Anyone who has seen the movie or read the book There Will Be Blood knows how difficult it is to recover oil and can appreciate the success that Christie Lee's business has had.
As majority owner of Oil Chem Technologies, Lee uses her chemist background and 17 years of experience in the industry to help oil companies find innovative ways to recover oil given that primary methods like drilling only recover about 15 percent of the available oil.
Even though there's no slick, black residue on her hands after a hard day's work -- her company's job is to create the technology that is used out in the field -- Lee, who is originally from Shanghai, China, and grew up in Taiwan, knows all too well what it means to get down and dirty.
When she came to the United States in the 1970s with her college sweetheart from Taiwan, she had $100 in her pocket. They married and had a baby boy, so Lee had to stop attending graduate school to care for her son and get a job. Once her husband got a job at Halliburton, she went back to school at The University of Art and Science of Oklahoma with baby in tow. "One of my professors would teach the lesson and while we were doing a lab, he would take my son to his office to play. It was tough, but I did it." In 1976, she graduated first in her class magna cum laude and gave the Valedictorian speech.
Her hard-won educations achievement was just the beginning of a very successful and lucrative career. Oil Chem Technologies, which ranks No. 142 on this year's Inc. 500 list, helps companies go after the oil that remains after the primary methods are done.
"Our company is specialized in the chemicals that can enhance the recovery of residual oil. We can economically recover up to 50 percent of all the oil remaining in abandoned wells," says Lee, who is also the president of Sugar Land, Texas-based Oil Chem Technologies, L.L.C. "This is more than all the oil that has been recovered thus far in the entire world."
A very important point is that the process does not require the risk associated with drilling new wells. Drilling new wells present environmental problems and the uncertainty that the oil is actually present and recoverable. Recovering oil from existing wells insures that the oil is present. In most cases the wells and infra-structure such as roads, power and labor are already in place. The engineering and geological surveys have been well established. Also re-activating production provides local employment and tax revenue to the local communities, some of which have been hard hit when the wells were abandoned.
There's little negotiating involved when going after new clients. "We'll do the test in the lab, send a report to the prospective client, and then they make the decision to hire us or someone else," says Lee.
Some other big wins for the company include successful field projects all over the world, developing and patenting a series of new molecules that can be used in many different industries, and introducing new chemistry that has been used by a major oil company as an asphalt additive.
The biggest challenge thus far has been fending off competitors of larger scale and many more employees. Although Oil Chem only has five employees, Lee, 60, is undeterred and says their growth is "just the tip of the iceberg. What we believe is it's not how many people that you have, it's how innovative and creative you are."
It also works in Lee's favor that America is in the midst of an oil crisis. "We feel that there are new players in the market such as China and India who did not require large amounts of oil during the last oil crisis in the 1980s. This combined with natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes as well as political uncertainty in countries like Venezuela, Iraq, Iran have combined to exacerbate the current crisis. The products and processes we have developed can increase the oil production by up to 20 percent to help offset this increased demand," says Lee.
The company recently landed its biggest deal yet, involving an Enhanced Oil Recovery project in Canada in which the field went from producing 300 barrels of oil per day to producing 1,900 barrels per day, an increase of over 600 percent.
Her growth model is a bit different from most entrepreneurs. "We do not set any goals concerning growth," says Lee, who used her own money to start the company and did not seek additional sources of funding. "We are a small company but we have a lot of good technology to offer and we are dynamic. By working aggressively in the growing EOR area and forming alliances with different industrial leaders, the growth may be enormous." Judging by the 3,500 percent growth in three years from $250,000 to $14 million in projected revenues for 2008, Lee and her five employees are on the right track.
"Americans are very kind and never really treat you like a second-class citizen. In the United States, if you work hard, you have a chance at success," says Lee.