“Take the initiative”

An interview with Rob McGrory

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
Rob McGrory

Rob McGrory combines broad expertise in most aspects of geophysical exploration with business skills. Having worked at several service and exploration & production companies, Rob has acquired significant experience in seismic processing and acquisition design, basin analysis, geophysical prospecting and petrophysical analysis. He has proven experience in rifted basins, foreland basins, passive margins and salt basins worldwide, and currently owns and operates TerraWRX Exploration Consultants.

Rob strategically deploys new techniques in his projects, and assesses the value added in doing so. He is the general co-chair for the 2011 CSPG/CSEG/CWLS Joint Convention, a responsibility he is shouldering well. The RECORDER approached Rob for an interview, which he readily agreed to, and so saved us the usual persuasion that follows the initial reluctance of many interviewees. Following are excerpts from the interview.

(Photos courtesy: Joyce Au)

Please tell us about your educational background and your work experience.

I attended the University of Toronto starting my studies in geology. After three years I made the switch to Physics/Geophysics. I am a masochist! What can I say? After graduating I spent one year working with Professor Gordon West on project Lithoprobe. I was working the Kapuskasing Structural Zone transect. Prof. West was transect leader along with Dr. John Perceival (GSC). In 1994 I came out to Calgary to look for work and started working in processing for 3 years at both CGG and Veritas (now the same company). I got some interesting experience processing data in a number of different basins and structural and stratigraphic regimes.

Following those three years in processing, I worked in Frontiers and International at Petro Canada for another three years, exploring mostly the basins of the East Coast of Canada (Grand Banks, and Scotian Shelf). The following 3 years were tumultuous because of numerous takeovers that seem to follow me at the time. In 3 years I went from working at Numac to Anderson, Gulf, Conoco and finally ConocoPhillips. During this time most of my attention was devoted to development geophysics working in West Central Alberta. I also got some heavy oil experience, working in Cold Lake and some work in Southeast Saskatchewan.

In 2003 I joined a new startup that consisted of some people that I had previously worked with. The company was sold in 2006 to Shiningbank Energy Trust. The year before Find Energy was sold I started my independent consulting company. Three years later I formed a partnership with Atul Nautiyal and started TerraWRX Exploration Consultants Ltd., focused primarily on conventional exploration internationally and unconventional in North America.

So, as soon as you got your Geophysics degree from U of T, you landed a job at CGG in Calgary? Was there any specific reason that you opted for seismic data processing?

It seemed like a logical place to start at the time. Firstly, processing companies were the only ones hiring at the time, and I also felt that if ever I became an interpreter I should, at the very least, gain some experience processing. I did not realize how important that would be until much later in my career. Knowing how data is processed and what individual processes do to the amplitudes and phase of seismic data is crucial to being able to extract quantitative rock properties. Having that basic background is very important to how I interpret seismic data today. I think every interpreter whether from a physics or geology background should understand the basics of seismic acquisition and data processing. What are the limitations? What is real?? What is a processing artifact that relates to how the data was acquired and processed, etc.

I felt quite early on in my career that this type of base knowledge was important. I certainly did not feel that my time in processing was a hindrance to my career. As a matter of fact I feel that it enhanced my career and gave me some advantages over some of my contemporaries who went directly into interpretation without spending some significant time processing seismic data.

After 1 year you moved to VeritasDGC. Why?

Two reasons! Firstly, I was not getting along with my boss. These things happen in one’s career where two personalities don’t go well together, and we were like fire and water. I wish it could have been different but in the end I believe it worked out better for the both of us that I left and went on to something new.

Secondly, going to Veritas was an opportunity to work in the international market. Veritas had just opened offices in Buenos Aires, Neuqun, Caracas, Houston, Dallas and were going to open offices in Midland, Denver and Quito, Ecuador. Upon arriving at Veritas I immediately signed up for Spanish lessons that were offered by the in-house translator and marketing assistant for the international group. Her name was Patricia Baena. Two year later, I would be married to her. But not before working almost a year in Denver, Houston and Quito.

After another two years you joined an oil company, Petro-Canada. Looks like you had a strategy in place. Is that right?

