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How Texas Energy Holdings’ President Reimagined His Company

Chad Willis devised a strategy that led back into the black.
By Tanya Rutledge |
OILMAN OF THE HOUR: For Texas Energy Holdings Inc. president Chad Willis, the oil and gas business hasn't always been booming.

At age 23, Chad Willis bought his first house, started an energy company, and became a father—all in rapid succession. Nine months later, his oil and gas company, Texas Energy Holdings Inc., was in money trouble as Willis had nearly maxed out his credit cards.

At the time, Willis, who’d dropped out of college at age 19 to take a job in telecom sales in Silicon Valley, had only 14 months of oil and gas experience and no college degree. “I had depleted my savings and was putting everything on credit cards,” says Willis, co-founder, president, and director of Texas Energy Holdings, which is now actively drilling in four fields with more than 300 wells. “We were investor-based, and every deal we were in was not doing well.”

The Mesquite native admits now that even though he was making six figures in sales in Silicon Valley by the time he was 20, he wasn’t prepared to be a leader in those early entrepreneurial days, and sometimes allowed his frustrations to trickle down to the employee level. “Every Friday I would get the financials and get upset and just tell everyone they could go home early. It was a poor morale-booster,” he says. “A big part of that was my immaturity.”

Texas Energy Holdings boosted revenue from $5 million in 2006 to $44.1 million in 2009. 

Humbled, Willis sought advice from a friend’s father, the leader of a successful Dallas energy company who had helped Willis land his first job in the energy business. The mentoring sparked the beginning of a major turnaround for Texas Energy Holdings, which raised $250 million in capital between 2010 and 2012, transitioned out of investor-based deals, and bought out most of its investors with its own resources. In addition to Texas Energy Holdings, Willis now has investments in 14 other companies, with specialties ranging from bomb detection and real estate to restaurants and sports management.

Willis’ 30-year-old sister, Karah Boyd, who joined the company at age 18 while attending college and later graduate school at night, said her brother has a knack for connecting with people, which makes him a natural at raising funds—and leading companies. “He has extremely strong social abilities and the ability to engage people and make people comfortable,” says Boyd, who serves as controller of Texas Energy Holdings. “He’s not intimidated to take on risk or opportunities. He has always been the gambler.”

Willis used those skills, most of them self-taught, to pull Texas Energy Holdings back from the brink. The company, which grew to 180 employees at its peak, has settled in after a 2010 restructuring and now has 100 employees in offices in Dallas, Wichita Falls, and Oklahoma City. It focuses on income-producing properties and developmental drilling in proven producing fields in Texas and Oklahoma.

Although Willis would not disclose revenue figures, Inc. magazine reported that Texas Energy Holdings boosted revenue from $5 million in 2006 to $44.1 million in 2009, the most recent figure available. As the company grew, so did Willis’ willingness to change his views on running it. For example, even though his sales background made him averse to structured measures such as business plans, spreadsheets, and meetings, Willis was savvy enough to recognize their importance in keeping Texas Energy Holdings’ growth intact.

“For about 80 percent of my tenure as a CEO, I hated business plans,” he says. “My idea was just to come in and give it your all every day. That attitude helped us grow, and it works when you don’t have as much to manage. But we moved from a speedboat to becoming a big, moving barge. And I understood that although I once was a young kid running a speedboat, I was now an older kid moving a barge.”

Still typically the youngest energy entrepreneur in any room, Willis believes his age has worked both for and against him in his energy career.

“A lot of people in the industry saw value in me as a young kid who was a sponge out in the fields asking questions,” Willis says. His youth also caused him to think about long-term diversification, which led him to make investments in the other companies. All 15 of those enterprises, which include an eco-friendly transportation company and an organic winery, are cash-flow-positive.

Willis says he has applied lessons learned at the other ventures to Texas Energy Holdings, especially in the areas of technology, human resources, and finance. “Oil companies can get a little stale in the way they do things if they don’t shift direction,” he says. “These other companies have taught me a lot about increasing the bottom line.”