writing and publishing these stories is a labor of love. First, I have to identify the subject, approach them, convince them it’s worth their time to do this, and set up an interview. The interview takes about an hour, give or take. Then, I take that recording and re-watch it as I write the piece, pulling quotes directly from the interviewee and capturing their unique perspective. I go through the process of listening and transcribing while trying to balance my own writing with quotes and information from those with whom I speak. This isn’t an unusual process, but I’ve found that many people outside of the writing domain don’t really think about all the steps between point A and point B. You just do the interview and write the article, right?
It’s no exaggeration to say that any given piece can take 10 hours or more. Though I’ve certainly written some in less time, the reality is that human beings aren’t meant to hold their attention for such a prolonged stretch. Like most, I get distracted. I get tired. My mind wanders. I get bored and need to do something else. So, each story is produced across several sittings; and, as a writer, I find myself editing and rewriting as I go, refining the story until I get exactly what I want—though even then, it’s never perfect.
At the end of it all, I still have to pass my version back to the interviewee for final review and comments. While I prefer that the work remain largely unaltered, not everyone agrees. Some see this as a PR or marketing opportunity, which is not the intent, and want to take out the very things they spoke about in the interview. I’ve gotten several items back that had key information deleted and entire sections rewritten or removed altogether. This then opens up additional dialogue on ownership of the article’s content—i.e., does the writer or the person about whom the article was written truly own it?—how much can be edited, and so forth. It adds layers of complexity to an already long process.
These aren’t short articles, either. If you think about how human beings generally consume information, it’s in short bursts. Thanks to technology and our reliance on increasingly bite-sized snippets of information, reading an article that’s 4,000 words is quite an ask. I’ve insisted that I not dumb down or limit how much I write on a given subject, as that would defeat the purpose. If no one can make it to the end, so be it.
In looking at all the stories I’ve written so far, we’re at a grand word count total of 44,861. That’s a lot of words. If you’re in energy and read industry publications like World Oil or JPT, think about an article you might come across in those; such articles are usually between 2,000 and 3,000 words. You can imagine how much has gone into producing 15 times that amount. But why am I even writing this, you might ask? I’m writing this because it’s time for me to slow down, and I want anyone who follows me closely—whoever you may be—to have some clarity on my reasons for doing so. Hell, maybe you’ll even be inspired to look more closely at your own work-life balance.
I think it’s important for me to acknowledge that I’m a bit burned out from trying to adhere to a rigorous publishing schedule of two articles per month, in addition to the many other assignments I’m juggling. I want my readers to understand that it’s OK to admit that you’re tired and step back from a passion project. It’s OK to take a breath and focus on the most important things in your life instead of constantly trying to do more. It’s OK to say, “No, I’m good,” put down whatever you’re doing, and relax.
I’ll continue writing for OGGN, as I believe in the work I do, and I hope my readers do, too. I already have ideas for my next two subjects. You just won’t see, at least for a while, perfectly scheduled content from me coming out right on cue twice a month. If you made it to the end of this one, congratulations! I appreciate your time—I know it’s precious.
In Episode 25 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed Andrew Bruce, CEO of Data Gumbo. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester had a chance to talk to Andrew about his college adventures, working in programming and early experiences in tech, formative years at NOV helping to launch the company’s NOVOS process automation platform, and founding Data Gumbo—which transformed from a drilling data analytics company to a pioneer in blockchain-based smart contracts.
“People are always asking me to write a book about my life,” chuckles Andrew Bruce, CEO of Data Gumbo. “Thing is, it would only be about three-and-a-half pages long, because most of it I wouldn’t want to be published!”
Andrew went to school on the Isle of Man, a self-governing British Crown Dependency in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Island. For those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Britain and its territories, a Crown Dependency is not a sovereign state, but rather a territory for which the United Kingdom is responsible. The island has its own government, and there has been a significant Gaelic influence since the 5th century AD.
“It’s famous for tax evasion and motorcycle racing,” Andrew laughs. “If you’ve ever heard of the Isle of Man TT, it’s very well known for that.” Known worldwide as one of the most dangerous racing events on the planet, the Isle of Man TT has been held since the early 1900s. In that time, it’s managed to rack up more than 200 fatalities.
Andrew explains that back then, there were effectively two paths for a young person thinking about their future: go to a university, or go to what’s called a “polytechnic,” where you can take vocational courses in technical domains. He also recalls that you could do what was called a “sandwich course,” where you received practical work experience in addition to your standard academic pursuits. “I wanted to do that, but at the time, the only people who were doing sandwich courses in the UK were polytechnics,” Andrew says. “My dad was a complete snob, and he said, ‘No son of mine is ever going to go to a polytechnic.’ So, I had a bet with my dad that I could find a company to sponsor me and send me to university in America.”
This was the late 1970s and early 80s, where advances in computer science were starting to accelerate. “Long story short, I found someone to sponsor me and send me to university,” Andrew recalls. “I had to work for them every summer and Christmas holiday, and for 2 years after I graduated. I’ll leave all the colorful stories out, but I ended up in Florida, at the Florida Institute of Technology.” Previously a C and D student who’d enjoyed spending time playing rugby and cricket far more than burying his head in a textbook, Andrew suddenly found himself getting A’s in all of his courses. “Clearly there was something wrong with the university,” he jokes. “Andrew Bruce was not an A student.”