I had created a ten-year career plan when I started working in the industry. Somewhere after 3 to 5 years my plan involved moving into interpretation. You see, at the time I graduated from university, we were in the throws of a recession, not unlike what we have today. All the big companies who had previously been doing on-campus recruiting were no longer coming. Training programs were cut back or stopped all together. So my plan was simply to get a job somewhere in industry, be it E&P or the service companies and from there it was a matter of talking to people to find out as much about the industry as possible and figure out where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do longer term.

I thought it was very important to have a long term career plan that would allow me to achieve both professional development goals and business goals. This involved mapping out a progression that would allow me to achieve specific technical and business experience to get me where I wanted to go. Obviously I started in processing and through that got some exposure to acquisition. I then thought it was important to make the jump to interpretation. I was lucky to land a job in international and frontiers that allowed the time to learn about the entire petroleum system and the tool box that goes with that work flow. What was also important was being exposed to different basins with distinct depositional and structural environments with lots of geophysical challenges. I worked on all aspects of the exploration problem from source rock deposition and maturity, to trap timing, seal, reservoir deposition and quality. I was mentored by two individuals that have had a lasting impact on my career. On the geophysics side, Denis Couturier taught me a lot about prospect mapping, especially fault interpretation and volumetrics. He also got me very interested in depth conversion and attribute analysis. Denis was a wizard with Landmark’s implementation of coherence cube.

On the geological side I was practically tied to a senior geologist with experience all over the world. His name is Jock McCracken. Jock and I joined Petro-Canada at about the same time. Jock came to Petro- Canada from Mobil Oil Company where he had worked on the east coast of Canada and the North Sea, and elsewhere in internationally. Jock was the regional geologist par excellence at Petro Canada. We had done a complete basin and prospect analysis of the Anson Graben east of the Southern Jeanne d’Arc Basin together and through that process I learned a lot about doing regional exploration. I worked on projects on the Outer Ridge, Flemish Pass, and deep water Scotian Shelf.

Thereafter you spent one year at Anderson, two years at ConocoPhillips, two years at Find Energy, until you founded your own company. Your strategy seemed to work as per your expectation?

In my ten-year plan I had specific goals to acquire experience in processing/acquisition, exploration and development. The move from Petro-Canada to Numac/Anderson/ Gulf/Conoco/ConocoPhillips and Find Energy was deliberate. I had worked in frontier exploration for the previous three years and I felt it was time to learn and develop the skills for exploitation (e.g. drill lots of wells) and working for juniors afforded me the opportunity to learn how to think more strategically and learn about business in general. At Numac/Anderson Exploration, Gulf/Conoco/ConocoPhillips I spent much of my time working on development projects. I worked on heavy oil in Cold Lake (Sparky, GP) drilling nine well-pads. In southeast Saskatchewan I worked on the Mississippian sub-crops (Midale, Vuggy and Marly). I also spent two years working on the Lower Cretaceous Ostracod and Rockcreek in the Ferrier area, as well as the Mississippian Elkton/Shunda formation at the Nordegg and Brazeau units. I spent a bit of time working on the Limestone Mountain structure developing the thrusted Nisku.

After those 3 years I was approached by some colleagues I worked with at Numac to join them at a little startup that was named Sine Energy Ltd. at the time. ConocoPhillips was planning on moving me from my current team so it was a good point to look at all my options. Find/Sine Energy made me an offer I could not refuse. When I started at Sine Energy we had 250 barrels of production a day. We developed an exploration strategy in the Ferrier/Pembina area for the Rockcreek. We got an 18 section rolling option from Burlington. Around the same time we did the reverse takeover of Lexxor Energy which had 1800 barrels per day in production. This gave us the production base and some quick hit development opportunities in southwest Saskatchewan that allowed us to execute on our primary exploration objective. We ended up growing the company to over 6000 barrels a day and the company was sold in 2006 to Shiningbank Energy Trust. I believe those assets are part of TAQA today.

Some people think that to move up the ladder, changing jobs is a must. There are others who opine that staying with one allows you to identify with that company, you grow with the company, there is a sense of belonging that develops in you, and so on. What is your take on this and why?

