Michele McNichol powers through transition to become an entreprenuer

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When Michele McNichol stepped away from Wood Group, she called it “retirement.”

She was considering a departure from the industry, but she knew full well she wasn’t retiring from an active career in some respect.

I knew I wasn’t done, but it was time to step back and reassess what I wanted to do,” Michele explains.

Michele McNichol, CEO Arion Blue

Michele had been at Wood Group, an engineering services firm serving the energy industry, for 16 years. She’d risen from project manager to CEO of the Western hemisphere. But in 2017, Michele decided it was time for a transition. She explored some board opportunities and a teaching gig, but she wasn’t sure that would be enough to satisfy her drive and her vision.

Then, a friend introduced her to some contacts from a private equity firm, and the conversation drifted to the kind of business Michele wanted to see in the industry — and how she would build it.

“It was on that day when I realized, ‘This is my purpose. This is what I’m supposed to do,’” she recalls. “It was very exciting to think about what was possible.”

Michele believes strong, profitable businesses are built on both.

That became the foundation of Arion, the engineering, procurement and construction management firm she has built with a focus on people — both customers and employees — first.

As Michele describes it, Arion — just four weeks old with a team of nine, including Michele — is built around three core pillars: First, relationships are everything. The second is execution certainty, meaning the end product is a completed project delivered as promised. Nothing less will do. And third, technology and innovation are the most important tools in the Arion arsenal; they need to be used, liberally.

“The big companies have all their work processes in place, and the energy and commitment it would take to overhaul that and completely rethink it — they just don’t have the fortitude to get through it,” Michele says. “We get a clean slate. We get to set up our work practices and figure out how to use technology most effectively.

After that fateful conversation that gave birth to the dream, Michele joined with a few other colleagues and put together a business plan. They met with a number of private equity groups, initially thinking that taking on outside funding was the best way to take a good idea and strong leadership team to market quickly.

However, as time passed and interest among the core team and some close friends and colleagues grew, they realized they had what they needed to launch the company.

“We are starting our business with all private funding,” Michele says. “So we get to call all the shots.

Michele McNichol, CEO Arion Blue

It’s a welcome shift after a long, successful, but decidedly corporate career.

When Michele graduated from Texas A&M University in 1986 with a degree in chemical engineering, she got a job at Amoco — right about the time oil prices crashed. So when the company asked if she would move to Wyoming, to a town of 8,000, her response was a resounding yes.

She was one of only six college graduates Amoco hired that year. She would have gone pretty much anywhere to have a job.

Michele spent a few years with Amoco before moving on to ABB Randall and then Mustang Engineering, a Wood Group company, which sent her out to what was at the time the world’s largest offshore platform, BP’s Thunder Horse project, to work as a process engineer. It was her first time offshore in her career.

“It was not a hard transition. It’s not as hard as people would think,” she recalls. “It was about leadership, about leading people, about managing schedules and budgets and quality and making sure that when change happens, you’re working that change through the system.”

Now, at Arion, she’s building a people-focused culture that addresses the core elements of every project — balancing quality, schedule and budget — with all the technology and innovation that can be harnessed, from the ground up.

“We’re working as hard as we’ve ever worked, but we’re having fun because it’s for us. We’re in this together. We’ve built a different kind of team camaraderie than we’ve ever had,” she says.

Michele has learned a lot over the past six months as Arion has taken shape. Part of it is navigating the integration of technology and processes to create maximum quality and efficiency. Another part is getting educated on elements she’s always had a team of people to handle  — HR, legal, etc.

It’s the life of an entrepreneur, which is still an adjustment in a lot of ways. But Michele is already addicted to the possibilities.

“My sense is that we are a snowball at the top of the hill, and once it starts going, I think it’s just going to go unbelievably fast. We’re just going to have to hold on,” she says. “Our premise is good. We’re hitting the market at the right time. We have clients who are excited about the new choice we’re giving them. I call it ‘the perfect storm,’ in a good way. And we’re ready to roll.