In just under a decade, Optical Metrology Services has gone from a company created in the garage of “a maverick inventor” to a business with a £7.8m turnover. Chief executive Denise Smiles shares a true British engineering success story
It would be all too easy to dismiss pipelines as boring. But these seemingly prosaic steel tubes are, in fact, multibillion-pound geopolitical battlegrounds (see the Russia-bypassing pipelines transporting oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to European consumers, which Russia claims undermines its influence in the region). When pipes go wrong, the fallout can be deleterious: affecting human lives, the environment and the reputation of multinational behemoths alike. Given their importance and tendency for wonkiness – pipes are never absolutely straight – it’s staggering to learn many companies inspect them using callipers, the technology of which has scarcely changed since ancient Greece.
“If you measure a 50p piece with a pair of callipers, it’ll tell you it’s round,” says Denise Smiles, chief executive at Optical Metrology Services (OMS), an Essex-based company supplying pipe inspection and measurement products and services to those companies understandably nervous about relying on callipers. “Even if it’s a big pipe, they [callipers] won’t tell you there’s a lump. They only measure in eight places and are usually dependent upon the operator… [Whereas] our tools can take 2,000 measurements, picking up accuracy to a fifth of a human hair.”
With delays costing some firms $500,000 (£319,000) a day, the need to hasten the inspection process is clear, and, since 2006 – when OMS consisted of a “maverick inventor” working in his garage – this Essex-based firm has inspected and measured pipes for the likes of Shell, BP and Petrobras. Having measured some 500,000 pipes, OMS engineers and their laser/camera technologies have traversed the globe, from Angolan oilfields to the Arabian Desert. “I would like to think we’ve prevented big catastrophes happening,” says Smiles. “But I don’t think the oil and gas industries would admit it!”
Smiles, one of the few senior women in the male-dominated oil and gas industry, has played a pivotal role in the OMS rise. Prior to helping the company make millions (turnover today is approaching £7.8m, compared with £48,000 in 2006), she saw ordinary folk win fortunes on a weekly basis while working for National Lottery operator Camelot. As head of regulation and compliance, she helped set up the South African national lottery, where she remembers meeting the inaugural winner: “He gave us directions by trees,” she says. “All he wanted to do was buy a suit – he gave most of his money to his village.”
After taking voluntary redundancy, Smiles – who started her “unorthodox” career as a legal secretary – set up as a management consultant. It was while in this role that she received a phone call from a client, telling her about
a “maverick inventor who needs help with his marketing”.
The inventor was Dr Tim Clarke, an ex-university lecturer in physics who started a consultancy in 2000. Clarke was producing tools from his Bishop’s Stortford garage and he wanted help selling them. Smiles had a different idea: “Why would we sell to pipe mills when we can offer a service?” Within a month, Smiles had organised meetings with Chevron and Shell in Houston, joining the two-strong operation as commercial director. “People were saying, ‘What are you doing? Are you mad?’” she says.
The symbiosis of Clarke’s technical genius and Smiles’ blue-chip savvy has worked. Under Smiles’ auspices, OMS has grown to employ 40 people at its base near Stansted airport, which incorporates an R&D facility, sales department and – thanks to the 2008 acquisition of precision manufacturing firm Thebus Engineering – a mini-factory too. The company also now has offices in Houston and Rio de Janeiro, with expansion at least partially due to Smiles’ palpable passion.
“If I can’t get something to work, I’ll be the first person to get under the table and fiddle with the plugs,” she says. It’s this determination that saw her join a two-week assignment with engineering contractor Subsea 7 in Norway during her first winter at the firm. “Workers generally are rough-and-ready types working in dangerous environments – unless you can hold your own, they’re not interested,” says Smiles. “Suddenly, I’m in freezing Norway with a boiler suit, thermals and a hard hat, operating a walkie-talkie. [The engineers] had previously only seen me in a dress. They later told Tim, ‘Denise has got the balls to handle this.’ In the oil and gas industry, you have to muck in, roll your sleeves up and get on with it. You can’t be namby-pamby.”
To this day, a core OMS philosophy is sending new recruits on foreign jobs. Their female HR engineer has recently returned from a fortnight working 12-hour shifts in a Malaysian coating-yard, while Director met a ponytailed lad in the corridors who enthused about being sent to Louisiana on his summer break while fellow students “worked in WHSmith”.
