Bridge Builder: Thomas Kalb

thomas kalb

There are three reasons Thomas Kalb initially chose to work in the energy industry- Texas, the people and the dynamics. Remarkably after four decades working in the “energy trenches,” Kalb still loves the chosen path of work for the same reasons; only now he’s combining his passions and experience to build bridges as LU’s first director of the Center for Midstream Management & Science.

A native New Yorker who grew up in Connecticut, Kalb earned his bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Texas. Although he received a Congressional appointment to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, he could not pass the physical test at the time it was scheduled because he had a broken finger from playing football. His West Point slot was awarded to someone else before his finger healed.

“I’ve come to love Texas; it’s an outstanding state, the best place in our Republic. It may sound a little goofy but joining Lamar University allows me to become a little more Texan on an emotional level and I like that.”

That broken finger changed the direction of Kalb’s life and ultimately was the reason he came to Texas. Set on pursuing a petroleum engineering degree, Kalb decided to take the advice of a family friend who was a college professor and visit the University of Texas at Austin. Kalb loved UT and has tried to stay in Texas, or as close as he could, ever since.

“I first went to Texas in 1975 as a freshman at UT Austin and I thought, what is all this Texas stuff, this Lone Star State stuff,” said Kalb. “There is just a curiosity to it but over time, over the years, over the decades I have come to really appreciate the Texas identity.”

Kalb spent the first seven years of his engineering career in the field in the Middle East and the North Sea. In 1986 when domestic oil prices dropped below $9 a barrel, Kalb decided to go back to school and get his MBA at the University of Chicago.

“I then joined industry on the dark side, the money side. For the first time I found myself in the domestic oil and gas space where I spent the last 35 years.”

During those 35 years, Kalb was based in Connecticut and the New York area but spent a year in Houston. His four children fell in love with Texas and all but one graduated from Texas universities and live in the state today. Therefore, when the job at LU became available, Kalb recognized the opportunity to live in Texas and enjoy doing what he believes he does best – build bridges.

“I’ve come to love Texas; it’s an outstanding state, the best place in our Republic. It may sound a little goofy but joining Lamar University allows me to become a little more Texan on an emotional level and I like that.”

From a career perspective, the director position at LU allowed Kalb to scratch an itch. He had proposed an energy sector or energy curriculum to several universities with no takers.

“I’d been in the trenches with all the major players and I wanted to bring that to the university environment and bring that knowledge to students but I didn’t have the Ph.D. which was the ticket to entry.”

The position at LU is more focused on industry experience. The College of Engineering was looking to hire someone with Kalb’s academic achievements, work history in a variety of capacities within the energy sector and someone who had established relationships and had a built a trusted reputation in the energy industry. Kalb met every requirement.

In fact, one of the reasons Kalb was most interested in the position at LU is because it would allow him to continue to network with the people, “characters,” he has come to know and appreciate in the industry.

“There’s everybody from the buttoned-up super accountant, serious guy who you better not joke with to the glad-handing, heavy drinking promoter who is really your best friend but trying to steal the wallet from your pocket and everyone in between. It’s mind blowing. Sometimes you’d go into an office, particularly an independent, and it was very corporate, like you’re going into IBM. But you also might be going into offices where there is not a square foot of wall space that doesn’t have a dead animal head on it.”

Kalb brings these real-world dynamics and relationships to a position that requires him to bridge the gap between industry and Lamar University at a time of industry challenges. In recent years, the midstream sector has undergone a lot of stresses. There has been the development of horizontal, multi-stage frack drilling shales that changed the profile and also the type of oil and gas production.

“The profile of this projection has dramatic impact on the infrastructure that midstream companies run. A lot of technical issues that come out of can be solved by our faculty.”

Visiting with faculty has been Kalb’s mission since accepting the position, amidst the pandemic in April.

“My starting point has been, how do you possibly link LU, engineering, faculty and capabilities with industry unless you find out what the intersection of interests are.”

Having achieved some understanding of the commonality between faculty and industry, Kalb is now moving from a “discovery” phase to an implementation phase, taking what he’s learned and initiating the Center’s first programs and projects. He has created a list of 16 action items and recruited the Center’s first advisory board based on his discussions with stakeholders including LU faculty.

“We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire and we’re progressing. It’s like that old question, 'how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.' But I know from my engineering background you can take the most complex problem and break it down to simple elements that can be resolved.”

One of the first major initiatives is to establish a midstream certificate that will enhance the value of LU’s engineering graduates to the midstream sector, can be used as a development tool for people already in their midstream careers and draw in more students interested in midstream.

“I think the Center will have a lot of impact, a dramatic impact that is going to surprise people. But I like building things and in order to build things you have to be an optimist.”

Category: Features , General

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