Deciding to go to a different university, Andrew was spurred on by his roommate from Massachusetts, who insisted that all the best schools were in New England. “I couldn’t stand him, and I thought he was an idiot,” Andrew says with a grin. “So, when he told me to not to go to WPI because it was a crazy place where they let you make up your own degree and program, I of course went there—if he didn’t like it, there was probably some merit to it.” Suddenly faced with a school that was incredibly challenging and academically rigorous, Andrew simultaneously found his sponsorship by the company in the UK falling through. “That was for a lot of colorful reasons,” he says, “not the least of which was that the CFO stole £20 million from them. So, they didn’t have any money to sponsor me anymore.”
Fortunately, Andrew was accepted into a co-op program with Digital Equipment Corporation, which provided all the equipment at the university. The schedule he had to work to balance a full-time job with his coursework was brutal. “I’d get up at 4:00 a.m. and work until noon,” he explains. “That’s how I’d put in my 8 hours. Then, I’d go to my afternoon classes. That’s how I paid for university.”
When he went back to the UK after finishing his degree, Andrew’s experience with Digital Equipment helped land him a new gig. “Thank God I’d worked for Digital Equipment, because at the time, the entire city of London was going through banking deregulation,” he says. “The industry used Digital Equipment machines, so I was able to go and work as a contract programmer at Citibank, making £25 an hour.” Andrew was primarily involved with building futures systems and options systems for the trade floor. Of course, it couldn’t be that easy, as he found out when a mystery letter from WPI arrived in the mail. Opening it up, he was dumbfounded by the contents.
“They told me that I was one-eighth of a credit shy of graduating,” he laughs. “I didn’t think they had credits, but apparently, I was an eighth of a credit short. So, I asked them if I could come back and sail around the Wachusett Reservoir while drinking beer to get a PE credit. They didn’t care—they just said I had to do something to finish the degree.” Back in America, Andrew sailed around the reservoir, loafed about on the boat, and put away a few pints of beer while wrapping up those last few hours necessary to get the degree.
Degree in hand at last, he got a job as a consultant for Myers Holum, performing installations of fixed-asset systems and payroll systems for a variety of customers. “I had two very interesting clients at the same time,” he recalls. “One of them was the First Church of Christ, Scientist, where my language got me in trouble; the other was the New York Post, where my language helped me fit right in. Switching between the two of them was a colorful experience.” While the Church didn’t offer any benefits, the New York Post had to deal with 14 unions; on that account, Andrew had to program all the union laws into the payroll system.
After Myers Holum transferred Andrew to Houston, he stuck around for a bit, even getting some firsthand experience with a phenomenon native Houstonians know all too well: flooding. “I discovered in a hurry what a Texas flood is,” he says. “I was working at Temple-Inland Forest Products, and one day, it was raining, and they said it was going to flood. I laughed at them, and the next thing I know, there was a firetruck rolling down the driveway to rescue me in a boat. I’d never seen anything like it in my life.”
Andrew then had his first flirtation with entrepreneurialism, leaving Myers Holum with the hope of starting his own company. His intent was to write trading systems, but he quickly learned that you needed more capital than he had to successfully run your own business. Additionally, he was actually in the country illegally, as Myers Holum had been his sponsor and without them, his H1 visa was invalid. Andrew ran out of money to write his trading system, so he worked as a delivery driver under the table for a while. “Then, I asked my girlfriend at the time if she wanted to get married, and she said no,” he chuckles. “So, I was prepared to pack my bags and head back overseas. She changed her mind and said yes, and after working it out, we eventually made our way to the courthouse.”
As he and his new wife worked through the paperwork to have him legally in the country, Andrew was able to quit the delivery driver job and get back into programming as a contract programmer for Texas Eastern Products Pipeline Company (now Enterprise Products) helping them to build a scheduling system. His journey into oil and gas continued when he went to work for Texaco Natural Gas, where he assisted with the development of a trading system. That entrepreneurial itch, however, never really went away, and Andrew still had the dream of having his own company.
Briefly spending time with a friend who had a headhunting business, Andrew stepped away from the programming world to learn about sales and business development. When that company was acquired, he felt that the time was right to launch his own headhunting business. “With Texaco as my main customer, I built a headhunting company that provided IT resources for the oil and gas industry,” he explains. “Then, after the merger was announced between Chevron and Texaco, I asked if they’d be interested in commercializing the trading system I’d helped built all those years ago. They said yes, we negotiated a price, and then they invested in the company.”
Things were looking up until the Enron scandal, which happened just 5 months later. “The target market disappeared from underneath us overnight,” Andrew remembers. “I spent 5 years trying to keep that company alive, but I ended up selling the assets to a competitor.” Back on the job market, he started working as an industry analyst, with one of his main clients being SunGard Energy (now part of FIS). They quickly hired him on as the Senior Vice President of Product Management and Strategy, with the role overseeing energy trading and risk management systems.
A year and a half passed rather uneventfully, and Andrew found himself at a company Christmas party in a kilt. “As I was walking away from the President of the company and his wife, they asked me to give them a flash,” he says mischievously. “So, I did, and then I got fired. I didn’t last there very long. Moral of the story, don’t wear kilts to Christmas parties—if you’re Andrew, at least.”
