His has not been a smooth road, but is anyone’s?
“People thought I’d disappeared once I’d sold the company in 2008,” said Jamie Oag.
“People thought . . . ‘well, Jamie’s now driving his fancy cars and having fun.’ But I was actually here, working harder and putting in more days than I did before I sold Optima to the Norwegians.
“Over the past two years I’ve been trying to focus on people I’m still around. I’m still involved in the business. And I still hold 45% equity.
“Two years ago we sold the company to our Norwegian partners – led by Northern Industries – and then bought back 45% of the equity. We started a new company, Optima Solutions, to buy back into the shareholding.”
Jamie Oag’s initial career path is not unusual for the oil and gas industry: graduate in an engineering discipline, work for one or more service companies for several years, get restless and strike out on your own – rarely with anything like enough money.
In his case, the main focus was well-testing, and it was this that gave him the idea that led to his founding Optima Solutions in Aberdeen.
“Basically, I saw an opportunity to reduce the heat radiation from flaring and to protect infrastructure, vessels and people.
“We set Optima up in 1999 and started to trade in 2000 with three guys – myself, my partner Peter Bartholomew and a junior engineer.
“We had about £42,000 at the time. The idea was to control our own destiny. I wasn’t chasing money. It was about getting up in the morning, and doing stuff that you wanted to do.
“We grew by doing engineering, solving and fixing problems for others.
“Our main service is cooling systems for flaring. However, in those early days, we also got into all sorts of problem-solving for various companies.
“We ended up making a decision to focus on fancy technologies – lasers and the like. We employed about 10-15 people at the time. But all this high-technology stuff wasn’t bringing in the money. It was the low-tech stuff that was paying the bills, providing a solution for one particular problem – head radiation from flaring.
“We had to focus on that and put all our toys away. After that, we went from strength to strength.”
All this happened within the first 18 months of the firm’s existence. Indeed, Oag was told by organisations such as Connect that they had to focus on the main game and avoid distraction.
“There was resistance from me to move away from the high-tech solutions – things like cleaning runways with lasers and ROVs fitted with lasers to monitor pollution – to concentrate on something simpler and, in business terms, economically more sensible.
“Being an engineer, I had been enjoying the engineering solutions thing. But we were in business and we had to understand that we had to change.
“The managing director had to realise that he had responsibilities. This was no longer about amusing himself.”
Oag buckled down, bringing in revenues from a successful idea and investing back into more plant and equipment. Optima became a service company, but with an engineering twist.
He travelled offshore. This was critical for getting clients to understand the business. It was all-hands-on-deck for the first two or three years.
“Many hats, many roles . . . one minute you’re a salesman, next minute you’re loading out a job.
“I was lucky. I still have the same core people today as then. They’ve been very loyal. We’re all very committed.
“Until the last two years, I used to interview everybody who came for a job. Since then I’ve handed that over to the management team. I had to.”
On the finance side Oag, fortunately, made a good decision relatively early on. “I brought someone in with support from Grampian Enterprise. He was a consultant. He had a lot of experience and I just connected with him.
“He started saying to me: ‘You can’t put the overalls on, go out into the yard and be one of the guys. I know you love that part but you’ve got to grow up.’
“He became my mentor over the years and my guide through difficult times.”
And his name? Oag was too coy to say.
Oag even brought a former boss of his into the company – someone who keeps a low profile and simply gets on with the job.
Today, Optima turns over around £10million, based on the 2010 expectation. The first million took about three years to achieve.
It has not all been plain sailing. Indeed, Oag nearly lost the business four or so years ago.
“We were doing very well at the time but misjudged an opportunity in Mexico and that is where we came unstuck. I would say my ego got in the way.
“I thought we couldn’t go wrong. We made a £5million commitment to assets, we had won the technical bid, but we came unstuck over a detail. It was an £18million contract that we ultimately did not get.
“I was so confident, like the mouse with the cheese . . . £18million – that’s three years’ work. I was at Offshore Europe, walking round the show when I learned of the difficulty.
“The biggest lesson I learned out of that was humility. I contacted my suppliers to explain the situation, contacted the bank, contacted my accountant. All were supportive. John Black at A2+B was brilliant.
“It was then that I realised that if you have a few good friends who can help keep your head above the water while you struggle to sort things out, you are indeed fortunate.
“There is such a fine line between success and failure. Things were so tight that I was even paying wages using my credit card.
“Over a period of four or five months it was touch and go. I learned from my over-confidence and arrogance.
“If I had experienced smaller failures earlier, I might have recognised the signals. But I was of the mindset that everything I touched became gold. I was wrong.
“But then one day down the line one of my welders came up to me and said: ‘Ah, I see you’ve got laces back in your shoes.’ It was the first laugh I’d had in months.
“Fortunately, we had work coming in; the issue was cash flow.”
Basically, Oag had to methodically pick up the pieces and get the business back on a sound footing. There was even a silver lining to the Mexican cloud as he still had the equipment that had been ordered. So, it was immediately available for deployment and that turned out to be a boon.
“But I don’t want to go though all that again. It can happen to anyone. I had seen my father go bust when I was a youngster, so I had a fear of failure.”
And so to the sale, which had nothing to do with the Mexico crisis.
“My partner and I started to discuss the idea of selling the business, so we spoke with A2+B and Simmons. There were various proposals but what attracted us to the Norwegians was that they wanted to keep the company intact and to grow it.”
For his part, Oag decided the time had come to release capital, create a nest egg – a sort of life insurance policy.
“The idea was not to give it all up but just part with enough to ensure security. In any case, 10 years of my life had gone into the company. My business partner felt the same way too.”
The beauty is that a deal was executed just ahead of the recession. Three or four months later and it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to do, according to Oag.
“So here I am today, still involved with the business, still growing it. We’ve just secured some major contracts and are looking at 25% growth this year. We’re taking on people. And we’re considering making acquisitions. Equally, others could try to acquire us.
“We don’t know whether we’re the cat or the mouse – though we think we’re the cat.”