This month’s Faces of the Industry tells the career story of Jim Britton, CEO of Deepwater Corrosion Services, who knows a thing or two about weathering a downturn in oil prices. Born in the UK, but rightfully called an “honorary Texan,” Jim had the hutzpah to start up an oil and gas service company in Houston during the rough ride of the 1980’s. He figured out how to hedge his bets by diversifying his business to navigate successfully through booms and busts. He and his wife grew the business from a spare bedroom start up to a global multi-million dollar corrosion and asset integrity company.
OilOnline recently had an opportunity to visit Jim in his Houston office. Jim’s face lit up when he discussed his entry into this business, why he focuses only on offshore projects, his key advice on “lean times” asset integrity strategies, and why he is upbeat about the future of the industry.
Tell us your story–how did you break into oil and gas?
My career began in the UK when the North Sea was coming online. I was a technician in a metallurgical laboratory that made welding electrodes, which was actually a pretty boring undertaking. I got into oil and gas when the UK switched from manufactured gas to natural gas. It was exciting time for me when I started as a field technician focused on pipeline projects and ended up working all over the world. I slowly went from field to office and worked my way up the ranks. In 1982, I got an opportunity to transfer to Houston.
What led to starting your own company?
I was at a juncture in my career as the company I worked for went through some restructuring and ownership changes. I either had to go back to the UK or find someone to hire me in Houston. The later wasn’t easy because of my immigration status at the time. The only thing I could do was go into business for myself. So in 1986, my wife and I formed Deepwater Corrosion Services in a spare bedroom with no cash and just a credit card we had reserve on. It was tough but things worked out. You have to keep the faith.
We wanted to focus on manufacturing, however, the price of oil was around US$12-$13/bbl then. There was no new construction as more platforms were being removed than put in. So we got into maintenance and integrity management, which was somewhat shielded from the budgets cuts. We developed a risk-based inspection procedure and Exxon was the first company to give us a shot. That chapter in our business gave us a unique perspective in understanding the real problems with asset integrity. We used that knowledge to develop a solution called I-Rod to target localized corrosion damage. This particular solution really fueled our expansion into manufacturing, as we went from a few thousand in sales to over $10 million in sales last year on that one product alone.
What does it take to be a successful entrepreneur?
I’m an engineer by discipline with no formal business training. I grew into this role by building a company. One key to success is picking a sector and becoming the best you can be in that space. You can’t be all things to all people. I chose the offshore industry as my focus and we don’t even look at onshore work–we refer it out. Another key to succeeding as an entrepreneur is a drive to put the hours in. If you aren’t prepared to do that, you have a slim chance of success. New entrepreneurs may also spring up during this downturn. I’ve found that a lot of people aren’t “volunteer” entrepreneurs. They get downsized and take a chance on starting their own business. This might be a good opportunity for some to take their specialty and find a niche in the market.
Do you have a career high or peak you’d like to share?
One thing that really sticks out is when I developed a product to address a pipe support issue, our first purchase order was from Exxon. That was the first time we ever earned money from a product we developed in-house. That was a light bulb moment. It wasn’t a very big purchase order, but it really got the fire started.
Have you seen a slowdown in the number of projects at your company?
We have seen some slowdown and we are getting calls from our customers looking for rate reductions and discounts. We are all in this together, so I have instructed my salesforce to work with those accounts to see how we can share the pain. Being hard-nosed on pricing is not where you need to be in a market like this. These assets have got to be maintained or everyone loses out if these assets fail.
You have to have a business model that hedges Greenfield and Brownfield activity. We have gone to great lengths to structure our business to shift our emphasis in downturns to the inspection and maintenance oriented business. We have operated the company with that balance and it has helped us weather the storms.
In light of tighter budgets, what advice do you have for companies in their overall asset integrity strategy?
I would recommend looking at their assets very critically and performing a risk assessment as there are limited funds. You have to appreciate that some assets are more worthy of maintenance dollars than others. The secret is to get those priorities aligned and put the dollars where they do the most good.
How does the industry balance the talent equation during the downturn?
We need to be careful not to lose too much talent from the industry because when they are needed, they aren’t going to be there. Also, many companies are dealing with the knowledge gap where they are lacking talent with 20 or more years of experience. At my company, we try to create a very structured career development program that includes mentoring to address the knowledge gap.
Also, the oil and gas industry as a whole doesn’t force you into retirement. If you are willing to work and your brain is functioning, you can work as long as you want in a consulting role. That’s what saved the industry when we went through the drought periods with a low number of petroleum engineers.
What are some key opportunities for companies in the offshore sector?
The offshore industry is finding really significant major energy reserves in the deepwater plays just off of the continental shelves. This industry is going to be around for a very long time. It never stops even with fluctuating oil prices. I see tremendous opportunity particularly in deepwater and ultra-deepwater segments.
There is a lot of talk about the near-term viability of the North Sea. What do you say?
The North Sea is a great area. It is like a phoenix as it keeps on coming up. Right now, it is challenged, but the UK government has a vested interest in keeping the offshore oil and gas business viable by providing tax relief.
We’ve invested heavily in positioning ourselves there. This is a major market but also a major source of innovative technology that really compliments what is happening here on the Gulf Coast. The most successful companies work between the US and the UK. The compliment between the European engineering style along with the American “can do” approach creates great synergies. Some wonderful stuff happens- it is a thing of beauty to see.
How would you like to be remembered?
I’d like to be remembered as a guy who brought a lot of new ideas to offshore and as running primarily a product development company. Ninety-five percent of what we sell is designed and built right here in Houston. I’d like to be known as never giving up on the US as a manufacturing center. Texas easily has some of the best talent in the world when it comes to engineering and manufacturing. I’d like to think I’m doing what I can do to keep us in that lead position and not sell these jobs offshore.
About Jim Britton
Jim Britton is the founder and CEO of Houston-based Deepwater Corrosion Services. He has worked in the offshore corrosion and asset integrity field since 1972. He was educated in the UK and began his offshore career in the UK North Sea. Jim has published numerous technical papers on offshore corrosion-related issues and holds several patents for technology associated with corrosion and asset integrity management. For nearly 30 years, Jim has focused on developing methods, products and technologies for controlling corrosion on virtually any type of offshore asset, from platforms and pipelines to FPSOs and wind farms.