From Growing Up in Connecticut to Covering Commodities: The Story of Jack Betz, Aluminum Reporter by Day, Musician by Night
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.