He next went to a company called nGenera (later Moxie Software and goMoxie), which provided end-to-end software solutions to manage and accelerate collaboration among employees and between enterprises and their customers. “We imagined a world where you could use a model of the energy industry as a new way of thinking about energy trading, with all the counterparties interconnected,” Andrew says. “This was actually the first foray into what we’re really dealing with today. It’s pretty interesting that we were thinking about this way back then.”
When a consulting gig was sold to National Oilwell Varco (NOV), Andrew was the chosen one to take on the new job. “They looked for someone who had ‘energy’ on their business card, and that guy was me,” he recalls. “I’d never seen an oil rig in my life. The closest I’d come to energy was energy trading, but that was it. I knew nothing about drilling rigs or upstream at all.” Nominated for the job regardless, Andrew went to work with Pete Miller, then the company’s CEO, as part of the team developing a 30-year strategy for the company. “NOV said that they liked my style,” he remembers. “So, they hired me.”
Starting off in Organizational Development for NOV’s Rig Solutions (now Rig Technologies) business, Andrew was tasked with helping align people in the operating segment behind a clear vision, strategy, and culture. All the years of M&A activity had left a confused culture across multiple offices and multiple continents with little desire to collaborate. His solution? A new control system. “Because of all the different control systems across all these acquisitions, there were multiple product engineering, aftermarket, and service groups,” he explains. “So, I said we should make a new control system that acts as a forcing function for one aligned strategy within Rig Solutions.” Pete Miller told him to imagine the future and design backward from that, not design something forward based on what you already have. This lesson, Andrew says, has stuck with him to this day, even informing his current work.
One trip to Draper Laboratories later and Andrew was inspired, especially by the way that spacecraft were able to autonomously land on an object using technology developed by Draper. He saw in this a way to autonomously drill a well. “So, we set about to create an autonomous drilling system for drilling rigs, based on the algorithms from Draper,” he says. “We worked closely with them during that time, and we drilled our first autonomous well on a test rig in Ulrig, outside of Stavanger, Norway. We also worked with Chesapeake Energy and Nomac (now Patterson-UTI Drilling) to drill on live rigs in the U.S.” The testing was successful, and Andrew said this time was formative because the projects involved adding the new system—which the industry now knows as NOVOS—on top of existing control systems, creating layers of new functionality and process automation that brought together the tasks executed by surface machines with high-speed downhole data informing drilling parameter optimization. This was something unheard of, an advancement truly meant to drive the drilling industry forward.
When Pete left in 2014, Andrew followed closely behind, taking a hop and a skip right on over to NOV’s competitor, MHWirth. Though the hope was that Andrew would help accelerate the company’s innovation and allow it to better compete with NOV, the prolonged downturn continued to take its toll on company headcounts, good people getting let go left and right. When the dust had settled and he realized he wouldn’t be able to execute a transformation plan, Andrew found himself in an executive leadership role—Chief Operating Officer—at a company that didn’t really need one. “You don’t need a global COO when you’ve laid everyone off,” he says. “So, we agreed to part ways.” As has been the case with much of Andrew’s story, when one door closed, another opened—and this time, he decided that he was going to successfully found a disruptive company.
That company? Data Gumbo, with humble beginnings in a former methamphetamine lab—standard operating procedure for startups, right? “I started Data Gumbo in what was a former meth lab—and there’s a whole story there—in December of 2015,” Andrew says. “It’s an experience that most people don’t appreciate. A person is defined a lot by the company they work for. When you step outside of that company, all the credibility that you were given because of who you worked for goes away. You’re literally calling people you called 3 weeks ago, and now they won’t answer the phone. It’s a chastening experience to start a company from scratch.”
To overcome some of these challenges, he started working with Station Houston, a local hub for entrepreneurs that provided him with access to the investment community in the city and connected him with like-minded people trying to get businesses off the ground. “I have to give Houston credit for what we’ve been able to do at Data Gumbo,” Andrew says. “I don’t believe we could have done this anywhere else in the world except Houston. The people have been so incredibly generous with time, money, resources, brainstorming, opening doors—it’s been a humbling experience, how Houston has supported us at Data Gumbo and the entrepreneurial community.”
With a total team of five people, Andrew and his cohorts went about bootstrapping the company, securing funding for product development via a grant from the Norwegian government. The first version was a data platform that aggregated and standardized data while putting in stricter security protocols for access. This data could then be used by the appropriate parties for machine learning, AI, condition-based maintenance, and data warehousing. With so much information coming in from so many assets—many with different owners—during an operation, Data Gumbo’s solution made sense for an industry looking to do more with its data.
When Data Gumbo landed a contract with Hilcorp, things escalated quickly. “It was a great day, but it was also a terrible day at the same time,” Andrew explains. “We had to have workers’ compensation insurance and all the liability insurance. That cost money, and we had no money—so, how the hell are we going to pay for this?” Thanks to Insperity, they secured the necessary workers’ comp by putting Andrew on the company payroll at minimum wage and promising to hire five people in five months; an odd plan, but one that worked, somehow. They then shopped around for the other insurance they needed to get going and prepared to help Hilcorp analyze their drilling programs and make them more efficient.
