By George Hohmann
For the W.Va. Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Armed with a masters in business administration, a law degree and a decade of high-octane work experience, 35-year-old Sarah Smith could probably build a future anywhere.
While some have chosen to leave West Virginia for perceived greener pastures, Smith has committed to growing her career in the Mountain State.
Smith lives in Charleston but her work revolves around Gilmer County, where her family has deep roots in the oil and natural gas business. Smith said she’s laying the groundwork for the company to expand when the industry’s current downturn ends.
“I grew up around the oil and gas industry,” Smith said in a May interview during the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association’s Spring Meeting at Stonewall Resort.
Her grandfather, Gene Stalnaker, was in the oil and gas business. Smith’s mother, Judy, an educator, once had a business that provided well and water treatment for oil and gas companies. And in 1978 her father, Gregory A. Smith, established a related business — SLS Land Surveying Inc. — with one employee.
“It was neat seeing the way my Dad’s business grew,” Smith said. She remembers listening to accounts of the industry’s highs and lows and about projects the family’s companies were involved in.
She graduated from Glenville State College in 2001 with majors in history and political science and a minor in public administration. She earned a law degree from West Virginia University in 2004 and, along the way, picked up a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Charleston.
“Prior to and during law school I knew a traditional law practice was not going to be for me,” she said. “I always had an interest in government, in politics. I got bit by the political bug pretty early, just going to Charleston to page at the Legislature as a student. I loved that.”
She also had a summer job working for lawyer Philip Reale’s government-relations practice, “which I loved,” she said. “Long story short, I ended up in government relations.”
She did legislative work for almost six years for then-Gov. Joe Manchin, which led to an opportunity to go to the private sector.
Around 2010 she moved to Alpha Natural Resources as its West Virginia director of government and external affairs. She was with Alpha when the company bought Massey Energy Co. for $7.1 billion, creating a coal giant with 14,000 employees and more than 5 billion tons of coal reserves.
Smith said she had a lot to learn about the coal business and “had the experience to go underground multiple times” — a still-rare opportunity for women.
“I’ve been blessed to have had really great work experiences, from the things I was able to do to the things I learned and the people I met and the process,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate.”
When the coal industry began to falter, Smith jumped at the opportunity to work at her alma mater, West Virginia University, as associate vice president for state, corporate and local affairs.
Jim Clements was president of the university but was in the process of handing over the reins to Gordon Gee.
Working with Gee was a tremendous opportunity, Smith said.
“We went on a 55-county tour,” she recalled. “It really is eye-opening to see all of the different regions of our state and understand those different cultures.”
As for Smith’s thoughts on working with Gee — the former president of the University of Colorado, Brown University, Vanderbilt University and The Ohio State University: “Talk about someone who has a vast knowledge and life experiences! There certainly was lots to learn from him.”
Working for WVU was much different from working as a private-sector lobbyist, she said. “You find yourself back to being a public employee, not technically a lobbyist but, still, advocating on behalf of the university and higher-education issues. It was a big switch from coal-industry issues.”
Meanwhile, in Glenville, the Smith companies had grown by diversifying into numerous activities related to the oil and gas business, such as well pad design, geotechnical services and residential and commercial construction. The companies typically have 55 to 60 employees.
Smith said she was never pressured to participate in the family enterprises. “It was always, ‘There’s an opportunity there if I wanted it.’”
And then an outside party offered to buy the businesses.
“When I started to think about it, there was a gut feeling that I would have regretted it if I had not given it a shot. It tugged at my heartstrings to think it would just go away.”
Last July she took the role of executive vice president of SLS Land and Energy Development.
Before the downturn in the oil and gas business, “things were so busy that the work just came through the door,” she said. Now, with things moving slower, Smith is learning the ins and outs of the family’s enterprises and focusing on business development, client relations, marketing, and public relations.
The goal is to lay the groundwork “so once things pick back up — hopefully sooner rather than later — we can hit the ground running.
“We’ve got a great group of folks. Some have been with my Dad since the 1980s and some are new,” she said. “Obviously it’s important to know you’ve got some good, talented folks who want to be in the area and want to stay and you can groom and invest in them and hope they do the same with you.”
Keeping bright, talented professionals in a small town “is certainly something we don’t take for granted,” Smith said, explaining that some employees may consider leaving for more money or for a bigger place or may simply want to leave the area.
Most of the Smith companies’ employees are regional to Gilmer County but the firm now embraces telecommuting. Smith, in fact, telecommutes from Charleston and travels to Glenville several days each week.
“We just hired an engineer who lives in Morgantown,” Smith said. “She will come in a couple of days a week and work from home. Technology makes it so much easier, and it helps with recruitment.”
“Some people want the small-town life. But it’s definitely a hurdle, a challenge. A lot of top talent isn’t going to want to move to a teeny-tiny stoplight town, even with all of its charms. It’s just not for everybody. That’s certainly something you have to be mindful of when thinking about the path forward for the company. I think it’s really important that we utilize technology and not box ourselves in.”
Having said that, Smith added, “I love the fact it is a business that’s been in that region and provides good jobs and benefits.”
“That was not lost on me,” Smith said about her decision to commit to the family’s businesses.
“Some of the folks we have in the office, I’ve gone to school with and now they have children,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to give back and provide and be a good community partner.”
When in state government, Smith worked with Scott Cosco, who was Manchin’s director of intergovernmental affairs.
“I’ve known Sarah for 14 years, and in all of the time that I’ve known her she’s been a dedicated, professional co-worker, and an incredible friend,” Cosco said. “She is smart, has a good business sense, is classy and comes from a great family.
“Everything about Sarah is West Virginia. Even though she lives in Charleston now, she remains devoted to Gilmer County, where she grew up, started her education, and where she helps run the family business today.
“There seems to be a strong focus on people leaving the state,” Cosco said. “Sarah is an example of someone who stays because she is committed to making a difference.”