Sharon Spurlin Shattering the Oil and Glass Ceiling Feature Image

Shattering the Oil and Glass Ceiling

The oil and gas industry is known for employing a diverse workforce, with varying levels of education and experience, and from all different walks of life. One group that has been historically underrepresented, however, is women — albeit somewhat understandably so.

Traditionally, work in the oil field was often viewed as dirty, physically demanding labor, naturally lending itself toward a more rough-and­-tumble crowd. Yet as women began to enter the workforce in droves during the 20th century — rising from 30 percent of total U.S. employment in 1950 to just under 50 percent in 2000 — and as the needs of the industry have evolved, increasingly more women are choosing careers in the energy sector.

Even with an increase of women working in the industry, they are still heavily outnumbered, with men accounting for roughly 80 percent of oil and gas employment. But there is some progress being made. Women filled 46 percent of new oil and gas job openings in the first three months of 2013 and 30 percent in the last quarter of 2012.

There has also been positive movement in regard to females in leadership roles, especially among major corporations. For example, Shell has upped the percentage of women in senior executive positions to 32 percent as of 2012. According to ExxonMobil, approximately 17 percent of executives are women — a 55 percent increase over the past decade. BP also reported 17 percent of its group leaders were female in 2012, up from 9 percent in 2000.

Despite this progression, there are still plenty of gaps to fill. Less than 15 percent of the boards of the top 200 global utilities include women, and only 5 percent do so in the U.S. According to a 2014 report completed by Pearson Partners International, only 1 percent of oil and gas companies were led by females.

Hiring women doesn’t just check the gender equality box, it adds real tangible value to companies.

The 20 most diverse utilities saw a return on equity of 8.5 percent, compared to 7 percent for the 20 least diverse utilities. In general, companies with more women on their boards had a 42 percent higher return on sales, 66 percent higher return on invested capital and 53 percent higher return on equity.

Even with an increase of women working in the industry, they are still heavily outnumbered, with men accounting for roughly 80 percent of oil and gas employment

Luckily, there is no shortage of women working diligently to climb their way up the corporate ladder, both internationally and here at home.

In 2006, Mariana Gheorghe was named the first-ever female Chief Executive Officer of OMV Petrom, the Romanian oil and gas group. The largest oil producer in Africa, Brittania­-U Nigeria Limited, is run by a number of female executives, with Catherine Uju Ifejika serving as the Chairman and CEO. Debra L. Reed, CEO and Chairman of Sempra Energy, is one of only 25 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Most recently, Occidental Petroleum Corporation announced Vicki Hollub would be assuming the role of CEO, making her the first female chief executive of a leading U.S. oil company.

20151210_sharonSPURLIN_0209_finalAnd yet another powerful woman in the oil and gas industry filling an important leadership role: Sharon Spurlin, Vice President and Treasurer of Plains All American Pipeline LP (PAA), one of the largest publicly traded master limited partnerships (MLPs) providing processing, transportation, storage, terminalling and marketing services for crude oil and natural gas liquids (NGLs) in the United States and Canada.

As Vice President and Treasurer of the Fortune 100 midstream company, she is responsible for coordinating all financial planning activities, customer credit functions, insurance risk management, foreign exchange and interest rate management activities, in addition to all banking transactions and lending arrangements.

Throughout her impressive career, the CPA has made a name for herself as a hardworking, proactive and energetic leader who excels in building and maintaining strong relationships with senior management, co-workers, employees, bankers, rating agencies, board members and investors alike.

A native Texan, Spurlin was raised on a ranch outside of Gonzales, where she was taught from an early age the importance of a strong work ethic. From her time on the farm, she also learned to enjoy and appreciate the outdoors and, more importantly, how to roll up her sleeves and work alongside the best of them — regardless of gender — in order to get the job done, a lesson that has proved invaluable as a female executive in a predominately male industry.

“Growing up in Texas, oil and gas is a part of our DNA, plus the ability to work with men on the farm ingrained confidence that I could,” Spurlin says. “I mean, if I [was] a girl working on the farm, I certainly can be a girl working in oil and gas.”

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

Spurlin was raised in nearby Moulton, a community of just over 1,000 residents, where her father, Gene Selzer, had a small ranching operation raising cattle and chickens.

