The 75th Petroleum Club of Houston invites to reexamine its story, our perceptions

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We all have our preconceptions.

If we consider the notion of an exclusive club for oil and gas executives, a particular image may melt into our brains.

I mentioned the Petroleum Club of Houston to my wife, who grew up in Texas in the 1980s, and she said, “Oh, yeah. It’s all of Houston’s old power, drinking, smoking, and doing business together. “

This year, the Petroleum Club of Houston is celebrating 75 years of its founding, culminating with a black-tie gala on Friday.

Paula Harris, Chairman of the Petroleum Club Board of Directors, uses the gala to celebrate the civic leadership of club members by presenting the RE Bob Smith Awards, named after the first Chairman of the Board of Directors.

We all have our prejudices. I doubt Harris denies it. Harris, however, seems to have been addicted to shattering expectations and preconceptions. Like, that’s his life’s mission.

She grew up in Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood, a sort of upside-down place that might lower expectations of what it is possible for a young black girl to achieve in life. In 2013, Sunnyside was declared the sixth most dangerous neighborhood in America.

But as a young woman, Harris did the thing almost no one else in the house did: earned a degree in petroleum engineering.

She graduated in 1987 as the second African American woman to earn a petroleum engineering degree from Texas A&M. She joined the oil and gas services company Schlumberger, a company she considers to be an industry leader in recruiting women. Nonetheless, Harris told me, “99.9% of the time when I went off to (Schlumberger), I wasn’t just the only woman on the platform, I was also the only African American. on the platform. “

The unease and preconceived ideas went both ways.

“You become this anomaly and then you get used to it,” she told me. “It could be an intimidating place at first. On the pitch, I didn’t want people to notice me at first. But later, “after knowing that I was going to add value and become more comfortable in my role, I was able to become more proactive in creating my space and my comfort, both on platforms and in industry ”.

After retiring from a 33-year career as Global Director at Schlumberger, Harris joined the Petroleum Club of Houston, was recruited to the Board of Directors four years ago and became its Chairman in April. .

So a black woman is president of the Petroleum Club of Houston? Yeah, it’s just more than Harris breaking people’s expectations. It is certainly not what my wife expected to learn. Of course, women weren’t allowed to join the club until the 1980s, when my wife first heard about the place.

But from there, Harris tells an even more unexpected story of the club’s early days and its predecessor on the board.

The club’s initial funding came primarily from the oil tanker RE “Bob” Smith. Harris introduced me to Smith’s great-grandson, Mason Hunt, who writes a story of his ancestor as one of the great men who shaped Houston.

In 1946, Smith was an oil tycoon who became the first chairman of the board of the Petroleum Club of Houston and its main funder. He remained in charge long enough to move the club from the Rice Hotel downtown to the top two floors of what became the ExxonMobil building in 1963.

According to Hunt, Smith had dangerously progressive ideas for a mid-20th century southern oil tanker. Prior to the passage of national civil rights legislation, he forced the powers that be in Houston to accommodate racial divisions within the city. Smith was a major force behind the financing and construction of the Astrodome, seeking a partnership with Houston civil rights leader Quentin R. Mease to ensure a racially integrated sports facility.

Smith worked on the southern border of the state to integrate schools or, failing that, paid to build new, better integrated ones.

According to Hunt’s research, this insistence on pushing back expectations was a hallmark of Smith’s civic leadership.

As Harris says, there is more continuity in his leadership of the Petroleum Club than at first glance.

“I see myself as RE Bob Smith’s vision not only for the club but also for the city,” she said. “He was an integrator, a freedom fighter and a promoter of women and minorities. “

Harris cites Smith’s role in club history as one more reason she’s proud to be leading him on his 75th birthday. And why the surprising “change” she represents as a black petroleum engineer is, in a sense, a continuation of a founding member’s vision for a better Houston.

“It took people like Smith and stories like hers that aren’t being told to bring us to integration,” she says.

Yes, we all have our little weaknesses.

Mine just happens to be for clubs with wood-paneled rooms and leather chairs. A glass of whiskey in a place like this sends me into a pleasant time warp. I imagine going back to the days when JP Morgan could set up a trust controlling the industry over how long it takes to smoke a cigar.

Yet for all their past power and prestige, places like the Petroleum Club of Houston do not have a guaranteed future. That is, if they don’t evolve, they will die. Without Harris having to tell me out loud, his leadership is his own indication of this truth.

In New York last week, for example, Bloomberg reported that the Princeton Club of New York was in default on its bank mortgage.

The Princeton Club bank, in turn, is trying to sell the debt so that someone else can take over the building, which is in a prime location on 43rd Street in Manhattan. It’s a lovely place, a place where I enjoyed my share of drinks in the days of my old bankers. Do these types of spaces have a future?

They probably have a better one if they keep breaking expectations. Their future may depend on whether the past they are linked to still resonates today, like the story of RE Bob Smith for Paula Harris and the Petroleum Club of Houston.

Michael Taylor is a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and author of “The Financial Rules for New College Graduates”.

michael @ michaelthesmart

money.com | twitter.com/michael_taylor



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