Growth is a good thing, certainly, and here in the Basin, growth has been had in abundance. But growth comes with complications and challenges as well. We spoke with three professionals to get their advice for small- to mid-sized companies that are…
Making the Transition
By Jesse Mullins
If there’s one thing we’ve noticed, as a magazine that covers an industry, and a region, that is likely the “booming-est” region in the United States and maybe the world, it’s the fact that O&G businesses and their various service companies have added staff and assets at an astounding rate. Companies that just five years ago were but a mere handful of employees, or maybe just a sole proprietor with a truck, are today thriving firms with 10, 20, 30, 50 or more workers on payroll. It’s been a wild ride, and the fallout of all that explosive growth is still affecting many of these super-busy entities.
Company owners who were doing hands-on chores by themselves or with a helper or two only five years ago are now executives with strategic plans to approve, clerical staffs to supervise, balance sheets to study, and meetings to attend. This dizzying shift in duties hits not just the ones at the top, but middle management as well. Add to that the worker shortage and intense competition for skilled professionals, and it becomes ever more obvious that employees have had to step up and grow into the bigger responsibilities they must handle.
To help companies get a better handle on how they can cope with this firehose of change, we’ve called on three professionals who each have a unique perspective on the situation. Each works in a different field, and each has a different flavor of advice to share, but all have some insights that can help companies “get their arms around” their new circumstances and find ways to sort out the complexities of their companies’ internal functions and to simplify and streamline their overall operations. There’s even some advice on how to better position a company to take advantage of possible future opportunities or to minimize risks.
Jim McNeer is president of Allied Employer Group, an Abilene-based outsourcing company. He has had previous experience at Texas Instruments. As for Allied Employer Group, McNeer shared with us the following: “We are a PEO, a Professional Employer Organization, licensed in the State of Texas, by requirements under the legislative act. We provide Human Resources outsourcing for our clients, as well as compliance outsourcing, risk management, payrolling, retirement benefit plans, and insurance. We help procure health insurance for our clients and their employees, worker’s compensation insurance, safety training, case management, and claims management for workers comp claims. We provide a lot of the back office services that employers are required to do.”
Dr. Bill Price is PBOG’s own Human Resources columnist. He serves as the Associate Dean and as a Professor of Management at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He has previously held several positions in human resource management and other leadership roles. He has taught various courses and has published a number of articles in the areas of human resource management and strategy.
Bryan Livingston is executive vice president of, and a principal in, Capital Alliance, an advisory firm that operates in the private investment or mergers-and-acquisitions industry. As a private investment banking firm, Capital Alliance primarily works to secure transactions for privately owned companies with publicly owned companies. That usually, but not always, takes the form of a sale of a private company to a public company. “We do not finance the deals ourselves,” says Livington. “We’re just an advisor to our clients. We can’t be effective in that role unless we spend some time and effort helping our clients understand how to maximize the value of their businesses. We work as informal advisors to help them figure out how to solve the problems of preparing a company for growth. It may be growth through a sale, or it may be growth through acquiring another business. Our company is located in Dallas but we have many customers in Midland and in Odessa. We are members of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association and have been for 5 or 6 years. We’re operating in West Texas and assisting West Texas oil and gas operators to maximize the values of their companies.”
We’ve broken the discussion down into various topics that impact fast-growth companies and have shared each source’s input where applicable.
Price: There is an old saying that you only outsource those things that are non-essential for the company. There is something called a value train. That term refers to the idea that certain things are more important to the company than other things. The product that you make or the item that you sell—you don’t want to outsource that. You want to keep that in house. Because that represents your proprietary knowledge, usually. But you want to outsource your human relations, and you may want to outsource your accounting, and your non-essential training. You want to outsource the things that are non-essential to whatever you are making or selling. I’m an HR person, but HR doesn’t normally increase value. So you are going to outsource that.
Organization and Direction
Price: At some point a [small but growing] company needs to think about their form of organization, because of tax impact and liability. To think about going from a sole proprietorship to an LLC or LP. (The LP designation is for very small companies.) That’s something that should be thought about at some point, and an attorney can help them do the paperwork. And it doesn’t cost much. A company might need to operate under what is known as a “fictitious name.” All that that means is designating a name like “Texas Drilling” or something. But even small contractors do that sort of thing, to avoid liability. There can come the point at which financing becomes an issue, and if they want to grow, they’re going to have to think about writing a business plan and perhaps getting some loans. I highly recommend that those companies get with an agency such as a Small Business Development Center [SBDC]. There is no charge for that. There is one here in the Permian Basin area, and one in the Abilene area and the Lubbock area. They can help a lot with getting the business plan done and getting bank financing or venture capital, if that is needed.
