Profiles: Lessons From the Leaders in the Baseline500

Simplicity Pays
Cathy Tompkins keeps the information systems behind Chesapeake Energy’s growing business as simple as possible.
By Kim S. Nash

CIO, Chesapeake Energy
Lesson: Make a decision and adjust your strategy as needed. Don’t overanalyze.

Cathy Tompkins, chief information officer at Chesapeake Energy, performs best by working under two basic rules: keep it simple and move fast.

“We in information technology tend to over-engineer and overanalyze. It’s our natural approach,” she says. “We forget that you can do a lot without building a Cadillac every time.”

For example, Chesapeake used its existing technology to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, which is designed to curb corporate financial fraud. Instead of earmarking significant dollars for a new technology implementation and the consultants who go with it, the company’s internal auditors built prototype process controls for items like transactions, documentation changes and financial statement closings on Microsoft Access personal databases. From there, Chesapeake’s information-technology group translated them into more heavy-duty Microsoft SQL Server enterprise databases to control processes companywide. “There’s a lot of energy and drive here for the pragmatic approach, whether or not that involves technology,” Tompkins says.

Much of that drive is powered by the natural gas company’s rapid growth. In recent years, it has acquired other companies’ key land and drilling assets, or simply bought the company outright— Chesapeake struck 180 deals this year alone. And revenue has tripled and then some since 2002, from $826 million to $2.7 billion last year. Chesapeake, with Information Productivity of 775.7%, took the top spot in this

year’s Baseline 500 ranking, up from No. 2 last year.

Still, there are plenty of challenges ahead. Now bigger, Chesapeake has 150 terabytes of data, and Tompkins says it needs to manage its information better.

Excel spreadsheets to organize mineral rights and Access databases to track activities of prospective acquisitions, for instance, are fine ways to shuttle data around a smaller company. “As you get larger, you can’t manage everything through those. Or just use e-mail and walk down the hall to talk to the right people,” she explains. “If you do, pretty soon you’re CC-ing everyone in the company.”

But Tompkins still stresses speed and simplicity. She plans to build a central data warehouse, a database where at least 80% of the geologic, drilling, production, accounting and legal data on each of its wells will be stored. The setup will let employees quickly access information to do their jobs. As the company has grown, so has its staff, which jumped from 866 at the end of 2002 to about 2,200 today. A data warehouse would speed information gathering because em-ployees wouldn’t need to know how to navigate several applications to get data.

Tompkins, who has spent two decades managing technology for oil and gas companies, joined Chesapeake last November from Devon Energy. She was hired to direct applications and programming, but when CIO Lon Winton retired in July, she was named to replace him.

One thing that attracted Tompkins to Chesapeake was the company’s drive to find the best way to reach a goal, she says. “We don’t fight many battles about why you should use technology,” she says of presenting new ideas for upcoming I.T. projects. “Some oil companies are more reluctant to change. But Chesapeake has always been in a state of change, so they eagerly embrace a better or faster way of doing something.”