As this was going on, Andrew was in talks with a supermajor about benchmarking performance in their Gulf of Mexico operations using the Data Gumbo platform. “They said that if they could save a minute per drillpipe connection, they would save $250 million per year,” he said. “It was a staggering amount of money, especially for drillpipe connections, because I knew they could save that minute. We’d built the rigs and control systems at NOV. So, the big question we had was, why on earth aren’t they doing this already?” The answer? They couldn’t get the drilling contractors to work with them. The contractors would love to split the $250 million with the oil company, but they didn’t trust the oil companies to pay the bonus. So, there was a stalemate, with a big payout if the impasse could be solved.
When a friend at Microsoft brought up the idea of cryptocurrency in the energy industry, Andrew wasn’t particularly interested. What did come to mind, though, was the smart contracts offered by Ethereum. “So, I started thinking that we could use our data platform to measure how long a drillpipe connection is taking by taking data straight from the control system,” he explains. “Then, we could feed that into a smart contract, or a computer algorithm, and use that to program the terms of the incentive contract.” The results from each side are then stored in a blockchain’s distributed ledger, which cannot be changed by either side. Data Gumbo, using its GumboNet smart contract network based on the power of blockchain, created trust in an untrusted relationship.
The concept worked, and when Andrew presented at an IADC conference in Amsterdam in 2017 on automating performance contracts, the idea was met with significant interest. When approached afterward, many attendees highlighted that if you could automate a performance contract, you could automate any contract, with Data Gumbo as the “honest broker” of the information. “That was the day we became a blockchain company,” Andrew recalls. “Now, we’re solving a really interesting industry problem. We’re helping them save 10%, and sometimes up to 30%, of their spend.”
Soon after, Equinor started looking more closely at the company, ultimately wanting to be an investor. After an arduous process of proving the solution’s viability, Equinor Ventures did just that, with Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures also coming in on the Series A round. Between the two companies, Data Gumbo obtained a $6 million investment, propelling it to new heights.
Data Gumbo also worked with Equinor to utilize the network. “We did our first big offshore project with Equinor and a service company, automating contracts for drilling equipment, services, and fluids,” Andrew explains. “We were connecting the oil company, the service company, the drilling contractor, the offshore vessel provider, and the helicopter provider, and aggregating all of that data. What previously took 60 days, we gave them on the first day of the following month.”
Today, Data Gumbo continues to build and expand GumboNet so that people don’t need to understand the myriad complexities of building their own blockchains to tap the benefits of smart contracts. Instead, they can subscribe to the network and start automating contracts between counterparties. If someone isn’t in the network, they can join and transact with existing members. The network is changing the way the energy industry does business, dramatically altering a very process-heavy series of transactions across the most complex of supply chains into something very simple and intuitive. No more people in dark corners reconciling invoices; no more going through 34 steps to execute which should be a quick and easy process; no more extended DSOs that threaten the financial health of the service company; and no more lack of transparency into lease operating expenses. “We can change all that,” Andrew says. “Now, you make a delivery, run the smart contract, pay, and you’re done. All that other delay and all that expense goes away.” Everyone wins.
Critically important in the current environment and moving forward will be how companies address their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals. With new green targets and increased pressure from investors and regulatory bodies to improve ESG and sustainability, companies are devoting an incredible amount of human capital, time, and money to trying to measure criteria that are often nebulous. Furthermore, due to a lack of standardization in measuring ESG metrics, there’s no guarantee that results will be accurate, timely, or repeatable—think, for example, of operators divesting assets and claiming they’re greener when the assets still exist, just with another company. By putting ESG metrics on a smart contract secured by blockchain, as Data Gumbo does with its solution on the network called GumboNet ESG, sustainability becomes measurable, and the benefits or consequences of ESG performance cannot be changed.
Data Gumbo may have offices in Houston, Stavanger, and London now, but what about those humble beginnings in the former meth lab in Fort Bend County? Andrew laughs and explains the history. “In the back of my house, there’s a 6,000-square-foot warehouse with a 2-ton crane, two massive extractor fans, drop-downs for the water and power, big rolling doors…it was a purpose-made, industrial meth lab. They had 14 people working there full-time. When the guy got caught—and it was one of the biggest drug busts in Fort Bend history—and went to jail, his dad was able to buy the property. I ended up buying the land from his dad and needed an office space, and this guy had built two offices into this meth lab with showers, bathrooms, air-conditioning, and heating. So, Data Gumbo was started in what was formerly a commercial-scale meth lab. I wasn’t looking for a meth lab, but that’s where it started!”
With the company still growing, Data Gumbo has even made some high-profile hires lately, like industry veteran Robin MacMillan. “It’s incredible,” Andrew says, “to have a man of his caliber leading our sales team.” The company is also looking to expand into industries outside of oil and gas, since automated smart contracts are applicable to virtually every industrial sector and supply chain. The sky is the limit, and those who can look ahead would be wise to hop on the train now. We at OGGN wish Andrew and the team at Data Gumbo continued success in their journey!
In Episode 135 of the Oil and Gas Onshore Podcast, host Justin Gauthier interviewed John Betz, Senior Metals Reporter at Argus Media. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester spoke more with John about growing up in Connecticut, early writing jobs in oil and gas, his current role covering aluminum markets as a commodities reporter, and a lifelong love of making music.
John Betz—or Jack, as close friends call him—spent the first couple years in Queens, New York, but the family quickly moved to Fairfield, Connecticut due to crime in the neighborhood and the need for a better schooling system. Eventually, they landed a bit further up the coast in Madison. Jack remembers those years best, though he admits that things weren’t always easy for someone who was a bit different from everyone else. “I was a weird kid, and I still wonder if the ‘gifted program’ they said I was in was actually special education,” he says with a laugh. “I had a lot of learning disabilities, and I was on Ritalin. I didn’t fit in that well, and I had kind of a bad time in school. I was good at English, and bad at everything else.”
