Career development

Leadership 360: Going From Employee to Employer

Cheryl Collarini, chairman of Collarini Energy Staffing, on her industry background, experience, and journey to the energy staffing sector.

Business people

How did you come up with the idea of Collarini Energy Staffing?

My original company was called Collarini Engineering, and we did reserve evaluations for bank loan determination, year-end reserve reporting, field studies, acquisition analysis, and divestment support. This required me to hire engineers, geologists, geophysicists, and support people. One of our clients, who often hired us to work on offshore field study projects, told me that he had a team that was missing an engineer and wanted to hire one of mine on an hourly basis for a couple of months. That day it occurred to me that we could serve our clients in a different way, and I incorporated Petro-Temps, which is now renamed Collarini Energy Staffing.


What attributes do you look for when choosing candidates for consulting?

Consulting requires a certain amount of experience, technical or professional ability, and the confidence to make decisions. It also requires someone who can stick to their scientifically supportable opinion or finding, and not be unduly affected by client pressure. Finally, it is important to have references from prior clients, if any.

Many people are not suited to consulting; a good consultant must be a team player and respect the client. He or she must be able to defend and document his or her work. And, I always ask about the need for medical and other insurances. That is a cost that must be considered if there are not other arrangements, such as a spouse who can cover the family. For many people whom I have hired as consultants to my businesses, it did not work out. But, for a lot of them it did.

What characteristics impress you when you see them on young professional résumés? Do you have any examples such as field experience, networking, or leadership experience?

A well-organized and well-written résumé, grammatically correct and without spelling errors, is the first thing that I notice. I have read thousands of résumés, and about 25% of people will misspell the words “principal and principle” and use “lead” as a past tense. It indicates to me that they are not careful or do not think how they present themselves is important. But I think about that. I worry about that. I used to throw away résumés with grammar errors in them and not save them, but I quit doing that because I realize that, especially for people who have English as a second language, we just need to help them with their résumés. I think a résumé that shows progress is important.

Many engineers begin in the field and progress to another position in the office in 2–3 years. It is good to see the progression, as it indicates good performance. I really like to see leadership experience in SPE and other organizations. There is so much to be learned about leadership even before one is given the chance within a company, and it is an indicator of initiative and energy when people pursue those roles. Changing jobs often is a negative to me unless there is some reasonable story to go with it.

Can you share some statistics on the number of résumés you are getting now vs. the same period in 2013, when oil price was more stable? 

[As of 1 August] I checked our figures, and for the first 7 months of 2015, we received twice as many résumés as we did in the same period of 2014. We received about the same number in 2013 as 2014.

You have a civil engineering degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). How did you get from studying in Boston to working for Mobil in New Orleans? 

I was born in New Orleans and grew up in the close suburbs. At MIT, I began in aerospace engineering. You might recall, NASA was very active, and man first walked on the moon in 1969. But, when I attended the very first aerospace class as a new sophomore, I knew it was not for me. I quickly found another major that was more comfortable for me and to my liking and that was civil engineering. Who does not aspire to build a bridge?

My first job out of high school was with a construction company in New Orleans. I did material takeoff calculations for the pilings under the Superdome, a domed sports and exhibits venue, and also for the pilings under One Shell Square, which is a 51-story building in New Orleans. So I got to work on some landmarks when I was 17 years old.

And that is the kind of company I decided I wanted to work for in Boston. There was a family-owned construction company that was building several buildings around MIT. So I applied there, and I got the job, but I did not like the snow. Driving in the snow was really very difficult, and I finally said to my husband, “I don’t like this. We need to go by one of our families. Yours is in Detroit. Mine is in New Orleans. Pick one. You can play golf all year-round in New Orleans.”

I chose Mobil in New Orleans because the salary offer was the highest of the ones I received. I was so lucky that the environment was just beginning to be friendly to women, as the Equal Rights Amendment looked like it was going to be ratified. I knew nothing about oil and gas, but I was so fortunate in that first job: Mobil had just invested in software to design offshore platforms, and I was the one to learn how to use it. I designed seven platforms and a lot of auxiliary equipment, including a 150-ft bridge. Well, it is not the Golden Gate, but it is something.

 The deepest water when I started in the design field was 300 ft. The deepest one I designed was only 149 ft, but we had to do some special calculations on it because it was heavy and in a mudslide area. It was off the delta of the Mississippi River where, when the hurricane comes, the wave trough and peak have such a difference in water weight that it can slide the mud, and so you had to design the platform to be very heavy. I learned a lot, but structural design is not where oil companies make money, so I asked for on-the-job-training as a production engineer.

When I started in production engineering, the science was new to me. I was used to pounds per square inch in steel stress, but not as pressure. I had a lot to learn, and Mobil was excellent in training its new people. We also had two very good developments going on in the Gulf of Mexico that had record-setting completions. All of the young engineers were exposed to experts at Mobil’s lab who were well-published and were advising senior engineers on newer technologies. We were doing with a pencil and (large) calculator what the nodal analysis programs are doing today.

These very directional large completions with gravel packs were working, and the rates were very predictable using engineering calculations. It was fun because the science was more accurate than most of the sciences in our business. For example, in reservoir engineering, because of the nature of the data you have, you cannot physically see it. But with production engineering, very often you can get a real answer, and I find that I still use it because the reservoir is connected to the completion.

From there, why did you move to reservoir engineering?

