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WomanOf the Month Laurie Cunnington, President, Ward Williston Oil Co. 8-07

The oil business is not an easy business. Imagine the complexities posed by product prices that may surge from $10 to $60 per barrel but then plummet to $20 just as an executive thinks she has a strategic plan in place. Laurie Cunnington, president of Ward Williston Oil Co., Detroit, has created a growing exploration and production firm and service provider despite the industry’s ups and downs in the 20 years since she and her husband took over a shell company. She credits hard work, careful planning, and top-notch employees with the company’s success. This is a woman who has found her purpose in life not just in the workplace. She is dedicated to helping victims of war, genocide, and starvation in countries such as Mozambique, Rwanda, Uganda and many others through organizations such as Joint Aid Management and Opportunities International. An entrepreneur who launched her first business in the computer industry in the mid-1970s, Cunnington is putting her fundraising and strategic planning skills to work via these organizations to help feed, educate, and offer microfinancing to aid the needy in beginning new lives.

When she was in her mid-20s, Cunnington, a Detroit native, launched her first business, a recruitment and retention consulting firm for the computer industry. “Women generally weren’t starting their own businesses at that time, in the ‘70s,” she says. She sold it in the ‘80s, and she and her husband founded a real estate development and management company. This was the era of oil and gas limited partnerships, and Cunnington and her husband invested in several. Not all were successful, but they received tax deductions and were intrigued by the business. “We did some research and hooked up with a wildcatter to drill in Indiana and Illinois with some partners. We did well, so then we decided to go it alone and drill straight up with no partners. Again, we did well—I think we only had one dry hole—nothing that would rock your world,” says Cunnington.

They kept their eyes out for opportunities in oil and in 1986 spotted a company with holdings in Michigan and North Dakota that was on the brink of insolvency. At the time the price of oil was $9 per barrel. The Cunningtons purchased the company, pumped it full of money and retrained their employees. At the start, just 20 wells were barely pumping. “Each day the challenge is to be careful and savvy and maneuver around the obstacles of the business,” says Cunnington. “We have to be stable when prices are at $9 and also when they are at $50 per barrel. It takes a balancing act.” Her husband contributes the analytical and financial acumen while she is a strong negotiator and business visionary.

Ward Williston’s strategy involves focusing on servicing wells when prices are low and expanding to aggressive drilling programs when prices are high, as they are today. The company now has more than 150 wells and 100 employees—it is an expert in waterfloods in the North Dakota area, which involve rejuvenating older fields so they produce again—and plans two more waterfloods before the end of 2007. “The industry has made an incredible shift in the last five years with the price of oil, and we’re restructuring to take advantage of the opportunities,apostrophe says Cunnington. “For years we didn’t take anything out of the company and now we’re reaping the benefits.apostrophe

Her management team is “the bestapostrophe and could stand up to any of the biggest companies, she says. “Some have worked their way up from roustabout to vice president. They know the business. And we put our money into people.apostrophe

Cunnington’s management strategy is to hire the best, give them the tools they need, and let them do their thing.

She offers up no horror stories of being a woman in a male-dominated industry. “When I started in the computer field, they didn’t care whether you were a man or woman, they just cared if you were good. If you were, you could make a way for yourself. Today, I find the same thing,apostrophe she says. “Of course, it sure helps if you own your own company. I think people judge you by how well you do what you’re doing.apostrophe

Her advice to others is, don’t try to change the rules. “There are rules in business,apostrophe she says. “They may be different than the rules are at home, or in school, and you need to move on with it.apostrophe

Her philanthropy is an integral part of her life. She and her husband travel to Africa usually once a year; this fall they are going to Sudan to assist with microfinancing programs through Opportunities International. JAM is now feeding 450,000 children a day as well as helping to educate thousands. One of the orphanages operated by JAM in Rwanda—one of very few in the country--has processed 9,000 children. Cunnington and her friends helped raise $250,000 when the orphanage’s operations were in jeopardy recently. “Half the world’s population is living on less than $2 per day,apostrophe says Cunnington. “I ask myself, Could I do that, with everything that I have? I believe the answer is, We can all help them.apostrophe

Cunnington was recently elected to the Committee of 200, a prestigious group of women in the political and business arena. In 2006 she was honored with the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for the Central Great Lakes Region. She’s also on the boards of Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government, the Woman’s Leadership Board, the Global Foundation, and Opportunities International as well as being a member of various energy organizations.

Her goals, despite these demands, are to stay as balanced as possible, stay healthy, work hard, help those less fortunate, and live her life. What does she do for fun? “Work is fun,apostrophe she says. “And I love people and love to entertain.apostrophe