by Jody Kerzman | Photography: Photos by Jacy
Listening to Kathy Neset talk about her love for North Dakota, it’s easy to assume she was born and raised in the Peace Garden State. But Kathy grew up nearly 2,000 miles away in Washington, New Jersey. It may as well have been a different world.
“I graduated from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. That’s a far cry from North Dakota. I started as a math major but changed my major to geology, but still took classes in math and education,” Kathy recalls.
After graduating from college in 1978, Kathy took a job as a seismologist in Gaylord, Michigan.
“There were not a lot of women in my field, and I hadn’t a clue what I was getting into.”
She stayed there for just three months.
“Turns out, it wasn’t what a young girl from New England was ready for,” Kathy says.
Kathy took a job in New York City with Core Laboratories and was once again sent to the oil fields as a mudlogger, this time to Dallas, Texas.
“I worked in east Texas in 1979, and I remember it was so hot. I begged them to send me somewhere cooler. I loved the work, I had found what my passion was. I asked to be sent north, so that’s what they did. My next position was in Casper, Wyoming.”
From there, she was sent to a well southeast of Bismarck, North Dakota. It was the summer of 1979, and Kathy fell in love—with North Dakota and with a man.
“In the summer of 1979 I met this good looking guy named Roy Neset. He was the core hand on that rig,” recalls Kathy.
But by that winter, she was reassigned again, this time to a rig outside Tioga, North Dakota. Oil was booming in northwestern North Dakota, and Kathy was on her own.
“There I was, a young, single girl from New Jersey living in Williston. It was a different world than where I came from,” she says. “I am the middle daughter of nine children—I have eight brothers, yet I’m the one who ends up in the oilfields of North Dakota. I think back now, and I wonder why they let me come here. My brothers were all doing nice, normal jobs like joining the military, law school, air force academy, and then there’s me—working in the oil fields in North Dakota.”
It wasn’t long before Kathy and Roy reunited. Roy’s family homestead was near Tioga, and he heard rumors of a woman working on the a rig there.
“He happened to hear there was a ‘girl’ working on the rig. Not a geologist or a mudlogger. Just a girl. So he came and looked me up, and we started dating. We got married in September 1980 and moved onto his family’s homestead outside Tioga. The rest is history.”
In 1980, Roy and Kathy formed Neset Enterprises; Roy worked as a wellsite supervisor and Kathy as a wellsite geologist. Thirty-eight years later, the company is now known as Neset. Kathy explains the mission of Neset is soundly rooted in wellsite geology and mudlogging, but has continued to meet the needs of the industry—adding engineering, completion, workover, project management, and many geology and engineering services to meet the industry needs. Neset continues to expand and reinvent itself to stay at the forefront of current technology.
“I was never planning to build an entire company. But I saw there was a need for the work Roy and I did, and we met that need. We kept building and innovating and keeping up with the demands of the industry,” explains Kathy.
Her secret to success? Kathy says it’s likely her willingness to accept change, and her unwillingness to say no to any challenge.
“People say, ‘Why fix it if it’s not broken?’ I have been in this business for 38 years and have done just fine, but you know what? That’s the worst thing to say. If I’ve been doing the same thing for the last 38 years, something is wrong with that picture. I need to be looking ahead, I need to be reinventing. When someone tells me they do something because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’—that is a red flag in my book. That is actually a marker to say we need to look at this and see if there’s a better way. I am learning there is always a better way.”
While Kathy Neset is not one to stop looking for ways to do better, in 2016, when a client suggested she become a certified woman-owned business, Kathy hesitated.
“I said, ‘I haven’t been certified for the last three decades and we’ve been okay. Why do I need to do that?’ But here we are, two years later, and I’m a certified woman-owned business. Still, my initial take was that it wasn’t significant, and it wasn’t something that was worth my time and effort. It was a rigorous process financially and legally.”
There was also documentation that had to be provided, and Kathy had to host a team for onsite interviews at her business. The team visits in person to make sure applicants truly are a woman-owned business and not in name only.
“You have to talk the talk, and you have to be able to show them hands-on, face to face, I am the owner and the principal of this company,“ explains Kathy.
