At one time John W. Gibson sat opposite Oneok Inc.’s David Kyle at the negotiating table, hammering out details over contracts. Today, Gibson sits next to Kyle and is part of the management team than runs the diversified energy company that reported nearly $11.9 billion in sales in 2006 and employs 4,536 people.
While at Phillips Petroleum, Gibson negotiated the notorious take-or-pay settlements with many different firms.
“They were not very pleasant times,” Gibson said, recalling when companies began settling contracts with suppliers with whom they signed deals in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The pacts required users to take gas supplies for years to come at pre-scheduled prices. Those contracts became uneconomical in 1984 when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission allowed consumers to buy directly from suppliers, bypassing the pipelines.
Most companies reached settlements on their take-or-pay contracts as soon as possible.
As it turns out, many of Gibson’s closest friends in the business were the people he negotiated against — one of those was Oneok’s Kyle, who serves as chairman. Kyle steps down as a full-time employee on Jan. 1.
Gibson was eventually offered a position at Oneok, joining the energy company in 2000. He was named CEO and president and CEO of Oneok Partners at the first of this year.
The Kansas City, Kan., native earned an engineering degree from the University of Missouri at Rolla. He launched his career in the energy industry as a refinery engineer with Exxon Co. USA in 1974.
Gibson soon moved to Phillips Petroleum Co. and spent the next 18 years with Phillips in a variety of domestic and international positions in its natural gas, natural gas liquids and exploration and production businesses.
Gibson rose through the ranks and left Phillips in 1995 as vice president of marketing of gas gathering, processing and marketing subsidiary GPM Gas Corp.
Gibson considers his move to Koch Industries in the mid-1990s a turning point in his career.
“Moving to Koch was a great opportunity — next was the opportunity to work with Oneok,” he said.
Gibson stepped in as executive vice president of Koch Energy Inc., a subsidiary of Wichita-based Koch Industries. He grew professionally because of the opportunities offered him there, Gibson said.
“I learned more in 5 years at Koch Industries than I learned in 18 years at Phillips and the two years at Exxon,” Gibson said. Not that it was a reflection of either company; “It was because of the responsibilities given to me at Koch.”
“Somewhere along the line it became more important to me to learn more about the business, about myself and about others,” he said. “Culturally, Koch Industries looked for individuals who wanted to do that.”
Gibson joined Oneok in May 2000 as president of Oneok Energy Cos. The gathering and processing, natural gas liquids, pipelines and storage assets merged into Oneok Partners 18 months ago. At that time Gibson became Oneok Partners president and CEO.
Gibson was brought on board to continue Brummett’s vision that transformed Oneok from a regional natural gas utility business into a multibillion-dollar energy giant.
Under Larry Brummett’s leadership, the company had been growing in non-regulated arenas. It was in those areas Gibson had experience and knowledge.
“They approached me about coming to work with Oneok,” he said.
It was a good fit. Gibson is grateful for the short amount of time he spent at Oneok with Brummett at the helm. Brummett succumbed to cancer in August 2000.
“It was months before Larry passed and a great experience to be here while he was here,” he said.
Today, a big part of Gibson’s role is employee development and succession planning.
“We have to make sure the next team is ready — identify that team to all the employees,” he said.
“Development” means instructing employees on the roles and expectations before them and offering evaluations about how they’re doing, Gibson said.
Gibson stressed the expectations management holds for Oneok employees and on what they can focus to improve to uphold the company’s stake in corporate responsibility.
“It is not 15 things,” he said. “It is the one or two things that, as employees, they can work to not just be better employees but better human beings. It is not just the technical things, but about being a more well-rounded individual.”
Oneok is known by the actions of its employees and their core values, he said.
“For example, collaboration — working with other people,” he said. “Or, integrity — telling someone you are going to do something then doing it,” he said.
Gibson’s advice for anyone in the workforce to is know and live what he calls The Three Hs: Honesty, Hard Work and Humility.
“This goes for anyone either entering or already in the work force,” Gibson said.
Honesty and hard work speak for themselves, he said.
“Humility is a lot of things. In this context humility allows people to freely admit they do not know everything. It is a great opportunity to learn,” he said. “A lot of times, when people enter the work force, or if they are experienced, they feel like they were hired for a role.”
Just because someone did well in the past is no sign of future performance, Gibson warned.
“When you have that attitude (hired for a role because of past performance), it is dangerous because there is still a lot left to learn,” he said. “Life is a journey. And, we are about learning more — not just the business or wherever you work, but about yourself.”
Gibson has seen what happens to people faced with ethical dilemmas. For example, the scandal that brought down Enron affected people he knew personally.
“At a point in time, if you do not know or understand yourself, you will be challenged,” he said. “If you do not hold true to what you believe or know what you believe, you can end up in a place you do not want to be.”
People do make mistakes, he said.
“But, this issue of humility is about seeking knowledge and learning about yourself and recognizing that you do not have all the answers,” he said. “That is what engages you with others and forces you to be with others and to learn.”
Gibson advises people to concentrate on their current role. Often, professionals fail to do that because they are looking down the road. “They are thinking, ‘I want to move to that job.’ ‘I need to get this or I need to get that.’ It is about reaching some point,” he said.
Professionals usually are in a continuum — they pick up from where someone else left off.
“Take that role in today’s circumstance and add to it. If a person can focus on that and use it to grow and to learn, then the opportunities will present themselves.
“The thing to do is focus on doing the very best you can in the job that you are in. Understanding that the role creates value and what you can do to add to that value is your role,” he said.
Oneok is among a number of companies that have committed cash to develop Tulsa’s River Parks. But, Gibson does not believe in throwing money at a project to get Oneok’s logo in front of an audience.
“We donate money not so that it can be called ‘The Oneok River Park’ or the ‘Oneok Area.’ We do not think we need to slap our name on a project.”
Oneok does use its name in public places, as there will be a Oneok Plaza at the BOK Arena, for example. Use of the name will be appropriate, he said.
Gibson laughed when asked if there will be “Oneok Drillers Stadium,” built downtown.
“We want to contribute the dollars to make things happen, so that everybody in the city can enjoy it, not make it a paid ad.”
Gibson remains active in professional and community organizations. He has served on the board of the Association of Texas Intrastate Natural Gas Pipelines and was an original member of the Gas Industry Standards Board and former board member of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America.
In Tulsa, Gibson’s community involvement has included work with Junior Achievement, Big Brothers & Big Sisters, Boy Scouts of America and Habitat for Humanity.
“I have enjoyed being able to work with our employees building homes. And, when it’s over, seeing someone walk into a home that they have sweat equity in is great,” he said. “And, when I drive to the airport, I drive right by one of the homes we built. It is amazing.”
Gibson’s early life as a scout has helped him to identify potentially profitable business relationships.
“Today, when meeting people and I’ve been attracted to them and see their values, I’ve learned they were Eagle Scouts,” he said. “Scouting helps young people. It is good for all of us.”
Now, Gibson runs a company that has changed dramatically over the past decade. Where at one time 80 percent of the company was dominated by Oklahoma Natural Gas Co., the regulated gas distributor controlled by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, today ONG is a small portion of the overall business.
“We have managed that change so well over the last 10 years. There are a lot of exciting opportunities in front of us. We are thriving. And, that is the legacy Larry and David left us.” ?