At OMS’s Stansted premises, the firm manufactures an array of gadgetry that would make Q from James Bond salivate. There’s the PipeChecker laser measurement tool, capable of recording 2,000 measurements around a pipe-end in less than 20 seconds. Inspecting offshore pipelines has become easier thanks to the WeldChecker, which is operated remotely and uses high-definition digital cameras to inspect pipes. OMS’s Pipe Straightness Tool emits laser beams to uncover kinks or bends. Meanwhile, its SmartFit software can curb costs by solving the fit-up problems that occur when pipes of different shapes are linked together. “Rather than discarding them for not being round enough, we say you can probably still use it – you just need to find something that matches,” explains Smiles.
The game-changer in the industry was the 2010 explosion at the BP Deepwater Horizon rig, which cost 11 lives and spewed 4.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Although it initially had an adverse effect on OMS’s business, it also prompted greater scrutiny of installations. “It’s made operators such as BP, Shell and Exxon more circumspect – they want more things inspected,” says Smiles. “For us, it’s about educating those companies about what is possible, letting them know we can inspect one kilometre down a pipe.” She attributes OMS’s recent growth to “companies looking for efficiencies as the price of oil goes down”.
Working in hostile conditions and territories hasn’t been incident-free. Two contractors once spent a day in an Angolan jail due to visa issues, while engineers have discovered snakes and sleeping locals inside African pipes.
In 2011, a six-strong OMS crew was dispatched to the far-eastern Russian island of Sakhalin, where they needed to complete a pipe-measurement project in inclement conditions before the ocean froze in November. At one point they had to hide from a tornado, and they measured offshore pipes while whales darted around them. Their only entertainment for the two-month posting was “watching the same black-and-white film over again on the ship television”.
Although the majority of OMS’s work is with oil and gas companies, the firm also assessed the Mercedes F1 team’s exhaust pipes, inspected pipes for Crossrail and made products for British Aerospace. It also found itself hauled into a bizarre court case, when razor manufacturer Wilkinson Sword sued Gillette over its “best a man can get” slogan. Acting as expert witnesses, OMS measured 24 hours of beard growth. The conclusion? Gillette’s boast was correct.
Smiles is passionate about identifying new engineering talent at a time of a global recruitment crisis in oil and gas (according to EngineeringUK, the sector will need 2.2 million new recruits over the next decade). “Engineering is not a sexy subject at school, but there are so many interesting aspects,” she says. “Five miles beneath the seabed, you’ve got remote-operated vehicles repairing welds. They employ people to operate those robots. You have children on PlayStations who’d love that, but don’t even hear about it.”
Smiles is particularly proud that the new version of OMS’s Auga – which she believes is “the first [tool] in the world that can reach one kilometre down a pipe” – was designed by OMS engineer Jack Parlane, who joined as a graduate.
Meanwhile, she buzzes with excitement that a female A-level student has just requested work experience there. Indeed, the lack of women in the industry is a bugbear – the UK has the fewest female engineers anywhere in Europe. “I still get clients saying, ‘You’re sending a woman?’” Smiles says, incredulously.
As OMS continues to invent products (approximately £1m is invested in R&D), the company also faces challenges. As the oil and gas industry plumbs ever-greater depths for energy, environmental concerns could thwart progress. OMS recently worked on a sensitive coral-strewn escarpment in Australia, which meant “we had to get the pipeline design just right”. Smiles also admits many countries slow work down by insisting OMS employs local workers. “Kazakhstan was a sharp learning curve,” notes Smiles. “They require 70 per cent local content. It’s difficult when you’re dealing with a country where people don’t have the expertise with leading-edge technology. We’re now doing training courses there.”
But OMS’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed, with the company picking up two Queen’s Awards for Enterprise (apparently HM spoke “intelligently about accuracy and environmental problems”) and Smiles being awarded with Professional Woman of the Year 2014 by US organisation National Association of Professional Women. And with competition largely limited to those “people with callipers”, Smiles’ turnover target of £10m next year looks like being no pipe dream.
Optical Metrology Services (OMS) Vital stats
HQ Stansted, Essex
Turnover £7.8m, projected for 2015
High point Recent years – OMS has grown company sales revenues by 100 per cent per year
Low point The deadlock in the oil and gas industry following 2010’s BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Smiles: “Everything ground to a halt for two years. We carried on working but didn’t grow.”
Did you know? OMS’s Auga tool currently leases for £3,500 a day but the firm hopes to sell it for more than £3m
To find out more about Optical Metrology Services, visit omsmeasure.com
Denise Smiles is a member of IoD Essex