Growing up in Scotland, Andrew Millar watched Texans flock to his homeland during the North Sea oil boom of the 1970s.
Forty years later, Millar, now Britain’s consul general in Houston, has seen his fellow Scots drawn across the Atlantic for work in the Gulf of Mexico and the shale fields of South Texas.
“Aberdeen is the world’s second energy capital,” Millar said. “Houston is the first.”
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Despite obvious differences – hot vs. cold; sunny vs. cloudy; sprawling vs. compact – people who have worked in both Houston and Aberdeen say the similarities are also striking.
“Lots of engineers,” said Matt Kirk, Americas regional director of the Xodus Group, an Aberdeen-based energy consulting firm that opened a Houston office two years ago. “Lots of smart people. Lots of ambitious people.”
Next week’s Offshore Technology Conference will have all of that and more, a week of sensory overload focused on offshore exploration, drilling and production. The four-day conference, which begins Monday, is expected to draw more than 80,000 people to Reliant Park. In 2012, almost one in four people who attended were from outside the United States. And the largest group of international visitors came from the United Kingdom.
Hundreds will be from Aberdeen this year, reflecting what Ian Kirk, managing director of Downhole Products in Aberdeen, said he quickly realized after founding his company in the mid-1990s.
He knew virtually nothing about the United States, he said during a satellite-linked meeting of business leaders in Houston and Aberdeen earlier this spring.
“All we knew was Dallas on the TV and OTC in Houston,” he said. “For anyone starting out, get there (to OTC). That’s how we networked.”
The first ties between the two cities were built on oil and natural gas, and they remain the strongest. Interaction involving renewable energy is growing.
But energy isn’t the only thing that binds Houstonians and Aberdonians. Technology is gaining traction, too, both in and out of the energy business.
BusinessPort, an Aberdeen-based company offering a business management software system, opened an office in Houston this spring – its first in the United States – with an initial staff of seven.
Founder and CEO Peter Shields said that should grow to 15 within the first year, a mix of business analysts and information technology specialists.
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Shields said the company’s move to the United States was driven by clients who operate all over the world, as companies look to streamline operating systems.
“A lot of our work is really developing corporate processes that can be used effectively in any region of the globe, in Houston, in Aberdeen, in Kuala Lumpur,” he said. “It cuts down costs. It cuts down complexity.”
Scottish companies have to expand internationally to grow, and Shields said that international influence remains strong in Aberdeen.
“There are huge synergies between Aberdeen and Houston, albeit Houston is much, much bigger,” he said.
160 British companies
The consulate has estimates for the number of British residents in Texas – as many as 100,000 – but doesn’t break it down for people living in Houston, or by Scottish nationals, spokeswoman Kirsten Gray said.
About 160 British companies have operations in the Houston area, she said.
Millar said it is easy to persuade British, and Aberdonian, companies to invest here, so he spends more time talking to Texas companies about investing in the United Kingdom.
Scottish Development International, which coordinates with the consulate, helps Scottish businesses sink roots here.
The organization established a business incubator in 2000, and Shannon Norstrud, vice president for U.S. Central operations, said 30 companies have used the service in the past 13 years.
Once a company establishes in Houston, Norstrud reminds it of business opportunities elsewhere in North and South America, from which Houston can be a base of operations.
That was the case for Xodus, which Matt Kirk said has established ties with an engineering company in Rio de Janeiro.
Xodus started in 2005 and has grown quickly. It also has offices in London; Oslo; Dubai; The Hague; Lagos, Nigeria; and Perth, Australia.
Texans like to think of themselves as go-getters, said Norstrud, who is from Dallas. But Scots have to be, too, if they want to expand their businesses, because the country is so small – just 5.3 million people.
Kirk said Xodus’ move to Houston has gone smoothly, partly due to the city’s friendly people and networking events.
But Millar said the ease with which people from the two cities move back and forth also reflects decades of practice. “There are lot of Texans who know Aberdeen better than I know Aberdeen,” he said. “And I am Scottish.”