Internet-hosted services bring cost savings for growing energy services company

Although the move from information technology (IT) chief at Canada's largest furniture and appliance retailer, to overseeing the shift of the IT platform at one of the country's largest independent energy companies to the cloud may seem like a radical departure, Richard Hannah sees it as a logical evolution.

Hannah, a 30-year IT veteran, joined Calgary-based Gibson Energy as vice-president of information services in September 2013 after having worked for furniture retailer The Brick, cable and satellite TV giant Shaw Communications and sporting goods retailer Forzani Group."The Brick stores and moves furniture across the world, and Gibson Energy stores and moves oil and natural gas liquids around North America. We're really a logistics company."Gibson is involved in several parts of the midstream value chain, including owning and operating large storage terminals in Edmonton and Hardisty, Alta., as well as injection stations and small terminals in the U.S.It also stores, processes, and markets and distributes oil, condensate, natural gas liquids and refined products via pipelines, trucks and rail to markets throughout North America. In addition, the 60-year-old company provides emulsion testing, water disposal and oilfield waste management services in Canada and the U.S.While not immune from the decline in crude oil prices and reduced market access for Canadian natural gas, Stewart Hanlon, Gibson president and chief executive officer, told analysts in mid-December that it continued to have ambitious growth plans. He said Gibson will spend upwards of $2 billion over the next four or five years to expand its footprint, with a capital budget of $510 million in 2015, $435 million of which is geared toward growth prospects.Hannah says the company, which has 2,800 employees, needed to integrate its IT services, as it has made more than 28 acquisitions since 2001, and employees of those acquired companies needed to be on the same page."We wanted to ensure we were one company, rather than six or more," he says. "In the past, the business units had made some of their own IT decisions, so we had a fragmented IT platform in certain areas."The company's shift to the Microsoft Cloud, with access to Microsoft's high-capacity servers, offered a way to integrate its IT services under one virtual roof. "A key part of our strategy was to embrace the cloud," says Hannah. "We wanted to provide any answers, any time and anywhere on any device."One goal was to reduce the number of data centres it had in North America from seven to three, which it is well on the way to accomplishing.He and the company's IT team of 50 employees started the shift to the cloud this past September, with the conversion (of Microsoft Office productivity tools) taking about one month."The initial immigration is not for the faint of heart," he says.With the shift now accomplished "we can move office productivity to the cloud," he says. "The end user doesn't have to rely on Gibson's IT department to manage email," and other office-based operations like customer relations management. "It's all managed by Microsoft."Gibson uses Microsoft's SharePoint web application, which is integrated with Microsoft Office, Microsoft Lync instant-messaging service and Microsoft's Azure cloud-computing platform (see "Letting Go" story).Hannah says eventually he would like to include the cloud capabilities of Dynamics AX, which would allow for such aspects as financial management, procurement, inventory management and other enterprise applications to be moved to the cloud. "Our mandate is to move as much as we can to the cloud," he says.It has been able to extend the reach of its cloud offerings by making Microsoft Surface tablets, or ruggedized tablets running Windows, available to many of its employees, including drivers who operate more than 2,300 trucks in its fleets across North America."All of those are operating on a Windows operating system as well," although some of the tablets are Apple iPads and other brands, he says.The ability to share information and collaborate among all employees instantly via the cloud will allow any new hires or employees of acquired companies to truly share in the company's growth going forward."They can start collaborating with other Gibson employees in minutes," he says. "That would have taken months in the past. It means we can focus on what we do best, which is operating as a midstream company."For Hannah, who grew up in New Brunswick, literally a walk away from the large Irving Oil Refinery and who had relatives working for the company, the move to Gibson was like going home again. But his role in helping the company shift to the cloud was very much a trip focused more on the future of modern business information management and services than on his energy industry past.

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