Broad Education for a Broad World

Alumnus Jim Noe on a drilling platform
College of Arts and Sciences alumnus Jim Noe, far left, is the executive vice president of Hercules Offshore, the largest shallow water drilling company in the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s hard to be an Alabama graduate living in Texas, though you wouldn’t know it by visiting Jim Noe’s office on the 23rd floor of a high-rise in downtown Houston. Noe, a sociology and criminal justice alumnus turned oil tycoon, knows all about navigating unfamiliar territory, and he approaches life in Texas much like he approaches business trips abroad – find common ground, then break the ice.

In Texas, common ground comes in the form of college football, a topic about which Noe is anything but apologetic. His office walls prominently feature the front pages of newspapers recounting the 1992, 2009, and 2012 Crimson Tide national championships, all playful jabs at his colleagues who are affiliated with some of Alabama’s most-recent rivals.

Abroad, finding common ground is more of a challenge, though he manages to find it one way or another. One time, while attending his first board meeting for a company based overseas, Noe drew from his experience taking four years of Swedish classes at The University of Alabama. He had been appointed to the board of directors of an oil and gas company based in Norway, and although most of the board members spoke English, he took full advantage of the countries’ similarities and greeted his co-workers with a Swedish-Norwegian “Hello! How are you?” to a room full of laughter. As he said, you never know what’s going to be helpful.

With no formal training in the oil and gas industry other than what he had learned on the job, Noe has been forced to pull from the broad education he received at UA often. In his early 30s, he became one of the youngest general counsels for a public oil and gas company, Hercules Offshore, Inc., and later became one of the youngest CEOs in the marine industry leading Delta Towing, an inland and offshore tug and towing company. Now in his early 40s, he serves as the executive vice president of Hercules Offshore, the largest shallow water drilling company in the Gulf of Mexico and one of the world’s largest offshore drilling companies. He also spends half the year traveling to remote parts of what he calls “interesting and oddball countries around the world,” including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Singapore, Myanmar, Thailand, Angola, and some 125 others.

Learning Quickly, Communicating Effectively

Jim Noe
Jim Noe

As a young boy, Noe grew up on Air Force bases across the globe and said he always envied people who were “from somewhere.” He graduated high school in Tampa, Florida, and chose to attend UA because of the broad, liberal arts-based curriculum offered by the College of Arts and Sciences, which he hoped would prepare him for law school. He studied sociology and criminal justice because he was interested in social behavior, institutions, and customs.

Intellectually curious, he also took a host of senior-level courses outside of his field, including Swedish and courses in Asian history, classics, mythology, archaeology, astronomy, English, and history. These courses, he said, became the foundation for his subsequent work in law school, giving him an unmatched ability to learn things quickly and to communicate effectively. They also broadened his perspective, a useful advantage in his current work for which he spends most of his time outside of the United States traveling to remote parts of the Middle East, the Far East, and West Africa.

“The people I conduct business with think differently and have different customs,” he said. “I may not have taken a course on how to do business in China, but I took an Asian history course, which allowed me to read further. When I go to Nigeria, I know about its history as a colony and when it gained its independence. That knowledge not only helps me be respectful when I travel to negotiate with people, but it helps me understand how they’re going to approach the negotiation. I wouldn’t be able to do that successfully without a broader perspective about the world.”

Noe also credits his success to the specialty he brings to the table – law. He received his Juris Doctor in1997 from Louisiana State University and immediately began practicing law in New Orleans, which he said felt very “old world.” It was like practicing law in Savannah, Georgia, in the 1920s, he said. Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine himself working for an oil company, but the opportunity arose after he spent most of his time representing those companies in deals, arbitrations, and other claims. A former client, Single Buoy Moorings, offered him a job in Monaco, which he took and quickly enchanted him with the industry.

“It’s truly an international business because oil is abundant, or used, almost everywhere,” he said. “I’ve always been drawn to different cultures, to understanding how they work and how different economies work, but I became fascinated with the industry because it deals with so many tentacles of society, including culture, politics, geopolitics, science, and economics.”

He also discovered a passion for corporate law.

“Unlike being a private practice lawyer in New Orleans, I loved being part of something larger, a larger business goal, in Monaco,” he said. “I knew then that I wanted to stay on the business side of law.”

Getting in on the Ground Floor

After Monaco, Noe returned to the United States to accept a job in Houston, where he spent several years working for BJ Services Company, an oil field services company that is now a subsidiary of Baker Hughes, until he was approached in 2005 to help build Hercules from the ground up.

“One of the board members of that company asked me if I would be interested in helping him start a new offshore drilling company,” he said. “Rarely are there startups in the oil business, but starting something from scratch interested me. I became Hercules’ fifth corporate employee, and I was given a broad range of responsibilities because we didn’t have many people at the time.”

Noe started as the company’s chief and only lawyer, which involved everything from making coffee in the morning to negotiating contracts and making decisions as an executive in the afternoon. The company grew quickly, and when Hercules went public in 2006, Noe rang the NASDAQ bell celebrating the company’s arrival on the stock exchange. He also served as the president and CEO of Delta Towing, a tug boat company owned by Hercules until it was sold in 2011.

