The Way Ahead Interview invites senior figures who shape our E&P industry to share their wisdom, experience, and deep knowledge with the young E&P professional community. Please join us for an inspiring conversation with Stuart Ferguson, chief technology officer, Weatherford—an interview that reveals the joys of a technical career in our industry.
John Donachie, Editor, TWA Interview
At university, I had been captivated by the oil industry because of its scale, the impact that it seemed to have on world politics, and some ill-defined, romantic notions of a wild frontier. I wish I could say it was better thought out. Consequently, I only applied for jobs in upstream oil and gas. I had my interviews at the depth of the crash in 1986, when there were hardly any jobs available. It was a risky, even foolish, strategy; there was so little recruitment that there was a real chance of not getting a job.
The romance paid off. I joined BP in 1987 as a process engineer, and my first posting was to Sullom Voe oil terminal on Shetland, to the north of Scotland. Despite my preconceptions of the industry, the scale of the operation at Sullom Voe was still amazing to me. You are taught how a control valve works at university, but then to see a valve operating on a 36-in. header was fantastic. Sullom Voe provided an opportunity to learn about process plants in an environment that was so much more accessible that the convoluted pipe runs of an offshore platform.
When I joined BP, I’m also ashamed to say that I still thought oil reservoirs were underground lakes—further indication of my alarmingly sketchy research into the industry.
This is very difficult for me to answer, as it is the only industry I have ever worked in. My experience of other jobs is either second-hand, or is based on working with professionals associated with the industry, such as lawyers, accountants, and bankers.
Having said that, I do know why a young person should join the industry. It presents an opportunity for intellectual fulfilment with great diversity—the chance to live and work among different cultures around the world. I have no regrets about my choice of career, and I would, and do, encourage YPs to join.
There are too many good memories to single out anything specific. I suspect some of the escapades, although they seemed truly excellent at the time, would make me cringe if I were to be reminded of them publicly today—all part of life’s rich tapestry! This being said, my best memories are very much associated with travelling around the world through my work, especially once I had left the operator community and joined the oilfield-service sector. I’ve met some fantastic people along the way.
When I started out with BP, I didn’t realize there was a difference between a manager and a mentor. In the early part of my career, everything I learned was in a mentoring environment. My bosses showed me how to do things and then stretched me to explore further. I only realized later what a fortunate set of circumstances that was. Nevertheless, I can think of four people who stand out for me as making a real difference to my career:
The first person is Joe Allan, recently retired from Helix. When I worked for Joe, in the early 1990s, as a production engineer in BP’s Northern North Sea Fields group, he showed me what it was like to be really technically good at something. He very much raised the bar and stretched me greatly, compared with anyone before that. The way that Joe taught me to understand what was fundamentally going on when solving technical problems stays with me to this day.
Immediately afterward, I worked for Brock Williams, in the newly merged Production Technology Group for Central and Northern North Sea. Brock is still with BP but now in Houston. Although Joe taught me a lot, I had become very opinionated on the way things should be done. Brock not only put up with my initial spiky attitude, he managed to turn me into a much more capable engineer. Also, being the first American I had worked for in BP, he also made me realize that there was a big world outside of the North Sea, with very different ways of doing things.
I left BP and joined the service sector. In the late 1990s, I worked with Fraser Innes at Petroline, a company later purchased by Weatherford. Fraser is now an independent consultant. He was the person who turned an engineer into a salesman, and let me be clear that there are no negative connotations with the word “salesman” at all. Fraser was obsessive about technical excellence—if we were going to do something, we were going to do it right. But, more importantly, he made me much more aware of what people were thinking and feeling, and of the crucial part that plays in commercial negotiations.
The fourth person is my current boss, Bernard Duroc-Danner, chief executive officer of Weatherford International and a truly remarkable person. I have worked for him for 6 years, and I would need a long time to tell you all the things he has taught me. Bernard’s lessons are less about being specifically good at my job and far more about a bigger picture. Nevertheless, he has taught me some important lessons about leadership which we will cover later.
I always tell YPs the same thing whenever I talk to them: Make sure that you develop and keep up some core technical skills. Do not fall into the dangerous middle-management trap where you become a jack of all trades and master of none. Hone some fundamental technical skills and keep them up to date. Irrespective of what happens, those skills are highly marketable today and will become even more so in the future. You can be more self-determined as a person if you know you have strong core skills.
If you are a petroleum engineer and you can’t remember how to derive the steady-state radial flow equation, then go back and look it up. I’m serious! When I interview petroleum engineers, I often ask them to do the derivation. I don’t really care if they can or they can’t, but it provides a lot of insight watching them try.
To find your strengths, don’t stay in an environment that does not expose you to a broad range of experiences. You may become too much a product of that environment. Seek out new experiences to be all you can be. Nevertheless, you should probably specialize to some degree eventually. In my experience, people enjoy what they are good at and will continue to deepen and broaden their abilities.
Weatherford has grown into one of the world’s largest diversified upstream oilfield service companies as a result of internal growth and innovation, as well as the consolidation of more than 200 strategic acquisitions. How does Weatherford develop its YPs to handle the challenges of the dynamic present as well as the future?
Weatherford as a company has changed hugely, even in the 7 years that I have been there. Nevertheless, beyond our formal training programs for YPs, Weatherford still fosters a strong entrepreneurial culture. People in Weatherford are given opportunities for a lot of freedom of thought and self-determination. This is the best thing we do for our people.
