John Walker: Scouting for Success
May 10, 2017
It should not come as a surprise to anyone that John Walker is the CEO of a company that he created. From his days as a Boy Scout, to college, to his military service, to parenthood to the earliest days of his business career, Walker has always made it a point to be involved and do everything he can to take control of his own destiny.
“I coached all my kids’ sports teams. I always had to be the head coach — that way, I could schedule the practices around my work schedule,” he says with a laugh. “So, I’d have one daughter at 4:30 and another daughter at 6. That way, I could coach soccer, basketball, softball and still get my work done.”
“Looking back, there’s probably a lot of sports careers I’ve ruined because I was such a bad coach,” Walker laughs again. “But it was a great, great way to spend time with the children, especially later when the girls got better and I could be the coach of a club team, but also have a trainer, who taught me a lot. You travel all over the place doing that. A lot of driving to San Antonio, Dallas, or flying to North Carolina, places like that. It was a lot of fun.”
We caught up with Walker at the EnerVest corporate headquarters in downtown Houston, where he was able to carve an hour or so out of a typically very busy day. Walker created EnerVest 25 years ago, with a mission to build a company to “buy, enhance and sell proven onshore production” in the United States. In executing that strategy, Walker has made the company an extraordinary success.
“Fortunately, we’ve become the largest operating company in the United States — we operate more wells than any other company — more than 33,000 across the country. And that entails more than just the pumpers and the foreman and the superintendent in the field; it includes all the engineers, the geologists, the geophysicists and landmen. Importantly, it also entails all the back-office staff that provides accounting, all the administration, and the land work, etc.”
Operating that many wells brings with it the obligation to pay an even higher number of royalty owners each month, and that can be expensive. “We spent $12 million the last two years upgrading our hardware and software necessary to send out more than 100,000 royalty and working interest checks each month. We have actually broken EnerVest into 34 separate functions and determined that if you’re doing any of those functions poorly, you impact the whole company.”
So EnerVest is a big enterprise, and being its CEO is a similarly big job. As has been an ongoing theme in his life, Walker likes to be involved in many different aspects of the business, and he does what he can to control his own destiny. However, that desire to control one’s own destiny should not be confused with being a control freak. Walker knows that one of the most important aspects of his job is to make sure he surrounds himself with strong people who do their own jobs well.
“A big part of success is recognizing your deficits more than your assets and hiring good people who are much smarter than yourself in areas where you need help. Clearly, I needed strong engineers, geologists and land people; and we have been fortunate to attract a lot of really quality people. That’s really been the key to our success — as long as I don’t get in their way, we do pretty well. I’m involved in a lot of the parts of the business, but I spend most of my time deferring to their recommendations.”
It’s possible that Walker’s desire to be in control of his own destiny stems from his childhood.
“My father died when I was 1,” he says, reflecting on his early days in Lubbock, Texas, “so it was just my mother and me growing up. She was not ‘educated,’ in the traditional sense, but if she were here alive today, she would have so much more common sense than I still do. The most my mother ever made was $250 per month, so we weren’t exactly wealthy.”
That lack of wealth would not stand as a roadblock to Walker ultimately becoming a success in business, and in life. His mother emphasized education, and his excellent grades served as a stepping stone to college.
“I received an academic scholarship to go to Tech for $500 per semester. At that point in time, it was enough to pay for my tuition and books, with a little bit left over. But I worked my way through Texas Tech,” he says, ultimately obtaining a BBA with honors.
He had plans to further his education to pursue an MBA, and had applied to several northeastern graduate schools, when the Vietnam War intervened. “While I was accepted to go to the grad school I selected, the Lubbock draft board told me I was going to be drafted.”
But even when fate intervened, Walker took steps to control his own destiny. “I changed plans in February of my senior year, got into the Navy, went to OCS [Officer Candidate School] and was deployed to Vietnam.” After returning from Vietnam, he had 18 months left on his Naval obligation but received an early release along with 2,400 junior officers.
Upon release from the Navy, it was time to go back to work on that MBA. “Of course there was no internet at the time, so you had to contact all the grad schools you wanted to attend all over again, pay all the fees required to reapply, which I did; and I ended up going to New York University.” Paying for a master’s degree from such a prestigious university wasn’t easy: “I was still in the Navy Reserve because I needed the money; I had the GI Bill, which helped; and I also worked 30 hours a week with a college teacher’s retirement equity fund while attending grad school.”
