Female-owned businesses are woefully underrepresented in the offshore oil supply chain. But forces are marshalling to change that calculus.
Cindy Roma remembers distinctly the first work her company got with the oil and gas industry. It was about 10 years ago and Telelink, the St. John’s-based company that Roma and business partner Sydney Ryan co-own, had secured a contract with Weatherford International―one of the world’s largest oil and natural gas services companies―to provide traditional telephone answering service for it in St. John’s.
But then Weatherford put out a tender looking for someone to provide journey management service in Canada. If you’re not familiar with what that is, don’t feel bad. Roma and Ryan didn’t, either. When they were told it was the process of ensuring a travelling workforce is safe prior to, during and after it travels to a job, the co-CEOs of this specialized emergency, safety and monitoring solutions firm decided to bid on the work. And they got it.
“That started out as a small contract. We did such a great job for them in Canada that they brought us to the U.S. and it became a much larger contract for us,” Roma says. “We’ve since become a leader in journey management. It’s something we do for many companies across the globe now and that’s how it started.”
Unfortunately, the Telelink story is a rare one in the oil and gas industry. In a sector where most companies are run by men, and most of the employees are men, female-owned businesses are rarely represented in its supply chain. This despite the fact the province has experienced a great increase in women establishing businesses. A 2015 report by TD Economics found that Newfoundland and Labrador led the country in terms of increased women self-employment from 2009- 2014 with a growth rate of 48 per cent. In 2016, the Newfoundland and Labrador Organization of Women Entrepreneurs (NLOWE) decided enough was enough and went public with its concerns. It challenged the province’s offshore oil industry to improve diversity in its supply chain.
Two years later, has anything changed in Newfoundland and Labrador? “It’s slowly improving. This doesn’t happen overnight,” says NLOWE CEO Paula Sheppard. “What we have done is passed our first hurdle, which is awareness and acceptance. You’re not going to make that one per cent into 30 or 40 per cent in two years. You’re going to make it five per cent in four or five years.”
But to get to a place where femaleowned businesses are even getting a mere five per cent slice of the oil and gas sector’s business pie in the province, there is still a long way to go, barriers to overcome and attitudes to change.
Surprisingly, Telelink’s Ryan says one of the first changes must come from female entrepreneurs who want to work in the oil and gas industry and establish themselves as a reliable supplier. “I think sometimes the mistake we make as women is to feel we should be treated differently. You need to be a good business, one that’s easy to do business with and provides a solution that solves serious problems,” Ryan says.
While Ryan is right, there is no doubt there are some systematic barriers that women business owners face when trying to break into maledominated industries like the oil and gas sector. NLOWE’s Sheppard says one of them is some people in the industry still don’t think this is a problem.
Then there is the chicken and the egg conundrum of getting the work. If you’re a female entrepreneur bidding on a contract, but you have never done any work for the oil and gas sector, it’s hard to get the company offering the contract to trust a newcomer and award it the job. Yet without that first contract, it’s hard to build a portfolio and develop a reputation as a company who can do the work well.
Networking, or the lack of it, is another problem for female entrepreneurs. “Buying and selling is all about relationships,” Sheppard says. “One of the things women entrepreneurs don’t have is access to the networks that they need to sell to the industry. It’s not that there is a bunch of men sitting behind a door saying, ‘We better not buy from these women.’ It’s that they don’t know they exist, and traditionally women haven’t put themselves out there like men do in terms of going after the business.”
If you’re new to the industry, it is not uncommon to step into a room at events and not know anyone at all.
Alyson Byrne, an assistant professor in organizational behaviour and human resource management at Memorial University, says there are reasons why women are reluctant to ape male business behaviours. One reason is they often experience gender backlash when they exhibit what are considered male behaviours. Byrne says people tend to think of entrepreneurs as selfreliant, assertive and competitive― traditionally considered male characteristics. When women act this way, Byrne says they are seen as aggressive instead of confident, they are less liked and turn people off.
Obviously, anyone giving off that kind of vibe is going to have a hard time establishing relationships that eventually lead to a business deal. “It’s frustrating. It’s 2018 and we are still having these conversations. This continues to be an unfortunate reality,” Byrne says.
