Going Offshore

Still queesy from a long, low level and very bumpy flight over the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, I climbed from the helicopter onto the Sedco 706 drilling platform. There was no time to get out of the survival suit that the rig workers affectionately dubbed “the body bag”. I stepped over the high threshold and walked down the long narrow corridor to the drilling foreman’s office. “You must be from StrataBit” he said as he lifted his cowboy boots off the desk and stood up. I was already scanning the circuit TV and drill stats being fed from the drill floor. “The driller’s name is John and I told him to do everything you say. I haven’t slept in 24 hours and am going to bed.” Moments later I was with John adjusting the bit weight and mud flow to optimize the performance of the polycrystalline bit that was already rotating, 8,000 feet under the ocean floor.

It was the night before, around midnight, that I received the call from a Mobil Oil engineer in St. Johns. “Your bit is being flown to the rig right now, it will be run into the well as soon as it gets there. A flight is leaving Sydney for St. Johns at 6am. The chopper will be waiting for you at the airport.” I scribbled some technical notes in the margin of the novel on my night stand (Atlas Shrugged) and reset my alarm. 
Just 7 weeks earlier I spent a week at the headquarters of StrataBit in Huston, Texas learning to drill an oil well. During five days confined to a boardroom, three engineers took four hour shifts each day to cover every aspect of drilling a well. They made sure I had a firm grip on the technology involved. No doubt they anticipated what would happen once I arrived on the rigs. In my 27 years I had never assimilated this much knowledge, this fast. What a thrill – every night my head felt like it would explode.
Always looking for opportunity to grow my business at Eastern Carbide Tools I joined the Cape Breton Offshore Trade Association and soon found myself as president of CBOTA. It is in this capacity that I traveled to Huston the first time to attend the OTC (Offshore Technology conference) the biggest trade show in North America at the time. While other delegates from my group enjoyed their rum at poolside for most of the time they spent there, I dawned sneakers and a backpack, determined to visit every single booth on the floor. That’s when I met up with StrataBit and convinced them to grant me the rights to distribute their bits to the oil companies exploring on the East Coast of Canada.
Together with an engineering co-op student and a geologist familiar with the formations off the east coast, we developed proposals for running polycrystaline diamond bits in the exploratory wells of the Grand Banks and Scotian Shelf. Alas, the water based mud that was prescribed for exploratory holes proved too abrasive for these bits. They were designed primarily for oil-based mud which would not be employed until the development phase of the oil fields some years later.
While serving as president of CBOTA, I was invited to help form the Offshore Trade Association of Nova Scotia (OTANS). My role in both of these two capacities provided the opportunity to experience the nuanced relationships between governments, oil companies and their suppliers. It’s when I met Jean Chrétien and other high ranking officials and executives.
Decisions of substantial investments and expenditures were often made not on merit or economics but on the basis of trust and familiarity. The regional rep for Hughes Tool Company for example, would make the rounds to all the hotel bars in Halifax every night to sign off on the tabs of oilfield executives. And the main reason why oil companies refused to consider building supply bases closer to the drilling fields was because the wives of these execs would not consider relocating to Nova Scotia unless it was to Halifax.
It’s also why the provincial deputy minister of development, sitting across from my desk one day, made it abundantly clear that the government’s objective was to turn Halifax into a world class city, in the hopes that this economic focus would somehow spill out to the rest of the province.
So when I participated in a panel at a symposium on oilfield opportunities hosted by the College of Cape Breton, I was distressed to hear the speaker before me lambaste a fellow panelist, the vice president of Shell Oil, for not giving business to local firms. Tossing my prepared speech aside I took off my watch and laid it on the podium. Then I used my allotted time to make a compelling case for building relationships of trust between local upstarts and a well established industry network.
This caught the eye of one James MacCormack who would soon become a familiar face to me.