You Know the Drill: ‘Sometimes You’ve Just Got to go Where the Work Is’
After a five-year stint of coaching high school basketball, Randy Smith is returning to a field he’s very familiar with, oil and gas drilling. He’s taking the field experience he started accumulating in the late ’60s and sharing it with others in the industry through the launch of Smith Mason & Co., a year-old business dedicated to well control training. Along with partners Marcus Mason and Larry Schmermund, Smith is leading a company that provides International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC) required training for oil and gas operators. Based in Lafayette, La., with additional locations in Nachez, Miss., and Houston, Smith Mason & Co. training consists of traditional classroom work and innovative field simulators that allow trainers to travel to the clients, which, Smith says, is key at a time when low oil and gas prices make training less convenient.
Q. What do you do and what keeps you coming back every day?
A. I’ve tried to be a good founder and put together a great team that would lead this company, — Marcus and Larry, too. As I get older, hopefully they’ll take over and carry over another good 20 years of the family business. It’s about saving lives, keeping everybody off the 6 o’clock news and everybody coming home and being with their family. If we can help make that happen, we feel good about ourselves.
Q. What does a typical workday involve?
A. We have three ladies here that take care of business on the administrative side. Then we have instructors. I think we have about eight instructors now and they have students come in Monday through Friday and take well control or leadership or drilling practices or stuck pipe prevention. My typical day is I get up early, check on students and instructors if I’m in Natchez and make calls and try to get clients to use us, being a young company. I go to Houston a lot, I go to New Orleans a lot, meeting with clients and making appointments. That’s kind of my role.
Q. What does it take to succeed in what you do?
A. Perseverance, determination, you have to have a passion for teaching people. Adult learning is different from children, so you have to be really good at what you know and what you do. You have to have great people skills and get the right people around you that are going to present the materials. The worst thing you can do is have a boring course or someone who doesn’t really teach you. So we really think you’ve got to have quality instructors and teach them how you want them to teach before they get in front of somebody. You don’t want to learn on the go. You really want to get prepared. And you need some luck on getting known. Sometimes, someone gives you a chance and you realize that guy was there to audit the course and he’s got 1,000 other people that need the training. So sometimes just that one person might get you the rest of their account.
Q. What do you wish you knew when you started?
A. As for this company, I wish we would have known last July that the oil price was going to drop so low. You know, you start in the business with $100 oil and a year later we’re at $60. So it’s like, wow, there’s people that aren’t doing some of this training because they’re waiting for the oil price to return. I think when I first started I didn’t know how hard I was going to have to work. I really thought I was going to have an easy time because I thought we did a good job. But people go to training where they’re used to going and sometimes you’ve got to get them to see something new and something great. So just getting those opportunities is what you work hard at and I learned when I first started that you still have to have a lot of determination and people skills to get people to try you. But once you’ve got them here I did learn you’ve got to keep doing a good job and diversify, do different things that the industry needs. Don’t think you’re going to do one course or two courses. You’ve got to listen to what’s happening in the industry and go from there. I think part of our success in the early days was to diversify as we’re doing now. Don’t just do well control. You might have leadership, you might have safety, you might have technical drilling practices; anything that would help them on the rig is what I’ve learned to do.
Q. What tool can you not imagine working without?
A. In the early days it would be a telephone, but now it would be my iPhone 6. I mean, that is a godsend. We’re in a very fast-paced world and communication is just so critical. This technology that we use when we’re teaching now is so great. We have this board that we use where you can draw and use visuals so much better than before. So the computers and the simulations that we have now are so great. But for me right now my cell phone is really a neat thing with LinkedIn and Facebook and all these things that we have that are advertising. I’m doing the radio and we’re doing the newspaper, but this is so much easier, the cellphone. So I don’t know what I’d do without my cell phone.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
A. My father-in-law, at one time, said if you’re going to marry this girl you’re going to have to get your college degree. Once I got my college degree and went in the oil field, wow, then the field is open for you. I know a lot of people just go from high school to the oil field, but I always tell them to take at least a year or two of college and then go to the oil field. Then you can be a leader faster. You’ll be a leader eventually if you stay there long enough, but if you have the college, then you’ve got the math skills and you’ve got the people skills; you’ve got a lot more to offer the oil field. So my father-in-law said to go to college and I did that and I got to marry his daughter and then he got me the workover job because he was a doctor and he did the physicals for an oil company. I always pass that on. I don’t care how much you don’t want to go to college. You need to go to school and then, I’ll say, it’s so much fun to have your own company later on. You’ve got to get good experience with somebody, but if you can, try to have your own company. I think starting a company is a lot of fun, but you’ve got to have the right skills and the right experience to do it. It’s not for everybody. But college gives you a chance, so I’d say going to college was the best advice I ever got.
Q. How would you describe the present state of the industry?
A. It’s so up and down right now. When we go talk to clients they’re laying off 150 to 200 people. Then there are some parts that are working, like Eagle Ford and maybe offshore people are hiring, so very volatile. I’ve seen the best of times over these 40 years and I’ve seen the worst, and we always come back. You just have to be ready to adjust. You can’t spend a lot of money when things are down. You try to find courses and things to do for the industry that will help them save money and lives. You’re not going to get them to do too many courses, so you have to get prepared to do courses that are required or do things that, when things turn around you’re ready. So we’re kind of hoping things turn around at the end of this year at least. If not, we know what we have to do. We have to go where the people are working, so we’re doing classes out in Texas right now. We have to go out there rather than them come to Lafayette. The reason we bought simulators that are portable is so we can travel to Texas, overseas, anywhere we have to go. We’ve been to Mexico before, we’ve been to Trinidad, south Texas. You have to be adaptable and ready to do anything in this environment. I wish I could have them all come to Natchez, Lafayette and Houston, but sometimes you’ve just got to go where the work is.