Helen drives the drills

Helen drives the drills

Awards and swelling revenues are the spoils Helen Smith and a small team of mobilisers win when placing any of 12,000 much-in-demand oil and gas field specialists in almost any part of the world within hours. Brian Nicholls reports

They used to speak of a woman behind every successful man. Today Helen Smith is herself the successful woman behind some 12,000 successful men - experts in their career and in packing a hold-all and a passport, and heading for any one of 80 countries at the bidding of a phone call.

Chief executive of Oil Consultants Ltd, Helen Smith and her core team provide this double battalion strength of skilled technical personnel - both individually and as entire teams - for corporate offshore and onshore clients in the upstream oil and gas industry.

The company, formed in 1999, has widened its services over the years from simply providing well-testing consultants to how now supplying both complete project teams and individuals whose competences range from bolting and coiled tubing to welding and well services. They’re dropped in to assist these major operators and service companies, which confidently look to Oil Consultants to solve major needs in their particular project by providing personnel on short, long or permanent contracts.

At the firm’s headquarters in Washington, the in-house mobilisation team pair these much-in-demand consultants of more than 90 nationalities with the requirements expressed.

Since Helen Smith’s appointment to chief executive in 2011, business has increased fourfold and Oil Consultants recently won its second Queen’s Award in three years for enterprise in international trade. Oil Consultants, working 24/7, proudly claims it can produce vital human resources globally almost immediately.

Its current record is less than four hours. This impresses the producers who live under continuous threat that every hour of any delay possibly arising could cost millions of dollars. 

“Our primary supply of personnel are highly qualified individuals with very specialised skills. They’re in real short supply,” Smith says. “Many companies want to offer them work. We try to look after them to the best of our abilities. We build a relationship with them. We take time to understand what they’re after in their job and what the clients are after, then put the two together. We provide them with variety in that they can pick and choose the sort of job they want to go on. We also give them all the back-up we can when they are on assignment.”

The company, now turning over £26m a year running this service, knows the ins and outs of both sides. It was, after all, oil industry workers who set up the business.

They saw opportunity to benefit both sides amid a growing skills shortage.
In-house personnel - the “mobilisers” - have amassed vast knowledge and experience of international logistics, which drive their quick responses. They’re well versed in health and safety, a crucial consideration for a sector which, although improved beyond recognition on these matters since the tragedy of Piper Alpha, still must be prepared for any eventuality. That the company board has little changed throughout its 14 years, and that some longer serving staff have upwardly developed their careers, gives the company a consistency, making growth all the easier.

And fast expansion it has been since Helen Smith’s arrival. Earlier this year Oil Consultants opened in Malaysia and Indonesia and now, after another year of record growth, it has appointed ahead of plan a business delivery and development director to cover the Middle East and Africa, a zone taking in also India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in its provision of both customer support services and new business development. It also expects to beef up its US presence shortly. It has previously established agents and satellite offices in Aberdeen, China, Norway, the UAE, the USA and Trinidad and Tobago, and it has a fully staffed office in Brisbane, Australia.

This spread of supportive presence for its consultants and its clients, Smith believes, is what distinguishes the firm. “Opportunity to meet people face to face is crucial to developing trust and understanding, elements vital in supplying personnel to tackle the tasks they do,” she adds.

Helen Smith, who’s been into recruitment executively since 1995, is the sort of go-getter essential to inspire the expansion through fast international growth that her board envisaged a couple of years back. She brought with her a company-building background, sound knowledge of service, sales, human resource management, and a 16 year record of entrepreneurial flair.

Previous firms she developed operated nationally, one being Education Lecturing Services which provided education staff to colleges throughout the UK. She launched that business with colleagues in 1995. She then headed an acquisition and merger with another such business, Protocol Teachers, which
reached also into Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. She led the outcome as managing director.

Then in 2003 she set up from scratch Construction Learning World, a construction training company and, as chief executive, had it listed on the AIM in 2007. In 2010 she sold it and, the following year, joined Oil Consultants, where she now leads a team of 53, including nine overseas.

“It was absolutely the right time for me to come here,” she says. “And it was the right company in the right set-up. The satisfaction I get now comes from seeing this company develop. In the last three years it has grown fourfold in business it offers. You can only grow a business when you provide really good service and good products. I’m striving to provide the highest quality in what we deliver, and to have a really deep understanding of what our clients need, and what their challenges are so that we can help them find their solutions.”

