Friday, January 30, 2009

customer service

Does your business use IKON or Pitney Bowes? Stop as soon as possible, but try not to break any leases. I've been wrangling with the closing of many vendor accounts and those two have been incredibly frustrating.

It has taken 11 phone calls (so far) to close our Pitney Bowes account. I'm not really sure where to begin to voice my frustration. Apparently here.

IKON has been no better. While it hasn't taken as many phone calls, it has taken over two months of back and forth to reach a non-vomit-inducing settlement. During my last phone call with them, I was transferred twice just to get back to the main phone system menu where I started. I was transferred two more times until I finally reached a very friendly person who actually wanted to help me. But who were the first four people?

It does sort of make me think what kind of customer service experience people get when they try and call us. Many clients call about W-15s which are a particular type of cement job reports that must be filed with the Railroad Commission of Texas. We always send an original with the invoice we send but people like to lose them or call three years later and say we must not have sent one or whatever. We dig through our records, make another copy, get it signed and send it again. But now that they can't call us, the process has probably become somewhat more frustrating for them. The resourceful ones have figured out how to reach someone who can help them. I'm not really sure what the rest are doing.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

back dated posts - check 'em out

Once again, I've cheated and put up a bunch of backdated posts.

maserati in victoria

I saw a Maserati today. In Victoria, TX. It was a Quattroporte.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

earnings call, part II

So what was actually said on the earnings call? And what, if anything, did I learn? A lot and a lot.

For starters, currency matters. Great quote came about 18 minutes in when Gould (CEO) said, "Actually almost all our weakness this quarter in the North Sea came from the devaluation of the pound against the US dollar."

Over the several years when the US dollar was losing value against almost every currency, any company that did a majority of their business overseas but was traded in the States benefited greatly from the devaluation trend. Now that the US dollar has bounced back (though it's probably a dead cat bounce) those overseas profits aren't going to be quite so big. (My take on the valuation of the US dollar is essentially that if we're determined to print our way out of this financial train wreck, then those dollars you're holding are going to be worth less when it's all said and done. A lot less. But, if Europe also jumps on the printing press gravy train, then the loss of value in the USD might be a wash, at least relative to some currencies.)

Venezuela also came up again. I remember several quarters ago (Google crunching reveals it to be Q2 of 2007) when an analyst asked Gould to characterize the relationship that Schlumberger had with PDVSA (the state-owned national oil company in Venezuela). Suffice to say, Gould said that Schlumberger was 'happy' with the relationship. The relationship, regardless of its health, isn't something Gound could really comment on other than what he said. Even if it had been going badly, what would anyone expect to hear? Keep in mind that there was a fair bit of anti-US sentiment coming out of Chavez' mouth at that time. This time, Venezuela came up when someone mentioned a report that PDVSA's accounts payables had reached a total of $7.9 billion for their vendors. Gould expressed confidence in receiving payment from all the NOCs eventually (implicitly including PDVSA) albeit with probably generally longer terms. He cited a case back when he first started, "Since I’ve been in this business we’ve never not been paid by anyone. Well, never say never but when I first joined Schlumberger one of the NOC’s didn’t pay us [at first] and they paid us seven years later." Better late than never. Of course, this could always happen. Force majeure wins again.

The downturn in the economy has brought with it a dramatic decrease in the price of most commodities. Relevant to this discussion (other than oil which we'll get to) is steel. So much is made from steel. Rigs, pipe, other pipe, trucks, most metal things really. We don't do a lot with plastics. Raw price material decreases will help a great deal as long as they filter through the system and that will take upwards of a year.

It should come as no surprise that lower oil prices means fewer economical projects. This essentially means that almost all "new categories" of oil development are not commercial at current prices. Things like enhanced oil recovery, ultra-deep, heavy oil, tar sands, coal-to-liquids and gas-to-liquids are largely not worthwhile at this point. This will lead to a decrease in exploration and eventually a decrease in production. This will only be partially offset with the decrease in commodity prices. Some projects will be reassessed and deemed economical given lower raw material costs. However, new production will still be curtailed and existing production will decrease given natural decline rates.

All this means that the thesis that Gould has espoused since at least 2005 remains intact. That thesis is that the long-term era of cheap oil is over. While not explicitly stated during this call, the fundamentals don't really change even given the seemingly dark days immediately ahead. Lower prices mean fewer new projects which will eventually lead to lower production or at least more constrained existing production. The biggest variable is when demand will recover and the industry has very little say in that. There has been genuine demand destruction, not just plateauing, for most materials and it will take time to recover. Nonetheless, when it does the supply capacity will need to bounce back very quickly and we just might get another price spike. Maybe we'll get to do this all over again.

