Brent Shinall: Bursting with Energy

When Brent Shinall grew bored with his job as manufacturing engineer for hypersonic engine maker Pratt & Whitney, he started exploring new career opportunities.

“I saw people in the purchasing department working with suppliers and negotiating contracts, and thought, ‘That looks like more fun,'” he recalls.

So when the company’s purchasing manager needed an engineer to help procure parts for a special project, Shinall jumped at the opportunity.

Today, Shinall still finds fun in his work. As vice president, global supply chain at Houston-based Helix Energy Solutions, he’s building a corporate-wide supply chain organization, creating a supply chain council, implementing software, taking charge of logistics, and introducing cost-saving volume discounts and long-term contracts.

“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” notes Shinall, who took on the newly created position at Helix in November 2006.

Energy companies turn to Helix to outsource any of their operations—exploring for oil or gas, constructing a drilling facility, laying undersea pipe, or managing a well.

Helix operates 40 vessels, half of them to support deep-sea construction; the rest to serve as floating drilling rigs, which keep nearly depleted oil fields pumping for a few extra years.

Through a series of purchases over the past 18 months, Helix added numerous business units; each was doing its own procurement.

“I was charged with starting a global supply chain department that integrates the business units, and with hiring staff to manage our largest and most expensive vessels,” Shinall says.

The global organization is responsible for buying whatever the company needs—from components and furnishings for the vessels to office supplies.

Creating one organization from independent departments in Houston, Scotland, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere isn’t easy, Shinall admits.

“I was the new guy who knew nothing about the industry, and each business unit was supposed to bring me in to help them source and negotiate,” he says. “I encountered quite a bit of resistance.”

A key strategy for winning their respect was helpfulness: Shinall offered to let his staff take over the grunt work, such as assembling insurance paperwork and other documents needed to certify new suppliers.

“We generated some excitement because we helped ease their workload,” he says.

He also created a method for tracking cost-cutting successes.

“When procurement managers save money on a purchase order, they can log in and get credit for it,” Shinall explains.

He then includes that information in his monthly report to Helix’s chief operating officer. “This system gets people thinking about cost savings where they hadn’t before,” he says.

Crisis Management

One big crisis of Shinall’s career occurred when he directed aircraft programs purchasing for American Airlines. A new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system at a major seat supplier crashed just as AA was expecting a delivery of seats for 500 airplanes being constructed by Boeing.

Without seats, the planes would sit unfinished at the Boeing plant, causing an expensive delay.

“We had to rally,” Shinall says.

When the seat supplier’s ERP system came back up, AA paid Boeing to fly its inspectors to the factory to examine seats as they rolled off the assembly line. That way, when the seats reached the Boeing plant, they could move right to the assembly line.

That experience will serve Shinall well as he prepares to implement an ERP system at Helix this year.

“I learned a lot about system implementations,” he says. “Specifically the importance of a robust backup plan.”

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