That is a tough question to answer. All of the companies I have worked for have been great and I have taken away the most positive characteristics from each company. I am trying to implement what I can with my own company. It’s not easy! Believe me!

As for moving up the ladder! I believe that any move, whether within a company or to another company, should be done to further some goal. For me moving from one company to another was about learning or gaining experience in something that I had not previously done. I don’t believe in moving sideways; at least not in the early part of a professional’s career. I also believe that for a young professional the primary motivation for change should be to develop oneself professionally. Financial considerations should be a secondary motivation, at least in the first part of a career.

Adding to one’s toolbox, be it technical or otherwise, should be, in my opinion, the main driver. Another important consideration is job satisfaction. I don’t think I was capable of doing the same thing or working the same assets for more than 4 years. Some people are capable of working the same assets for ten or more years. For me it was important to see and do a variety of things to develop professionally. That is probably why I am a consultant now. Consulting allows me the luxury of working on a variety of projects from all over the world.

Could you tell us about the differences in work culture that you perceived as you traveled through on your geo-scientific work journey?

There have been so many; however they can be broadly classified into two classes of cultures. They are loosely related to the size of the organization.

In larger organizations, there are many layers between strategic decision making and the geoscience professionals. To keep everything on track, a significant amount of bureaucracy is required to ensure the proper functioning of the organization. The advantages of this type of culture to the geoscientist are the availability of a high end tool box (all the latest and most advanced software), the technical support (peers and R&D staff) and the variety of projects. The disadvantages are the bureaucracy and how slowly the decision making process takes.

In smaller organizations, organizational structures are flatter and consequently strategic decision making and geosciences are more closely linked. Disadvantages are that there are often fewer resources (people/software) at your disposal. Things happen much quicker, consequently you are forced to make decisions with much less information than you would have at larger organization. Advantages are related to being close to strategic decision making and consequently having a very good understanding of the business as a whole and how the geoscientist fits in to the puzzle. Also not having all the latest and greatest tools forces us back to fundamentals and looking at a broader range of data on which to base any technical decisions. In short it forces us to be innovative.

In a social context, both offer very positive environments. Large organizations offer a collegial atmosphere where longstanding relationships are developed. Small organizations offer an exposure to colleagues at other companies and from other disciplines that help develop a network of people that may wind up as future business associates or partners. Different, but in my view—equally valuable.

What career accomplishments are you most proud of?

That is a tough one! I suppose having made a plan and having followed through on it has been very satisfying. To have had the foresight to seize opportunities, not knowing they were the right ones and having things turn out well is very satisfying.

Having been able to work with great people over my career such as Jock McCracken and Dennis Couturier (Petro Canada), Pat McKenny, Ray Law and Tom Grudecki at Veritas, Mag Magason and Todd Mojeski (CGG), Laurie Brazzonie, Stan Lavender and Tooney Fink (ConocoPhillips), and Karl Rumpf, Brad Spence and Bill Davis (Find Energy Ltd) and Atul Nautiyal has had a positive impact on my career.

Starting my consulting company Semajtriz Inc. with the help of my partner in life Patricia McGrory ultimately has shaped the future for me. Because of that positive experience I was able to take it to the next level with my business partner Atul Nautiyal to form TerraWRX Exploration Consultants Ltd. We have grown TerraWRX from a little consultancy employing three people to what it is today with ten employees working on a diversity of projects all over the world. That has been and continues to be great source of pride for me personally.

What has been your most challenging project?

The most challenging project has been starting my own company (TerraWRX Exploration Consultants Ltd.) all the while maintaining a balanced lifestyle. I have made two commitments. One to my family where I have promised to be present and available to them. I have also made a commitment to my business partners. In effect, it is almost like being into two marriages. Keeping a balance is crucial in order to mitigate stress. That has not always been easy. Professional and business commitments can often interfere with home life so consciously trying to improve communication at home and the office is the bane of my existence. It does not matter how much professional/ business success you have if at the end of it all we are sacrificing the relationships with the people that matter most to us.

