Subsea aspirations

Karen Boman

June 1, 2017

Karen Boman discovers how Glasgow’s shipbuilding industry eventually led McDermott International’s CEO David Dickson toward a career in subsea.

David Dickson

Growing up, McDermott International President and CEO David Dickson was always interested in ships and floaters. The shipbuilding industry in his hometown of Glasgow, Scotland, would inspire Dickson to initially pursue naval architecture and offshore engineering at university.

Dickson said that he was fortunate enough to start his shipbuilding career working on nuclear submarines for the UK Defense department. But, the decline in the shipbuilding industry – and an emerging opportunity Dickson saw, in the early 1990s, in subsea oil and gas – prompted him to change careers to subsea engineering. Early in his subsea career, Dickson was involved with many, at that time, deepwater frontier projects, such as BP’s Foinaven, off Shetland. His work primarily focused on the North Sea, but Dickson also worked on subsea projects offshore West Africa. These early experiences provided him with knowledge of the pipelaying and diving business.

Seeking further deepwater opportunities, Dickson came to the US in 2002 to work for Technip, where he worked on well-known Gulf of Mexico deepwater projects such as Na Kika (BP) and Perdido (Shell). These projects gave Dickson valuable experience not only in ultra-deepwater technology development, but project risk management, the drive for better safety, and the importance of getting it right the first time in deepwater.

The Na Kika project actually lost money, but gave Dickson and the project team the opportunity to design new things. “Everything was a first of its kind, and it wasn’t like there was a book with the answers,” Dickson says. “We had to build everything from scratch.”

In 2005, he was promoted to head of Technip’s subsea business, and in 2008, headed Technip’s US and Latin America business unit. In the latter position, he helped grow the company with his role in the acquisitions of Global Industries and Stone & Webster and the formation of Technip’s alliance with Heerema Marine Contractors.

Dickson likes to measure the progress that Technip made during his time there by its office buildings. When he started there as a subsea engineer, Technip occupied one tower in west Houston. By the time he left Technip, the company occupied four towers.

In October 2013, Dickson came to McDermott from Technip (he can see Technip from his current office). Under Dickson’s leadership, McDermott has defied the current oil and gas industry downturn and is now thriving. After incurring losses of US$76 million in 2014, and $18 million in 2015, the company recorded net income of $34 million for 2016. McDermott also achieved total shareholder returns of 120%, and ended 2016 with $3 billion of its projected 2017 revenue in backlog and total backlog of $4.3 billion.

Of the many milestones in his career, Dickson can’t name only one of which he is most proud. Instead, he’s found something meaningful in all the projects in which he was involved, such as Na Kika.

Dickson is proud of the number of people he has brought on board when he joined McDermott. This influx of great talent helped bolster the company’s performance. In fact, Dickson credits much of his success to the people working around him.

“I’m not the smartest engineer or best financial person, but my strength has been surrounding myself with talent.”

The market downturn forced McDermott over the past two years to focus more on national oil companies, and specific countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where McDermott knew their customers would keep spending. McDermott has supplemented this activity by growing its business bases in India and Mexico.

Dickson is optimistic about the company’s future not only because of these strategies, but because major oil companies aren’t spending. Once they start spending, McDermott will have even more opportunities.