That is where the money is. That is where the promotions came from, in Mobil anyway, and a lot of the oil companies, and so is getting an MBA. I did my MBA while I was working with Mobil, so it took me the first 4 years I was with Mobil and they paid for most of it. But using the knowledge from there and also the kind of economics programs that Mobil had, the reserves and economics piece was just right up my alley.

I learned reservoir engineering through training courses and on the job. The reservoir courses that my company put me through were 4 or 5 weeks, which is probably the equivalent of 4 or 5 semesters, because they were pretty intense. So I was able to pick that up on the job, with the help of the fundamentals I learned in math and engineering. For example, I never knew the decline curve formula, but I knew exponential decay.

Why did you leave Mobil then?

I am far from the only person to adjust a career path based on life issues. I was on a great run with Mobil, a supervisor with some talk of my taking a “ticket-punching” position in the New York office. I had aspirations to rise in management, and most of the local upper management relied on me for special projects and was supportive of me. Then, my brother, my only other sibling died.

He had been in a diving accident and was a quadriplegic. My parents were devastated, and I was the only child. There was no question that I could not leave New Orleans, at least for a while, and also no question that I would advance too far in an international company like Mobil without moving. At the same time, a colleague who had complementary skills to mine was notified nearly a year in advance that he would be laid off from his job. We began to plan for a consultancy.

Life circumstances change a lot of people’s decisions about their careers, and this was one I felt I had to do, and I never look back and regret it. It has been actually good fun.

Right after I quit Mobil, they hired me back in 3 months to teach economics. When I was the reservoir engineering supervisor, my staff was bringing me AFEs [authority for expenditure] with mistakes, and I was the first one to sign them. Finally, I said we are going to have a class. So I took it on my own time, and I wrote a 30-page manual. It did not have a lot of text, but it had 30 problems in it, and I made my seven-person staff sit in it for a whole day, and we did it. We did economics, risk analysis, and I made them cupcakes with the present-value formulas on them. Putting together the class was one of the the most career-altering things I probably did, and I did not know it at the time.

What do you see in the future for staffing of the energy industry?

We are still early in the price downturn, but we are seeing résumés from people with more than 30 years of experience, who might represent retirees or natural attrition. We are also seeing résumés from people with 5 years or fewer of experience, but relatively few people in the middle range. That is where the age gap of what people are calling the “great crew change” lies. The industry is smartly keeping those people who have 10–20 years of experience and trimming from both the high and low ends to try to even out the numbers in each age group.

I still see a need for mentors, which will increase as staff levels decrease; it takes time to mentor people. We will be looking to fill gaps using consultants, primarily those at the upper end of the experience level. There will be a need, because the work still has to be done, and we tend to lay off more people than we should to keep expenses down.

What would you recommend to young professionals aspiring to get on the board of private or publicly traded companies?

I did it by starting my own companies. I also have served in many industry organizations, such as SPE, mostly locally. I would recommend first becoming very active in a nonprofit. There are also organizations such as the National Association of Corporate Directors that are very helpful in educational workshops and in networking.

How has volunteering helped you professionally and personally?

I have been volunteering since I was in high school. You gain confidence. I have always had a “can do” attitude. It made me unafraid to lead organizations in high school and in college. I had three Girl Scout troops when I was in my early 20s. I was on the SPE Delta Section board as well.

Each leadership position gave me more knowledge and experience. I learned about working with people and kept my organization skills sharp using those learned MBA skills in a practical sense. I still have my network through all of those organizations and through all these years. Your participation in volunteer organizations is always going to help you in some kind of way, and you may not know why or when.

What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?

I believe that women are their own worst enemy. I believe that the successful woman is somebody who believes she can be successful. For example, if you want it, you are going to have to grab it, and you can look around and see the women who have gotten into high-level positions at international operating companies. They have done things that most women do not want to do and put themselves in the pathway, and they have been successful at it. It is probably not as easy as for a man because it is unexpected, but I think women do not just reach out and take it as much as we should, and that is a significant barrier in my opinion.

How to overcome it is through education and understanding that we cannot have it all, but we can have what we want. The senior-level women have all gone through a lot, including disabled children, husbands who are ill, and many things, and they are still working, and they are still successful in the level they want to be successful.

I do not think you have to be the head of a company to be successful. I think you can just be happy doing what you are doing and be successful. You have to grab the opportunity when it comes though.

What was the most useful piece of advice given to you?

The first memorable one was from my seventh grade math teacher when I was 12. She told me to consider MIT. No one in my circle of family and friends had even heard of it. The second one was from someone in a class on ethics. She said, “If you can’t look someone in the eye and tell them what you did, it is probably not ethical.”

What legacy do you want to leave?

I want to be known as a good wife and mother, and I want people to remember me as a person who treated them equally with respect and kindness and who reached out to help people who are less fortunate than I am. That is it.

Cheryl Collarini is chairman of Collarini Energy Staffing, which provides technical staff to customers on site, placing upstream professionals in temporary and full-time positions all over the world. She is also the manager and owner of DGC Energy. Earlier in her career, she held several positions at Mobil Oil, including being development projects engineer and reservoir engineering supervisor. She formed Collarini Engineering in 1985 to conduct independent reserve appraisals and field studies, and also conducted petroleum investment classes for Mobil. In 1995, she founded Collarini Energy Staffing. In 2003, she accepted a partnership in Explore Enterprises and served as its vice president of engineering. She returned to Collarini Energy Staffing as chairman in 2005. She holds a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MBA from the University of New Orleans.