Noe was appointed to his current position, executive vice president, at Hercules in November 2012, which he sees as a continuation of his previous work there. He continues to “do a little bit of everything,” including business development; managing the legal, risk, and insurance departments; meeting with government officials who have regulatory interests in offshore drilling; and negotiating drilling rights with oil and gas companies across the globe.

His favorite part has been seeing the world.

“There’s a saying in the oil business that God didn’t put oil under Paris,” he said. “That’s true, but I’ve seen some fantastic things.”

Among them, he’s visited the pyramids at Giza, the Great Wall of China, the Colosseum in Rome, Angkor Wat, and the Taj Mahal.

Tight Security Travels

Equally fascinating are the security measures he and Hercules must take when he travels to dangerous destinations.

“The oil and gas industry is sometimes in places with histories of corruption,” he said. “To do business the way we want to do business, the right way, that requires leadership from the top in the form of presence in countries with histories of corruption and face-to-face discussions with people who might be corrupt themselves. Dealing with these compliance issues, I often find myself in situations in which my safety may be in jeopardy, but it comes with the territory.”

During these harrowing trips abroad, Noe’s security measures rival those seen on the screens of Hollywood. He has booked multiple plane tickets and hotels to elude governmental officials who might be tracking his whereabouts.  He’s planned secret escape routes over land or sea into nearby countries should he need to leave quickly.  His hotel stays are a closely guarded secret.

But dangerous situations don’t keep him from having a little fun.

“When I travel with a security team, our code words are often related to Alabama football,” he said. “We’ve used ‘roll tide roll,’ a lot for code words and different things. It’s funny to do that because people in other countries have no idea what that means.”

Working with Hercules also gives him great satisfaction in knowing that his company employs thousands of people and helps feed and pay tuition bills for thousands of families.

“You can make a good living in our business, and it’s fantastically rewarding to see that translate into people’s lives,” he said.

Lobbying for the Industry

But that reward also comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility. During the most recent economic recession, Hercules’ challenges were compounded by the BP oil spill and resulting government action that temporarily banned offshore drilling. During that time, Noe said Hercules laid off several thousand employees in order for the company to survive.

“It quickly became apparent that we wouldn’t survive as a company very long unless the moratorium was lifted for shallow water drilling, which is very different than deep water drilling in that it’s less risky and allows for easier access to inspect, maintain, and repair drilling equipment,” he said. “We knew we had to educate lawmakers about the negative effects the moratorium was having on the work of thousands of people.”

So Hercules and a group of companies with similar interests formed the Shallow Water Energy Security Coalition and took their cause to lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Noe led the cause as the group’s executive director, which required an even higher level of expertise in the art of communication than he had employed previously.

“Part of the reason I was dubbed to be the executive director is that I was one of the few members willing to take the short straw and appear on television and testify before Congress,” he said. “We knew we needed to educate not only lawmakers, but also the general public, that the moratorium was putting thousands of people out of work unjustly and unnecessarily, but we had an uphill battle. No one likes oil and gas companies when they see oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico day after day after day. Even so, we knew we had to engage the media to tell our story – that we’re an important part of the economy, that we’re an important part of national security, and that as we continue to develop our oil and gas resources here at home, we become less reliant on guerilla-controlled oil and gas resources abroad.”

In the months following the BP oil spill, Noe spent much of his time in meetings with senators and congressmen, and he also appeared frequently in the opinion pages of national newspapers and on live television. He describes his first live TV interview as very, very nerve-racking.

“I was being interviewed remotely by someone in New York, and all I had was an earpiece and a camera staring at me,” he said. “There was all this chatter in the background from the producers. The most difficult part was learning how to communicate to different people, to people who may be hostile to my business or who may not know anything about my business, to experts and non-experts, to politicians and John Q. Public watching on CNN. It was communication par excellence that I had learned from my days at The University of Alabama and LSU. The moratorium was lifted on shallow water drilling after several months of lobbying.”

Advice to Students

Noe encourages any student wishing to be successful to think and study broadly.

“With jobs being scarce, it’s hard not to be practical when you’re deciding your major or the classes you’re going to take,” he said. “But remember that it’s a broad world out there, and you’re going to need more skills than those that get you a job or earn you a paycheck. In business, you’re not always an expert in everything that crosses your desk. You have to quickly understand it, learn more about it, and then communicate that information with others, particularly as a senior executive of a company. The communication abilities and the broad perspective I gained at the University helped me to become the leader that I am.

“I would encourage all students, whether you’re majoring in accounting, science, or engineering, to take courses that will help you communicate, such as English and history courses focused on reading and writing. Also take courses that will give you a broad view of the world. If you want to become a senior executive, you need that core background of something you’re bringing to the table, which for me is law, and you need communication skills and a worldview that’s broader than what your major dictates. You need a lot of other aspects of what the University offers you to do your job well.”

Remember, Noe said, that your major only gets you through the door.

“I’ve found that, even with a law degree, within a year or two of any job, you’ve probably outpaced your degree and you’re relying on your other skills and abilities to advance you in that job,” he said. “The more variety of coursework you can take, the better.”