“My dad taught us to work hard, do your job right and don’t quit until you are finished,” Spurlin remembers. “But he always had such a kind spirit; he would stop whatever he was doing to help someone else, and my mom was the same way.”

Her mother, Rose Selzer, worked as the Director of Nurses at the local nursing home, while also helping out on the ranch.

“My mom is an amazing woman in that she balanced two full­-time jobs — the nursing home and the farm — and raised a family at the same time,” she shares. “I could not have been more blessed with a better mom and mentor.”

Her parents always encouraged her and her brother, Gene Jr., to believe that anything was possible as long as you’re willing to put in the work to achieve it. The only problem was, Spurlin wasn’t exactly sure what it was that she wanted to achieve.

st-10The rancher’s daughter was very active in high school. She played basketball, ran track, served as the President of the Beta Club, Treasurer of the senior class, a Student Council member and Editor of the yearbook. Spurlin also achieved district honors in University Interscholastic League (UIL) prose reading, number sense and one-­act play, and was voted most athletic with her brother her senior year, in addition to waiting tables at a local restaurant and working at the dental office of Dr. Forrest Kroschel.

“I wanted to be involved in everything; I enjoyed leading, working with people and at the same time trying to figure out what [it was that] I wanted to do,” Spurlin recalls. She also admits that staying busy was a great way to avoid chores on the farm, a potential career that she was able to eliminate pretty early on.

“I realized that farm work was not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she confesses.

“But in hindsight I appreciate the foundation it built in my character and what I have accomplished today.”

Growing up in a small town, her career options seemed somewhat limited. Most professionals in the community were employed either in the healthcare sector, as doctors and nurses, or in education, as teachers and school faculty — both of which Spurlin considered at one point. While still in high school waiting tables, she was approached by the local dentist, Dr. Kroschel, and his wife, Sue, to come work as a dental assistant in their office. The young waitress jumped at the opportunity.

“I thought one day maybe I’ll be a nurse, just like my mom,” she remembers. “But after working in the dentist’s office and seeing blood, I decided that was not for me.”

She went back to the drawing board, returning to her original plan to become a teacher and basketball coach. Upon graduating from high school, she was awarded a basketball scholarship to Texas A&M University­-Kingsville, formerly Texas A&I University.

It was after working a basketball camp for the university prior to her freshman year and coaching a team of middle school girls that Spurlin realized a possible coaching or teaching career was not for her.

“I lost every game during a two­-week camp and I decided I was adverse to a career in teaching and coaching,” she laughs. “I excelled at math in school, so I signed up for accounting [in college] thinking accounting was math.”

Although there was more to it than just math, it was in accounting and business that Spurlin flourished. One of her professors, Dr. Sunderman, saw her potential and helped the undergrad land a job during her senior year at Hahn & Oldham, an accounting firm based in Kingsville, Texas, which happened to be owned by two women, Linda Hahn and Mary Ann Oldham.

It was a match made in heaven, as the female­-run firm was in charge of accounting and financial work for King Ranch, one of the largest ranches in the world located in South Texas, and the families who lived there. The budding accountant was primarily responsible for entering payables for the families’ personal expenses and printing the checks for mailing. “I had a great time recording the clothes, purses, home furnishings and cosmetics purchases — I was not accustomed to purchases of that magnitude!”

While in college, Spurlin not only discovered her love of finance, she also found the love of her life, her husband, Steve, who played basketball at the university as well.

After graduating magna cum laude with a business degree focused in accounting, the small­-town girl accepted a position with Arthur Andersen LLC, a major public accounting firm, and moved to the big city still a little unclear on what exactly her career path would look like.

“I was not sure what industry I wanted to be in or what type of accounting career I wanted to pursue, so I took a job with the biggest and the best public accounting firm in Houston.”

Climbing the Corporate Ladders

Spurlin began working at Arthur Andersen in August 1987 as an audit staffer in the commercial department and gained diverse experience working on multiple accounts, ranging from large multinational construction firms, waste firms, and oil and gas service providers to small­-scale construction firms, small oilfield service companies and nonprofits. “One of the not-for­-profits I worked on literally dumped the receipts out of a bag,” she laughs.

