There was once a time when academia was considered well-paying. Professionals routinely left the engineering industry to take on more
lucrative teaching or research positions at universities. For Russell
Staley - newly arrived from the United Kingdom in 1974 and highly
impressed with his $6000 a year engineering teaching fellowship at the
University of New South Wales - such attractions nearly cost him his
Thirty-four years later, Staley is a debutant on this year's BRW Rich
200, ranked 158 with a fortune of $265 million.
In 1979, Staley joined the fledgling engineering consultancy Wholohan
Grill and Partners, then doing about $1 million worth of business a
year. Three months later, he was offered another teaching job. But
after thinking hard about it, he turned it down to stay with the firm.
The consultancy went on to become WorleyParsons, now a global company
with a market capitalisation of almost $8 billion. Staley, the
company's 13th employee, is its seventh-largest shareholder.
Staley is hoping his timing is just as good with a company he now
chairs, Benthic Geotech. He hopes to apply the management techniques
and strategy he learnt at Worley to Benthic, and transform it into a
similar fast-growing company. "I am extremely excited about where this
company is going," he says.
Benthic, which provides sub-seabed data-gathering services to the oil
and gas sector for engineering, geotechnical and scientific studies,
ranked in the top 10 on the BRW Fast 100 list in 2005 and 2006. In the
latter year, the company's revenue was $9.02 million, a figure that
Staley and Benthic management expect to be exceeded substantially in
the next few years. By 2013, the company forecasts revenue to surpass
the $100 million mark, with a possible listing on the Australian
Benthic's revenue is derived almost entirely from its PROD (portable,
remotely operated drill) ocean-floor drilling system. This is
basically an undersea robotic drilling rig that can be dropped from a
ship to depths of at least 2000 metres to examine soil samples on the
ocean floor. An operator on the ship uses computers to control the rig
remotely. Drilling actions are all directed by robotic technology.
Benthic's customers are oil and gas companies wanting to test the
seabed to determine its suitability for drilling, where oil platforms
should be built and where to look for oil and gas reserves.
So far, the company has undertaken work for clients in Bass Strait off
Victoria, and the North-West Shelf, off Western Australia. Its
research and development centre is based at its headquarters in Sydney
and it has offices in Singapore and Houston.
Benthic has been in existence for about 10 years - its first years
were spent purely in research and development. Since then, it has
concentrated on commercialising its technology and contracting its
The company is a minnow in its field, competing mostly with Dutch
giant Fugro, which has a market capitalisation of more than $3.85 billion.
However, Benthic has a crucial competitive advantage:
PROD fits into a standard open-top shipping container and its drill
can be fitted to smaller ships, saving time and money. Fugro, on the
other hand, levers drilling equipment straight down from a tailor-made
ship, taking more time to achieve what Benthic can and at a greater
"We have a strategic advantage that Worley never had," Staley says.
"The only advantage that Worley had was perhaps its position in the
oil and gas industry. But Worley didn't have any smoking gun in terms
of technology or anything like that, other than its culture."
Now it is a matter of convincing more big oil and gas companies to use
Benthic's services. Staley helps open doors with prospective clients,
the company's managing director, Peter Williamson, says. "He talks
the language of the oil and gas sector, which is extremely important
Benthic hopes to sign agreements with leading oil companies to
undertake work in Australia and Asia as well as in the deep seas of
the Gulf of Mexico, near the United States.
Staley learned about Benthic when WorleyParsons was considering
acquiring the company, a move it ultimately did not make as it wanted
to concentrate on providing services and did not want to own
When he retired from Worley in 2004, Staley was approached by
Williamson to invest in the company himself. Staley joined the board
as chairman alongside another long-time Worley executive, Andy Le
Most of Staley's 25 years at Worley were spent working in the
company's oil and gas division, which he headed before his departure.
Staley also established Worley's Perth office, from which it was to
win plenty of work on the North-West Shelf.
He oversaw the growth of Worley's Asian businesses and helped manage
alliances with partners on big contracts. He was still working at
Worley when it floated in late 2002 at $2 a share (it was recently
trading about $21).
Staley says much of Worley's success stemmed from its collegiate
mentality, having started as a small outfit. "It was a place where if
you had a good idea, you would get backing for it and everyone felt
like they were an owner of the company," he says.
Staley was integral to the company's rise, Worley chief executive
John Grill says. "He obviously played a key part in [Worley's] growth
at the time and was one of the key people that supported me. Worley is
a different place without Russell and we miss him."
Upon joining Benthic, Staley instituted a company-wide review. The
blueprint that was used for the review was drawn straight from his
experiences at Worley. There, Staley and other executives implemented
a management system called the Strategic Management Program, developed
by Robert Bruce of the Macquarie Graduate School of Management.
Part of the strategy is to concentrate on a particular sector of the
market - oil and gas - rather than trying to spread across a range of
Benthic had considered being in a broad range of industries, including
civil infrastructure and wind farms, before Staley made the decision
to concentrate on oil and gas.
"Robert Bruce used to drum into us that developing strategies in
profitable businesses is the difference," Staley says. "There is no
point in having your product in an industry that is not profitable."
At a time when oil and gas companies are drilling deeper and deeper
into the seabed to look for dwindling supplies, Staley's timing in
implementing his strategy could once again prove to be savvy.
CAREER: Left the United Kingdom after earning a civil engineering
degree to take up a teaching fellowship in Sydney. Joined the small
engineering firm Wholohan Grill and Partners in 1979, which became
WorleyParsons. Spent 25 years at Worley, eventually becoming executive
in charge of its oil and gas division. Established Worley's Perth
office and oversaw the growth of its Asian business. Left in 2004 and
became chairman of Benthic Geotech, which provides deep-sea drilling
services. Still holds several million Worley shares. Debuted on BRW
Rich 200 this year with $265 million in wealth.
GOAL: To turn Benthic Geotech into a global company like WorleyParsons.
Fairfax Business Media
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