Kathy Neset’s unique journey from small-town New Jersey through the Ivy League to the farms and oil fields of the Bakken

Patrick J. McCloskey | Author and Director of Research and Publications, University of Mary

> Click here to download a PDF version of this article.

How does a Jersey girl end up running the Bakken’s premier geologic and geosteering consulting company? Kathy Neset co-founded Neset Consulting Services with her late husband Roy in Tioga, North Dakota in 1980. The company now has 38 employees led by Kathy Neset, who serves as president, and her two sons. RC is a petroleum geologist in charge of researching and designing gas analyzers for the company’s gas detection division. Randy is a petroleum engineer for Neset Consulting and also an operations vice president for an upstream oil and gas company.

“How my story happened could be nothing other than God-driven,” Neset said in an interview. “I could never have made this up myself.”

Naturally (or divinely) Neset’s first step to becoming a mudlogger involved cheerleading. There she was on top of the cheerleader’s pyramid at a Friday night football game at Warren Hills Regional High School in central New Jersey. Brown University’s athletic director sat in the stands watching the game hoping to find recruits. He didn’t find any suitable players but he noticed Neset and said, “Let’s take her.”

The next day, Neset learned that “brown” was not just a color and the following September, she was off to the Ivy League university in Rhode Island. “Brown is one of those snobby schools, very ultra liberal,” she said with a laugh at a talk she gave at the Lunch & Learn series at the University of Mary’s Gary Tharaldson School of Business last December. “I survived and I am a testament that if you stay true to yourself, you can maintain your identity.”

For Neset, this meant cheerleading, playing soccer and ice hockey, and majoring in math, which kept her in the more traditional cultural areas at Brown. She never strayed from family and church as fundamental principles. “Stay true to your beliefs,” she said. “This is how you follow your path, follow what God has designed for you.”

Sitting in math classes, Neset had no idea that God’s design involved oil fields. Nor would she have believed it—until she took a geology course and went on a field trip with her class and a “dynamic” professor. On the bus, she realized, “Wait a second. You’re allowed to drink a beer on the way home? I don’t have to go back to the library and bury myself in studying imaginary numbers?” She fell in love with geology and changed her major.

After graduating, Neset was hired by Core Laboratories to be trained as a mudlogger. “I really didn’t know what a mudlogger was, but it sure sounded neat to me,” she recalled with a smile. Checking for and recording traces of oil in the mud stream used in the drilling process (mudlogging) took Neset to Texas, Wyoming and then to North Dakota in 1979.

Spirit of Pioneering Women

It was unusual for women to work in the oil fields then and it’s still un- common. “The golden era of the hardy pioneer woman has not faded into a shadowy relic of the past,” said Neset in an interview. “Today she may not be breaking virgin sod with a horse and plow, but there remain plenty of challenges on the prairie for a strong and tenacious spirit to test herself against.”
Neset’s career and private life are a testament to that spirit. After marrying, she and Roy moved to his farm near Tioga, which can be seen—along with a Hess gas processing plant—from the northeast edge of town. The 1980s oil boom provided opportunity for the consulting business to flourish. “The oilfield was a little different then,” she remembered. “I was able to bring the boys to the rig with me and they grew up washing samples and learning about oil fields.”

But then came the bust in the mid-1980s. “Farming kept us alive,” she said. “These were difficult days, living one slip and fall away from bankruptcy.” Roy taught her and their sons how to farm, while Kathy also taught high school science as a substitute teacher.

In 2005, Roy died just 10 days after their son RC married. “We regrouped as a family and thought about going back to New Jersey.” Neset’s mother still lived there and was 80 years of age. “But my children knew North Dakota as home, so I stayed here.”
Then in 2008 as the fracking boom began, both her sons were deployed to Iraq, RC with the North Dakota National Guard and Randy with the Montana Air National Guard. So for most of that year, Neset was alone as she worked to grow Neset Consulting Services to meet the quickly increasing demand.

Role Model for Young Women

“When young women apply to work for Neset Consulting Services,” Neset said, “they say, ‘Hey, I want to do this. I like science, engineering and technology. I want to have a good-paying job.’” She emphasized how important it is for successful women to act as role models for young girls and encourage them in the early grades to study math and science.

The big question that gets asked next is, “Am I safe in the oil field?” Neset puts her hands on her hips, at least figuratively, and always answers, “Yes, I have lived it for years on drilling sites. I don’t care if you’re living in Bismarck or on a rig out in Park City, Utah, you have to be professional. Your demeanor is what you bring to the table. You set the standard, young lady, and tell the world: ‘I’m here for business.’”

Leadership as Comfort in the God Zone

The question today’s leaders and those aspiring to leadership need to ask, Neset stressed, is: “Are you comfortable with yourself? Are you comfortable leading others?” Neset’s sense of “comfort” has nothing to do with contentment or ease but rather with integrity.

To begin, “stay true to your roots,” which might seem contradicted by Neset’s move far away from the East Coast. But she fell in love with North Dakota because it “reminded me of the New Jersey of the 1960s and 1970s.”

Most importantly, Neset takes Jesus as the ultimate leadership role model and recommends reading Lead Like Jesus by Ken Blanchard. “Of course I’m in tune with this at church on Sunday. But how about when you’re in the boardroom or talking about Bakken oil wells? It’s important to develop that level of comfort.”

In practice, Neset talked about the Benedictine value of servant leadership as a mandate, as the way of leading as Jesus lived. For parents, instead of seeking to be friends with one’s children, this means fulfilling “our responsibility to lead and teach our children.” In the office or at the supermarket, servant leadership means influencing other lives positively, “which makes everyone a leader.”

In business, this also means giving back to the community, which Neset does via various charities and local projects, and through serving as a board member for the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation and as the secretary of the Saint Thomas Parish Council in Tioga.

On Top of the Pyramid

Kathy Neset still stands on top of the pyramid—in the Bakken, both as a cheerleader and oil industry leader. In 2014, she was awarded the Prairie Business Top 25 Women in Business Award, the American Petroleum Institute’s Outstanding Achievement Award and the Williston Regional Economic Development Corporation Ambassador of the Year Award. Neset serves on the Board of Directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and of the North Dakota Petroleum Council. She is also a member of the Bismarck State College Petroleum Technology Advisory Committee and the University of North Dakota’s Petroleum Engineering Advisory Committee. Looking to the future, Neset serves as Chair of North Dakota’s State Board of Higher Education.

“I’m passionate about fracking as safe, effective and good for this country,” she said. “The hardest part of any oil field is finding it. Now it’s a matter of increasing the recovery percentage maybe up 20 percent, but that will take a lot of work.”
Today, with oil prices down, “people ask me about the state of the oil industry. What is this doing to our industry, to our nation? And I say this world is so chaotic, we don’t know.” Yet for Neset, geology and geopolitics converge not always in an answer but certainly as challenges enveloped in her faith: “God is not going to leave us to do this by ourselves; He is with us. He is not going to burden us with things we can’t handle.”