Gulf War catapulted Alberta firm to industry forefront

Mike Miller may be a superstar in the art of taming flaming oil wells, but don’t tell him that.

Miller chooses to play down his starring role in leading the crack Safety Boss team in fighting fires in Kuwait after the 1991 Gulf War.

“I’m just an ordinary guy with an extraordinary passion,” argues the CEO of Safety Boss.

“I’m not a huge player. I don’t like to take myself seriously.”

David Lazarowych, Business Edge
Mike Miller and his crack team of firefighters were catapulted into the public eye in the 1991 Gulf War when they successfully capped 180 burning oil wells in 200 days.

For his lifelong passion for well control and firefighting, Miller has won numerous awards, including the recent Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame induction, the Order of Canada and the Emir’s Star of Kuwait award.

But he shrugs off the accolades, pitching himself as an ordinary guy doing what he was born to do.

Miller cut his teeth with Safety Boss almost half a century ago. He was 12 when the company was started by his father, K.J. “Smokey” Miller, and earned his baptism into the business from the ground up, toiling as a floor sweeper and truck washer. 1. What did you learn from working at Safety Boss during your teenage years under your father?

“I suppose, more than anything, I learned the work ethic and how things were done. I was 12 years old when my father started the company and I grew up with it. The trucks were right in our backyard and the equipment was in our garage. I got more interested as we did bigger and bigger jobs, and it turned into a lifelong passion. My dad was more of a firefighter kind of guy while I was more involved in well control. Of course, in our business, the main objective is to shut the flow of fuel off or gain control of the well. It’s not putting out the fires, as most people seem to focus on.”

2. Besides your father, who have been the other major influences in your life?

“I’ve always had strong women in my life. They’ve probably had more to do with building my character than anything else. I had a strong grandmother, a strong mother and my two wives have both been strong people.”

3. It has been 11 years since Safety Boss’s record-breaking performance in putting out fires in Kuwait. How do you reflect on that achievement now?

David Lazarowych, Business Edge
Mike Miller stands in front of ancient Chinese blessing offering good fortune.

“My own assessment of myself is that I’m a pretty ordinary person. You know, I don’t take myself too seriously as being a genius or anything like that. But I’ve always had a burning passion for this business and I think that, in itself, is the reason for my success. I’ve always loved this business. I’ve always loved to do bigger wells. And of course a big part of that is that a lot of the people (staff) also have that passion. There has always been a lot of focus on me but, really, I have a whole crew of people that are very competent and very driven by this business.”

4. When you arrived in Kuwait and saw the devastation of the burning wells, what were you thinking?

“First of all, when you’re reading media reports on the whole thing, you just don’t understand the impact and the immensity of it. You could see 20 wells burning, but what you couldn’t see was the 200 or so wells burning behind that because of the smoke. It was just a surreal and unreal environment when we arrived there.

"Besides the fires, there was so much devastation in the country. The oilfields and blowouts were larger than anything that had ever happened. My understanding was that there were 20 million barrels of oil burning on the desert floor. It was just an unheard-of event. The only thing that compared to it environmentally was the large volcanic explosions of hundreds of years ago.”

5. How did your crews complete the work in 200 days that was expected to take years?

“We were very well prepared and a big part of it was that the crews became so good at what they were doing. That was a significant factor in how quickly the job was done. Most people were predicting three to five years to get it done.”

6. How did playing a major role in such a huge world event impact you personally?

“In a sense, it was devastating because it was such a consuming thing to be involved with. It’s all I thought about and it was all my focus for the entire time. I was devastated when it was over. I didn’t expect it, but it was just such a huge part of my life. I was very elated when we did the last well but, within hours of that, I became immensely depressed. It was months before I recovered from that. In retrospect, as someone later explained to me, it was like being an Olympic athlete. You work so hard to get to that level but, when it was done, your purpose in your life had gone away. I couldn’t focus and find interest in my life anymore. Of course, after a month, I realized the purpose in my life was not over. I found a lot of solace with my wife and family who were there with me.”

7. Have you thought about the possibility of another event to match that?

“I don’t think there’ll ever be an event as big as Kuwait, or at least I hope not. But it’s certainly possible someone could blow up wells to get attention and, if there is a war in Iraq, it’d be foolish to think that (Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein) wouldn’t do it again.

"Obviously, we don’t wish for anything like that to happen again but, if it were to happen again, we’d certainly be anxious to get back there. Those are the biggest wells in the world, in Iraq and Kuwait.”

8. How has Safety Boss’s success in Kuwait affected your business?

“It catapulted us to the forefront of our industry, really. We really weren’t that well known in the world before Kuwait. We ended up being exceptionally well known and there were significant benefits to that. One of the problems I’ve always found difficult is that I don’t think Canadians are often recognized for their full potential by other Canadians. That has always been a huge problem for our country. It has been a very disappointing problem. Before Kuwait, it was considered that the Texans had to do the big ones (well fires) and we had a difficult time convincing people that we could do it. In fact, it was almost impossible.”

9. What is your company’s legacy from Kuwait?

“It was a huge watershed event in our business in terms of how you go about things. There are all kinds of procedures and new equipment that became standard as a result of the Kuwait operation. The reason we were the best company in Kuwait was because we came with the best system and we had far more devoted people.”

10. Did your company command much respect when you arrived in Kuwait?

“No, we had a younger staff and we were treated poorly by the other people there. You have to bear in mind that pretty well everyone else was basically from Houston and we were relative outsiders to the game. It just motivated our people to work harder and work longer and they did. The great thing was working with a group of men who were so dedicated. Everybody kind of knew that this was our time on stage and our event in history and they rose to the occasion. The crew chiefs are better firefighters than I am as a result of Kuwait because in that one event they did more firefighting than I had done in 23 years.”