The best thing by far is the people I work with. I’m saying that not because it is a politically right-on thing to say, but because it is absolutely true. Despite the cynicism that often creeps in as one gets older, I never cease to be amazed, and often am delighted, by the people that I work with. It truly takes all sorts. Having the opportunity to spend time with people with such a broad spectrum of backgrounds and outlooks is a fantastic privilege.
You haven’t asked the question, but what do I enjoy least? Somewhat ironically, I find the travel schedule difficult, even though some of my best experiences have been associated with travelling. It can be wearing going somewhere, knowing it will be followed immediately with the need to go somewhere else, then somewhere else thereafter. This conveyor belt aspect of business travel is a grind, but there is still not a realistic alternative. Videoconferencing is great if you are working in a project environment, but there is still no substitute for pressing the flesh of people you work with, or people you are trying to do deals with.
The honest answer is that I’m a pretty obsessive person, so I struggle to escape. It is very difficult for me: I rely on others to drag me away but, fortunately, my family is really good at that. I travel a lot, so I try to guard my weekends preciously to spend time at home. There is no greater way not to think about work than having young children, especially when I hear the sound of something being broken.
For me, it boils down to three things. The first is being entrepreneurial, which is a difficult achievement in such a large company and means that we rely strongly upon our people. The second is our commitment to technology. Over the past 7 years, we have invested relatively heavily in research and engineering, especially in some displacing technologies. It has been a hard battle at times, but, looking back, we’ve radically changed the profile of the company. The third is perseverance, sheer doggedness. Once we decide on a path, we are resolute in following it. Things never go as smoothly as you may like, and often the only way to get through to the end is just to keep plowing on.
In the shorter term, the overriding issue facing the industry is maximizing barrels per day per dollar.
There are some interrelated themes associated with that. We must efficiently exploit our resources and bring fields on stream rapidly. We need technologies that drive down well costs such that we can drill enough wells to develop less prolific fields and satisfy production demand. On the other hand, we need to focus on making wells more productive, so that we can realize their maximum potential. For mature fields, we need to find cost-effective ways to avoid bypassed oil and maximize recovery. Barrels per day per dollar—productivity up and costs down.
The use of “barrels” highlights our dependence on liquid fuels. How will we develop our huge gas resources and deliver them as a form of energy that is most useful to us? For me, this issue is very broad—from large liquefied-natural-gas and gas-to-liquids projects right down to microplants, locally producing diesel for communities close to small, stranded gas fields.
I’ve been a member of the SPE ever since I became a petroleum engineer in the early 1990s. In my various jobs, I was always actively encouraged to write SPE papers. The drive for writing papers is a good, and important, thing—a distillation moment. If you are writing a report, then why not turn it into a paper if you want people to learn from what you have done?
Today, I’m pretty much on the ragged edge of the amount of time I can devote to SPE and still do my job. But I think that SPE plays an important role, so I try to participate in conferences, usually in plenary sessions, and with occasional journal articles. I was part of the Program Committee for ATCE 2007 in Anaheim, and I am Program Committee chairperson for ATCE 2008 in Denver.
If you had asked me a few years ago what was important about SPE conferences, I would have said simply “access to SPE papers.” But now, with the advent of the eLibrary and other online sources of technical information, the role of conferences has become clearer in my mind. The opportunity to network with other professionals and discuss the work presented in papers provides a much richer experience than just reading about it.
The question sort of implies that we have a problem attracting people. In emerging markets, I don’t think we have a problem attracting people at all. In the last year, Weatherford recruited more than 5,000 people. I won’t say it was easy, but it wasn’t terribly difficult either. Our industry offers a great opportunity. What is more important is that we ensure there are enough graduates available to recruit. I must say, I’m a lot less worried about the “big crew change” than some others seem to be. I find it a rather western-centric view of the world.
However, in some OECD countries, the industry seems tainted with a tabloid-journalistic reputation of greed, power, and corruption. Annoying as it is, we have to overcome this tarnished image. With an oil demand of 1,000 barrels per second, we need to get people to recognize that this industry is not only a worthy cause, but absolutely vital—and certainly not something that the world would be better off without.
I have learned two important things about leadership.
The first is the need for the bravery to set a course of action when nobody else can. There are times when no one around you can be expected to take a stance that you know needs to be taken. Only you can say, “This is what we are going to do,” absolving others and taking full responsibility, even to the point of putting your career on the line. This usually happens in the difficult moments, in adversity. But people around you recognize the significance of these moments. It’s very palpable.
Second, leadership is about asking people to do things that you not only couldn’t do yourself, but are not even sure can be done. I remember a few years ago walking out of a meeting with Bernard when he had committed Weatherford to do something that I didn’t think was possible. When I asked him for his cunning plan, which he must have had up his sleeve, his response was something like, “I don’t know how to do this, but I know it needs to be done, and I’m sure you will work it out.” I was speechless—a rare occurrence. It was a difficult moment, and I felt a huge sense of responsibility. No one was going to give me marks out of 10 for trying—I either delivered or I didn’t; we either succeeded or failed. As it transpired, a combination of perspiration, inspiration, and a touch of good fortune led to a successful outcome. I realized afterward that I had learned a valuable lesson on leadership. If you are really going to achieve great results, then you have got to ask people to do really hard things.
Stuart Ferguson is chief technology officer for Weatherford and has been a senior vice president of the company since September 2002. Previously, he held a number of positions within Weatherford’s completions business, eventually becoming division president. Before joining Weatherford, Ferguson served as Marketing director for UK-based Expro International and as Technical Services director for Petroline Wellsystems, which Weatherford acquired in 1999. Ferguson spent 6 years as a petroleum engineer with BP, the company with which began his industry career in 1987.