Part Two: From Programmer to CEO

In Episode 1 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed experts from Texmark, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and CBT about the evolution of Texmark’s “Refinery of the Future.” In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with CBT CEO Kelly Ireland about her life and career. In Part II, CBT CEO Kelly Ireland takes a closer look at the remarkable partnership between Hewlett Packard Enterprise, CBT, Intel, RealWear, and many other tech companies at Texmark’s “Refinery of the Future,” where the entire plant is connected via IIoT technologies and platforms.

This is a continuation of a former post. For Part 1 of this blog post, click here.

Working with the likes of HPE, Intel, SparkCognition, OSIsoft, FlowServe, National Instruments, PTC, and RealWear, Kelly knew that they could build something truly unique for Texmark, each company contributing to an overall solution composed of five key parts: condition monitoring and predictive maintenance, video analytics, worker safety, connected worker, and asset integrity and asset intelligence.

“This was truly an ecosystem,” she notes. “This was not one big [original equipment manufacturer] OEM coming in and saying, ‘We’re going to do all of this.’ There was no way that would be possible. A lot of these solutions tie in together; they depend on information from each other; they utilize analytics; it’s all very integrated.”

So, when HPE came to Kelly and admitted that they needed a true systems integrator, Kelly knew something big was on the horizon. Originally starting on the connected worker project, CBT now works across every component of the five-piece solution, an HPE Edge datacenter as the backbone. The combination of people and technology has driven nothing short of a revolution in how the refinery operates. Sensored pumps transmit condition-monitoring data to someone in an on-site real-time operating center.

Workers wear head-mounted compute devices from RealWear equipped with cameras that transmit video back to an expert in another location. Recorded videos can be used for training purposes, and augmented reality effects can be overlaid over live video to simulate changes in equipment condition, maintenance best practices, and so on. Knowledge sharing via new software programs, including an entirely digitized asset management system, mean no one person is the only expert. It really does feel like anything is possible.

The improvements to worker safety, the amount of time saved and nonproductive time eliminated, the production uplift; everything is quantifiable, clearly showcasing the ROI of a digital transformation at a time when “digital transformation” often seems like little more than buzzwords thrown about to get article clicks. For example, Texmark has experienced a 75% reduction in time to assess asset process condition and a 90% reduction in time to file required compliance evidence.

Of course, the Texmark refinery project hasn’t been without its challenges; integrating the disparate practices of IT and OT was anything but easy. Doing this, however, has helped CBT to gain invaluable knowledge on not only process, but culture.

“We had to go and research IT and OT culture from across the industry to help nurture our teams,” Kelly says, “to help them better understand what both sides do, why they’re different, and why they need to embrace each other and work together.”

Fostering respect among people and inspiring them to be passionate about working together tied right into Kelly’s desire to build effective teams, and with 24 partners, it was no small task. Overall, though, it was sometimes sheer force of will that got things done. When people were depending on a resource, it simply wasn’t acceptable for one party or the other to slow the process down, especially for personal reasons. 

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic brought its own set of difficult circumstances, but fortunately it also helped CBT soar to new heights. With the acceleration of remote operations, greater focus on keeping people and assets safe, and a need to improve operational and cost efficiencies without involving more people in the process, Kelly hasn’t been surprised that systems integration has transformed from niche topic to something more and more companies are interested in.

This was never about eliminating the existing value-added reseller business, as clients still want that to this day; it was about pivoting to best serve new customers and expand business while understanding the needs of the existing customer base.

“And the fun thing, Stephen,” Kelly notes, proudly, “is that my employees are the happiest they’ve been—ever. They’re excited. We’re all learning new things. And, having the notoriety of being ahead of companies that are thousands of times bigger than CBT, having that expertise to walk into major utility companies, manufacturers, global oil and gas accounts, and showcase what we learned at Texmark and the Refinery of the Future—that’s incredible.”

Running lean has really worked out for the company, which is sitting with an employee headcount at just over 50 people. The maxim “quality over quantity,” it would seem, checks out.

With 2021 upon us, Kelly feels that the sky is the limit, noting, “I think we’re going to grow exponentially in 2021.” What’s happened, she explains, is that due to a lack of agreement and even understanding of what digital transformation means, large corporations have been taking a very broad approach to it. This “boil-the-ocean” method, as Kelly comments, has resulted in largely mediocre results and, in some cases, hesitance to explore digital transformation further because of the difficulty of implementing change at scale. However, even companies afraid of digital recognize tangible results, such as what’s going on at the Refinery of the Future, which is driving them to take baby steps in a new direction.

“I’m calling 2021 the ‘toe-dipping’ year,” Kelly says, “because these companies have been pushed to accept IoT, and they’ve been dipping their toes in very small projects. They’ll try something, but they have to see an ROI out of it. And so, we need to deliver and document ROI, so that those ideas can be taken to upper management to scale.”

With companies across the board taking a wait-and-see approach, it sometimes seems like no one will get anywhere until that one breakthrough success; until then, everyone is watching the failed attempts, the mistakes and mess-ups, and taking their time with their own transformation. This works out well for CBT, because it allows the company to keep learning, to keep evolving, and to anticipate customer needs and challenges before they happen. 

With Texmark as a case study, CBT has the knowledge to clearly map out ROI for projects before execution. That, combined with the ability to build a powerful consortium of experts and companies that can work together on different digital transformation areas, makes the company the go-to provider for domain expertise and systems integration moving forward. People are taking notice: Kelly notes that there’s burgeoning interest from oil and gas companies as to how these types of ideas can be implemented in their own downstream operations, recalling a conversation with an engineer at a Shell refinery who commented positively on what he knew was going on at the Texmark facility.

It’s not just energy, though; digital transformation really can, and probably should, be going on in virtually every industry. “What we’ve found through 2020 is that this translates to other industries really easily,” Kelly says, “like utilities, as we’ve taken on 15 utility opportunities just this year. And we’re seeing food processing, retail, hospitality, and a lot of manufacturing. It’s great that this was first built out in oil and gas, but it’s really going across a lot of industries now.”

And, of course, at the end of the day it all comes down to people—hiring great people, giving them fulfilling, worthwhile jobs, making sure they’re happy, and building a team that feels like being with family, not a group of strangers. Technology is great, but the human factor really is the difference, which is something Kelly has recognized a long time, and something that truly differentiates CBT.

What was once a simple dream is becoming a reality for more and more companies as they turn to CBT to execute on their big plans for digital transformation, and we at OGGN are excited to continue following Kelly’s and CBT’s story as they drive further innovation in oil and gas and beyond.

This article was written by Stephen Forrester.

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Alex Brasher

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