In middle school, Jack joined the cross-country team as an intramural activity, though it was less for love of running and more because he needed something to do. “I didn’t have a lot of friends, and my mom was a cross-country runner,” he explains. “So, since I didn’t know people who were doing extracurricular activities, I got into running after dabbling in a few other things. I was never great at it, but it was good exercise and good for my self-esteem.” Unfortunately, Jack’s connection to the sport was broken by a life-altering accident in which a speeding car came blowing down the road and clipped him with its mirror. While it might not seem too bad given the size of the object hitting him, the damage was catastrophic.
“I was training for cross country early that morning, and when I got hit by the mirror, it flipped me in front of the car,” he recalls. “I got hit so hard it blew me out of my shoes. I was on the side of the road for a while, but thankfully, my mom was there with me. The crazy thing was that she’d been hit on the same day several decades earlier. So, we kind of thought it was fate that she happened to be with me that day.” Bleeding profusely, one of Jack’s ribs had punctured a lung, and he had a compound fracture on his ankle, the bone jutting out in a grisly scene that looked like it was from a horror movie. He had landed on his arm, as well, which was crushed by the impact. After his mom flagged down a car to borrow a phone—with neither mother nor son carrying one of the clunky devices back then while they ran—and call an ambulance, Jack was on his way to the hospital, set up for multiple surgeries and months of recovery between the hospital and extensive rehab.
“I had to get a lot of plates and screws and pins and all that,” he continues. “So, even after I recovered, that dashed any hopes of cross country for me. Not that I had been particularly great at it—and I could still run—but it wasn’t the same.” When one door closed, however, another opened, and Jack was able to revisit his passion for music. While he’d had a guitar before and he’d always liked music, the extensive time laid up in bed provided ample opportunity for him to explore that creative energy. As sometimes happens with fickle teenagers, many of Jack’s so-called friends also abandoned him during this time, the inability to hang out proving too burdensome for the relationship to handle. As a result, Jack was possessor of an enormous amount of free time.
“All of a sudden, I had a lot of time to myself,” he says. “Since I’d got some money from the accident, I used part of it to buy a MacBook Pro, and then I started tinkering with GarageBand. I was almost entirely self-taught, but what people thought of what I made wasn’t important to me. I just loved to make music.” By the end of the year, the largely recuperated Jack was up and about again, though not without challenges due to limited mobility in one knee after a large rod was placed in his leg. Music at this time was also a form of therapy, because the activities in which he could participate were limited. In another interesting twist of fate, the man who’d let Jack’s mom borrow his phone when they needed to call an ambulance turned out to be employed in the music industry. He’d checked up on Jack through his recovery, and at the end of it all, he gifted Jack several guitar pedals. Even when the rod was removed a year and a half later in a second surgery, making music had become such a core part of his life that Jack knew he’d never live without it again.
High school was largely uneventful after Jack’s brush with death, and then, after 2 years at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, a small, private, Catholic university in Merrimack, New Hampshire, he moved to Houston, Texas for romance—a relationship, he’s quick to clarify, that’s long since ended. Fortunately for those of us in Houston, Jack ended up staying here, going to St. Thomas University and switching his major from Humanities to Communications, with a concentration in Print Journalism. While at St. Thomas, he started writing for the now-defunct local publication Free Press Houston, which was a monthly magazine focused on arts, entertainment, culture, and politics. Despite the magazine not having the pedigree of daily newspapers, it was a fixture in local establishments, with a circulation of 30,000 issues per month. Jack admits that though the role didn’t bolster his writing ability very much, it did provide stability and visibility, as well as access to things in the art and music communities he might have otherwise missed.
After graduating, Jack continued to moonlight at Free Press Houston while transitioning into writing at one of the oil and gas industry’s longest-running publications: World Oil. It was a major change for Jack, as the review and editing process was incredibly rigorous versus his work at Free Press Houston, which was less formal. The mentorship, though, was also on another level, with Jack briefly working for two established and well-respected industry veterans. “I had some great mentors there, including Kurt Abraham, who taught me a lot about writing and editing,” Jack says. “He was always very patient with me. Pramod Kulkarni, who’s now an executive director at the Clean Oil & Gas Foundation, was another great one.” The job was mostly editing and rewriting articles to adhere to style and word count requirements, and Jack not only improved as a writer during this time but learned an incredible amount about the energy industry. “They forced me to step up my game,” he says. “It was my first truly professional writing job, and I’m very grateful I had that opportunity.”
Jack admits that this first job ended up in them parting ways after Kurt realized that he needed someone with a little more experience, but he had become part of the oil and gas industry, opening doors he wouldn’t have had a year prior. His next job, which he started almost immediately after World Oil, was with a newly formed division of Lloyd’s Register (LR), an historical organization based out of London that was primarily known as a marine classification society. Due to the acquisition of two companies that were well-known for their inspection and certification of blowout preventers (BOPs), the Lloyd’s Register Energy division (now Vysus Group) needed a team of technical editors to review the comprehensive reports produced by offshore surveyors before those reports were submitted to operators and major governmental agencies, like BSEE and BOEM. That’s where Jack came in.