After graduating with honors, Walker became an oil analyst on Wall Street. “I did that for 11 years, and for seven of those years I was ranked either No. 1, 2 or 3 in the Institutional Investor Magazine Poll [an annual poll of institutional investors that ranks the top analysts on Wall Street]. So, I decided that I really knew everything you could possibly know about oil and gas,” he says with a chuckle.
At that point, Walker decided it was time to start his own oil and gas company, and he named it Walker Energy. “If I had any common sense back then, I’d have figured out that anything named after yourself is destined to fail. Within three or four weeks of setting up Walker Energy, I realized that I really didn’t know anything about oil and gas. When you’re on Wall Street analyzing the industry, you aren’t really analyzing the companies and all that goes into them. It’s not like managing a stock and bond portfolio — it’s very intensive to do it the right way.”
However, Walker’s struggles to build his first company did not harm his reputation with others in the industry. Soon, a new opportunity came along, as he was offered to become President of Torch Energy Advisors, a company that formed and managed partnerships for oil and gas investors. After serving in that role for a few years, Walker decided it was time to strike out on his own once again, and he left Torch to form EnerVest. Not surprisingly, getting his new company off the ground wasn’t easy. “We struggled at first — it took us two years to raise our first fund. We did that deal with GE Capital.”
The deal with GE had actually failed with the same seller six months before. Walker shakes his head at the memory of that day. “I was going in on I-10 to close the deal, had my lucky tie on and got into the office and the three principals at that company had changed their mind overnight.
They had their business manager call me and tell me that ‘they’re not going to do the deal, they’re all out of town, and they’re not going to take your call.’ It was one of those really depressing calls. So, I thought that we were going to fail right out of the chute.” But failing is not a part of the John Walker vocabulary. What he did instead was the same thing he did when he returned from Vietnam — he got back to work on controlling his own destiny.
The perseverance paid off: “We ended up getting the deal together [with GE Capital] after six months. It wasn’t a particularly good deal for us, but that’s just part of starting a company: You just keep fighting and fighting and fighting to get it done. And obviously, even after 25 years, we’re still fighting and fighting to get things done.”
The Company Matures
EnerVest has long been on the cutting edge of innovative company financing. The company’s management team and employees operate and manage the assets of a series of investment funds, each of which is used to acquire a discrete portfolio of assets, develop those assets and then ultimately sell them as appropriate for the best possible return on investment. The company’s results over 25 years and 14 funds have been outstanding, attracting a steadily increasing number of investors and total capitalization with each new fund.
EnerVest’s first six of seven funds, from 1992 through 1998, were executed with GE Capital, which invested about $350 million with EnerVest during that period of time. Those funds were highly successful; but in 1998, Walker and his management team decided it was time to begin to include other financial institutions.
“When we told GE after our sixth program with them that we wanted to include other financial institutions, there was some hesitation, just from the standpoint that they liked being the sole investor. Which is understandable,” Walker says. “So, raising that first fund with multiple institutions took a long time — it was the most effort we’ve ever made for the least amount of money. We saw 86 institutions several times, and it took us a year and a half to raise $101 million. Fortunately, that turned out to be a successful program, and so the amount raised for every subsequent program has gone up.
“We have now raised 14 funds, and our 14th fund is $2.4 billion in equity, which we closed in 2015. So, we’ve gone from $101 million (in Fund VIII) to more than $2 billion, which is pretty good progress.” Raising funds in this way from institutional investors is always a challenge. The ups and downs of the overall economy can obviously complicate the process, and one might think that the boom and bust cycles in the industry itself could also make the exercise more difficult.
He believes the company’s timing has more to do with market conditions than anything else. “We buy when people are looking to sell. We’d rather raise funds when the price is low, as it was in 2015, but it’s obviously much easier to raise the funds when the price of oil is over $100. It’s just that our industry has had tremendous problems as a result of investing so much money in 2013 and 2014, including ourselves. So, historically we haven’t used a lot of debt, but when you have an 80 percent price decline, it impacted us too.
“Exxon was the longest-standing company with a triple-A credit rating, and it lost that standing last year. So when Exxon is having problems, we all are. I don’t want to give you the impression that we haven’t had issues. Our Fund XIII was invested primarily in 2013 and 2014, and it’s been the one that was most severely hit.
