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Answering the call

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In the middle of the 2010 Gulf oil spill, BP needed help. Foret Land & Tree stepped up.

Chuck Bowen | June 22, 2011

Benton Foret sat down at a table in a conference room in Houma, La., just south of New Orleans. He’d just been given a job he wasn’t sure he could handle.

Foret was in Houma to check in with a client and see how things were going. Outside the conference room, more than a thousand people were working around the clock. Everyone was stressed.

But this wasn’t a typical day. And this wasn’t a typical client.

A few miles away, just off the coast, 11 men were dead and thousands of barrels of oil were spilling into the pristine waters of the Gulf of Mexico after one of his client’s rigs exploded.

His client was BP.

And they needed his help.

This is big.

The Houma Operations Learning Center, where Foret was sitting, acted as the operations base for BP during the oil spill. Engineers, safety personnel, scientists and contractors – about 1,300 in all – worked 24 hours a day to figure out how to cap the broken equipment that was spewing crude oil into the gulf.

Foret and his brother, Ryan, run Foret Land & Tree, a $7 million company that specializes in commercial maintenance and facilities management. About 10 years ago, they expanded into the construction arena. They do basic construction – pour concrete, install drainage systems and contract other subs.

Before the spill, Foret already worked with BP, performing landscape work and other light facilities maintenance.

But transforming what was usually a quiet building for a few dozen people into a massive, 24-hour response center for one of the largest environmental disasters in history was no small feat. All those people needed everything from diesel fuel to parking lots to new offices. And they needed them all, fast.

“That was an uncharacteristic situation,” Foret says. “This is bigger than even the biggest construction company in the area could handle.”

‘Damn the torpedoes.’

When he was pulled into that conference room, Foret’s crews were already coordinating generators and diesel fuel deliveries, and building a five-acre gravel parking lot to aid the spill response effort.

But as the facility manager and lead engineer spoke, Foret realized their scope was getting bigger. Much bigger. They told the Foret brothers that they needed a larger parking lot built and enough trailers to net 7,500 square feet of office space brought in and installed fast.

How fast? Nine days.

“They spelled it out to me very plainly. I’m listening to this and I’m thinking of all the other things we had underway. It seemed insurmountable at that point,” Foret says. “I remember having in the pit of my stomach – just an uneasy feeling. How are we going to make this happen for them?”

Foret’s first thought was that he didn’t want to let his client down. “I want to take that load off of them and let them know that I’m going to handle it,” he says.

But his second thought was: How are we going to do this?

He told BP he’d think about it, and started dialing. To pull off a project of this scope in such a short time frame, he would need a construction company, about 50 carpenters and a host of other contractors. 

He wasn’t sure he could do it. But everyone he called told him the same thing: Don’t tell them no. We’re not going to let you fail. Damn the torpedoes. Let’s get this done.

“I kind of had a moment there, and it was an uplifting time,” Foret says. “That was at the point where the momentum began to change. We’re going to do this. This is going to happen.”

In short order, Foret sat down with the facilities manager, the general contractors and an architect, who drew up the plans for the trailer installation – called “Trailer City” – on the spot.

“That’s what served us well through that crisis. People put their egos on the side to work together as a team. Tired? Yeah. Every day, we were tired. Stressed? Yeah, every day. But you know, you lift each other up in those times of doubt,” Foret says.

Managing the people.

Stressed is a bit of an understatement. By the time Foret and his crews were working full-force to help BP, the spill had been going on for a month.

Media and government pressure to solve the problem ratcheted up every day. Add hundreds of people working 14-hour shifts in 90-degree heat – in jobs they aren’t used to doing – and you’ve got the potential for some problems.

“It was kind of an understanding without saying it that we’re all in this together. Whether I’m the guy supplying the diesel fuel for all the generators or the guy actually putting up silt fence, we all do it with a sense of urgency. Everybody just worked together wonderfully,” Foret says.

At its peak, 175 people were working on the trailer project. His company also built out parking lots, ran water lines, installed hundreds of feet of fencing and constructed an entire decontamination facility.

To staff the operations, Foret pulled from his full-time mowing crews, hired college students home for the summer and sought out subcontractors from a variety of trades to finish each project

“You see what’s unfolding and the sense of urgency and the adrenaline kind of keeps you going,” he says.

“It was definitely an environment that a landscaper would not be accustomed to. It’s not something we did every day.”

Handing over the reins.

Spring in Louisiana is hot. Plants grow fast and the Foret brothers still had a host of landscape clients who, while not responding to a massive oil spill, still needed to be taken care of.

But as the response work ramped up, it quickly became clear that they wouldn’t be able to run their two landscape companies and handle the needs of BP at the same time. So, the brothers thought, how could they handle this emergency situation – and tremendous opportunity – without alienating their long-time clients?

They delegated, and handed the day-to-day reins of Foret Land & Tree to Operations Manager Ben Hillman. He’d been with the company about a year at that point, working as a crew foreman. 

“It was a little challenging. I was still getting used to the language barrier … that was kind of trying at times,” says Hillman, who recently left the company to return to his career in oil field sales.

“It was pretty well common sense, so I just kind of did what I thought was best. I did what I had to do.”

Foret is clear when asked about the importance of this decision: “Clearly he took on the challenge and stepped up. Had it not been for him, we would not have been able to do it,” Foret says.

A year later.

This summer, Foret and his crews are working to hand over management of their projects to BP.

They aren’t doing as much construction work this year – it’s little more than half the company’s business now, and Foret plans on winding it down even further. His focus is a pending move into a newly renovated location.

But, a year later, Foret says he’s learned a lot from the spill – about his company, and himself.

“In a business like we run in the landscape industry, the construction industry, time spent planning is the most valuable time you can spend in anything you do.

“You cannot execute, you cannot just show up to work every day, without having spent some really good quality time in planning and scenario evaluation – if A happens, what’s going to happen as a result?” Foret says. “We could not have done the volume of work in the time period in which we did it without having been brought into the culture that BP followed as far as planning.”

And despite the long hours, the stress and pressure, Foret still sometimes can’t believe he and his company pulled it off.    

“I still sit here and think to myself,” he says. “Did that really happen?”
 
The author is editor of Lawn & Landscape. He can be reached at cbowen@gie.net.