When this year’s Michel T. Halbouty Outstanding Leadership Award winner Bernard Christian Duval was younger, he dreamed of becoming a pilot – preferably a fighter pilot, but then discovered he was colorblind; thus, he had to give up his first love.
His second love worked out all right, though.
Duval, who started his career in 1968 and spent most of it at Total, discovered geology during a summer internship in Morocco, and while he soon realized that geologists, too, need to see color, he discovered there are ways to compensate, to adjust, to find other ways around the obstacles – an adaptation that has served him well throughout his career.
“Note in passing that being colorblind can be a problem in reading a geological map,” he said.
But it forced him to know the names of such colors in the language of the current region of operations, especially when help from local technicians was required to identify some critical horizon while drilling. It, of course, helps when you can speak a number of these languages.
Duval speaks French, Spanish and English fluently.
It is, most agree, Duval’s leadership philosophy, generally, and his style of leading, specifically, that stand out in his more than 50-year career that culminated in this award.
For example, one of his former colleagues at Total, André Coajou, remarked, “A significant contribution Bernard made in terms of method was to encourage, virtually to impose, a multidisciplinary approach within the geosciences in Total. He made himself responsible for the negotiations and the economics of Total’s exploration projects around the world. It was a necessary approach to success, at the time not widespread in the industry.”
Upbringing and Career
When asked about such leadership matters, Duval said, modestly, it was in his blood.
“Even if I consider myself of lesser stature than him, I have been strongly influenced by my father’s example. He was a doctor in the French Army Medical Corps and was admired for his authority as well as his sense of justice and a profound humanity. It seems to me that I put these views in practice naturally without thinking much about it,” he related.
Duval, born in Nice, France in 1932, obtained an engineering degree in 1954 at the Ecole Polytechnique, one of the most prestigious and selective French engineering schools, and pursued geology at the University of Grenoble and Dijon. He also attended Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. His career and life’s work have taken him to South Africa, Namibia, Madagascar and Libya, just to name a few.
When you work in such places, finding the hydrocarbons is just one of your concerns, just one of the obstacles you learn how to traverse.
“All phases of my career have been dynamic,” he said, but it was mission in the Libyan Sahara, which he describes as having a “nude grandeur,” that stood out.
“It was just a bit more physical than the rest. The reconnaissance field work, for instance, was done through the desert with few vehicles, a small group of people and some air supply once or twice a month. It was quite an experience. My Libyan colleagues and students used to say that I knew their country much better than they did,” he related.
As for the risks of such a place, Duval said it’s all part of the territory and part of the geologist’s DNA – or should be.
“Was it dangerous?,” he said. “A little, because the Algerian border was somewhat risky. I have seen trucks on the trail that had been attacked and burned the day before during an attack. But with operations that have taken place in Colombia, Yemen, Syria for example, we oil hunters must get used to some kind of ‘borderline’ conditions!”
An area not nearly as dangerous, but which still left an indelible mark on him was, the Alps, near Grenoble, a region where he studied its “eventful” geology. He said it was the best place to develop a sense of the “natural phenomena and the true picture of history in geology.”
In the beginning, Duval started out on field surveys. Though the years, working and rising through the ranks at Total to senior exploration vice president, he eventually led the company’s worldwide exploration division that led to numerous discoveries and developments in Angola, Colombia, France, Indonesia, Italy, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, North Sea, Venezuela, Yemen and Maracaibo in Venezuela, a place he loves and where, he said, he left part of his heart.
Since retirement in 1995, he has been associate professor at the French Institute of Petroleum, or “IFP,” as it is better known, a graduate engineering school located in Rueil-Malmaison, France, as well as continuing to consult with Total. At IFP, he has taught courses on petroleum systems, risk analysis, E-P decision-making, asset and portfolio management.
He is, as mentioned, officially retired. Funny thing is, though, he’s still waiting to see what that’s like.
“I don’t miss at all the day-to-day, firstly because my life has not changed a lot,” he said, alluding to all the traveling he’s still doing.
It is all still a part of him, even the parts he didn’t enjoy.
“I have been too busy and interested by what I was doing to even think of that, and also because, although like any manager, I had been under unavoidable administrative constraints – budget, accounting stuff, etc. – this part of the business has never been my cup of tea!” he said.
Science and Business
What has been?
“All positions have provided to me a good balance between science and business,” Duval answered.
You get the sense that for him, one didn’t exist without the other.
“My most fundamental passion goes of course to geosciences, but I have also loved and spent a large part of my time negotiating, managing portfolios, and the economics,” he said.
On that last part, Michael C. Forrest, last year’s Sidney Powers Memorial Award winner and the famed “Father of Bright Spots,” said Duval always kept his eyes on the prize – or the well, as the case may be.
“When we were leaving for lunch with his boss, Total’s exploration and production chief,” Forrest recalled, “Bernard stated I would hear the word ‘pipe’ during discussions, emphasizing exploration leadership must consider business issues to monetize oil and gas discoveries for profit.”
Duval said his focus was always on the new plays, new projects, new joint ventures.
Robby Gries, founder of Priority Oil & Gas LLC and past president of AAPG, talked of how Duval, while single-minded about the pursuit of energy, never hogged the spotlight when it was found.
A modest man, this year’s Halbouty winner wants to thank, among others, his biographer, the aforementioned André Coajou, and Marlan Downey for the support and getting him connected in the industry; Charles Sternbach; long-time friend (and former winner of the Halbouty) Hans Krause; and the Total family, specifically Pierre Vaillaud, senior exploration VP of Total, for offering him the “job of my life.”
Mostly, though, Duval wants to thank his wife, Francine, whom he calls his “greatest and most rewarding discovery” and for filling his life “with much patience and understanding.”
“Her life,” he said, has “literally been invaded by geology.”
As for his secret through the years, if there’s been one, he said, “I have always tried to play a collective, not personal, game, particularly in giving full credit to those in my teams who were the main actors of our discoveries.”
To the rest of us, his advice is clear.
“Be perseverant; never give up,” he said, emphasizing attention on the long term, adding, “But act quickly. The best dishes are not served twice.”