Study hall was obligatory when Mary Ann Pearce was a junior in high school in Butte, and she simply despised it. One day, she learned of a way out—apply for college scholarships in the guidance office. That decision secured a spot at Montana State University and an eventual career in chemical engineering that has taken her around the world.
“I had no idea what chemical engineering was about,” Pearce said. “But, I’d always been good at science and math, so I thought I’d give it a try.”
So Pearce, the daughter of a mining foreman and an active volunteer, enrolled at MSU, becoming the first in her family to attend college. She was hooked immediately, thanks in large part to the guidance of faculty members, such as chemical engineering professor Lloyd Berg.
“When I look back on people who changed my life, Dr. Berg really did,” Pearce said. “(He) made sure we learned what we needed to and then had a job to use it.”
So when Pearce asked for help finding a summer job after her sophomore year, Berg gave her a list of corporate contacts. Pearce wrote to them all. Her first summer job was with DuPont—the only company that responded—in Wilmington, Del. The next summer, through Berg’s contacts, Pearce interned with ConocoPhillips in Houston. She made such an impression that she had a project engineering job waiting for her upon graduation in 1976.
Immediately, Pearce was drawn to the natural gas industry and ConocoPhillips’ processing group. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, “Natural gas was really a nuisance,” Pearce said. “Those projects didn’t have big budgets and weren’t in the spotlight (as were oil projects), so they naturally attracted engineers who were used to forging new paths, especially women.” Pearce’s abilities earned her project management roles and a spot in the company’s management development program.
—Mary Ann Pearce
With the exception of a four-year period when Pearce was on her own as an independent consultant, over the next 30 years Pearce steadily grew her management responsibilities in the company’s natural gas divisions and headed projects in Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, as well as China, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Trinidad and Vietnam. She was one of 14 employees chosen to establish strategies and tactics to prepare the company to enter the 2000s.
Pearce managed ConocoPhillips’ Asia Pacific natural gas business, which included developing a project to sell Indonesian gas to Singapore through a 300-mile sub-sea pipeline. While attempting to create a similar project in China, an Asian financial crisis hit, and the project came to a halt. Pearce was in her hotel room in China weighing her options when the phone rang. Conoco asked her to lead the natural gas gathering and processing business back in Houston. Pearce packed her bags, spent all her Chinese currency and headed home.
“I still remember the feeling I had hearing the wheels coming up on the underbelly of the plane and knowing I was going home,” Pearce said.
Back in the states, Pearce found herself in charge of an engineering team of more than 300 people, 5,000 miles of gas-gathering lines, seven processing plants, and a coal-bed-methane system in another time zone. Her comfort with change and bringing it about led to cost reductions, contract restructuring and training of frontline team members—field workers, technicians, people who were always “hands-on”—to run portions of the business. In just one year, departmental earnings went from $7 million to $75 million, and Pearce’s talent for working with people, especially during times of change, was proven.
“When I moved into that area, it was like coming home,” Pearce said. “They were a lot like the people I grew up with, a lot like my mom and dad. Hard working and honest.” Pearce found she was a good advocate for others, helping them use the tools at hand to help them. Because of this success, Pearce steadily climbed the corporate ranks, retiring in 2010 as the manager for ConocoPhillips’ commercial activities in the lower 48 states.
“With engineering, when you’re changing a process, you get immediate feedback,” Pearce said. “That’s not the case with people. I enjoyed that challenge.”
Pearce credits this type of advocacy and mentorship—the same that she received from her own mother, Berg, and from ConocoPhillips—as being “critical” to her success at MSU and in her career. She feels “it’s important to do for younger people what others did for me.” Now, Pearce is busy doing just that.
An active Junior Achievement instructor, Pearce is a leading mentor in the Houston-area Women’s Energy Network, and the program director of the ConocoPhillips Houston Area Retiree Association. She is also creating opportunities for MSU alumni as well. Along with fellow alumni David Ayers, Zoanne (Wynne) Zapata, Scott Kufeld and Mark Judeman, Pearce recently established the Houston-area MSU Alumni Association Chartered Chapter, the first in the nation.
“I’ve seen how powerful the Texas alumni networks are and how important they are in business and in daily life,” Pearce said. She said she believes that opportunity for MSU alumni in the Houston area will “have such a significant impact for them and for MSU.”
She is also providing for students. In 2005, she and her husband, David Gray, established a scholarship endowment at MSU in honor of her mother. The Olive Pearce Scholarship supports new or continuing College of Engineering students—the same opportunity she had nearly 40 years ago.
“MSU opened opportunities to me all over the world,” Pearce said. “I get to show my gratitude to Montana State, my mom and Dr. Berg. And I have an ongoing connection to MSU and Montana. It’s the perfect opportunity to give back to the university that gave so much to me.” ■