Price: A small company is going to have to have a business plan. In a small company, a business plan generally does the work of the strategic plan, whereas in a Concho or an Exxon, they probably don’t have something called a business plan—it is called either a strategic plan or a 10-K, because they are publicly traded. But it’s the same thing, for them. But, to get back to small companies, the business plan is important. And if they want to make it better, they need to grow it from maybe five or six or seven pages to, say, a ten page document. A foreman or shift owner can explain the business plan to the employees and share what the owner’s vision is for growth and what is and isn’t important. That’s how a business plan can be used with employees.
Accounting and Auditing
Livingston: The question of when a company needs to start getting audited financials is a complicated question and it varies from business situation to business situation. Most small companies and entrepreneurs get where they’re going by having personal loan guarantees. They have to pledge their own personal finances to the bank in order to secure their financing. So if you want to get past personal loan guarantees, you’re going to have to start having audited financials. That’s a good milestone: if you’re at a point where you feel the company has grown past the point where you’re comfortable having personal loan guarantees in place, then to get those personal guarantees off, you’re going have to prove to the lender that the company can sustain itself and they don’t need the protection of your personal guarantee.
[But there can also be a middle step, as Livingston indicates:]
To secure any kind of bank financing at all, you’re going to have to have reviewed financials—by an outside accountant—which is one step less rigorous than audited financials. Audits can be performed by local, regional or national accounting firms. A Certified Professional Accountant (CPA) designation is the only necessary credential for an accountant to perform audits in the United States, but it is best to use an accountant that does audits routinely in the industry where your company operates. But in order to be able to successfully obtain debt financing, you’re going to have to have those reviewed financials. If you want to take the next step and grow without having a personal guarantee on your loans, you will have to have audited financials. Audited financials also make it easier to negotiate better terms with the banks. They pay off in a lot of ways even though they cost more money.
Put a job cost accounting system in place that automates the collection of field information and makes the submission of invoices faster and more accurate, which improves cash flow and enables the company to finance more of its growth from operations rather than from bank debt.
Livingston: Human resources is a staff position that companies should recruit and put that person on staff as soon as they feel like they can afford it. The reason that that’s important is because the entire oil and gas industry, and especially the oil and gas services industry, is in a pretty profound labor shortage. So in addition to needing capital, companies need access to field talent as well as management talent if they are to grow the business. It’s very difficult to find the right people unless you have an HR person working on your side who will assist you in putting your best foot forward to hiring the right people.
Price: On the human resources side, if the company is small, you’ll have to outsource that function. But the primary focus of an owner, if it is a one-person shop or anything up to, oh, 20 to 30 people, is sales. The owner is going to be involved in sales and in hiring and personnel issues. And the owner can outsource the Human Resources to an employee co-leasing company, which will put that company’s employees on their payroll, and they cut the check for them, and handle the benefits—the social security withholding, the FICA, the withholding tax, the medicare deduction, the workers comp deduction—those little fees. That sort of thing takes a long time for an owner to do, if your company is a sole proprietorship or LLC or small company, so that is why it should be outsourced. So that owners can spend their time in production, or in hiring, or in sales or somewhere else. Because those jobs are very important. That leads to questions like insurance, as to whether an employer is going to go the Obamacare route, or hire an outside company like Blue Cross / Blue Shield. The employer should bid that out to maybe a couple different health insurers and then consider their bids against Obamacare to see what is most beneficial for their needs.
PEOPLE ARE KEY
Livingston: Develop an HR strategy with a professional consultant who can stand in for a full-time HR manager until the company is large enough to support an HR staff. The number one problem growing companies in the oil patch face is recruiting and retaining experienced field hands and strong management staff. We are in the middle of an oil and gas industry labor shortage that is likely to last for many years. Growing companies cannot address the need for people by just paying more. Oilfield service companies that turn in a strong performance, year after year, create a company culture that attracts and retains talent. Professional HR management is key to communicating the positive aspects of a company’s culture to potential employees, and making sure that the right people are recruited and retained.
