Philippe Theys: Walk This Way

Date: 05/05/2009

Philippe TheysAfter Hours:  Please describe your most memorable assignment at Schlumberger.

Without being specific, field jobs were the most exciting part of my career—probably for a reason that many have called “the King Kong syndrome.” That is, when you’re working a field job, the task is well defined, you get instant feedback, and you know if you have completed it correctly. That’s when you start behaving like the famous ape. Even difficult jobs tend to trigger your initiative by throwing challenges at you, but you feel so good when it’s all over that you can’t help but thump your chest a bit. (Note that my wife Odile is not blonde like Faye Ray, nor was she ever particularly impressed with my chest-thumping!)

As far as long-term assignments go, my stint as country manager in Taiwan in the 1970s definitely stands out in my memory.  I had inherited two shabby bases in Miaoli and Kaohshiung—poor accommodations for the engineers, inefficient technical staff, old vehicles and rather unhappy customers. The up side of the job was that margins were high in the country and I had a superb house with a swimming pool in Taipei’s chic Yang Ming Shan area. In just 12 months, I was able to build a new Kaohshiung base and move there, renovate the shop in Miaoli, put the engineers in nice apartments with a tennis court, introduce a days-off system, change the vehicles and buy some new logging tools and trucks.

Field engineers and technicians were now a happy bunch. The client was satisfied to the point that they awarded me with a special silver plaque and were still sending season’s greetings until recently (they too are getting old). Financial results were even better than before. Larry Hinde, future president of Wireline, visited and liked what he saw.  Had I known Schlumberger better at that time, I would have guessed that a rocket was soon to be attached to my hindquarters. My next assignment was headquarters in Paris.

Ah yes! There was one other nice thing about the Taiwan assignment. Since communications in the country were difficult due to its increasing political isolation, I was able to spend only a few minutes each month reporting to my boss. It really felt like I was running my own personal business.

After Hours:  How does the time you spent with Schlumberger affect your views on the world today?

One of my degrees is from a proud, even arrogant ecole d’ingenieurs. Graduates of this institution tend to advance their careers by working within the school’s clubby alumni network, which keeps you in a pretty homogenous group. Conversely Schlumberger put me in a group of people from many universities and from many countries. I found out that they too were very smart and had a lot to say! Schlumberger definitely opened my mind on a larger world. My experience inside the company taught me to be tolerant and more sensitive to different types of people, and it enhanced my curiosity to learn from other cultures, other religions and other languages.

After Hours:  What's the last book you read and what did you like about it?

My bedside table is covered with books. I also read while riding a stationary bike at the local gym, on which I spend several hours per week. A few days ago I finished “The Geography of Bliss, One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World” by Eric Weiner. The book does not explain how to be happy, but where to be happy.  Bhutan rates high, Moldavia low. I also enjoyed “Vaincre Hitler” (Defeating Hitler) by Avraham Burg, a really positive look at the situation in the Middle East. Burg’s book also taught me that between 1900 and 1987 a staggering 169 million people were exterminated by methods comparable with those used in the Holocaust. One of my nightstand’s place holders is a slow-moving item:  “Berlitz’s Mandarine Chinese in 30 Days.” It has been there for more than six months.

After Hours:  What do you enjoy doing with your free time?

Somebody should write it in stone: “There ain't no such thing as free time.” After retirement, the next stop is death. So time is definitely our most precious asset and should not be squandered. A typical year for me is split in three—winters in Houston, summers in an 18th century house in the center of France,  and four months traveling. With my girlfriend (she’s actually my wife of 37 years), we love to take our backpacks and visit the world, traveling on local public transportation, with only a few advance reservations. We approach travel organizations only when icebreakers are involved (it’s tough to hitchhike on those). For us, the ultimate in independent traveling is walking through France and Spain. A couple of years ago I went solo from Vezelay, in northern Burgundy, to Santiago, in Spain’s Galicia region, in 52 days. And together, Odile and I have now walked 400 km of the same trail—a French section from Le Puy to Moissac. We have another 1100 km to walk before we complete the famed route to Santiago.

While on my last assignments in Sugarland, I had HR coming to my office with potential recruits so that they could see my travel map. Since then I have made a lot of progress, and now stand at 153 countries visited according to the Traveler’s Century Club list. Nonetheless, I still have 164 to go!

In the last five years, I have also consulted for the six largest oil companies. I am the vice president of the French branch of the Society of Petrophysicists and Well Log Analysts (SPWLA), and I also preside the grant and scholarship committee for this global organization. Otherwise, just “Google” my name!