120504_PDH34Her outstanding potential and strong work ethic did not go unnoticed. After just one year, she earned the attention and confidence of one manager in particular, Amy Chronis, who gave Spurlin full control of one of her first major accounts, the American Ref­-Fuel Company account, and provided invaluable mentoring along the way.

“Amy was my first female manager … who helped set my career on the trajectory that I achieved,” she says. “Amy exemplified that a woman could successfully achieve an upper management position and raise a family.”

After about seven years with Arthur Andersen, Spurlin was offered and accepted the Controller position with her first and biggest client at the firm, American Ref­-Fuel. The waste-to­-energy joint venture burned municipal solid waste to produce electricity that it then sold to local utilities.
Shortly after Spurlin started with the company, the Chief Financial Officer left and the new hire quickly stepped in to pick up the slack. “I found myself as a fairly new Controller reporting to CEO Paul Varello, the board and audit committee during a time when the company doubled in size through two acquisitions,” she remembers.

Spurlin led the controllership department, which eventually included 50 employees and nine direct reports, on $300 million and $350 million acquisitions soon after starting her new gig. She was responsible for due diligence on all acquisitions, reporting financial results, building a budget, answering all investor questions and inquiries, integrating new systems and people into the company and hiring new staff to round out the team.

“I learned early on that you can’t do everything yourself,” the CPA reflects. “Some of the keys to success include hiring staff who are experts in their area and smarter than you. You must empower your staff to do their job; communicate both up and down the chain of control; and watch out for your staff, as they have lives and are busy with work and family issues, so you need to be flexible and empathetic and motivate your team to help out and work as a unit to accomplish the goals at hand.”

It was this caring and collaborative attitude that, despite her overwhelming workload, helped make her one of the first recipients of the company’s Core Principles Award for creative teamwork, employee enthusiasm and integrity.

In 1998, American Ref­-Fuel hired a new CFO who made the interesting move of inverting the Controller and the Director of Financial Analysis as a way to give both managers even more experience and exposure within the company. Spurlin, having served as Controller for more than four years, was named Director of Financial Analysis, a position she held until 2002. “For the first time in my career, I was on the finance and treasury side, and was responsible for the long-term strategic plan, acquisition modeling, assisting with debt capital market transactions and working closely with the operations team to model the business and opportunities,” she explains.

Around that time, the power industry was going through deregulation and many of the company’s contracts were being bought out or renegotiated. Plus, the company itself was being sold for the third time and relocating its headquarters to New Jersey. Spurlin was offered a promotion to Treasurer, although she ultimately decided it was not the right move for her and her young family, with their deep personal and professional ties to Texas.

Spurlin led the controllership department at American Ref-Fuel, which eventually included 50 employees and nine direct reports, on $300 million and $350 million acquisitions soon after starting

After nearly 15 years of steady employment, the seasoned financial manager found herself back on the job market. Fortunately, she was soon connected to Plains All American Pipeline through a recruiter; although the available position, Director of Internal Audit, wasn’t necessarily what she had in mind.

“Internal audit was not on the top of my ‘ideal’ job list, but since I hadn’t interviewed since college, I decided that I better go and give it the ol’ college try,” she jokingly admits.
After meeting with Plains’ leadership, specifically Chairman and CEO Greg Armstrong, then CFO Phil Kramer (now Executive Vice President) and President and COO Harry Pefanis, she had a change of heart.

“Greg, Phil and Harry were straightforward and down-to­-earth people,” she remembers, adding that she was most impressed with their entrepreneurial spirit and vision, and the fact that they had built the company themselves from the ground up, among many other admirable attributes.
“They gave me confidence that they would trust me to build the internal audit department into one that adds value,” she says. “There was no question; I had found my new home.”

Box Site Image blue tanks home pageFor the first couple of years at Plains, Spurlin spent significant time and energy ensuring the company was compliant with the Sarbanes­-Oxley Act, also known as SOX, which was signed into law in 2002 in response to high­-profile accounting scandals in the corporate world, namely Enron and WorldCom. The Securities and Exchange Commission closely regulates compliance with the federal law, which addresses responsibilities and accountability of a public company’s board of directors and leadership, including criminal penalties for certain misconduct.

