Young energy execs take the reins in fast-paced field

Sitting across conference tables from people 30 years his senior, business executive Matt Steele has been hearing the quips for years.

Where’s your boss?

I asked for experienced hires.

You’re my kid’s age!

Twelve years ago, Steele was a new college grad, checking IDs at a bar and struggling to decide what to do with his life. Now 34, he is part of a growing cadre of thirty-somethings leading deals in the energy world.

They learned about the 1970s Arab Oil Embargo in history class. They were just off training wheels when oil prices crashed in the 1980s. But the energy industry’s rapid expansion has created new management positions and that’s pushing corporations to tap some of their youngest professionals to manage $2 billion businesses and develop global strategies.

Further, the technology innovations that are fueling the energy boom have leveled the playing field for engineers across the age spectrum. The revolutionary techniques that unlocked reservoirs in shale rock and other unconventional geologies – namely horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing – gained steam soon after Steele and his cohorts walked the stage.

“You can go find somebody with gray hair, and they’d be good at this,” Steele said of the technology skills that his team has harnessed into a successful oil and natural gas exploration and production company, Ursa Resources Group. “But we’ve got a lot of young guys who are spectacular because we’ve done it more than anyone else.”

While more experienced managers developed their skills in an era of traditional drilling, younger engineers are generally more attuned to new techniques, said Carl Tricoli, managing partner of Denham Capital.

“They were the ones out in the field implementing this new technology,” said Tricoli, whose private equity firm has backed several young energy entrepreneurs in recent years, including Steele.

“We like that the younger guys and gals have more recent experience with the technology,” he said. “These are the people who have been at the forefront of those advances.”

On the fast track

Unconventional oil and gas development has spread across North America. The total number of drilling rigs operating in the United States has leapt from about 850 to 1,930 over the past decade. Globally, the rig count has nearly doubled to about 3,500, according to Baker Hughes.

That has created a critical need for people to manage the projects and monitor the capital.

And while the industry’s need for managers is growing, the pool of experienced leaders is shrinking, noted Gavin Peavoy, associate director for the Americas for recruiting firm NES Global Talent.

Students in the 1980s avoided the oil field, dissuaded by low petroleum prices and lured into burgeoning tech professions. Now there’s a dearth of workers in the 40- to 60-year-old range, the ages that typically fill mid- and senior-level management roles, Peavoy said.

As a result, companies have boosted their training and put bright, young workers on the fast track.

Maturing fast

“I equate it to flying your own airplane, and then you get called to fly a shuttle at NASA,” said Etienne Roux, 36, managing director of surface logging company Empirica.

Six years out of college, his then-employer, oil field services company Schlumberger, asked him to oversee more than 30 engineers in eastern Venezuela.

“You have to figure out how in the heck to manage a business at 28 years old,” Roux said. “There are people around you that you are social with, and the next day you are their manager.”

The trend is occurring across the energy business, from exploration to finance.

Hearing about the perils of the oil industry’s boom-bust cycle as a kid, Cypress native Beau Egert studied liberal arts at Baylor University and got a public policy degree from Harvard. But a year after graduation, an investment firm that employed a former schoolmate called in need of managers for energy deals.

At Wexford Capital, Egert helped build Great White Energy Services. At 27 years old, he became its chief operations officer, working side-by-side with executives with up to 40 years in the business. He credits the energy industry’s demographic gap for the career boost.

“You don’t realize what’s happening until you’re in a management meeting and the next person up is 20 years older than you,” said Egert, now vice president of business development for Atinum E&P.

Egert, now 33, and others in the under-40 set, say they occasionally have to battle the skeptical leers of older colleagues and discomfort of cohorts in their charge.

Skeptical, at first

Michelle Smiley, the 34-year-old global business development manager for FMC Technologies, said that as she rose through the oil field equipment company’s ranks, the skepticism of some seasoned customers seemed palpable.

“I felt like when they looked at me, they saw a little kid sitting across the table,” Smiley said. “Not only that, they saw a little girl. I had to prove my competence, and I had to do it quickly.”

Young managers say intense training and close mentoring were key in acclimating to their high-level positions. FMC covered the cost of Smiley’s business degree at the University of Houston, where she took night classes while transitioning out of her entry-level engineering job.

After her graduation in 2004, FMC placed then-27-year-old Smiley at the helm of a major subsea tree contract, managing the supply of equipment that controls the flow from wells, for a Chevron project offshore Nigeria.

Even the biggest names in energy are looking to their youngest members for leadership.

Capability is key

The man leading Baker Hughes’ Latin America business, a division pulling more than $2 billion in annual revenue, is 36. Adam Anderson joined the company in a technical sales role. Baker Hughes helped fund his business degree from Duke University to give him the accounting and finance skills that pushed him up the corporate ladder.

“People generally want to work with people who are capable,” he said. “That matters much more than your age.”

At BP, 37-year-old April Partridge is a leader in the supermajor’s global wells organization, a division charged with standardizing operations internationally. She credits BP’s diligent career planning, placing her in various jobs to gain skills across financial and technical realms.

Those roles got her the vice president title “a little earlier than I expected,” she said.

Despite nearing the pinnacles of the industry before their kids are out of diapers, energy’s young leaders say they have even bigger aspirations.

For Steele, ultimate success means building his company from its $200 million equity commitment from Denham Capital into a stable family business for his two young sons.

“I want to build a blowing and going company, something my kids can earn money off of,” he said. “That being said, if someone offers me a billion for it, money is good, too.”

simone.sebastian@chron.com

twitter.com/SimonesNews