For companies with field equipment in remote locations or spread out across geographies, the point where satellite and cellular technology, GPS, and data analytics meet is a game-changer. At the intersection of it all is James MacLean. The founder, president, and CEO of Geoforce has found a way to bring order to the chaos and inefficiency that often exists out in the field—a challenge he experienced firsthand at Schlumberger.
He joined the global oil field services giant after earning a mechanical engineering degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology. “I was drawn to the sense of adventure working around the world, the odd hours, and taking helicopters to work,” MacLean says. “In the field, I was interested in blending technology with hands-on operations, given the tremendous pressure to perform with the major oil companies.”
MacLean believed inefficiencies in the field could be addressed by “track-and-trace” technology. The belief was sharpened when he worked at a startup that developed RFID (radio-frequency identification) systems and GPS tracking devices. With Geoforce, he combined his experiences. Formed in 2007, the tech firm caters to oil and gas companies, as well as the agriculture, transportation, and mining industries. But there are no limits to how the technology can be leveraged.
“We’ve tracked buoys thrown out of the back of airplanes to track ocean currents, as well as harvesters at Californian wineries,” MacLean says. For a university research project, “we tracked ice floats in the North Pole demonstrating how ice is changing because of warming temperatures.”
MacLean can relate to the suits on the 45th-floor boardroom in Houston and the boots at a rig site in West Texas
Geoforce’s global network of connected field assets provides operational intelligence to more than 500 customers involved in field operations in more than 70 countries. Since its founding 11 years ago, the company has grown from a handful of workers to more than 70 employees. Squeezed for space at its former headquarters in Coppell, the company moved at the end of 2018 to a new home base at Granite Park in Plano.
MacLean credits his staff for Geoforce’s success. “It starts and ends with having the right people on the team,” he says.
CFO Vincent Hsieh first met MacLean in 2005 at Duke University. Both working toward their MBAs at the time, they bonded over late-night poker and team assignments. Because of his deep technical and business expertise, a roll-up-the-sleeves mentality, and his humility, MacLean can relate to the suits on the 45th-floor boardroom in Houston and the boots at a rig site in West Texas, Hsieh says. He credits MacLean’s “consensus-building leadership and infectious optimism” for Geoforce’s “revolutionary technological innovation and market expansion.”
The company offers a range of tracking devices, using satellite and cellular technology, depending on a client’s specific needs. It will even monitor engine run times. The hockey puck-sized GT1, one of its main tracking devices, adheres to an asset like a frac tank or oil rig. Surrounded by a heavy-duty metal case, it weighs two pounds and communicates over satellite networks. The units are “infrastructure-less,” says MacLean: “If you can see the sky, then it can be tracked anywhere in world.”
The rugged device “can survive in the field—from the dirt, dust, and heat of West Texas to the North Slope of Alaska where it might be 40 degrees-below for weeks,” MacLean says. The hardware “is just an enabler that provides data.” Business value is delivered through the software in customer dashboards, providing a command center of detailed analytics.
The growth of unconventional oil and gas production in the United States has been a tailwind for Geoforce’s business. Many large customers came on board after the sharp oil price decline, when it hit a low of $26 per barrel. One large exploration and production company in the Bakken saved $5 million annually on just one type of asset—a frac tank used for water and liquids near the well. “At $100-barrel oil, no one was thinking of efficiency,” MacLean says. “Now firms are thinking of how to do this smarter. We fit right into that story.”
The tracking and monitoring of assets in the field are low-hanging fruit for oil and gas producers. “Just by having visibility, anything measured improves,” says MacLean. “We minimize waste in the sector.” The oil and gas industry utilizes some of the most advanced technologies below the surface, but on the surface—the trucks, fluid storage tanks, surface equipment, generators and pumps—it is surprisingly low-tech.
Part of the Internet of Things revolution, MacLean says the potential for Geoforce’s off-road field equipment is massive. The company hit a milestone of more than 100,000 assets tracked in the summer of 2018. “We call that our big number,” MacLean says. Still, he thinks the opportunity is there to track millions of assets.
Geoforce’s customers come in all shapes and sizes, from small mom-and-pop trucking companies to Pioneer Natural Resources, Schlumberger, Chevron, and British Petroleum. Recently, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines have begun to utilize Geoforce’s offerings on busy and equipment-laden tarmacs. Although its technology is industry-agnostic, the company focuses on specific markets as it enables it to understand its customers well.
Adopting new technology can sometimes be a heavy lift for customers. “It’s process change,” explains MacLean. “People are used to working with their spreadsheets, and change is hard.” Competition for Geoforce is often the status quo, he adds.
About 85 percent of the company’s revenue comes from sales to U.S. clients, but the global piece is growing rapidly, particularly in offshore oil and gas markets. Geoforce will finish 2018 with more than $21 million in sales, and 50 percent growth annualized over the last 10 years. MacLean acknowledges having a strong Brazilian team and expects international work to roughly double next year: “We have tremendous potential to scale the company 10 times where we are, if not more.”