Business interview: Bruce Dingwall, Trinity Exploration and Production

Bruce Dingwall appreciates the launch pad the North Sea brought but the Caribbean is his focus. Picture: Tim Bishop

Bruce Dingwall appreciates the launch pad the North Sea brought but the Caribbean is his focus. Picture: Tim Bishop

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Bruce Dingwall co-founded one of the first and biggest independent oil and gas companies in the North Sea before it was swallowed up by Centrica in a £1.2 billion deal in 2009.

And, while he praises the region as a better place to do business than when he started Venture Production in 1997, when asked if he would do the same thing there now, he says “no thanks”, writes Erikka Askeland.

Instead, Dingwall has focused its efforts in the Caribbean with Trinity Exploration and Production. At the end of last year, he led a £45 million reverse takeover of another Trinidad explorer, Bayfield Energy, a deal which completed in February.

In the same month, his firm took control of the Galeota licence offshore Trinidad. Six weeks later, the newly-hewn together firm made its maiden announcement, assuring investors that it remained on target to achieve its 2013 production forecast of 5,000 barrels of oil per day despite rig issues affecting the company earlier in the year.

It was a “very busy six weeks”, he said.

“It has been hard work but everyone has been putting their shoulder to it. Where we are now, we have got the engine running. It is primed, and if we meet our targets we will chalk up a lot of cash this year which bodes well for growth in the portfolio and new business.”

He has high expectations of further finds on the company’s existing licences as well as winning further licence rounds.

Soon he expects the Trinidad & Tobago government to announce the next areas where it will award exploration licences. Trinidad currently produces 780,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day of gas – but only about 70,000 of that is oil.

“There is a real push from the ministry of finance, energy and industry to get more licences on the table to reverse that trend,” said Dingwall.

Listening to him speak it is hard not to draw parallels between the North Sea then and Trinidad now.

“If you look at what the North Sea was like back in 1995-96 … I was told by several chief executives to get my old job back – it wasn’t a place for small independents to play.

“Six years later, up to 25 per cent of production capex was coming from small guys. Trinidad is the same. Basically you have BP, British Gas, Texaco, Shell and couple of others who have been there for about 100 years one way or the other.

“But without a doubt, as companies get bigger they require larger assets – and lots of things don’t get done. Discoveries don’t get developed and lots of prospects don’t get drilled. It is important in these basins to have a broader range of companies and types. To do that you have to make terms easier, deal turnover easier, you have to do more licensing rounds. The Trinidad government are doing that, they know that have to get other kinds of players in there.”

So, is he creating a Venture Production mark II but in warmer climes?

“Venture was a phenomenal business. It is very sad it is not around,” says Dingwall. “The industry misses it. That company was spending £1 million a day in Scotland. The current company [now owned by Centrica] is probably spending something but in different ways.”

Of his new firm, he says: “Technically led, commercially led, fast aggressive, absolutely. Our current portfolio is more like Venture but we have more [of an] exploration portfolio.”

One of three founders of Venture in 1997, Dingwall left the listed company in 2004.

He was born in Trinidad to a British family – his father worked there as a doctor for an oil company in the 1950s.

The younger Dingwall came back to the UK to go to university then began working for Exxon, which took him to Pakistan, and Indonesia before he started Venture.

The assets which would be used to form Trinity he acquired from his old company in 2005. Now Dingwall divides his time between Perthshire and the Caribbean.

He is clearly not a fan of the idea of Scottish independence but is pleased how important the North Sea is now perceived to be to the future of Scotland.

“The North Sea is a phenomenal province. But it is a shame it takes a divisive vote next year for it to get on the political agenda.

“In my conscious mind, it has been a cash cow for government – and you don’t win elections by supporting oil companies. Now, all of a sudden, it is right on the agenda – that is great. We have a phenomenal industry and it will run for over 100 years.

“Oil and gas still makes the world go around. It is the bridge to the future.

“But would I do a start-up in the North Sea right now? No thanks. There’s too many of them [companies]. I look at the websites and that is the stuff I wrote 15 years ago.”

He relishes the smallness of the current business. He recruited his chief executive Monty Pemberton from an investment bank in Trinidad. Originally, he joined as chief financial officer but has taken to the rougher seas of running a hands-on oil company, said Dingwall.“ We’re very, very luck. He’s a great guy.”

Nor does he have any regrets having left Venture when he did.

“We turned Venture into a massive factory. A quarter of a billion barrels of reserves and 50,000 to 60,000 barrels a day. There are people much better than I to be running that.

“I had taken it from an absolute start-up – with seven or eight years running it. In the modern era that is long enough to run any public company. It is pretty exhausting and you get a little flat.”

Despite all the paperwork of running another listed company, he seems back in his comfort zone.

“You make better decisions, too. There is a short way to those who make the decisions. It is flat. In a big company that gets lost, and you get caught up running a board of 14 people.

“Keeping it small as long as you can and keeping that small attitude is important part of success – moving quickly.”

Background

Born: Pointe-a-Pierre, Trinidad.

Education: St Peters School, Trinidad; Fettes College, Edinburgh; Aberdeen University.

First job: Field geologist.

Ambition while at school: Olympic swimmer, pilot, petroleum geologist (in that order).

Car: Range Rover (second-hand).

Music: Reggae/ska.

Can’t live without: The sea.

Favourite film: Breaker Morant.

Favourite place: Polynesia.

What makes you angry: The ignorance that surrounds climate change. That the public completely misunderstands the oil and gas industry. That some Scots can’t separate the positive emotion of being Scottish from thinking they want to, or can, run a state. Lying.

Best thing about your job: You never stop learning, it still makes the world go round, it is the bridge to the future.

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