11. How do you motivate people?

“I place a huge value on common sense and a huge value on motivation. I expect people to have a certain attitude, a positive attitude about work and about life. I expect people to be responsible and I’ll be responsible to them. I always ask a lot of people and I think that allows people to achieve more.”

12. What’s your vision for Safety Boss?

“My vision is to re-establish our company in the international marketplace. We have some presence there, but we need to have a much larger presence than we do. We’ve kind of had an internal circle here of getting the company sorted out the past three years. We see our long-term future where, within probably five years, 80 per cent of our revenue will be outside of Canada. In the end, a pursuit of excellence is our main goal.”

13. Have you considered taking Safety Boss public?

“I have absolutely no ambition to be a public company and it certainly wouldn’t happen during my tenure at the helm. First of all, I think it’s very tough to be accountable to people that know nothing about your industry. I think public companies wax and wane by much bigger factors than the economy. In other words, you could have a very well-run company doing very well but, if the other companies in the sector are out of favour, you’re out of favour. Then, you’re defending yourself against something you really can’t do much about. The other thing is that we like to run our own show and make decisions quickly. You can only do that in a private company.”

14. Aside from the accomplishment in Kuwait, what’s your proudest achievement?

“Our safety record. We’ve never had anybody injured or lost work time as a result of any firefighting and blowouts in the (48-year) history of the company. We put people into high-risk situations but we’re extremely careful. The most important role I play on those sites is as the chief safety guy. We won’t do things that I consider have too high a risk. We are asked by our clients to solve problems where the risk is too great, but we’ll tell them we can’t do it that way. The safety of our business is the most important part of the business.”

15. What’s your view on the Kyoto Protocol and its potential impact?

“The overall problem that I have is that I have never had anybody tell me definitively the whole impact. I really have a problem with the Canadian government signing a protocol without having a lot better feel for what the impact is going to be. There seems to be a view by the public and politicians that Kyoto is environmentally friendly and ‘let’s do it’, but I think that’s overly naive. People are already talking that, if Kyoto goes through, big projects are going to be moved out of this country.”

16. Do you plan to continue as president and CEO in the future?

“I’m 58 now and I would hope over the next five years that I would be less in the in-front-of-the-desk management of the company, but I certainly would never give up doing this business. It’s the reason for my life – aside, of course, from my wife and kids.”

17. What inspired you to become involved with the Friends of the Orphans Canada in building schools and doing other charity work in Guatemala?

“I became inspired with that when I adopted two children from Guatemala. Our (adopted) children are now eight and 11. It was a tremendous gift for us to get these children. By being there when we were going through the adoption process, we became involved in some projects there. It is a country in desperate need and the second-poorest country next to Haiti in the Americas. We enjoyed the feeling of doing something for other people. You start out by doing something for them and then you find out you’re doing something for yourself.”

18. What has that experience done for you personally?

“It’s immensely rewarding. It’s a great feeling. Personally and corporately, we think that it’s real important that altruism is an important value in your life and that you should be an assistant of the world, doing things without expectations of benefit or return of favours. Having spent years in Third World countries, I think it’s important to get involved on a personal basis with Third World people so that they understand that they are real people and have real needs or wants and you’re not just giving a hundred bucks to some charity not knowing where it goes.”

19. If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be?

“I’m sure I’d like to relive the times when I think I’ve mistreated people. Otherwise, I wouldn’t change a bloody thing. I’ve lived the life I’ve wanted to lead and it has been a wonderful life.”

20. Beyond business, what do you aspire to achieve in the future?

“We have to get the whole Guatemala project up to a whole new level in terms of fund-raising. We basically run it on a pretty amateur scale and I see now that, in fairness to our other partners down east, we’ve got to raise more money. We’ve got to get it up to a more formal level. We’ve never raised serious money and we’ve got to do that.”

IN PROFILE: Mike Miller
* Born/raised/age: Black Diamond; Okotoks, Calgary, Drayton Valley; 58.
* Title: President/CEO, Safety Boss.
* Education: Grade 12, Drayton Valley.
* Family: Wife Sharie, five children.
* Career: Miller initially worked for Safety Boss as a teenager under his father, K.J. “Smokey” Miller, the founder of the company, and has owned and managed the company since 1979. He has worked in well service for his entire career. He has 33 years of experience as supervisor on more than 400 well-control and firefighting operations. He has presented more than 400 papers on well control and large-scale hydrocarbon firefighting.
* Awards/Honours: Order of Canada (1994), Emir’s Star of Kuwait, Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame (2002), Oilman of the Year (Oilweek, 1991), Emerald Award (Alberta Foundation of Environmental Excellence), Athabasca University honourary doctorate (1994).
* Passions: Hiking, biking, boating, autobiographies.

THE COMPANY: Safety boss
* Brass: Mike Miller, president/CEO; Mark Badick, chief operating officer; Ray Brausen, vice-president, northern operations; Wayne Deschamps, vice-president, training.
* Ownership: Miller, Badick and Brausen.
* Profile: Safety Boss, which bills itself as the Canadian Blowout Company, provides professional services in firefighting, safety, rescue and training. Safety Boss teams fight oilwell fires, blowouts, pipeline ruptures and processing-facility fires in North America, southeast Asia and the Middle East. The company
pioneered the design and construction of the ‘Smokey’
firefighter systems.
* Claim to fame: Safety Boss forged its reputation in the Kuwait Fires Project after the 1991 Gulf War by capping a record-breaking 180 burning wells in 200 days.
* Web site:
* Head office: 921-9th Ave SE, Calgary, T2G 0S5 (the company also has offices in Red Deer and Grande Prairie).
* Phone/Fax: 403-261-5075, 261-4858.