With the help of a solid team, the new Director was able to achieve this massive undertaking and successfully complete the project on schedule, which she still to this day considers one of her greatest career accomplishments.

After about five years with Plains, there was a job opening for Assistant Treasurer, an area with which Spurlin was comfortable and familiar. She was a natural fit. “Although I loved what I was doing and my team, I was excited to move back into the finance side of the company,” she says.

As Assistant Treasurer, Spurlin was responsible for leading her department’s daily management of $2.6 billion in banking facilities, customer credit exposures, as well as preparing and presenting various results at the annual bank meetings and to the audit committee.

She also evaluated and redesigned the cash management process, which resulted in the implementation of a treasury system that eliminated duplicate inputs of information, automated controls and improved effectiveness and efficiency, in addition to many other weighty responsibilities and impressive achievements.

Pursuing an Entrepreneurial Path

In 2009, Spurlin received a call from a recruiter who was looking to fill the CFO position at a private equity­-backed venture, PetroLogistics. She was just as impressed with David Lumpkins, the Executive Chairman, and Nathan Ticatch, the CEO and President, as she had been years ago with the Plains team.

PetroLogistics actually consisted of two separate but corresponding companies. PetroLogistics LP owned and operated the only propane dehydrogenation plant located in North America intentionally producing propylene, a common industrial organic compound used to make a wide variety of everyday products like plastic containers, car seats, cosmetics, medical supplies and much more. PL Midstream LLC owned and operated salt dome storage facilities and ethylene and propylene pipeline distribution systems.

“Both companies, being in start-up [mode], were going to require a lot of travel and time commitment, but the ability to get in on the ground floor of a midstream company … was very intriguing,” she admits. “I have an entrepreneurial spirit and I was eager to build something from the ground up.”

PL Midstream’s operations were based in Louisiana; although if Spurlin joined the company, she would have a small staff in Houston. With the tremendous amount of work and travel associated with this opportunity, the Spurlin family needed to make some adjustments.

“To make my dream come true, my husband, Steve, gave up his job as the Head Men’s Basketball Coach at [Blinn] College, where he had a winning record and was very successful,” the wife and mother of two says appreciatively. “He put his career on hold for several years, as the boys needed one of us at home.”

With the support of her family and the strong desire to build something herself, Spurlin began working with the fledgling companies as Senior Vice President and CFO in June 2009. She soon began preparing to simultaneously take the two companies public, which was no easy task considering she was starting from scratch.

She worked to establish and implement the company’s governance structure, board charters, policies and procedures; developed the board and audit committee meeting agendas and led the audit committee calls and meetings; and established and led investor relations. Plus, she fully structured and built out the finance department, which included recruiting roughly 25 employees in crucial roles like Corporate Controller, Assistant Controller, Director of Finance and Director of Taxation.

“The goal was to hire staff that were experts in their area; individuals that were willing to do what was needed to get the job done, that worked well as a team, had great attitudes, were willing to learn and change course as necessary, and … willing to step in and help in any way possible,” the financial officer explains.

Fortuitously, the shale renaissance that was making headlines at the time provided the perfect backdrop for the small start-up to thrive. A solid team of experts, abundant feedstock, ever­-increasing demand of propylene and, of course, Spurlin’s financial guidance helped secure the company’s success. Shortly before taking both ventures public, however, the decision was made to instead sell PL Midstream.

At the end of April 2012, PetroLogistics LP began the initial public offering (IPO) road show, which entailed two weeks packed full of investor meetings all across the country. Spurlin’s habit of hiring the best and the brightest could not have served her better during this experience, as even the best-­laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

“We were set to finish the road show the next day and price that Wednesday, when we received new propylene projections that required our entire S-1 document to be changed and our IPO to be re-priced,” she begins.

The CFO started to panic. It was already well into the evening, she was on the road traveling and her team had only a few short hours to completely recalculate and reproduce a 100-plus-­page document, full of detailed projections and figures.

“I called my staff in Houston and told them if we didn’t want to lose this deal, we needed them to [update] the entire document overnight with Vinson & Elkins and Lindsay Goldberg, get Ernst & Young to sign off and get it filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission by 8 a.m. the next morning.”

