Operating with entrepreneurial zeal, SMP Drilling continues to provide
bespoke solutions backed up by detailed understanding of client challenges
and leading-edge technology
Writer: Tom Wadlow | Project Manager: David Knott
“When you work for an oil and gas giant, as much as I enjoyed and valued my experience, the freedom to make strategic decisions was always further up the company. I had a tremendous 15 years, but in 2018 I felt I was ready for something different.”
The opportunity to make a genuine difference is often a deal clincher that only smaller firms can offer a prospective employee. For Benjamin Hennette, the company in question is French drilling contractor SMP Drilling.
Based near Paris, SMP offers drilling and related services to oil and gas clients and the French geothermal market, its other major operations taking place in Africa where it has offices in Gabon, Congo and Angola.
The company prides itself on being a flexible and responsive partner to its clients, able to speak directly to their needs and concerns, Technical Director Hennette highlighting this as a key point of difference.
“I was actually a client of SMP while in Gabon with my previous employer, so I already knew the company and had a great experience with them as a customer,” he recalls.
“Large operators usually deal with larger contracting companies with fleets of dozens of machines. SMP has six drilling rigs and 12 smaller machines, so the main difference is clear. We are what I would call a human-sized company – the President owns the firm entirely, and it is like a family as some employees have been with SMP since it started in 1998.
“This means we have an ability to provide bespoke and fit for purpose solutions to clients. The General Manager, myself and others come from the operator side, so we know what is needed from a drilling contractor. We understand the challenges clients face and offer solutions.”
General Manager Fabien Lemesnager touches on another company hallmark – its loyal team of employees, many of whom have benefited from SMP’s end-to-end approach to skills development.
Here it works closely with a fully renovated training centre, the EFF Drilling School, which is equipped with one rig and two simulators. It is owned by SMP’s President Bernard Raigneau, who also holds interests in other ventures such as logging and oil production.
“Many of our people began their career with SMP and are now in senior positions, starting from scratch and working their way up the business,” Lemesnager adds.
“The drilling industry in France is relatively small, so there are few experienced people. This means we have to train our own people from the beginning, which was especially important in 2018 and 2019 when many of our rigs came back online after a period of shutdown that drained skills out of the sector.
“EFF Drilling School and its training rig was therefore hugely important in getting people up to speed and giving them the opportunity to climb up the ladder.”
Technology is the other critical element to SMP’s delivery of services.
Lemesnager points out that rigs are extremely valuable real estate, often costing tens of millions of dollars to assemble and function smoothly.
Protecting them is therefore paramount to the long-term viability of a drilling contractor’s operations, and SMP ensures the longevity of its valuable assets through what the General Manager refers to as ‘electric rigs’, fitted with smart solutions to aid engineers.
“If you take Africa, our main market, the physical environmental is tough,” Lemesnager says. “You have humidity in the tropical areas which results in super high corrosion, which means we have to find solutions to prevent it from happening.
“The maintenance issue is key to the sustainability of our operations, and technology helps us. All our rigs are fitted with a lot of automation which allows us to control and analyse operations and processes remotely.
“Our maintenance team in France can troubleshoot problems and our internal software program allows engineers to access the critical information they need about the rig’s performance. The pace of our activity is quite intense, and so we need real time and accurate information.”
Technology also helps to enhance SMP’s health and safety record.
The firm is implementing various solutions to this end, including hands-free tools and systems which eliminate the need for heavy lifting and remove the risk of drops.
For example, in France it has developed a crane-less rig with one of its clients, a system which instead shifts heavy loads on wheels. More solutions are being studied for larger units in collaboration with rig manufacturers, SMP eager to implement a wide rollout of the solution.
It could prove to be a gamechanger for the future of the firm and its operations, activities which it expects to pick up not only in Africa, but also the Middle East.
“It is different to any other market simply due to the sheer scale of operations there,” Hennette states. “Companies operate 20 to 30 rigs, sometimes more, and they are national operators.
“It is challenging to qualify for the tendering process, but we have had some success and obtained the qualifications needed, and are exploring possibilities with the Kuwait Oil Company, which is about to launch some massive tenders.”
However, France and Africa will remain core markets for SMP, Hennette concluding the conversation by looking ahead at prospects for growth in the latter.
“The picture has changed markedly in the past 10 years. Big operators have left the region’s onshore industry and are focussing on larger projects. Lately we have been able to secure contracts with ENI in Congo, which is great news for SMP, but this is not a typical example as we need to get closer to the smaller operators if we are to grow here.
“We also want to expand our training centre in France and are opening satellite sites in the likes of Gabon, Congo and Angola. Developing local content is tremendously important if you are to succeed in the long term, and we are proud of the fact we have been able to promote local African engineers to senior positions. We are in the business of developing partnerships.”