As the COO of Atlantic XL in St. John’s, Karen Winsor doesn’t own this telecommunications and navigation systems firm. But she’s worked in the oil and gas industry for 12 years and knows how difficult it can be for women to get their foot in the door. She says networking and introducing yourself to industry players can be extremely intimidating for female business owners.
“I go to these industry events and there are a lot of male, grey-haired people at them who have known each other for years,” Winsor says. “If you’re new to the industry, it’s not uncommon to step into a room at events and not know anyone at all.”
Fortunately, this landscape is slowly shifting. NLOWE has been leading the charge on this. It signed a memorandum of understanding with the Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Industries Association in April 2017 to work on supplier development initiatives together. NLOWE also has been sending interested members to NOIA’s annual oil and gas conference held in St. John’s each June. “We are making introductions of some of the NOIA members to the NLOWE members, so they can have access to those networks,” Sheppard says. “What we have found to be successful is those one-on-one, small networking opportunities instead of offering one big supplier session with women entrepreneurs or one big event.”
It also organized a one-day ‘Doing Business in Oil and Gas’ conference in April for its members that included sessions providing overviews of the oil and gas industry, the oil and gas procurement cycle and future procurement and projects in the Newfoundland and Labrador offshore oil sector. NLOWE’s advocacy has also been helped by outside forces―think the #MeToo movement and Ottawa’s focus on gender pay equity―that have created awareness about issues like sexual harassment and pay equity that have dogged women in the workplace for decades.
All of this won’t be enough to immediately erase the paucity of female-owned businesses working in the province’s offshore oil industry. But there are other things women can do to make inroads; establishing partnerships with likeminded businesses is one way to win contracts. Because many femaleowned companies in Newfoundland and Labrador are small and mediumsized businesses, they often don’t have the time or resources to reply to requests for proposals from large international companies like ExxonMobil or Suncor Energy. Even if they do they have the time, they might not have all the skills required to get the job done.
What we have done is passed our first hurdle, which is awareness and acceptance.
By partnering with another company, women can increase their human resources and fill in gaps in what their business offers to put together better bids. Jacqui Winter, who owns HR Project Partners Inc. in St. John’s, signed a partnership in January with a company based in Sudbury, Ontario that will provide her with a larger workforce, accounting support, more to help her grow her business, and hopefully, snag more oil and gas contracts. “I took on this partnership because I realized in order for me to grow and get bigger contracts I needed more support,” she says.
Sheppard and Roma say it is also a good idea for female entrepreneurs to think small when bidding for work in the petroleum sector. Sheppard notes that most of the owners NLOWE works with are not what the industry considers ‘tier one’ suppliers. These are companies that are directly supplying an ExxonMobil or Suncor Energy in its offshore operations, a firm like St. John’s Cougar Helicopters, for example. Sheppard says when a contract is awarded, female business owners need to find out who is supplying Suncor’s supplier and what are they looking to buy. “Try to look for opportunities that are small and leverage those opportunities to get into big contracts and prove yourself to the industry,” Roma says.
Winsor says it’s important for female entrepreneurs to join industry organizations like NOIA (full disclosure, Winsor is on its board of directors) and get to know the key players and introduce themselves and their companies to these people. She’s also a big believer in getting feedback when your bid for work isn’t successful. “Request a debrief. You will get one,” Winsor says. “Not winning a bid is sometimes as important as winning. It’s how you learn and get better.”
Byrne has what might be a controversial suggestion to improve things―encourage companies in the oil and gas industry to set targets that a certain percentage of their suppliers must be female-owned businesses. “Make a requirement that so many have to be led by females and own it and be accountable,” Byrne says. “Saying we support diversity is nice, but until you measure it things aren’t going to change. Having these numbers is going to make organizations accountable and make things clear as to how far we need to go.”
Indeed, there is a long way to go before women-owned businesses are getting a fair share of the work in the offshore oil supply chain. But Telelink’s Roma thinks it will come, if female entrepreneurs push themselves and focus on the right things. “As individuals and women, we have to push ourselves and say, ‘I am as good as anybody else. My company is as good as any other. I am going to get to the right people who can get me this business and be determined and aggressive about it.’”