What that has meant is becoming much more efficient about how I do things at the office. For those that work with me, they have probably noticed that I am not pushing the buttons as much and I am delegating and supervising more. Rather than making the picks or doing the inversion etc., I am doing more quality assurance and mentoring. That has been very difficult for me as I am a very technically oriented professional. In the past I have mentored younger professionals but all the while doing a significant amount of my own technical work. It is a completely different mindset to sit back and look over other people’s work. That has translated into me getting home earlier and not at 6:30 pm or 7:00 pm at night, as was the case before. This change in habit is allowing more time at home with my family.

Rob and Satinder

Once they have gained enough experience, some geoscientists like to work as consultants, like you. Do you think it was a good decision? Any downside to it?

For me, it was natural. I am really motivated by the variety of problems to solve, the opportunity to be exposed to different types of tectonic and stratigraphic styles and different play concepts - that is what keeps me motivated. If you’re the type of person who enjoys being creative, continuously learning all the while being your own boss, then consulting can be very rewarding. It’s not to say that consulting can’t be repetitive or routine. It most certainly can but as a consultant we choose the work we do.

The downside, if you can call it that, is you eat what you kill. In addition to carrying out technical studies, you also have to solve the problem of where are the next projects coming from, who does the accounting and so on. It is not for everyone. It is a lot of work without a doubt! It really demands that you be able to juggle many things at once and not drop anything.

I draw a distinction between contract work and consulting. I define consulting as offering up your expertise and experience to the market in an independent manner. Consulting to me also means that you have more than one client at any time. Contract work on the other hand to me means that I am hired (contracted) to work on a specific project for a period of time, in effect being a turnkey employee. That is how I see it. In my view, two different mindsets.

What are you planning for the future; I mean what professional goals are you working towards?

I will be focused on developing TerraWRX into a strong company, both technically and financially. I think both these goals will be achieved by staying focused in two areas of the business. Firstly we are a technical service company; therefore it is by staying current with the latest methods and techniques, such as rock physics and other quantitative techniques that will allow us to thrive and remain relevant, in addition to providing a top quality service and product to the client.

Secondly, we are running a business. In addition to keeping up to date with the latest and greatest in our field we need to develop our business practices to allow us to continue to grow and to manage the work we have. Some of these things can be addressed by developing more streamlined internal practices that allow more efficient use of resources (people, equipment and software) to do the job; others can be addressed by developing sound marketing practices that will allow for a steady stream of work to ensure financial stability. At least that’s the theory! Still trying to work out the kinks!! That is what our immediate plans for the future are.

Do you think new geophysical technologies hold the promise of extraction of more information for characterizing hydrocarbon reservoirs? Do you use them in your interpretation for lowering risk, so to say? Over the years what new technology ideas did you assimilate in your interpretation for the outcome of which was favourable? Why do you believe so? And which other technologies did you not use at the time?

There have been many new technologies that have and are still influencing the way we do our jobs. 3D seismic, inversion (post-stack/pre-stack), multi-component seismic, new acquisition techniques, horizontal drilling and new completion techniques have all helped improve our ability to access resources. What I am observing is a general convergence of the disciplines of geophysics, geology, petrophysics and engineering. New quantitative seismic interpretation methods (rock physics) are becoming more widely used.

But for these methods to be of value, geophysicists, geologisst and petrophysicists/ engineers need to work more closely together. Geophysicists need to gain a much greater understanding of fundamental geological concepts as they apply to reservoir characterization, and work at establishing the link between reservoir properties (porosity, lithology, etc.) and geophysical/seismic observables (amplitude, elastic/acoustic impedances, etc.) This is a fundamental change in how we have been doing our work and requires in my view, becoming much more conversant in both geology and petrophysics. Likewise geologist and engineers need to become more conversant in quantitative seismic techniques and how these methods can be applied to solving specific reservoir, or geomechanical problems.

Yes we are using these techniques at TerraWRX. We spend a lot of time and effort getting a petrophysicist to quality assure our logs, so that we can establish what variation in reservoir properties exist expressed in terms of seismically derivable attributes such as Vp/Vs, Ip, Is, Den, and etc. We work closely with our colleagues at the various processing companies to ensure that any seismic data we use for interpretation can be used for quantitative estimates of reservoir properties. I think this is current technology that has allowed a great leap forward in seismic interpretation.