Against tremendous odds and a ticking clock, the team was able to complete the document — signed, sealed and delivered — by the deadline. PetroLogistics successfully went public a few days later in early May, setting a record as the largest MLP IPO at the time.

“To this day, that is one of my proudest moments,” Spurlin shares, even tearing up at one point as she retells the emotional story.

But the work wasn’t over just yet. She immediately jumped into the sales process with PL Midstream, which sold a few months later in October 2012 to Boardwalk Pipeline Partners. Over the next year or so, PetroLogistics started searching for new growth opportunities when it surprisingly received an offer from Flint Hills Resources, a Koch Industries­-owned venture, to buy the company.

“The months of due diligence, and then announcement and closing of the transaction was the hardest thing I have ever done in my professional career,” the empathetic executive admits. “I had to face my staff and tell them that we were being sold, and I had no control over their destiny.”
Fortunately, having hired such talented employees, she gladly reports that her staff had no trouble finding work and many landed in even better positions. She adds that the group still stays in touch and tries to occasionally get together.

120504_PDH28“PetroLogistics and the people will always be a fond part of my past and present,” the former CFO remarks warmly.

The day the sale was announced, Spurlin got a call from her old friends at Plains. The Vice President and Treasurer was retiring, and after several meetings with Al Swanson, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, the former employee was offered the job. The decision, she says, was a no-­brainer.

“Plains is and has been one of the best, largest, well­-run and respected midstream companies in the U.S. and Canada,” the Vice President and Treasurer says. “I definitely was going back home.”

Home, Home on the Plains

While her schedule is hardly standard, Spurlin’s routine typically begins by meeting with one or more of Plains’s 28 banks in order to stay updated on the recent debt and equity capital market transactions, interest rate forecasts and hedging opportunities, foreign currency and any other relevant market trends.

Next, she’ll usually touch base with her direct reports, meeting with any number of the Directors and Managers of the four major departments she oversees — treasury, which manages more than $4.5 billion in banking facilities; credit, which continually updates customer credit reviews and monitors exposure in excess of $3 billion; insurance risk management, which handles insurance policies, renewals, claims and the like; and financial planning, which is responsible for the annual and five­-year strategic plan and public financial guidance.

As a financial officer for a leading oil and gas midstream company, there is certainly plenty to keep up with and adjust to as of late.

The precipitous drop in oil prices and less than favorable market conditions have only increased competition in the midstream sector, which is feeling the pinch of tightening belts as well. Spurlin says that Plains has taken actions to reduce its capital expansion program, going from approximately $2.2 billion in 2015 down to approximately $1.5 billion in 2016, and is putting certain projects on the back burner for now.

“We have rationalized which projects made the most sense, deferring some to the future and trying to make sure we invest our capital as prudently and efficiently as possible,” she explains, adding that most of the capital spending is already in process for ongoing projects, which are largely underpinned by long-term contracts with minimum­-volume commitments or acreage dedications.

According to the Treasurer, the company will be looking at more “joint venture-­type” arrangements, similar to the Saddlehorn Pipeline, which is owned partly by Plains and was recently combined with the Grand Mesa Pipeline, owned by NGL Energy Partners LP.

Plains is also examining the option of selling some non-strategic assets and exploring other types of alternative capital, instead of raising common equity at currently depressed prices, as well as reducing operating expenses and other general and administrative costs.

The company anticipates that market conditions will level out over the next year and begin to rebound in 2017. In the meantime, Plains is well­-positioned financially to weather the low­-priced environment and will be ready and able to respond once conditions improve.

Upon the announcement of its third ­quarter results in November 2015, PAA’s Chairman and CEO, Greg Armstrong, said the midstream company has a solid financial position with “… numerous capital projects scheduled to come online or ramp up activity levels over the next 18 months that will contribute meaningfully to our cash flow.”

The most significant capital projects coming online during the next 18 months include the Saddlehorn Pipeline, which will be capable of transporting at least 190,000 barrels of oil per day from the DJ Basin, and potentially from the larger Rocky Mountain region, to storage facilities in Cushing, Oklahoma; the Red River and Caddo Pipelines, which will connect Cushing to Longview, Texas, and Longview to Shreveport, Louisiana, respectively; and various enhancements to the Fort Saskatchewan NGL facility in Canada.

