Among its lead projects, Tulsa-based Excellence Engineering designs facilities nationwide where oil is loaded into black tankard railcars.
Picture a self-service gas pump, with a start button, automated metering and printed bill; only on a massive scale. These terminals — with motorized values, lights, pumps and compressors — take up whole sections of land, and handle 80,000 barrels of oil a day, said Dee Hays, Excellence Engineering founder and president.
“You got to get the whole train in there, and turn it around,” Hays said.
A 5-foot-2-inch blonde, Hays is anything but the typical engineer, and her success is equally extraordinary.
Effective Jan.1, Tulsa oilman George Kaiser’s Argonaut Private Equity firm bought 49 percent of Excellence Engineering’s stock, and in April, the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO) ranked the company, based on its explosive revenue growth from 2009 to 2013, the 44th-fastest-growing privately-held, women-owned business globally.
Excellence Engineering has more than 25 clients and employs 35, including electrical, mechanical, civil and structural engineers; designers and drafters.
Last year’s annual revenues were $5.3 million.
From her 8,000-square-foot, leased offices at 8670 S Peoria Ave., Hays, 48, sat down with The Oklahoman recently to talk about her life and career. This is an edited transcript:
Q: Tell us about your roots.
A: I grew up in southern New Mexico, in the flat, desert town of Alamogordo, which is about 70 miles north of El Paso. My father worked as an electrical engineer for NASA and in civil service for the U.S. Air Force; my mother was a homemaker. They split up my senior year. I have an older half-brother by my mother but, because of our six-year age difference, we’ve never been very close. My father was my best friend. When I was a teenager, we’d jog together every day and tear apart cars and circuit boards. Sadly, he died suddenly of pneumonia on Dec. 26. He was 82. My mother now lives near me in Tulsa.
Q: What were the highlights of your childhood?
A: Gymnastics and horses. I decided I wanted to do gymnastics at age 8, after seeing a tumbling exhibition. My mom enrolled me in classes at a private gym and, before I knew it, I was competing nationwide. My gymnastics coach, Elaine Mayfield, became my mentor. I was a 9-year-old, traveling with a bunch of 15-year-olds and 16-year-olds, and Elaine, who didn’t have children, frequently was stuck with me. My parents would come and watch me, but the team often would go a day ahead, so Elaine was my surrogate mom. Through gymnastics, I learned discipline, social skills and self-confidence. Elaine also had horses, which got me into riding. She told me I could do anything I wanted. We’re still very close and see each other about twice a year.
Q: And college?
boldA: I started as a pre-vet major on a gymnastics scholarship to Fort Hayes State University in Kansas, but transferred to my father’s alma mater — Kansas State — where I was awarded a rodeo scholarship in barrel racing and graduated in electrical engineering.
Q: How’d you end up in Tulsa?
boldA: I competed in a national gymnastics competition here in 1980, and remember stepping off the plane and thinking Tulsa was the greenest place I’d ever seen. That’s when I decided I wanted to live here.
Q: Where’d you work before starting your own business?
A: I worked for Williams Pipeline for five years, then Willbros for a year, before I was laid off in ’93 in the economic downturn. I started on my own as an independent contractor working out of my house, but consumer demand forced me to grow. I founded Excellence Engineering in 2001 and it soared in 2011 because of the explosion in shale plays. It was scary being responsible for other people’s livelihood and lives. The first time I bought a bunch of computers, I think I hyperventilated. I got an $8,000 bill and thought “What was I thinking?” I worked 18-hour days pretty much nonstop for three years. But, thanks in large part to my executive peers in WPO, I learned to delegate and let things go.
Q: Is it difficult working in a male-dominated industry?
A: It doesn’t bother me anymore. I have a thick skin, but I’ll never get used to not being one of the good ol’ boys. My response has always been to simply do better work. I want clients to want me for my work, and my good work ethic.