“The job at LR required a lot of editing,” Jack recalls. “The writing was kind of menial, but I was able to learn so much about the oil and gas industry, especially offshore.” The final reports, which the team would prepare and send to customers worldwide in giant binders, could be more than 1,000 pages, much of it taken up by what was called the Acceptance Test Procedure, or ATP, for the BOP. This one Excel document was frequently more than 300 pages by itself, an exercise in endurance to edit the often-jumbled text, cell by cell, until the end was reached. What the technical editors were receiving was typically the notes of the surveyor offshore, typed in haste at odd hours in between inspections and sleeping.
The contents of the final report didn’t read like Shakespeare when they came through, which wasn’t a surprise—the surveyors had more important tasks to carry out, like making sure that the report accurately indicated any problems with the BOP and its related systems and controls. Fortunately for Jack, the workload kept him employed and busy, even though what he was doing wasn’t especially fulfilling. After a year and a half, enough was enough, and Jack felt like he had the experience to look for a more fitting editorial job. “I had some great colleagues at LR, and I had a really good time overall,” he says. “I’m grateful for my time there, but after a while—and I think this happened to a lot of people—I got bored, and I knew it was time to move on.”
Jack’s next gig was writing for the Journal of Petroleum Technology, or JPT, the flagship publication of the Society of Petroleum Engineers. Continuing the trend started at while writing for World Oil, Jack was gifted with a mentor early on, this time the magazine’s publisher, John Donnelly. “Me and John hit it off really well, and he was another person, like Kurt, who was a good professional mentor,” Jack explains. “He wasn’t just a friend and someone I could talk to, but someone who looked at my writing very critically and help me develop it. He helped me learn to self-edit so I could anticipate the things that editors would want from me. He was just fantastic, and he reminded me of my dad, in the best possible way—quiet, patient, intelligent.”
While much of JPT—at the time still a print magazine, with distribution to more than 70,000 people—was dedicated to technical content focused on published SPE papers, the magazine also had sections covering E&P news and trends, as well as information around commodity pricing, general oilfield economics, professional development, and so on. The more experienced editors were often tasked with taking the SPE papers, which were sometimes 25 pages or longer in length, and condensing them down to a few pages that clearly articulated what was explained in the paper. Perhaps more fortunately for Jack, he covered the opposite end, writing and editing more journalistic stories in line with his experience and education. While he was only there for a year and a half, the time was formative, and the gold star on the résumé helped him get a job at Argus Media, a mid-sized company based in London responsible for commodity pricing and reporting where, interestingly enough, John Donnelly had once worked.
After interviewing for what he thought would be a position covering crude oil pricing, Jack found himself in an entirely different industry: metals. “I didn’t quite realize the breadth of commodities Argus covered,” he says. “So, I ended up talking to the metals guy during the interview process, which involved speaking with editors from various different markets. We got along really well. I brought issues of World Oil and JPT where I was bylined and handed them out like party favors, and he was really impressed. I was told afterwards that more than one editor wanted to hire me—though I still don’t know if they were saying that to make me feel better—but I went with aluminum.” Though energy and metals overlap in some instances, they’re still relatively separated market niches, and aluminum is a niche within a niche. It’s a very specialized subsection of the metals market, with coverage focused in the hands of a select few.
“I’d say that in North America, there are 12 people or fewer who cover aluminum,” Jack says. “I’m glad that I wasn’t scared away by the fact that it was a niche, though now, I’m finding out more and more that aluminum is in everything. We’re in a time where aluminum is seeing record investment in things like automotive body sheets, new canning plants, and other applications that are seeing new money. It’s exciting to report on all that.”
While at its core Jack’s job requires him to report on the commodity, it’s not quite that simple. “I’ve had to do a lot of cold-calling and source-building,” he says. “I did have some skills from when I was at World Oil, because I was interviewing people in that role, and the same thing for JPT, but I wasn’t totally prepared for it. Calling people about prices and figuring out what different commodities are trading at is very different. It’s high-pressure. Some of these people aren’t even supposed to be talking to you, so you have to really build that relationship. It’s not scheduled or a one-and-done thing. You’re calling them frequently.” Whether it’s talking to someone every day or two or once a month, being the person in need of something puts Jack in a position where he has to justify the exchange and make it worth his contacts’ time and effort while obtaining what he needs to do his job. Getting to the level where he can do so fairly easily took time, but it paid off with a network of contacts willing to regularly provide insight into their companies and the broader market, which Jack then transforms into reports that Argus Media provides its subscribers. Sometimes, those reports are even picked up by publications focused on stock market analysis like Seeking Alpha and used as a sort of second-hand review. Seeing his work distributed in this way has been incredibly fulfilling.
September 2021 makes 6 years Jack will have been covering this market for Argus, but he’s never felt bored or stifled by the position. “It’s a big growth market, and there’s more and more news to cover as I’ve followed this beat,” he explains. “It’s getting busier and busier, and it’s a perfect niche for my skill set. What I love about Argus is that because we do a combination of news and price reporting, I’m able to write about both. The news stories are very distilled versions of key information in the market, and the need for them to be quickly read and understood really helped me tighten up my writing. In the past, I’d had a lot of time to get everything perfect. With daily news reporting, you’re trying to get scoops, so it’s very fast-paced and competitive.” Though initially daunting to switch from the types of monthly publications where deadlines were further out and editors were given substantial exposure to subject-matter experts and sources, Jack credits overcoming his fear of the challenge and the great mentorship he’s received through the years as being the catalysts for him to thrive in the position.