Plains already has the most comprehensive crude oil pipeline and terminal systems in the U.S. and is the largest gathering transporter of crude oil in the MLP space. It handles more than 4 million barrels of crude oil and NGLs a day and is active throughout the midstream value chain, from the wellhead to the refinery inlet. In fact, its integrated asset network allows Plains to move crude oil to substantially all inland and coastal markets in the U.S. Plains has three operating segments: transportation, which moves crude oil and NGLs via pipelines, gathering systems, trucks or barges; facilities, which offers storage and terminalling services for oil, refined products, NGLs and natural gas, in addition to offering NGL fractionation and isomerization services, and natural gas and condensate processing services; and supply and logistics, which is responsible for marketing activities, such as purchasing crude oil from producers, storing it, reselling or exchanging it with refiners or resellers, and moving the product from various delivery points to the end user.

The company is active in resource plays across the continent; but by far the largest area of operations, and the region it believes has the most growth potential, is West Texas. In the Permian Basin alone, PAA projects that there are more than 15 million acres in the region and the possibility for at least 100,000 new wells, if not more.

The potential within the prolific Permian Basin, in combination with numerous other major North American shale plays where Plains has a strong presence, should provide the midstream company ample business for years to come.

“The intermediate and long-term fundamentals of our business are very strong given the level of proved reserves in the U.S. and Canada, and the ongoing technological and drilling efficiency gains,” Spurlin says. “Ultimately, the world will need U.S. and Canadian shale production to meet global demand growth.”

Beyond Plains

Spurlin’s work doesn’t end when she leaves the PAA office. She also serves on the board of directors for another start-up company based in Houston, Smart Sand Inc., which provides frac sand primarily in the Eagle Ford and the Bakken Shale regions.

After the sale of PetroLogistics LP and before officially rejoining Plains, the sought-­after financial expert was approached with several private­-equity opportunities, one of which was Smart Sand. Although she ultimately decided to return to Plains, Spurlin was impressed after meeting with Smart Sand’s private equity and senior management team. Upon finding out the company intended to go public potentially as an MLP, and having intimate knowledge of what exactly that process entails, she knew Smart Sand would need to assemble a board with at least three independent directors. She volunteered to fill one of these roles and officially joined the board in 2015.

Additionally, Spurlin is a member of various industry groups, such as the American Institute of CPAs, the Texas Society of CPAs and the Women’s Energy Network in Houston.

Outside of the professional realm, the dynamic, down-to-­earth Texan loves spending time with her husband and two sons. The family thoroughly enjoys spending quality time outdoors, whether it’s at the baseball field watching her youngest son play; hunting, skeet shooting and fishing on the ranch where she grew up; or even running down to the coast to do some deep­-sea fishing.
Her older son, Trevor, is training to be a mechanic, and the younger, Terrence, is still in high school and has several baseball scholarship offers to consider.

“My greatest accomplishment has to be raising two great kids with my husband,” the successful executive reflects. “They are both caring, respected and respectful young men … they’re just really good kids.”

She is also passionate about working with children, especially those who are homeless, orphaned or underprivileged, which she says most likely stems from the fact that her own mother was orphaned at age 11. The Spurlins even have plans to eventually take in foster children once their own birds have left the nest, in addition to hopefully doing some mission work geared specifically toward helping children.

As a young girl growing up on the farm in Moulton trying to figure out what it was that she wanted to do, there’s probably no chance she could have imagined achieving all that she has.

With a stellar career, a supportive husband and two great kids, as well as worthwhile passions and interests of her own, Spurlin seems to have it all but is still humble about her achievements. “I am by no means a perfect person, but I do know that I have been graced with many blessings, for which I am truly grateful.”

Katie Carmichael is an Austin-based communications specialist. She is the founder and owner of Carmichael Communications and Consulting, which provides a wide range of communication services, including public affairs, government relations, consulting and writing, primarily within the energy industry.

To learn more about Plains All American Pipeline LP and its services, please visit www.plainsallamerican.com.

Photography: Michael Giordano

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