“The public markets are not always open, as we’ve found, so the fact that we’ve been able to raise money on a pretty continuous basis allows us to be in the market pretty much all of the time. If you look at the last six years, we have been somewhere between 5 and 7 percent of the acquisition and development market overall.”
“We Do Things Differently Than the Portfolio Companies”
A constant presence in the A&D market has allowed EnerVest to enter into advantageous positions that other, more traditional companies might have passed over. A great example came with the company’s entry into Ohio in 2003. “We saw something below the existing shallow wells called the Knox formation. We had a geologist who was very successful in identifying the seismic bumps that we like to drill into. So, we were buying the shallow wells that produced on average about 9 mcf of gas per day, in order to get something for ‘free.’” Over an eight-year period of time, EnerVest purchased four of the top five producing companies in the state, acquiring more than 9,000 wells and 1.2 million acres of leasehold in the process. Walker smiles at that: “We pick up acreage, but in a different way than most other companies. Not many other companies can handle 9,000 wells.”
The Knox formation did turn out to be successful, even more so than the company had expected. So, as Walker and his team had anticipated, EnerVest did indeed get something for “free” out of its efforts. But the dividends from that Ohio entry were just beginning to accrue.
In 2003, neither EnerVest nor anyone else in the industry understood that the shale revolution was about to begin in earnest. As it turned out, the 1.2 million acres EnerVest had acquired not only sat atop the Knox formation, they also lay above the Utica Shale. As Walker says, “Having 1.2 million acres in the Utica play served us pretty well. Our average per-acre cost in the Utica is about $10 per acre, and we ended up selling some of our holdings for about $15,000.”
One of the positive developments created by the low commodity prices during the past few years has been the ability of independent producers to find innovative ways of lowering the costs of drilling and producing oil and gas. We asked Walker about the kinds of initiatives EnerVest has undertaken to produce such cost efficiencies.
Walker first made a decision that no one in his position ever wants to undertake, but which he and most of his peers in the industry have found necessary during the last three years.
“I started EnerVest 25 years ago this year, and until last year we had never had a layoff. But about a year ago, we had to lay off about 200 people, and it’s one of the saddest days of my life. There wasn’t a single person that wasn’t doing their job, that deserved to be laid off, that wasn’t qualified,” he says with obvious regret, “And you can’t do something like that that’s meaningful and allows your company to survive by just focusing on your lowest-cost people, so it had to go all the way to the highest levels.
“I remember not sleeping the night before, because I felt the responsibility of coming in and meeting with many of these people. They’d be crying and I’d be crying and the whole office was crying. It was a terrible experience that I never want to go through again.”
As with most upstream companies, the acquisition of debt during the boom times had played a role in making the layoff necessary. Walker looks back on that with a predictable determination to do everything he can to control the company’s destiny in the future: “Clearly, debt levels in the future will be much lower for us. It won’t be anything imposed upon us from the banks — it will be lower from us.”
However, it has not been all unpleasant! Like many of its competitors, EnerVest has been able to reduce costs by creating a company-wide focus on finding ways to create cost savings. “When you operate 33,000 wells like we do, and have an interest in another 8,000 wells, we had to create an environment of driving costs down. So, in our five divisions, one of the things we get a report on every week is what have you done to drive down costs?
“It’s not just the division manager dictating it — our people in the field have become very creative in finding ways to cut costs. The other thing is, by being a big player in nearly all of our fields because we have built these concentrations of assets, we have been able to deal with some contractual issues that others may not have been able to deal with. When you’re the largest factor in a field and your gatherer won’t deal with lowering costs, we have leverage to apply. We don’t want to be a bully, but we all have to recognize the situation we’re in.
“We are the largest leaseholder in Ohio; we are the largest player in the Austin Chalk; we are tied for second with XTO and Total in the Barnett Shale; we are the largest producer in the Anadarko. We are by far the biggest player in the Canyon Sand area out near Sonora [Texas]; we’re one of the top seven producers in the San Juan Basin. In Karnes County [in Texas], we’ve spent $1.5 billion in less than a year in building a position that had been producing less than 10,000 BOPD and is now up at 38,000 BOPD. So, our operating costs are pretty darn low at this point.”