It is likely the new technologies that will cause the next leap forward will come from seismic acquisition. There have been great developments in processing, inversion, rock physics. The next leap forward I believe will allow greater efficiency (lower cost) and improve resolution of seismic data. I believe this will be the case for conventional p-wave, 3C and 9C seismic. These developments will also drive cost down for 4D seismic as well. I can’t point to any one group who is ahead. It is just my gut feeling telling me that the next leap forward will come from acquisition. Electromagnetic methods are also making their way into more and more projects related to exploration. I have not used any of these techniques in our current work. But I am watching this technology develop. Lots of exciting things on the horizon.

For generating prospects, what has been your strategy?

My focus has always been to understand the geologic model (environments of deposition, paleogeography, structural regime, etc.) in which I am working. Ideally that means working closely with geologists. Once an understanding of the geologic context and the trap styles are understood, then understanding the geophysical signatures through modeling (1D, 2D, post-stack and pre-stack) is fairly straight forward. The key though, is to understand the rocks and the processes that led to their deposition. The modeling helps create a qualitative and quantitative catalogue of possible seismic responses of that system. The final step is then to scan the geophysical data for signatures of the modeled responses. When possible positive observations are made, ask the question, “Is it in the right geological context?” If so, it becomes part of the prospect inventory. I would say this has been my general philosophy. Of course all the usual tools to compare one prospect to the next are implemented (probability of geologic success, volumetrics and economics).

Going by what you have just mentioned, you have been a successful seismic interpreter. What would you say is required to become one?

Being cross-disciplinary! Meaning, we can’t just focus only on the wiggles. We have to understand how geology, petrophysics and engineering characteristics of reservoirs express themselves in geophysical observables. For geophysicists this means not only having a solid understanding of wave theory but also a solid grasp of geology and petrophysics. Does that mean we have to become experts and be able do our own core analysis and water saturation calculations? No, of course not! But it does mean we need to know how reservoir characteristics (e.g. grain size, sorting, porosity, saturation, pressure, temperature, etc.) influence the things we can observe.

Have I been successful? I think so! I still have so much to learn. That is the great part of this profession. There is an ongoing opportunity to continue learning and I enjoy this aspect of the job.

You are a registered member of APEGGA, P.Geoph. There are many geophysicists who are members of this association and some who are not. Tell us from your experience, how does becoming a member of APEGGA help?

It’s an obligation when you are a consultant. In order to practice the profession of geophysics and to hold myself out to the public as such, it is my obligation to demonstrate to the people of Alberta that I have achieved a level of education and experience to do so. Early on in my career, I was conflicted about the nature of APEGGA and what the benefits were to me. What I failed to understand at that time was, the benefit of APEGGA is primarily to protect the public and serve the public interest and not to benefit me personally or to my company. There is an indirect benefit for the profession that I have discovered through my wife Patricia. She has been involved with ATIA (Association of Translators and Interpreters of Alberta). That association has been struggling for many years now to put in place things that we take for granted such as title protection. Right now in Alberta anyone can call themselves an Interpreter or Translator without proper education and or experience. I believe that is something that we geophysicists take all too lightly. In short, yes I believe it is important that we be registered. In my opinion it is our responsibility to the public and to the profession as a whole. It is a regulatory body much like AMA (Alberta Medical Association) and other professional regulatory bodies. CSEG and SEG are the associations we rely on primarily for professional development, and not the regulation of the practice. That falls to APEGGA. They each serve different purposes.

How would you describe yourself in five words, one word for one personal trait?

I would have to say:

  • Patient,
  • Curious,
  • Stubborn,
  • Extrovert
  • Self-deprecating (that was two words).

Rob, complete the following sentences for me with half-line answers. Will you?

  • You have faith > in people.
  • You are sentimental about > family and friends.
  • If you could go back in time > I would not change a thing.
  • In your scheme of joy it is important > to focus on the present!
  • An invention you are waiting for is a machine > that will give me perfect balance in life.

You have worked in several Basins around the world. It would have been really beneficial if you had shared some of the findings from those areas with the geosciences community in the form of presentations or publications, but it looks like you have not been very active in that area. Any reasons or excuses?

