Energy Advisory Board Spotlight: Clay Neff

By Janet Miranda

Robert C. (Clay) Neff, Jr., is president of Chevron Middle East, Africa, South America Exploration and Production Company, based in Houston, a position he assumed July 1. He is responsible for Chevron’s oil and gas exploration and production activities in the regions.

Previously, Neff was president of Chevron Africa and Latin America Exploration and Production Company (CALAEP), responsible for the company’s oil and gas exploration and production activities in Africa and Latin America and managing director of Chevron’s Nigeria/Mid-Africa business unit, where he oversaw oil and gas exploration and production in the area.

He was active in Nigerian life while working there, serving as chairman of the Oil Producers Trade Section of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and was chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta.

From 2009 to 2014, Neff served in Chevron’s Southern Africa strategic business unit, initially as production operations manager and later as asset development general manager, where he was responsible for activities in Angola, Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Neff serves on the boards of the Houston Zoo, the Council of the Americas and the Corporate Council on Africa, among others. He is also a member of the Louisiana State University College of Engineering Dean’s Advisory Council.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering from LSU.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity.

UH Energy: How did you get involved with the Energy Advisory Board, and what do you bring to your role?

Clay Neff: I was living in Nigeria and working for Chevron through 2016, when I moved back to Houston. When I moved back, President Khator asked me to join the advisory board, and I was very happy to because I know it’s a very diverse group of leaders in the energy business.

Chevron has a relationship with the University of Houston, providing support and filling our internships with UH students. As a leader in the community, it’s important for us to get involved and encourage our employees to contribute to our community.

I think (the board) plays a strong role in providing expertise but also influences the academic program so that there's a strong partnership between the school and industry to make sure we’re developing students and preparing them for roles in our industry. STEM education is something Chevron is very active in encouraging and promoting, in high schools and other universities as well.

Finally, we have a lot of UH alumni that work at Chevron, so it’s a great opportunity to represent our company on the Energy Advisory Board.

UHE: You started as a drilling engineer. Since then, you’ve moved up the ladder. What would you say contributed to your success at Chevron?

CN: These last 35 years have been a great journey. I started with an oil and gas company called Tenneco as a drilling engineer in 1985. In 1988, Chevron bought Tenneco, and I’ve been with them ever since. I think my career has been very diverse, with an opportunity to work around the world in different roles.

I think each of those experiences enabled me to grow and take on new and more challenging opportunities. I’m currently president of Chevron’s Middle East Africa and South America (MEASA) region. I'm responsible for all of Chevron's oil and gas exploration and production activities in this geography.

A lot of things that have contributed to my success at Chevron, but the key element is to be flexible. I’ve been open to different opportunities over the years.

I had been working in the upstream, exploration and production part of the business in various engineering roles for about 15 years. Then company promoted me to manager of Chevron's North America midstream business.

That was a great opportunity to expand my knowledge base. It was during a period when we were merging Texaco and Chevron. I learned more about the business, the commercial space, legal contracts and negotiating skills I wouldn’t have been exposed to if I didn’t step out of my comfort zone.

When you take on new roles, it can be very uncomfortable at first, but it’s a good thing because it means you’re learning. I think it’s important to have what we call a growth mindset, where you’re always seeking opportunities to learn. It’s critical to success and growth.

UHE: How did Chevron weather the storm earlier this year as the COVID-19 pandemic and the oil price shock rocked the industry? How does this affect Africa and Latin American exploration and production projects?

CN: It has been a difficult time for everyone, not just in the industry but for every person and family. COVID-19 reduced the demand for our products globally due to shutdowns, which saw a significant reduction in oil and gas prices.

We’ve seen some recovery over the past few months, which is good. We’re happy with that, but we are not going to be back to the pre-COVID-19 demand levels for a while. The fundamentals for our business are solid because the products we produce fuel the world, and it's fundamental to everyday life. Regarding the impact, we’ve made some disciplined choices to balance our short-term cash flow and preserve the long-term value of our business.

We came into this period with a very strong balance sheet because we've been capital disciplined, and we continue to have a strong balance sheet. Back in March and April, when things really got tough, we quickly reduced our flexible capital program across our portfolio. We shut down all our discretionary projects and reduced our capital expenditures significantly, between 30-40%.

We're continuing to work on improving efficiency, and that's critical because our company must remain competitive.

UHE: What are some ways managing operations and assets in MEASA differs from projects in the U.S., like offshore in the Gulf of Mexico or onshore in the Permian Basin?

CN: The most important thing we consider is the geologic characteristics of the resource base. In our portfolio in the U.S. and internationally, there is tremendous resource potential. However, they all differ in infrastructure, geopolitical considerations and other “above ground” risks we must manage.

The MEASA region that I lead has the largest exploration resource base and discovered undeveloped resource base in the world that is accessible to private investment outside of North America. We have producing assets and exploration acreage including Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Angola, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, Egypt, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and in the partition zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

This is a very diverse set of assets from conventional onshore and offshore to unconventionals, deepwater, heavy oil, LNG and gas to liquids. One of Chevron’s strengths is handling these “above ground” risks. We take a unique approach in the way we partner in the different areas of the world.

We are one of the few international companies that partners with national oil companies in countries where we have a presence. As part of these partnerships, we transfer operational and technical knowledge to these host countries, working with industry partners, some of our IOC (international oil company) partners, government ministries, educational institutions, to help the country develop that resource base, cost effectively and efficiently, so that it benefits all the stakeholders.

We've taken a lot of the technology that we've developed in the Permian and used it in the Vaca Muerta region in Argentina. It is an unconventional resource that is very similar to the Permian.

UHE: What important lessons have you learned that helped you manage the COVID-19 crisis and dropping prices?

CN: I think one of the things I learned early on is that we've got to be solution oriented, and we've got have a mindset to bring solutions to the table that are that are mutually beneficial for all stakeholders.

For our company, that means the communities where we operate. We take a long view everywhere we work and where we operate. We really strive to build lasting partnerships that are going to contribute to the local economies and improve the quality of life there.

We invest in health, education and economic programs in the areas where we operate. Health initiatives are extremely important in the developing world. If you look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted communities around the world, you'll see how critical it is to have good medical infrastructure.

This is an area where Chevron, along with our partners, has had a tangible positive impact through our decade-long investments in areas like HIV AIDS, malaria, sickle cell and other diseases, as well as through improvements to medical facilities and building the capability of professional health care workers.

In this pandemic, we have provided strong support to our host governments and partners to bring not only critical funding, but also equipment and expertise to the countries where we operate.

We need to take care of our employees, but we also need to help take care of our host communities. We’ve been fortunate to enable our employees to work remotely. In Houston we have about 7,000 employees, with about 90% of those working remotely for the last six months.

I cannot tell you how proud I am of our employees. We've all been going through a lot, but just seeing how dedicated our employees have been to keep our operations running during this pandemic shows our commitment and resilience.

UHE: What advice would you give to students going into the energy field?

CN: Get involved early. Grow your network and take advantage of internships. There are outstanding organizations and opportunities, such as volunteering for student and industry associations like the Energy Coalition. That’s an outstanding organization to get involved in and build a network.

The energy industry is an exciting business. It offers rewarding challenges and unmatched global development opportunities. Most importantly, our industry is critical to enabling human progress. Affordable and reliable energy is necessary for social and economic progress, and at Chevron, we're guided by this purpose.

There are more than 3.5 billion people, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, without access to reliable electric power. Basic needs like these are fundamental and critical.

I encourage students to continue their education to help advance our industry and solve these global challenges. This industry will reward students who are lifelong learners, have a growth mindset and who want to make a positive difference in their communities.