An Industry Leader
Walker has provided leadership to the entire industry through trade association activities and served as Chairman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) from 2003 through 2005, after serving with that association in several other roles. When asked about his philosophy on taking on that kind of assignment, which consumes time that might otherwise have been dedicated to his own business, Walker again points to his desire to control his own destiny.
“Our industry has always been under attack, and if you don’t get involved, then there are going to be a lot of regulators and politicians that control your destiny,” he points out. “In some [presidential] administrations, we have had to try to block things to just keep our industry alive, and now, in this [Trump] administration, we set up committees to get information into the transition team and legislative committees, and I think we’re having an impact there.”
Obviously, the chairman of IPAA must frequently travel to Washington, D.C., to attend to association business, make visits to Capitol Hill and executive branch agencies, and even testify before congressional committees. “The travel commitment and time commitment at IPAA was more at that time than it is now. Mike Linn [founder and retired CEO of LINN Energy] followed me, and he was the last CEO/Chairman for IPAA. Now, the association President is also the CEO.
When you’re CEO of an association, you’re involved in all the details, all the things involved in running a company. But we were never going to be able to attract the people necessary to be Chairman going forward if that CEO title was still a part of the requirement. So, I think that change has worked out very well.
“It was a big personal commitment, but it really was what you wanted to make out of it. I think that’s true of anything. Coming in, I thought about how I might help IPAA, and we set goals and went about working to accomplish those goals.”
Walker also mentions that he served as IPAA Chairman during a time of high commodity prices and a Republican presidential administration. As he points out, others have not been so lucky. “Some guys just draw the black bean. Bruce Vincent [then-President of Swift Energy Company] was the Chairman when prices collapsed; what a capable guy to have as the leader then, and he did a great job. I was fortunate that the price of oil and gas went up during my two years, and I took full credit for that in my speeches,” he adds with a laugh.
Walker is often self-effacing, but that doesn’t mean others aren’t taking notice of his abilities and contributions. As a result of his service at IPAA and other accomplishments in the oil and gas industry, he was awarded the industry’s Chief Roughneck Award in 2007. He spoke about how meaningful it was to receive what is generally considered to be the industry’s highest award.
“Well, it was a surprise — they do a great job of keeping it all a secret. They had done filming [a personal profile film is a part of the presentation ceremony, which takes place at IPAA’s Annual Meeting each year] at my neighbor’s house, and I didn’t even know anything about it. I thought I might be a candidate for it somewhere down the road, but it was totally unexpected coming when it did.”
Personal Life as a Reflection of Business Life
“From where I stand now, reflections on my past are both illuminating and painful. Before I came to Houston, I had gone through a divorce. And a big part of that is that, as a Wall Street analyst, you’re always working. So, the problem in my divorce was me,” he says with obvious regret. “Anytime you go through a divorce, it’s a giant failure. It’s the biggest failure of my life, in fact. The biggest blessing of the marriage is our son, Jud.”
“When I came to Houston, I knew that I was going to be very unsuccessful going to bars,” he says with a laugh. “I made a decision that I’d just like to meet some nice people, so I volunteered, went to church. One of the things I volunteered for was the United Way, because it’s such a broad-based organization, and Lisa [my wife] happened to be working there. So, I met her through that volunteer activity, and I still can’t believe she married me. And we’ve been married 30 years as of May 30.”
John and Lisa Walker are the proud parents of three adult children who are all successful in their own right. “Our son, Jud, who is a geologist, worked for eight years at Chesapeake, and they just gave him all he could handle. They drilled 28 wells that he generated his first year there. He is now the CEO of our operating company. We have two daughters. Our oldest, Brynne, is also at a nonprofit, as the Chief Development Officer at Stoney Creek Ranch. It’s a program that takes at-risk urban children to a Christian camp for five days. It’s really had an impact — they had 2,400 kids in the program last year and will have more this year. Her husband, Andrew, received his undergraduate degree from the University of Houston in December and is now working as a geologist.”
“Our younger daughter, Molly, is a special needs teacher in Dallas. She is with Notre Dame Academy, which helps to give special needs children and adults life skills so that they can become more self-sufficient. She has a lot more patience than I do, and when God’s up there grading us all in terms of success, she’s going to get a very high grade.”
