A lifetime in pipelines

Pigs Unlimited CEO Allen Pennington on quitting school, memorable projects, and the future of the pipeline industry.

Allen Pennington made his start in the pipeline industry when he was just 15 years old, quitting school, moving to a new state, and lying about his age to join a welding crew.

He says “I decided I was ready for the world, so in May of 1965 I went to Mississippi and started my life in pipelines. That was when I started working as a welder’s helper with Houston Construction.

“It was a short project and I was back in Louisiana driving tractors in the soy bean fields soon after.”

With this unconventional start under his belt, Mr Pennington left the industry for several years. He joined the Navy on his 16th birthday, spending the next four years in service.

This included 22 months on the gun line in Vietnam, as well as stops in Subic Bay, Hong Kong and Yokohama.

It was during his time in the Navy that Mr Pennington completed his high school diploma by correspondence.

When he left the Navy, Mr Pennington went to Louisiana Tech to study Business and International Economics.

It wasn’t until he finished his bachelor – some nine years after the Mississippi welding job – that Mr Pennington was hired by United Gas Pipeline and made his formal return to the industry.

From United Gas Pipeline, Mr Pennington moved on to work with a start-up pipeline inspection company called Vetco Pipeline International. It was here that Mr Pennington met his industry mentor, Noel Duckworth.

Mr Pennington remembers his mentor fondly “Noel was larger than life in every aspect of his life. He came from the only other company in the world that was involved in intelligent pigging at that time, Tuboscope.

“Noel taught me pigging, intelligent pigging, pipeline operations and many other disciplines, but what he really taught me that had the most value was to never give up.

“Every day, every client, every new design was covered with that lesson. He had the biggest input into all my future success.”

Aside from showing him the ropes, Mr Duckworth also placed significant challenges in front of Mr Pennington.

As he recalls “Noel once sent me to Argentina and gave me an important assignment. He said to me ‘I hear that Gas del Estado in Argentina is going to run a pipeline inspection, you go down there and get us that contract. Don’t come back without it.’

This was quite a daunting task for someone relatively new for the industry, but Mr Pennington managed to find his feet.

“I didn’t even know where Argentina was or who the company Gas del Estado was, and I had never negotiated an international contract.

“I left for Argentina at the beginning of January. Over the next 5 months I lived in a hotel in Buenos Aires.

“I learned that with enough determination and perseverance you can overcome; in May of that year I signed our first international project.

“Noel sent me back down with the crew to complete the project. I spent enough time in Argentina that I got conversational in international business, international pipeline operations and conversational Spanish.

“He told me what he wanted me to accomplish, and he never doubted it was going to be done. In that situation failure is not part of the thought process. That is a true mentor.”

These days Mr Pennington is the President of Pigs Unlimited and Pipeway International.

“I have been with Pigs Unlimited since its inception in 1995, and with PipeWay since its formation as an international joint venture in 2008,” he explains.

Prior to working with Pigs Unlimited and PipeWay, Mr Pennington held a number of positions in the industry including International Sales Manager at IPSCO, International Sales Representative at Flowserve, and Latin America Sales Representative for Team Industrial Services.

These roles saw him develop expertise in everything from pipelines services and chemical plants, through to hot tapping and line stopping.

Despite his extensive industry experience, Mr Pennington says that there are still some things that stand out, one of these things being the development of the first direct contact magnetic-flux leakage (MFL) tool during his time with Vetco Pipeline International.

“I was part of the team that developed the MFL inspection service for the Trans Alaska Pipeline. We built the first 48 inch MFL tool that passed through the approximately 860 mile (1,384 km) pipeline.

“We also developed the first deformation measurement pig for use in the pipeline with the thought process that if we could measure deformation we could identify land shift and possible pipelines stress,” Mr Pennington recalls.

Having seen MFL developed, applied and taken up by the international pipeline industry, Mr Pennington predicts that the future of pipelines lies in technological advancements.

“I believe that technology will continue to improve at an exponential rate, particularly with sensor development; EMATS sensors hold great promise in the detection of cracks. They are becoming more reliable each year.

“In the cleaning pig area there are hundreds, perhaps thousand of different styles or designs of tools that function for nearly every application.

“The limitations to overcome are wear resistance and temperature, flexibly issues with going through obstacles, bends, and complex multi diameter pipelines.

“Major chemical companies, as well as engineering studies, are working on these now and they will give us the raw material and information in the future to improve in both areas,” he explains.

While the technological future of pipelines looks promising, Mr Pennington acknowledges that it is a slow time for the industry right now, making it a little harder for young people to break in.

For those wishing to make their start in the sector, Mr Pennington advises “Right now one of the best ways to start would be to look for job opening at companies that do pigging in the field.

“I would also suggest taking a look at our group, the Pigging Products and Services Association, and possibly attending key trade shows that companies are be involved with.”

For more information visit the Pigs Unlimited website.

This article was featured in the September edition of Pipelines International. To view the magazine on your PC, Mac, tablet, or mobile device, click here.

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