Pillars of Industry

Independents vs. Majors: Who Provides the Better Career?

Harry Simons, Hess

I have spent at least half my career working for independent oil and gas companies. For the other half, I was contracted to the majors. Looking back, I can’t say I wish I had done things differently; it seems a healthy balance. But is there benefit in focusing on one group of companies over another? Would it really make much of a difference at the end of the day? The answer—if there is one—is not simple.

I did not set out with any grand plan when I embarked on my career. There has always been an undoubted attraction to working with companies as readily identifiable as the Shells, BPs, or ExxonMobils of the world—each a significant and important company on a global scale. Had I planned decades into the future with an insistence that I work for any one company, major or independent, my plan would probably have been shot to pieces by now anyway; so much has changed in the industry since the early 1990s. Being adaptable and ready to try different things is an advantage in today’s climate. I’m not sure anyone can afford to be too set in their ways and discount one company over another anymore.

If you are new to the industry, it takes some time to realize how many opportunities and potential employers there are in the sector. The niche players, the partners, and the start-ups create an incredibly diverse industry, a diversity that is ignored at one’s peril. Times are tough, and new resources (such as unconventionals) are coming into play, with employers needing to develop the skill sets to access them. Understanding your work preference and how you like to be involved with a project may eventually push you in one direction or another as you decide and recognize what sort of company you wish to work for—big, small, new, or well-established. It pays to research and be aware of what’s going on around you in the industry: Who is doing what and where? How different might your next opportunity be? Do you enjoy being a generalist, stepping away from your chosen field, or do you prefer a purely technical role, working the numbers?

Successful small companies have a healthy habit of growing larger and need to adapt their management structure and reporting to suit that growth. Independents, particularly smaller companies, often have less-hierarchical organizations—fewer tiers of management and more empowerment of the employees. Empowerment, or an employee’s ability to make decisions in and potentially for the company, should bring the employee closer to the day-to-day business; but, this is not for everyone.

Process, procedure, and the maturing of an organization tend to be the thorns in the side of (particularly midsize) independents still craving the freedoms they once had as smaller companies. Significant energy is spent on getting the correct governance in place, and this can be a distraction from day-to-day work. Could you work in an environment where you regularly have to consider developing business process, or, as in many majors, can you take governance for granted as something you just do? There is a reasonable balance in making sure the right decisions are made and the correct level of governance exists; but, “reasonable” is tricky to measure, and companies, notably independents, struggle from time to time as they develop improved governance.

It would be wrong to suggest that size (or governance, process, and procedure) always brings inertia and drag on an organization, as many might believe. The majors and large independents are not always unable to act or react quickly. Size may bring an ability to deploy significant resources to solve problems quickly, effectively, and efficiently (as we’ve seen recently in an extreme case in the Gulf of Mexico), while leaving the smaller independents struggling to keep up, with fewer people to do the extraordinary work the business sometimes requires.

The Independent Spirit

I have two quick questions for you:

1. Do you believe your company is interested in (a) welcoming ideas on how the business could be improved or (b) pushing ideas from the top down?

2. Do you think a company’s employees are more likely to (a) follow the direction of leaders without challenging them or (b) challenge the status quo with diverse perspectives?

Which answers do you find more appealing? A quick look at responses to these questions indicates the vast majority of respondents (about 75%) answered (a) for the first question and (b) for the second. Respondents liked working for a company that welcomed ideas on how the business could be improved and wanted to be able to challenge the status quo with diverse perspectives.

Clearly, these employees believe they should have the ability to challenge why they’re doing what they’re doing. It doesn’t mean they can do what they want, but it does mean they can have a serious conversation about how they achieve the necessary goals.

“Challenge and be challenged” is sometimes easier said than done and can push a business into uncomfortable conversations. It takes a spirited company and spirited individuals to want to do this.

While there are certainly independently spirited individuals working for the majors, the really spirited companies—those that adapt and change the way they do business rapidly and effectively—seem largely to be the independents. To be involved in these sorts of changes and adaptations can be incredibly exciting (and sometimes nerve-racking).