Consultants are checked rigorously before they’re put forward, and there’s a competence scheme, whereby consultants can demonstrate their knowledge and experience. A panel of industry experts to hand carries out technical interviews and assists in the recruiting.

His presentation of the second Queen’s Award in three years to the firm recently prompted the Lord Lieutenant for Tyne and Wear, Nigel Sherlock, to summarise Oil Consultants as a “remarkable company making steady growth within a very specialised field.” The growth has been 100% organic too.

It’s thriving on a fact that the sector is recovering globally just as many experienced workers are retiring before less experienced successors have had time to come through. “It is impossible to teach in two years what takes 15 years to master,” Smith explains. “So the skilled individuals remaining are increasingly wanted - not only by client companies of ours but also by other agencies that place them.”

That doesn’t explain the progress entirely, though. As she points out: “Our success is also due to the high levels of customer care we demonstrate, and knowledge we hold about the international oil and gas industry.
“My aim,” she adds, “is to provide the highest quality in what we deliver and to have a really deep understanding of what our clients need, and what their challenges are, so that we perhaps can help too.”

Helen Smith, 51, spends half of her week in the North East of England and half in the Midlands. She was born in Charnwood Forest, Leicestershire, and grew up there. For her degree she read geography and education at the Roehampton Institute, part of London University, then returned to the Midlands. Recently she and her husband Ron, who runs a surveying business, have moved into an old 1700s pub which they’ve converted into a home over the last five years in South Derbyshire.

Oil ConsultantsHer commute between there and Tyne and Wear is no hardship. She explains: “With the Midlands being so central, you get to the North East as easily as elsewhere. I drive up very early on a Monday morning - an early bird at crack of dawn, normally in the office in fact before the staff. I think they hate it when I come in and say: ‘Well, I’ve been thinking in the car...’” I’ll have had a good five hours on the road as part of the commute there and back at a time when you can think really clearly. It gives chance to reflect and be sure that what we’re doing is absolutely right. You can even fix some problems in your head!

“Then I usually go back on a Thursday evening. I also have a day working from an office in Nottingham or from home. Fridays I may use for meetings with other managers in the business or maybe go to London. Often I’m either in the office working with the team here or perhaps out with our business development team wherever our clients are. That could be in the Middle East or Australia. Or I use Friday to think, prepare reports, catch up on other things and perhaps take time to reflect.” How does she see the sector’s outlook generally? “We envisage continued growth for the company over the next three to five years. We’ve invested  heavily over two years and should see results come through. It’s a beginning for us really.”

Fracking's definately a goer

Oil Consultants is only slightly involved in renewables as yet. But Helen points out that many skills required there are skills on her company’s books, and while she doesn’t expect renewables to be significant for some time, Oil Consultants will be ready to meet demands as and when.

Fracking, though, is already a goer. “We’re providing people now who undertake the stimulation in fracking,” she says. “It’s particularly active in the USA, of course, so we’re building our supply of consultants in that area. We see it becoming
very large.”

Whatever the job, though, clients very often get in touch at short notice. “They usually want from us someone who can travel tomorrow and put skills in place right away. So we only really provide people who are fully experienced,” she explains.

Sometimes a working mentor may be supplied and put alongside someone less experienced. This way, the second individual gains technical finesse from the senior consultant, getting practical experience needed at the same time. “So effectively we provide two people, one tried and tested, and the other that the client company anticipates bringing on to its team longer term.”

Inevitably it’s a business fraught with unforeseens. But Smith’s job is made easier by the board composition at Oil Consultants, having changed little since the firm’s start-up. They’ve been through the hoops themselves, and a number of longer serving staff members have also been able to develop their careers as the company has grown. The operations manager started in accounts some years back. A couple of the team in Australia relocated from Washington to develop the local team there. “That sort of thing gives us strength and consistency,” she observes.

Given the current skills shortage, competition to hire the best is intense. The challenge at Oil Consultants is to satisfy the hirers’ needs while looking after the interests of individuals hired. “We build a relationship with them,” she points out. “We take time to understand what they’re after and what the clients are after, then put the two together. We also offer the individuals being hired variety, since they can pick and choose the sort of job they want to go on.”

Come depths of winter in the North Sea, many consultants understandably prefer to work nearer the equator. “So we can try to find them somewhere warmer, and in that respect we can offer variety of work with some of the best firms in the industry. We also give all the back-up we can.” That includes organising visa and permit applications, medical insurance, and free insurance, and ensuring they get paid in the right way. “We help them with their travel plans and make them feel that they - and their families - are part of our organisation.
“We are the back-up for their own ambitions.”