McNeer: One thing that I see with fast-growing businesses is that they often don’t do proper vetting of the [newly hired] employee, to make sure that this is someone who is properly trained, or who doesn’t have a background that gives you an exposure. That can mean not being in compliance. Compliance is an issue at the state level, but it’s a bigger issue at the federal level. We had a client of ours recently who had an issue with the Department of Labor. And they [the client] ended up having to pay their employees a substantial amount, because there was a miscalculation in some of their time accounting. So that is an issue where, if you grow very rapidly, you perhaps don’t have somebody who is on top of that. Now, with us as a third party, we don’t necessarily have a dog in the hunt. So we are not apt to look the other direcion to make somebody happy or to further some other agenda. We are trying to stick strictly with what is required. Now, we don’t really have an authority at the client level, so we present the issue, present the alternatives, and let the ownership make the determinations.
Price: When it comes to recruiting, most of the small companies in the oil and gas industry—companies like, say a supply house or a small manufacturing firm or small service company—these companies have employees who know people within that industry. And while there may be conferences and occasions like that where an employer can go and recruit people, it’s going to be networking and word-of-mouth that will get the job done for most employers. I always teach in my classes that the best source of new employees is your existing employees. The reality is that the owner needs to call the employees together for a meeting and announce in that meeting that “We have this opening for another sales person, or whatever position, in the field. Does anybody know somebody who could fill that spot?” You see, they probably do. And that’s probably one of the most common ways, and is probably the best way, to do it. Begin with that.
Livingston: Our primary mode of business [at Dallas-based Capital Alliance] is as a sell-side M-and-A [mergers and acquisitions] advisor to our clients, but what we’ve discovered over the years is that if we can’t be effective in advising people who are on a high-speed growth track in their businesses, then we can’t be effective in helping them. A typical engagement for us begins with a process of getting to know prospective clients and providing them basically with an extended conversation about the things that we observe that they need to do in order to help their companies graduate to a level of value where that company will be interesting for doing a number of different financial transactions. Ultimately, really effective business operators in the oil patch, they’re not managing to profitability targets. If they’re really making the most of their business, we find that they’re managing the risk targets. They’re thinking first about the safety and well-being of their people, and they’re thinking about regulatory risks that they’re facing. They’re thinking about how to make sure that they do a good job for each and every one of their clients so that they can hold on to those clients or customers. So it’s real easy to develop tunnel vision when your focusing on risk, and you may not be able to expand that focus rapidly enough sometimes to deal with these other very important issues related to running the business.
There are some fairly simple steps that involve spending money that people have to take to just get the ground under their feet and to start to assess what that path to growth at reasonable risk might be. One of the biggest issues that people that we work with in the oil patch have to face is, at what time is it appropriate for them to start spending a little money on good accounting support so that they start having audited financials? That’s really important on a number of levels because you can’t really have a strong negotiating position—if you’re going to seek bank financing—until you have audited financials that you can use to say, with a great deal of confidence, that “These are the actual financial results of my company.” So that’s one step that we think is very important for the managers and the owners of high growth businesses to take.
Information Systems and Information Technology
Livingston: Information systems is increasing in importance. Yes, that does include information technology, but an IT person (an information technologist) or a manager of information technology is a critical person to find and add to your staff if you’re a fast growing company. And you may not be able to afford a full time IT manager initially when you’re growing your business but, just as in the HR business, you can hire a consultant until you’re ready to hire a full-time person. When you talk about IT, most people think of the hardware guy who operates your company’s network. But information management systems, especially in the oil and gas field service companies, really goes deeper into your cost management system: your system for tracking cost and earned value on your contracts. Most companies in the oil and gas field services business are selling labor—they’re selling a service that they provide, whether they’re doing pipelining or they’re operating a fleet of water hauling trucks. Ultimately, they have the same contracting method. They’re given a contract to supply a certain amount of labor or a certain amount of results produced from that labor. They don’t know if they’re making money or not if they don’t have a good cost-control and cost-management system. The right way to refer to it—or what it’s usually referred to as—is a “job cost accounting system.” This is just like it is with your HR person, as to whether your use a consultant or you hire somebody. Those positions are funded by your overhead and you can’t bill somebody else for that, and that erodes your business margins. It’s a cost of doing business. It’s just like spending a five-figure amount of money to have audited financials rather than a three-figure amount of money to have reviewed financials. When you grow to a certain point, in order to be able to continue to fuel your growth, you have to have those audited and paid-for statements.
Livingston: Staff a safety manager position, and make the safety program a selling point with the company’s customers. Many exceptional oil and gas service companies have turned effective safety programs into a competitive advantage. Company leadership that puts worker safety first also tends to be successful in most other aspects of running a growing business. Leaders who give a clear message that they care about their crews making it home safely at night through a disciplined safety program command a lot of loyalty from their employees.