Of course, it isn’t all aluminum, all the time for Jack, as his passion for music is alive and well. “I’m still making music, and I love it,” he says. “Even though I bounce between periods of activity, it’s a big part of my life. I put out an album earlier this year on Spotify, for example, and some of my work is on Instagram under the name ‘Running Out of Reasons Band.’ I’m taking a break right now, though, to play some videogames and read more books.” He’s also marrying his fiancée, Chelsea Hunt, in December this year, staying busy with the myriad logistics of planning a wedding. Something of a horror movie buff, you might also find him searching through the most obscure and worst movies on any given Friday or Saturday night, scrolling through recommendations as he sinks deeper and deeper into the Shudder or Amazon black hole. This is actually something of a weekly tradition, with Jack and I meeting at his house for a watch session into the wee hours of the morning.
You rarely see me speak in my own voice in these articles, but I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Jack for being one of my best friends. You’re a hell of a guy, and I appreciate you. I, and the whole OGGN team—check out his podcast with dashing, bearded Canadian Justin Gauthier here—wish you nothing but good fortune and happiness as you move forward in your career and personal life.
In a special bonus article for OGGN Perspective, contributing writer Stephen Forrester had a chance to talk to Matt Wilks, President and Chief Financial Officer at ProFrac, about working for his family’s masonry business, their tumultuous journey into the world of hydraulic fracturing, and how he and the team at ProFrac are aiming to solve some of the oil and gas industry’s biggest ESG challenges.
“There are two types of people. People who have accomplished things and people who have claimed to accomplish things. The first group is less crowded.” ―Mark Twain
Right from the start, Matt Wilks knew he would be one who would accomplish things.
“The concept of working hard to achieve success stretches back generations,” says Matt. “Growth and drive must start somewhere, and for us, it was handed down from watching our grandfather, Voy Wilks, put in an honest day’s work, all to build a foundation for our family.” Following in his father’s footsteps, Dan Wilks started Central Masonry and Central Oil & Gas. Dan ran and managed those from 1977 to 1995, finding a love for the oil industry through Central Oil and Gas. During the ‘80s economic downturn in the oil and gas industry, Dan returned to the masonry business, where he and his brother Farris founded Wilks Masonry in 1995. It was built on a solid reputation for providing clients with quality craftsmanship while adhering to the highest standards of professionalism and safety.
“We’re a family of bricklayers, and I thought I would be a bricklayer my whole life,” Matt explains. Matt was inspired by the work ethic inherent in brick laying, noting “The chance to build something tangible and create a legacy brick by brick made it worth all the long days.” This hard work helped naturally foster the skills necessary to run a successful business. “Most of the things we know about operating a lucrative business, we learned while managing the family masonry business—managing people and supply chains, how to bid work, how to manage financials, and how your operations communicate and flow through.”
Starting in the family business at the age of 12 years old, he agreed to work for free during his vacations to see if he could learn what bricklaying was about. If he could learn quick enough, he could continue as a bricklayer.
Matt established a reputation in Wilks Masonry long before he became an executive, and it’s that ability to understand people, he says, that helped him succeed. “You learn to identify goals that everyone can get behind.” Matt continued to advance in his career based on his influential leadership skills, ability to negotiate and close deals, and talent for quickly analyzing and understanding financials. During Matt’s time at Wilks Masonry, he helped drive sales and profitability to record highs.
During this period, Dan and Farris began to venture into the oil and gas industry. After acquiring land in the Barnett Shale, the two began a drilling campaign ahead of the play becoming a prolific activity hotspot. Matt remembers a particular well, as he says, “came on screaming” before production quickly declined. “I remember being a kid when they drilled this well and I thought, this is it, we’ve made it! Then, 3 or 4 days later, it fizzled out.”
With demand for services high and fracking rapidly eclipsing drilling in a well’s AFE, Dan and Farris saw an opportunity to enter this burgeoning part of the industry. Due to the high cost of entry into the hydraulic fracturing space, they found a supplier, Warren-Cat, and built the first four units, and then began purchasing parts from a variety of providers. When the assembler they’d hired suddenly quit, they turned their attention to an unusual candidate: Larry Gerhart, a warranty supervisor for the company’s forklifts with a brilliant mechanical mind. He was a farmer who was a self-taught in building and repairing equipment. With no knowledge of hydraulic fracturing pumps, Larry built four fully functional frac pumps in 90 days.
A few years later, Matt began his foray into the Frac Tech business, holding senior positions in finance, operations, and logistics. In these years, Matt continued to differentiate himself with his leadership skills and keen business acumen. Matt admits, “It was a grind because this business is incredibly capital-intensive. It was tough, but we knew everything was on the line.”
A turning point for the business occurred in 2006, when Chesapeake bought roughly 20% of the company for $250 million, which allowed them to dramatically scale the business. As Matt explains, “We started cranking fleets out like there was no tomorrow. We ran into supply chain bottlenecks everywhere—we couldn’t get pumps or the power ends for them.” Matt remembers Dan driving down the highway and seeing the OEM’s power ends on trucks, yet mysteriously, Frac Tech couldn’t seem to get their shipments. So, he would track the trucks and go back to the OEM, asking them directly where the shipments were headed when Frac Tech had POs opened for months with no delivery. After finding out that the OEM was selling Frac Tech’s power ends to other customers at elevated prices due to part scarcity, Dan showed up on their doorstep to demand his product. The sheer tenacity and force of will it took to make this happen stuck with Matt to this day.
