Fiona MacAulay is staring at a blank canvas.
The industry veteran was recently named Echo Energy’s chief executive, leaving Rockhopper Exploration, where she had been chief operating officer.
The fact that so few women are hired as CEOs is not lost on Ms MacAulay – and she is relishing the opportunity.
“It’s a great opportunity to be the CEO of a company as opposed to chief operating officer,” said Ms MacAulay, a chartered geologist.
“You get to call the shots in relation to strategy.
“We’ve got an entirely clean sheet of paper at Echo. It’s a new canvas, an opportunity for me not only to build a team but also a portfolio.
“You don’t always get that opportunity. Usually when a new CEO is parachuted in, the strategy is set. But this time there are no assets on the portfolio.”
Echo, headquartered and listed in London, is targeting South American exploration and production assets, focusing initially on Bolivia.
In June, Echo signed an agreement with Pluspetrol, giving it an opportunity to secure an 80% operated interest in the Huayco block in Southern Bolivia.
A month later, it signed a technical evaluation agreement with Pluspetrol and Bolivian national oil company YPFB over the Rio Salado block, which surrounds Huayco and contains an extension of the previously identified structure.
Ms MacAulay, who has 30 years of experience in oil and gas, starting with Mobil North Sea in 1985, said: “We’re excited by the potential of that asset. It’s between assets owned by Shell and Repsol and is a big ticket item.
“We have the opportunity to become operator of that. It’s a high risk, high reward block and we are likely to be adding more of that sort of asset to our portfolio.
“But we also need to look at what the spread of risk should look like. Can we put in some more low risk assets?
“There are opportunities we could get into that are very limited in cost requirements.”
Ms MacAulay said there were a lot of reasons to favour South America over other oil regions.
She said building partnerships with key industry players was no trickier in South America than anywhere else.
She also said Bolivia had been supportive of the oil and gas industry, to date, and was focused on bringing in investment and supporting that progress. We wanted to pick a region and a strategy where there are not a lot of other players with a very similar focus,” Ms MacAulay said.
“We’re a bit of a niche and we have a great opportunity there to deliver a mid-cap oil company that can deliver.”
Furthermore, Latin America has a developed pipeline system for transporting oil and gas.
“That’s the beauty of South America – Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Bolivia have got great infrastructure, which was put in place a number of years ago,” she said.
“You are never far from a major pipeline. You’re never more than tens of kilometres at the most from infrastructure and networks that extend across South America.They’ve got good, fair tariffs, so you’re not going to get over-charged.”
On the subject of gender inequality, Ms MacAulay said Latin America tended to have more women in senior positions in industry and in politics than in other parts of the world.
“I would not be worried that I was not going to get a seat at the table here because I’m a woman,” she said.
“That was always more of an issue in the UK. I’m one of the only female CEOs in the oil and gas sector, which is quite surprising. There are very few female executive board members. I never thought much about my gender – I just get on with the day job. It was never something that worried me.”
Recent research published by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a global management consultancy, and the World Petroleum Council, showed that the oil and gas industry had the lowest share of female employees than any other major sector, barring construction.
Ms MacAulay said she attended a meeting in the UK about 10 months ago, at which of the 48 people in attendance, 90% were over 50 and all apart from her were male.
“It’s a sad state of affairs and something we need to do something about,” Ms MacAulay said.
“I’ve not noticed things getting any better but I don’t spend much time thinking about it.
“Part of the problem is women not thinking they’re good enough and putting themselves forward.
“Also, people may leave industry and find it hard to get back in.
“In other sectors you can leave for maternity and slot straight back in. The oil industry is not as receptive to that. We need to be supportive to bring back talent.”