McNeer: Safety training is especially important for employees in the oil and gas industry, where there are a lot of dangers and hazards. A lot of the new hires today haven’t worked in the oilfield before, or are not familiar with it, or have been away from it for a long time and, with the equipment changes, the risks have also changed over the years. So when you take somebody who is not familiar with what is going on in the oil field, if they are not properly trained, they’ve got a problem. And typically losses in the oilfield are not just a cut finger or something like that. They can be pretty substantial.
McNeer: There is no “employee leasing” in Texas. What we have here is called “co-employment.” It is where we have an agreement with our client company and we are a co-employer with them, as defined in the state laws. It’s a fast-growing industry. Especially in the metropolitan areas. In smaller areas, it is not growing so fast because there are a lot of people there who don’t know about PEOs, don’t know about outsourcing. They have heard stories—rumors—about outsourcing from people they know, but [those sources] don’t have the right education on the subject. And typically that is our biggest obstacle. It’s educating people and getting them to understand that there are [qualified] services like this. Like compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act, or with the Affordable Care Act, or whatever federal law you can point to. They’ll say, “That has never happened to me in the past…” so, therefore, “going forward it will never happen to me.” So we are trying to educate them about how they are subject to these various rules and laws. Like OSHA compliance. Like worker safety and health. It is a constant educational process. And until these companies have exposure to the availability of these services, there’s just… well, a lot of the small businesses in this part of the state are “not interested,” so to speak. But they ought to be.
Staffing and “Competitive Advantages”
Price: There is always a question of whether you want to hire a certain kind of employee or do you want to subcontract that function out to some other agency. For instance, as you grow, do you need to hire your groundskeeper? No, of course not–you’re going to contract that out. Certain things you just want to outsource, to keep as few employees on staff as you can. Speaking of that, there is an important question of what is the difference between an employee and a contractor. A lot of small companies make a mistake there. If you use a contractor, and if you are the only person that that contractor works for, or if 90 percent of that contractor’s business is with you, and if you determine the contractor’s hours and days that they are going to work, and their conditions, then, under the law, that person is your employee. And some people can get in trouble doing that. So if that person [contractor] gets into a problem, he or she could even demand benefits and make other claims. The bottom line is, make sure that you know the difference between a contractor and an employee.
Obviously, a small company is not going to offer a retirement [pension], and the best way that small companies can compete against a big company is through being very flexible in the work hours, and the conditions, and time off, and those sorts of things. That is an advantage that they can have. Small companies can offer unique benefits, such as opportunities to use the company cabin. You can do things like that, or offer special shopping trips to employees—perks that big companies might not be able to offer their employees. So there are some ways whereby they can have a “competitive advantage” in retaining employees.
And just some general advice:
Livingston, in summing up: Other business functions that companies should be thinking about include: (1) understanding how your company is doing with the third-party produced financial reports, (2) understanding how much you’re making each day in earned value under contracts with a job cost accounting system, and (3) having a plan for hiring the right people, while getting some support to make sure that you’re getting the right people in a world of labor shortages by having that HR staffing person in place. I think those are the three most critical things that high growth companies need to be thinking about in order to fuel their growth. If you’re thinking about a transaction in the future by hiring a company like mine… well, good solid investment bankers can provide them with a crib sheet as a quick guide on some of those most important value-adding functions that they can bring into their business plan. Figure out where you want to go first with the company. This is an important thing–one that I think most people don’t pay as much attention to as they should when they’re operating their business.
Oil and gas is a boom and bust business and it has been for all of my lifetime. But things have changed and there will still be booms and busts, but they won’t be quite as ‘busty’ as they used to be. There’s sustained global demand for what America know-how and especially west Texas know-how has gifted to the world in the form of the shale gas and shale oil revolution. A lot of folks who are operating companies now are probably going to be serial entrepreneurs. They may build a business and either sell it or use a partnership for another transaction to hand over the growth of that company to others, and then build another business, and another, and another. So you really want to try to be as efficient as possible in allocating your resources to build these critical businesses into your company like HR and a financial reporting system and a job cost system. You want to grow that company as quickly as possible and maybe move on to the next challenge.
To find the website for Bryan Livingston’s company, Capital Alliance, go to cadallas.com. For the site for Jim McNeer’s company, Allied Employer Group, go to coemployer.com. For Dr. Price’s place of employment (UTPB’s College of Business and Engineering), go to bus.utpb.edu.