The questions, in case you had not worked it out, came from an employee questionnaire at an independent organization where “challenge and be challenged” is typical of how they do business.

Training and Development

The focus given to training and development has increased significantly at independent companies over the years. For some time, the majors have provided the benchmark in training, and, while they undoubtedly will continue to lead the way, the gap across the industry is narrowing. A résumé still stands out if it includes a major graduate training record; but, because the independents have upped their game, the impact has become less significant. Experience is still key, regardless of whom you have worked for. Be prepared to drive your own development, particularly once you are out of a graduate training program; you shouldn’t expect anyone else to do it for you, particularly in an organization trying to keep headcount lean.

Independent organizations are often willing to give you a chance to broaden your knowledge base across job families—perhaps by a move from reservoir engineering to business planning or well or commercial operations. However, recognize that a small organization may not be able to offer you as many different roles as an employer of hundreds of people and it is possible to run out of room to develop. In a small organization, you may eventually need to seek alternative opportunities elsewhere (which is human resources talk for leaving to work for another company).

Business Overview

A number of colleagues working within independents mention how much more involved and aware of the business they are than they had been at previous (sometimes major) companies. I’m sure this has something to do with the fact that people in my peer group are all 15 to 25 years into our careers and basic business principles get beaten into you in the end, whether you like it or not. However, I still come across the odd engineer who tends to look slightly blank when you ask simply, “Will it make money?” Aren’t we here to make the business profitable?

For those who have grasped the basic principles, they enjoy seeing why the detail they focus on is important to the bigger business decision. Conversations with colleagues working for the majors suggest that the business impact isn’t something they routinely have to consider and the expectation is that it should be left to the business advisors. Being aware of the bigger picture won’t suit everyone; some people want to focus on a model day in and day out. Working for an independent, there’s a fair chance you won’t be asked to work in isolation from the other functions or groups and that your input will actively be sought outside your core discipline. You gain the potential to influence significant decisions that can make, or potentially break, a project.

The independents tend to be involved with smaller assets—certainly some of which are immaterial to the majors. The development of these small fields presents an opportunity to be involved with cradle-to-grave developments, perhaps spanning less than 5 years, where you will see more reservoir, operational, and commercial decision processes (asset management) than you would working on endless data collection analysis (DCA) on a 30-year field (not that 30 years of DCA is a bad thing; it pays the mortgage). Increasingly, the majors are moving out of the mature basins, replaced by independent companies applying new and advanced technologies to recover remaining reserves and resources—an excellent training ground to develop skills at the cutting edge of the technological envelope as field life is prolonged and aging infrastructure is managed.

Final Thoughts

Experience, as they say, is everything, and gaining relevant exposure, regardless of whom it is with, will always be looked upon favorably. The majors do not have a monopoly on great opportunities, and independents don’t have all the answers to eternal happiness in your career. If you are currently with a major and looking for a change, working with an independent can prove to be a breath of fresh air. Company size is not necessarily an issue, but how it behaves and looks after its people is. Consider where you think you and the company will be in 5 years and if you would be comfortable working in that environment. An independent, particularly a smaller one, will expect you to look outside your pure discipline and involve yourself with the business. Are you really up to this challenge? Or do you still think your career needs to be with a major?  


Harry Simons is the country manager for Algeria for Hess Corporation. He joined Hess in 2007 as business advisor for north Africa and Europe and managed the Hess joint venture operated and nonoperated assets in the UK. Simons has worked a wide variety of exploration, development, and production projects in Europe, Russia, and north Africa. Before working for Hess, Simons worked for Burlington Resources as planning manager for Algeria, Egypt, Holland, and the UK. Joining Burlington as operations engineer, he was heavily involved in drilling and well operations throughout the portfolio but notably in Algeria (Berkine basin) and the UK. Simons holds a BS degree in geology from Kingston University in London. After earning his degree, he joined the oil industry in 1994 to work offshore as a geologist and engineer. He is a long-standing member of SPE and a fellow of the Geological Society in the UK.