The same problem occurred with fluid ends, sand, and chemicals, so Frac Tech took a different approach—they started their own manufacturing, mining, and chemical engineering operations. “We started machining our own fluid ends,” Matt says. “We couldn’t get any sand, anywhere, so we opened up a sand mine. We couldn’t get chemicals, so we started up a chemical division.”
Building a company this way wasn’t the usual way of doing things, but Matt believes that being a part of the deals and working with his family significantly impacted the way he’s approached his career. “Being a part of the Wilks family, you quickly realize that we are determined to get things accomplished,” he says. “We were just able to get things done. There’s this perception that you need to get a business plan together, go pitch it to enough people, and if they believe in you, you might get some funding. We’ve always taken the approach that we’ll just get something started and go with it and compound those results.”
During Matt’s time at Frac Tech, logistics costs and infrastructure constraints became an issue, so Matt transitioned to oversee the supply chain side. The directive was simple: just make it happen. Matt went to railroad companies and negotiated better rates, and Frac Tech built many of its own trans load facilities. “We went from a couple hundred trucks to 600 trucks, which only represented about 60% of the loads we were running,” Matt explains. “We had to manage outside vendors, get really close with the underbelly of the business. This was a supply chain-driven business. It’s like in war; if you can’t keep the supply chain going, you can’t win the war. If you don’t have sand, you can’t frac. If you can’t get to the location, you can’t frac. We had to work out all these issues right as the industry was dramatically changing, and it was pretty wild.”
Much of what Matt learned through the Frac Tech years was related to the power of networking and building meaningful connections. This was a time—one where handshake-driven sales and personal relationships could have more weight than anything else—that has in many ways passed the oilfield by, with contracts and pricing now coordinated via procurement departments and often buried in organizational hierarchies and red tape.
When Frac Tech brought 24-hour operations to the market, it was a new concept, investment analysts not even fully understanding the calculations. “They’d see our forecasts and say, ‘This can’t be right,’” Matt recalls. “‘With this level of fleet utilization, you should be at 180%. That’s impossible.’ And the thing was, they didn’t understand that this included both the day and night operations.” Matt is proud of these early years with Frac Tech, not only because of the innovations the company brought to the market, but because the company changed the way the industry looked at supply chain.
In 2011, Dan and Farris successfully sold Frac Tech, receiving $3.5 billion of the $5.5 billion sale. After the sale, Matt found himself back in the heart of the family business at Wilks Brothers, LLC as Portfolio Manager focusing on managing public and private market investments stretching across various other sectors like real estate, construction, agriculture, energy lifecycle, and land development.
In 2016, ProFrac, the Wilks Brothers’ current hydraulic fracturing company, was formed. Matt says that they had to once again rapidly and aggressively scale up, but his years at Frac Tech and with the Wilks Brothers family office had prepared him. “At that point, I had a lot of relationships,” he explains. “I knew bankers, and I was presenting at a lot of different investment and energy conferences. I made sure I told everyone, ‘We’re back! We’ve put the band back together!’” The plan was to build up an incredible amount of horsepower, revive the junk equipment they could, and flood the market with new product.
There were some ups and downs, but the strategy paid off, and in 2018, Matt became the President and CFO of ProFrac. “I was plugged into the pulse of this business from very early on,” Matt says. For Matt, it was always about developing—and at times, acquiring—the assets that were necessary for ProFrac to keep a leg up on the competition. When the market sank and the prolonged downturn began, Matt was ready. When some of the largest competitors attempted to stamp them out, Matt was ready. When they couldn’t get the pricing they were looking for, Matt was ready. During his time with ProFrac, Matt has continued to showcase his role as a leader and inspire others.
Today, the company is thriving as one of the largest hydraulic fracturing providers in the world, but what ProFrac is doing stretches beyond just providing more horsepower. Matt and the management team are investing in operating the company in a way that reduces environmental impact and improves sustainability, both financially and operationally. Recently, ProFrac invested in a new dual-fuel frac pump system that draws natural gas from existing pipeline infrastructure—the perfect partnership between service provider and operating company. This approach not only impacts each company’s bottom line but allows them to produce the resources that power the world in a safer and more environmentally conscious manner. These units aren’t the least expensive option, nor are they as easy to make—but they prove that ProFrac is invested in making the world a better place.
ProFrac invested in EKU Power Drives, which develops engine standby controllers for oil and gas operations, in 2020. By retrofitting the EKU unit to existing pressure pumping equipment, ProFrac now has equipment that will automatically turn off during non-operating time, shutting down the powertrain when it is not pumping and immediately restarting it to full load upon request. This is akin to some modern automobiles that have a system that briefly powers off the car’s engine when at a stoplight. With the frac pumps automatically turned off and on between stages, ProFrac reduces the wear and tear on the equipment and eliminates the emissions and fuel consumption.
Through the years, one thing Matt has always wanted to do is remain humble. It has never been about money or recognition, but rather getting up every day and doing something he loves. In that pursuit, Matt has been very blessed.