Management » Route to the top- Premier Oil CFO

It’s interesting that I’ve ended up in oil and gas, as I did a physics degree with geophysics at Imperial College London, and intended to go into this industry, but when I came out of university in 1994 when there was a bit of a dip in the sector.

So instead I became an accountant at Ernst & Young, where I ended up gravitating to the oil and gas group accidently. I broke my leg playing rugby, and the closest audit client which was around the corner was US exploration firm Amerada Hess (now Hess Corporation).

Specialising in oil and gas at Ernst & Young, in audit and then corporate finance, I worked for a bit of time at Premier Oil when it was an audit client. Accounting is a great qualification, it gives you a lot of grounding, you can get an understanding very quickly of how businesses operate, and you’re on a steep learning curve from a very young age.

For seven years I was just doing oil and gas in some shape or form at EY. I enjoyed it as an industry, as I got exposed to a mix of E&P (exploration & production) and large cap companies- BP was Ernst & Young’s biggest client. I didn’t do much on BP, but I did a bit on BP Chemicals, but most of my time was actually spent on the E&P side.

It’s a fun sector to work in. In exploration there is the ability for a company to drill a well and transform its business. One day you are company X, you drill a well and suddenly the company can go in a different direction and create a lot of value and it can be quite exciting. I think there is a bit of romance about the space.

I then moved into investment banking. Having initially been in audit and then what was called corporate finance or transaction services, getting involved with capital markets transactions at E&Y, I gravitated to HSBC’s oil and gas team where I stayed for two years.

It was a struggle because at that time they were going through one of their periods of not knowing whether they wanted to be an investment bank or not, even though they had acquired and were in the process of integrating powerful firms in James Capel and Samuel Montagu. I travelled to China, India, South America, doing various pitches. But while it was interesting, it really wasn’t going anywhere.

I followed former HSBC director Brendan Wilders to brokers Oriel Securities to undertake equity research on E&Ps. It was a very entrepreneurial start-up starting from scratch, launching from an empty floor with a couple of laptops on picnic tables.

We were very lucky. We started when the market had bottomed out in 2002 but was starting to pick up, covering small and mid-cap stocks like Premier Oil, where there wasn’t a lot of coverage at the time. We got good traction with clients, and Oriel grew very quickly over a six year period with oil and gas being the biggest franchise.

We happened to hit a sector at the right time, when the oil price went from $20 to $100-plus. We were providing very insightful, fundamental research in a market that didn’t have a lot of it. Back then there weren’t a lot of analysts doing the fundamental research in the E&P sector.

The first six years were great. We went from being an organisation of 18 people to over 100 staff, with oil and gas being a big component. Some years we produced 60% of the firm’s revenue, and I was the top ranked analyst in the sector by Extel five years on the trot.

But Oriel went through an expansionist mode. We went on a hiring spree just at the wrong time. We didn’t generate any more revenue, but increased the cost base so. There were more brokers getting involved in the space by this time, so the edge we had in 2002, was starting to disappear.

I was looking for a new challenge and joined Canadian bank RBC, but then joined Africa and Asia focused explorer Ophir Energy Oriel, where I knew the CEO Nick Cooper, to undertake an IR (investor relations) and strategy role. In the 12 months I was there we sold offshore blocks in Tanzania to Pavilion Energy for over $1bn. I also pushed a merger with Premier Oil which in the end didn’t happen. Tony Durrant, the CEO of Premier Oil,  didn’t hold that against me as he hired me soon after.