David Telfer, 14th October 2009
Norwell says it is the longest-established drilling project-management group and well-engineering consultant in Europe.
The Aberdeen-based firm, which has just celebrated its 20th anniversary, also believes it has a record of success on some of the most challenging projects in the industry.
Its 20-strong team has worked for clients including BP, Shell, Petrobras, Talisman, Dana, Apache, Venture and StatoilHydro in virtually every oil and gas province in the world from Alaska to Australia and China to Congo – 43 countries in all.
The firm was founded by Newcastle-born chairman Ken Fraser with three engineers.
Managing director Iain Adams joined forces with him shortly afterwards, becoming joint owner 10 years ago. Norwell now has a multimillion-pound turnover and has doubled in size in the past decade through organic growth.
Mr Adams says it could have grown much bigger but has deliberately stuck to a “boutique” feel, resisting the temptation to rapidly increase staff levels during boom times.
Mr Adams, 49, said: “I came in as part of a succession plan for Ken, who is now 63, but that has never entirely come about because he is still working as hard as ever, although now arguably it’s because he wants to, not that he has to.
“We genuinely enjoy what we do and, yes, there have been offers of investment, mergers and buyouts over the years but this is a pretty addictive business.
“You have to periodically ask yourself if you really want to be doing this in five years and so far the answer has always been ‘yes’.
“We are probably quite unusual in Aberdeen in having a business model like this that we have stayed with.
“We don’t get many bread-and-butter type jobs, we tend to get the challenging, quirky ones: remote locations, high-pressure/high-temperature deepwater wells, and ones with limited planning time.”
Projects tackled include a three-year ultra-deepwater well programme Norwell managed for Indian state company ONGC a couple of years back.
The wells were in water depths ranging from 5,000-10,000 feet and spread all the way from Pakistan down the west coast of India and back up the east to Bangladesh.
They included the deepest well drilled in India, the deepest water depth drilled in India and at the time the deepest water depth drilled outside the Gulf of Mexico.
Just to top it off, Norwell only had six weeks from the day the ink dried on the contract to the rig arriving offshore India to start operations. To put that into perspective, most wells in the North Sea are in less than 600ft of water and take closer to six months to plan.
In another industry first, Norwell worked recently for Caithness Petroleum and bagged the first offshore well drilled out under the North Sea from onshore. The well was drilled by a land rig from a clifftop location near Lybster, saving the costs and emissions associated with an offshore drilling rig and support vessels.
Mr Adams said: “We have built our team by taking on one or two graduates every year, even if there’s not an immediate need.
“We still have half the people we started with 20 years ago and we’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way: a big one being the value of taking time to recruit the right people at the outset and also about retaining them.
“The age range in the company now is from 63 to 22, which has set us up well for the future.”
The businessman, who grew up in Mastrick, Aberdeen, said: “We could have been a 400-person company several times over if that had been the business model.
“The industry is cyclic and in the upturns you can recruit as many people as it’s possible to get on your books.
“But that relies on either building the company to sell before a downturn makes the overheads unsustainable or being forced into following the cycles by laying off personnel in the downturns and recruiting again on the upturns and that hasn’t been the business model.”
Norwell works with a core of 10-30 consultants at any time in addition to its 20 staff, and by making an effort to keep them continually in work, has employed many of the same people for more than 10 years.
Mr Adams said: “As the years have gone by and we have grown so has our ability to handle multiple projects, with our in-house resources we can now comfortably look after four simultaneous projects. At the moment, we are running operations on three continents. Developing that capability is an achievement we are proud of.”
He graduated from Aberdeen University with an engineering degree in 1979 and went straight to work for Chevron as a graduate.
In his first week in the job, he was sent out to Louisiana for a year. He said: “The rationale in sending us off to the US for a year was that you would gain experience on a lower-cost operation and work in various locations with experienced personnel and make any mistakes in front of people you would probably never have to see again.
“By the time you were taken home and sent offshore in the North Sea for the first time, you weren’t that green.
“We try and emulate that methodology with new recruit engineers who are paired up with older, more experienced consultants and exposed to as many foreign locations and rig types as we can throw at them in their first few years.”
His stint with Chevron lasted for nine years, including time in Louisiana, California, Alaska and the North Sea.
He ended up as a drilling supervisor/ superintendent and married to his wife Becky who he met while stationed in Anchorage, Alaska.
After a year with a Houston-based consultant, Mr Adams joined Ecodrill where he met Norwell founder Mr Fraser. When the company was sold, Mr Fraser, who worked for Shell for many years, went on to form Norwell and Mr Adams followed not long after.
Both men are keen on the outdoors.
Mr Fraser regularly competes in long-distance running events and recently beat actor Matt Damon in a South African endurance cycle race. Mr Adams prefers swimming, ski-ing and taking part in half marathons and 10k runs. He is also a keen triathlete.