Zachary S. Fenton
39

Founder & COO, UpCurve Energy, Houston
12 FortyUnder40 Fenton, Zach

Starting with “a napkin in a coffee shop,” Zach Fenton founded UpCurve Energy with former ConocoPhillips colleagues during the 2015 downturn. No stranger to challenging market environments, Fenton led the Permian-focused operator to produce almost 15,000 boe/d prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated oil market distress.

Reflecting on his experience, he said, “To some extent you don’t know much about yourself as a businessperson and a leader until you’ve been through some downtimes and overcome obstacles, and this is certainly a big one.” Fenton plans to continue “to position UpCurve I to come out of this downturn in a stronger position than ever,” with an eye toward anchoring a second iteration of the company in the current market.

Writing on the wall

“[At the end of February 2020], we decided to pull the plug on the capital program, defer all our obligations and focus on paying down debt. At the time we knew it was the safest option, even if oil prices held strong and the environment stabilized.

“No one would have guessed we would have a simultaneous massive price war and huge demand shock from COVID-19, but we were positioned very well heading into that because we had already gone on the defensive.

“We focused on what was most important—in this case making sure we came out stronger on the other side—and we put together a plan to execute on that. I’m not one to get particularly high or low over something, and the team did a great job of keeping their cool even when the environment was at its worst.”

Career transition

“I started in the power and electricity investment banking and private-equity worlds, but after going back to work at ConocoPhillips, I moved into the engineering and operations world. I took masters level petroleum engineering courses through Texas A&M remotely for two years and based on that I moved into reservoir engineering before founding UpCurve.

“Looking back at my experience in school, I was definitely swimming against the tide. Everyone there was looking to get into investment banking and private equity while I was looking to get out [of that sector.]”

Industry transformations

“[Not focusing on] ESG is a nonstarter. You won’t raise capital and will struggle to sell assets if you’re not focused on it, and that’s a bare minimum. It can’t be something you just pay lip service to. You have to live it throughout your company.

“The growth at all cost mindset also needs to be done away with, and that’s clearly starting to happen. We are in a commodity business that is currently oversupplied, and the low cost operator will always win. We all need to be laser focused on that.”

Leadership qualities

“I played Division I lacrosse at Duke University, and we had a team of almost 40 kids each year. All those athletes are very different, come from different backgrounds, have different personalities and are motivated in different ways.

“For some the best thing you could do was challenge them in front of the team—and they would respond very well. For others that would be the worst possible thing you could do.

“It’s the same now leading a team at our company. You have to know them all well enough to know what motivates people, how they respond to challenges, what they’re worried about.”

Giving back

“I work with Shrink2Grow, a nonprofit organization with a mission to take the misfortune of those who have lost their jobs and turn it into something positive by providing technology resources for at-risk children.

“One example [of the organization’s work] is taking laptops from companies that have recently restructured or were bought and providing them to children in need throughout different Texas school districts.

“Providing laptops to underserved kids is not a new idea by any means. The magnitude of the problem, however, is now much bigger than it ever was, given the pandemic and massive school closures. What is unique is this confluence of events, and we are in a position to help.”

“You have to know [your team] well enough to know what motivates people, how they respond to challenges, what they’re worried about.”