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Deborah Close: Blazing a trail through the gender barrier

At the Top subject Deborah Close, president of Concord Well services, visits a service well site near Sylvan Lake, Alberta on Thursday, October 27, 2011. John Ulan/Epic

John Ulan/john ulan The Globe and Mail

In the male-dominated world of oil field services, Deborah Close is a pioneer – reputedly the first woman to head a well-servicing company in Alberta. She is used to smashing barriers, first as a French-degree graduate who became an engineering technologist, and then as a Canadian in London and Houston selling energy software. Now, her career path has taken her, at 58, to her hometown of Calgary, where she heads Concord Well Servicing – and where on Nov. 10 she tells her story as part of the Women of Influence speaking series.

What's with this BA in French?

It's most unusual for the work I do. I'm so rusty [on French]because I really haven't used it for 30 years. But I was already working when I finished my degree. I had started in an Alberta regulatory agency as a clerk, and finished my degree part-time.

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How did you end up in an engineering technology position?

It goes back to a time in 1974 when the oil industry was short of people – just like today. If you could think and were willing to work hard, a lot of the larger oil companies had their own technical training schools, and they put you through the program. I was at Amoco Canada – which was a great company for training. I stuck up my hand and said 'Yeah, I'll do that' and they sent me off.

Are you left brain (logical) or right brain (creative)?

I'm a bit of both so I can do technical work but I'm probably more right-brained. I am very much a people person. My strengths are probably more on that side. Halfway through my career, I decided I was probably more interested in the business than the technical side and so I made that switch.

Could someone get that same on-the-job training today if they came in as an arts or humanities grad?

It is harder today, but there are opportunities. Once you get into a company, and show you have the aptitude and you can work hard, many companies will advance you. In Concord, many of our workers start out on the rigs out of high school, and we provide them with all the training. Our vice-president of operations today came up through the rigs. The opportunity is still there, but I won't pretend it's as easy as back in 1974.

How has it changed?

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In those days, having a degree – any kind of degree – was your ticket to get anywhere. Now you need a master's, maybe an MBA, and that bar just continues to climb. Still, there are lots of people, maybe from a general business program and without that specific [skill]training, and they will have to learn it on the job.

You once told an industry publication that Canadians aren't aggressive enough sellers. What did you mean?

If you look at Canadian companies in general, as a nationality we tend to be somewhat understated. We don't like the hard sell ourselves and so we tend not to do it. But if we are to compete globally, we have to put the hard sell on a little bit more.

Can you personally do that?

I can, although it is not always comfortable for me. After all, Canada is my background. But I worked in the U.S. for 13 years for [energy services giant]Halliburton and for a small Calgary software company that was active down there. You have to be more assertive there, whereas we tend not to tout our strengths and advantages. It is seen as a bit like bragging here, whereas in the U.S. it is more expected.

In the U.S. sales environment, they lead more with their strengths, whereas we tend to underplay them. Outside North America, people might not be able to tell the difference between a Canadian and American, but here we can pick out the subtleties. A lot of American companies take that assertiveness elsewhere and are quite successful.

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Why have you had such a varied career?

I am open to a challenge. I actually like change. My husband and I both don't mind moving – we love discovering a new place. At the time, I didn't perceive the moves as being particularly risky. Now I look back and say 'Wow, that was probably quite a big risk' but it didn't seem so at the time.

And now you find yourself in an engineering environment again, but as a leader?

I'm a business person now. When I was on the software side, I was in sales and marketing and in general management. The business management side was part of my last 20 years.

But the work we do here is different than what I've done in the past. It is very field-oriented and the oil field is where all the money is made. I'm not qualified to work on the rigs, but I try to get out to the fields for a week every month. I just get out and talk to the folks. We have 700 people and eight locations across Alberta.

Did you have to adjust as a woman in this largely male culture?

I think it's a gift – I'm oblivious. I don't pay a lot of attention to [the gender difference] Being yourself is always the best policy. If you are under stress, the real self comes out anyway.

I look back to my early days in Amoco Canada, a fairly big company in the late 1970s. There was one female engineer in Canada, one female geologist and I was one of two technologists. We've come a long way, but oil services is still a bastion of the men. Yet it's not foreign to me. I don't think about it – I'm used to being the only woman in the room.

Is your business changing?

You might have heard the phrase: 'Unconventional is the new conventional.' About 60 per cent of the wells now are horizontal – they are being completed in this unconventional way. With all the activity in the U.S. consisting of largely natural gas plays, there is this huge influx of gas. Because gas prices have fallen and oil prices are still high, our work has shifted from gas to oil. Oil is the hot commodity.

But in what we do, it doesn't matter much whether it is gas or oil. Our business is servicing the wells, and we also do well abandonment.

But isn't the Western Canada sedimentary basin in decline?

Even a lot of the plays that were considered conventional are being discovered again with horizontal completion. And there are still thousands of wells, pipelines and gas plants that are old and need to be abandoned. We see a great opportunity to work with our customers to help retire those assets in a way that is environmentally responsible.

Are you ready to slow down?

No, I like stuff that gets me hopping out of bed in the morning and running to the office.




President, Concord Well Servicing, a division of CCS Corp., Calgary


Born in Calgary, 58 years old


Bachelor's degree in French, University of Calgary

Career highlights

* Began career as a clerk for the Energy Resources Conservation Board in 1974

* Joined Amoco Canada and trained as a petroleum engineering technologist. Spent 14 years in reservoir work, operations engineering, supply and marketing.

* Worked for energy software companies including Landmark Graphics, a division of Halliburton. Roles included vice-president of operations for North America, Europe and the former Soviet Union.

* Became executive vice-president for DO2 Technologies, a Calgary software company.

* Joined Concord as president in fall, 2010.

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