Cardinal Cadence Spring/Summer 2012

A hand with land

Alumnus J. Mark SmithWildcatter. Roughneck. Gusher. Boomtown.
Terms forever branded into the vernacular of Texas.
None of these happen without the landman.

It is the landman who makes the exploration, the drilling and the rewards possible. J. Mark Smith ’79 is a landman whose business, while firmly rooted in Texas soil, extends well beyond the Lone Star State.

As a land professional, the landman guides the acquisition, development and management of individual properties where oil and gas exploration takes place. That essential job is played out in title work, lease purchasing, negotiation and contract preparation such as operating agreements, farm out agreements, surface damage agreements, lease administration and the myriad other details part and parcel to the drilling and management of wells.

A graduate of Forest Park High School, Smith grew up enjoying the plentiful opportunities for hunting and fishing the region affords. So, when it came time to choose a college, “I didn’t see any reason to go off somewhere when I had everything here in my backyard.”

At Lamar, Smith majored in marketing and stuck to business to get through in four years. “I wanted to finish on time, and I guessed I’d figure out what I’d do after that,” he said. He was president of Phi Delta Theta for two years and an avid Cardinals fan.

“That was back when the Cards played in McDonald Gym, and we had the longest winning streak going,” Smith said. “You made sure you got there early just to be sure to get in. There’s some real home cookin’ when it’s packed and everyone is hollering.”

When he graduated, oil prices were skyrocketing thanks to the Arab oil embargo. “A good fraternity brother of mine became a landman in Houston,” Smith said. “He talked me into giving it a try. My dad had a good career with IBM, but I’d seen the pressure that comes with working for a big corporation and had decided that really wasn’t for me. So I tried being a landman.

“It was a natural fit,” he said. “I got to travel, meet people. I felt right off the bat that this was what I wanted to do.”

“The first 20 years, I was traveling, trying to build the company,” he said. “I was literally gone all the time, putting 55,000 to 65,000 miles on my car every year.”

He and his wife, Denise (Lytle), who also attended Lamar, have three children, ages 26, 25 and 17. “1986 was a bad year,” Smith recalled. “Our first child was born in ’85, and then oil dropped to $8 a barrel. Then our second child came along the next year. It was rough. A lot of my friends got out of the business. I was fortunate and was able to keep working. In the second half of ’87, things finally turned around. That’s why I tell all the young people who work for me, ‘save your money.’ I preach that all the time.”

Since those lean years, J. Mark Smith & Associates has boomed. In addition to providing services throughout Texas, the company has a Denver office providing services throughout the Rocky Mountain states and, earlier this year, opened an office in Illinois. “About 25 of our Texas guys are up there now,” he said. “They’re all excited about opening day at Wrigley Field.”

Today, Smith is a partner in the JAMA Group, providing professional land surveying, GIS mapping, right-of-way services and environmental assessments and services. “The oil and gas business has really changed,” he said. “GIS mapping has become a huge part of the industry, and we started our own survey company because it seemed that our clients were always waiting for a surveyor.”

“About 10 years ago, the business improved so I didn’t have to travel as much. I decided then that I wanted to give back and get more involved with Lamar and with the community,” Smith said.

He has held to that promise, serving on the boards of the Lamar University Foundation, Cardinal Club and the Texas Energy Museum. “We have a suite for the football games, and we have it packed for every game. We have a wonderful time out there,” he said. The couple supports the arts as well. “We really enjoy going to Le Grand Bal,” he said.

Ample trophy mounts throughout the building attest to the fact that Smith still enjoys the outdoor avocations that kept him in Southeast Texas so many years ago. He also looks for trophies of another sort.

“Besides the land business, we do a lot of speculating on our own,” Smith said. “We put together the leases for an equity position for small companies. I enjoy doing that at this stage in my career. I’ve done enough contract land work for a fee that I enjoy putting together the whole project. I enjoy seeing a well drilled, looking at the drill logs and seeing if they come up with anything. That to me is the fun part of the business.

“I look forward to spending more and more of my time putting together projects where you see it from the beginning to the end.”

by Brian Sattler

May 2012