There is a non-refundable $1,500 fee just to apply for the certification. And that’s not a guarantee of certification.
“They could come and do all the interviews and then decide not to certify you. They’ll just say, ‘Sorry. You didn’t meet our standards.’”
NO LOOKING BACK
Kathy’s company did meet the standards and in May 2016 became certified as a woman-owned business. Kathy spent the next year attending trainings and conferences, learning everything she could about the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC).
“The first course I signed up for was a training program at the Shell training facility in Roberts, Louisiana. I was so excited. I thought it sounded fabulous. When I got there I realized it wasn’t really about oil and gas at all, but rather a business school. We got a crash course in economics and finance. I did get some oil field training in, but I was in the minority of women there who work in this business. Most were there because they work in careers like medicine and IT.”
The more she learned about the certification she’d received, the happier Kathy was she had gone through the process.
“There is a shift in how I do business. I have completely embraced this certification, and I see so many benefits. It’s a huge advantage to a business owner like me. For example, let’s say you are Shell Oil and you put out a bid for a military fuel oil contract. Shell’s diversity and inclusion score will play a role in whether or not they get that contract. That score is determined by the company’s diversity and inclusion, meaning how many minorities, veterans, women, racial diversity, ethnic diversity that company employs. The more diverse they are, the bigger their competitive advantage. So having a certified woman-owned business like mine working for them increases their score and increases their chances of getting that contract.”
WOMAN TO WOMAN
Although the contracts are important, they are not Kathy’s only motivation to succeed. For nearly 40 years she has strived to not only be the best, but also to keep improving and to help others.
“If I could be a mentor to one woman it would absolutely make it worthwhile to me. I would love to give a hand to the next gal in line because I just think it’s so important that we work together and help one another as professionals and especially as women. There are enough tough things that come with being a woman in this world and in this oil and gas business. As a certified woman-owned business, I want those bright, talented young ladies to come and work at Neset.
“You have an engineer or a geologist and their mom and dad and brothers are saying to them, ‘Are you safe in that oil field, are you okay?’ And I can look them in the eye and tell them, ‘Yes, you are young lady, you are very safe.’ I tell them it’s up to us women to prove ourselves. I ask them, ‘How do you present yourself in the work environment? Are you professional?’ It’s important to take the job seriously. I truly believe the same thing is true for young men. If you want to be taken seriously in that new job, then show it.”
FACE THE FACTS
Kathy has faced the controversy in the oil business head on, and has made it her personal mission to educate the public about some of those controversial topics, including fracking, salt water disposal, and pipeline placement.
“It’s important to educate people about the facts and then let them make up their own minds as to whether they want to embrace it or not. North Dakotans are well-educated about oil and gas. We do events with the North Dakota Petroleum Council, and people are always there listening, learning, and asking great questions.”
As oil once again picks up in the Bakken, Kathy says this is an exciting time. But she’s been here before.
“We need to look not just at the needs of our state or the needs of our nation, but at the global energy needs, in whatever form that might be. The United States, and specifically North Dakota, is the perfect place to do this energy development. We are so well regulated here. We need to do it right, and that means doing it here at home.”
While oil and gas has been a huge part of Kathy’s life, there is more to her than just her business. She and Roy raised two sons, farmed the family homestead, and Kathy even spent a year teaching science at Tioga High School. She served on the school board for 10 years. In 2012, she was appointed to the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education—she served as chairperson. She is also a member of the North Dakota Petroleum Council Executive Board, the Williston API, Dickinson API, Bismarck State College Petroleum Technology Advisory Committee, University of North Dakota Petroleum Engineering Advisory Committee, Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank Board of Directors, Tioga Golf & Country Club board, and St. Thomas Parish council secretary. There has been talk of Kathy one day making a run for political office.
“It is something I’m interested in. I love the entire concept of trying to do something bigger, better, for our state—number one, for our nation—of course. Yes, it absolutely interests me, but the time has not been right yet. I certainly think we have a fabulous look ahead in the political landscape here in North Dakota.”
Kathy’s beloved North Dakota has been her home for nearly 40 years, and she can’t imagine living anywhere else.
“I go back east and visit and love it, but my home is Tioga, North Dakota.”