As proud as he obviously is of his children, Walker beams when asked to talk about his wife. “Lisa is being considered for sainthood just being married to me,” he laughs. “She was a cheerleader at The University of Texas. She worked for United Way, and then for Volunteer Houston after we got married. The things she’s involved in say so much about her. Every Wednesday night, our church has a function called Circle of Friends, which now provides services to more than 100 special needs teenagers and adults. She’s been doing that for more than 10 years. Lisa has the skill set to deal with special needs children.
“But what Lisa does the best of anyone I know is that, when people are having problems, she goes to see them in hospitals, she cooks for them, she’s just so giving. There have been many times I’ve walked into the house and said something like, ‘Man, that smells great! What’s for dinner?’ And Lisa says, ‘Well, I’m really cooking for another family, and you are taking me out to dinner.’ That’s Lisa.”
“I Like to Be Involved”
In addition to his impact on his family and in his business life, John Walker takes time to make an impact in ways that are helpful to others. His lifelong involvement in the Boy Scouts of America and his service to Texas Tech University are two examples.
Walker was first appointed to serve on the Texas Tech Board of Regents in 2012 by then-Gov. Rick Perry. Following a three-year hiatus, he was reappointed to the board by current Gov. Greg Abbott in 2016.
Walker describes himself as a big fan of Texas Tech athletics and goes to his share of Red Raiders football games. When he decided to get involved as a booster of Tech athletics, the west-side stands at Jones AT&T Stadium had recently been completely re-done, but the east side still looked like a 1950s football stadium. “The Athletics Director took my friend Gary Petersen, an EnCap Founder, and me out to lunch and said he’d like for us to put up the money to refurbish the east-side stands. I said, ‘Well, there’s a thousand guys who love football and who would help you with that stadium, including Gary. Instead, Lisa and I want to help you build a new soccer complex.’”
At that time, the women’s soccer program at Tech was going through hard times. The team had gone winless in the Big 12 the previous year, had to practice at the Tech track field, and obviously had a hard time attracting top players. “So, Lisa and I funded the soccer complex, but I told them that we would build the best complex we can build, but the school has to hire the best soccer coach they can find.”
At Walker’s encouragement, and armed with a state-of-the-art soccer complex, Tech’s athletics department hired former Clemson University Head Coach Tom Stone. Walker was thrilled. “[Coach Stone] had been an all-American at Duke, scored the winning goal when Duke won the national championship. He became a pro player, coached the women’s U.S. U-20 team to a World Cup, and was then the head coach at Clemson. His first year at Tech, the best players on the team were his freshmen players; the next year, again the best players were his freshmen players.”
The team has gone from winning zero Big 12 conference games to being in the NCAA tournament the last six years. They won the Big 12 in 2015 and have been nationally ranked in many of those years. “It’s kind of fun to start something that had been down and see it excel,” Walker says. “Coach Stone has created that success, but we’ve been able to help from the standpoint of creating great facilities and attracting him to come to Lubbock.” Just another example of how Walker’s planning and influence has helped others to better control their own destiny.
The same can be said of his involvement in the Boy Scouts. “When I give money, I like to be involved. I give money to scouting, but I’m also very involved.”
When he discusses his history with the Boy Scouts, it’s with an obvious sense of pride in his achievements and gratitude for what the organization has meant to him and his family. “I was an Eagle Scout. I was 11 years old, and there were 32 of us at the First Baptist Church in Lubbock.
This incredible man, Sam Henry, started the church’s first Boy Scout troop, which was Troop 1. I’d known him, because we went to church together, and his son was one of my best friends. He was highly organized, and all 32 of us got our Eagle Scout Award about four and a half years later. That was the only time in U.S. Scouting history in which that has occurred.
“Not having a father growing up, Sam really did become sort of a surrogate father to me. There were other people who took the time and interest to help me. But he was probably the most influential.
“So, I got involved in Scouts when I came to Houston and have led the local council. And I’m still very active in it. My son, Jud, is also an Eagle Scout, and he now leads our local Eagle Scout Association. Houston is the biggest Boy Scouts Council in the United States, in the world actually. We have more than 1,000 Eagle Scouts every year in Houston, which is a great accomplishment.”
In reality, John Walker says that God, not he, is in control of his destiny, and his life is about much more than control. For him, and for every member of his family, it’s also about giving back to the community, helping those less fortunate and doing whatever they can to help others be more in control of their own destinies. When the Walkers want to help a program or organization, they don’t just throw money at it, they get involved, and when that happens, good things tend to come along with it.
By David Blackmon