I have become more active now! I have, with co-authors, contributed 3 presentations/posters in the recent past. The reason for not contributing more was that the focus for the first half of my career was learning. I have now reached a point in my career where I am more focused on, as you say, sharing. This is taking the form of mentoring the 3 junior staff we have at TerraWRX and getting more involved with the society as a whole (JACC and now the 2011 convention committee). Going forward this will only continue. It’s something I am enjoying.

I will continue to participate with colleagues by contributing to papers but I also enjoy giving my time to the CSEG and to mentoring younger professionals. The other reason is that clients are not always willing to share their data with the larger community. There have been a few times I felt that a paper could have easily been written or talk or poster presented, but the client was not willing to allow the data to be presented, even in a sanitized way! In the recent past I have been fortunate to have an association with a few clients who are much more enthusiastic about doing posters and talks.

You are the general co-chair for the 2011 CSPG/CSEG/CWLS Joint convention. Tell us about some of the distinguishing features that the prospective delegates can look forward to?

My fellow General Co-Chairs and I (Paul MacKay, Satyaki Ray) along with the technical co-chairs (Laurie Belleman, Per Kent Pedersen, Simon Corti) have put together a technical program that is very focused on the integration of the geosciences rather than specific sub-discipline specialties.

We have created technical sessions that are broadly grouped along general current exploration/exploitation trends. We have unconventional, conventional and emerging technologies. The individual session within the unconventional and conventional will have presenters from all three societies. Specifically we are encouraging presentations that are more integrated, where geology, geophysics, and petrophysics are presented in the same session. The value to the members of all three societies is to see the work they do, and any new and emerging methods, put into the broader context of the overall exploration/ exploitation work flow. I think for employers of the three disciplines this is quite advantageous and offers unique learning opportunities for their staff. As you are aware the joint annual convention is extremely important to all three societies for several reasons.

Obviously the learning opportunities are very important. The Joint Annual Convention is also one of the significant revenue generating activities for all three societies. Without it, many of the activities of the society would be impossible. So it is important that we get behind the Joint Annual Convention and try and grow its scope so that we are not only attracting professionals locally to our conference, but attracting as wide a range of delegates as possible. This will sound somewhat pretentious but I believe that the Joint Annual Convention could be one of the marquee petroleum geosciences conventions in the world. It could be! It will take all three societies coming together and agreeing on a shared vision for the convention and putting in place resources that will help develop the convention over the long term. Some of these things are in place such as the Joint Annual Convention Committee or JACC, which is currently chaired by Laurie Ross. But I believe that more needs to be done in order to further strengthen the convention. It’s a great convention but I think it could be even better with some more long range thinking. My colleagues and I have started do some things differently for this year. But there are a lot of things that we would have liked to implement but did not because we did not start soon enough. I guess Satinder it is up to you to pick up the torch for next year?

What are your other interests?

They are quite diverse! My wife and I enjoy a rich cultural life that involves mixing travel with the arts. We also enjoy the outdoors such as hiking and snow shoeing. Recently we enjoyed trips to Turkey, Chicago, Los Angeles, Argentina, and Panama. We like to combine our interest in architecture, art and the outdoors with travel. We also enjoy just spending time with our two sons Gustavo and Martin.

We are very interested in different forms of art and music. We enjoy going to see live music, specifically jazz and orchestral performances. We really like the romantic period: Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, Ravel etc. I have a nice stereo system at home though it needs a tune up now.

What would be your message for young entrants to our industry?

I have been approached by numerous young graduates who have been looking to get into the industry. The main advice I have for them is to not be afraid to pick up the phone and call a manager at an E&P or service company and get them out for a coffee. Take the initiative and don’t wait for the job to find you! Have a plan! Think of where you want to be in 5, 10, 15 years and set the wheels in motion to achieve those things. Things definitely don’t always happen according to the plan. Make the adjustments and move on. And don’t worry about the future.

Learn from those that came before you. Take on a mentor to show you as much as they have to teach you.

If you take the initiative in everything you do, on balance a lot of good things will happen. That would be my advice on finding a job, keeping a job and having a fulfilling career.


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