Friday, January 23, 2009

earnings call

Does anyone else listen to earnings conference calls? Schlumberger announced fourth quarter and full year 2008 results today. I've listened to most of the calls in the last couple years out of a combination of personal interest, intellectual curiosity, and a chance to listen our CEO during what are usually excellent question and answer segments. The typical call is about an hour long with the first 15 minutes dedicated to earnings announcements and the rest of the call given over to a Q&A period. Our CEO usually fields most of the questions, however some questions get fielded by the CFO or the CEO might address one of the other executives for additional information on a specific topic.

Obviously, I have a degree of insight during the SLB call given my own experiences here and what I've learned about the workings of other segments and the company as a whole. The SLB calls are also incredibly informative during the Q&A sessions and if you know what's what, then there's a great deal to learn, specifically about what our CEO thinks about the overall market direction and how operators (the companies or nations that actually produce oil and/or natural gas) interact and contract with service companies (like SLB). Since I sort of know how some aspects of the company work, it's interesting to listen to how some questions get answered and what information can be shared and what is deemed too 'strategic' to divulge, usually about how CAPEX is allocated and other areas concerning the deployment of resources as well as questions about ongoing contract negotiations.

I am sometimes amused by the subtle awkwardness during the conference calls. On this latest call, an analyst asked, "Have you become incrementally more negative over the last two months?" The answer was a one word "Yes" and then followed by a short, but noticeable pause as if the analyst expected the CEO to elaborate further. It reminded me of the Q3 call which seemed to carry a more stressed tenor than previous calls, perhaps because it was in the midst of the beginning of this credit meltdown and it's larger impact was just stating to ripple through the oil and gas industry. However, now that the overall economy (for everywhere, not just the US) is badly stressed (what a great euphemism), this latest call seemed much more frank and open about how the economy is impacting the sector which is to say the current exploration and production market is severely weakened to the point that it will noticeably impact 2009 fiscal performance and possibly necessitate further head count reductions. Essentially, times are tough right now and very few are immune, especially any company this big.

I have yet to listen to the earnings call for any other company, but it is something I should really do. While I would lack the familiarity I have with SLB, it would still be an interesting undertaking. Some might even say it is a necessary exercise if I were to own such a company's individual stock (outside of a mutual fund or similar vehicle). So does anyone listen to calls for their own employers or previous employers? Yeah, you know who you are who recently worked for two sizable tech firms in the Bay Area. Any insights?

I must wonder if listening to the call for any finance-related company in the last several years would have been useful or if it merely would have distorted my eager and innocent mind from properly understanding how big banks are supposed to be run. Given the financial voodoo that apparently went on in the last few years, how awful of a knowledge base would those calls have been? This just might be the right time to start listening to conference calls for the big financial service firms. But with a twist of cynicism.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

holding steady, getting closer, presumably

No news is indeed no news. Not a lot to say, still here in Victoria, biding my time, somewhat frustrated by the visa process, but making progress. Work is basically a ghost town now with the departure of a the last of some key items this week.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

simpsons and pandas, not related

From an episode of The Simpsons.

Smithers: Sir, were those real bullets?
Burns: Yes, was that a real gorilla?
Smithers: No.
Burns: Ahh, I see.

To balance that dark humor, here's a picture of some pandas. Looks like something some people siblings would do.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

flying ritual

With the very recent crash of US Airways flight 1549 and the apparent safety of all on board, I suspect most people who fly with any frequency give thought to their own flight history and future flight plans. There are certain things I do for every flight I take. Rituals of sorts, habits, idiosyncrasies of mine.

I always read the aircraft safety card regardless of how many times I have been on that particular model of aircraft. I might just glance through it if I'm on the return leg of a short trip, but I always take it out of the seat back and read it. Of course I know that my seat can be a floatation device, how to put on a life vest, taking care of my oxygen before helping the unaccompanied minor in the seat next to mine, and of course I know how to put on a seat belt. None of that matters, I still read the card and I always note the exits, how to open them, and I sometimes check out the people sitting int he exit row perhaps to judge their worthiness.

I used to always the same shirt. It's this gray/black horizontally striped shirt. You've probably seen it if you've met me at least five times since I wear it about once a week. I've given up wearing that shirt as of late, but some of that has to do with some of the particulars of my laundry and travel circumstances surrounding the recent trips I've been on.

Since I've started work, my backpack is my one and only carry on. If you are one of those people who carries on a suspiciously large suitcase along with a personal item that is either a backpack or a large purse then I hate you. Your suitcase is too large to fit properly inside the overhead bin. You are also an inconsiderate person as you are likely holding up the boarding and deplaning processes as you stalk five rows either ahead or behind of where you're sitting in order to find space for your gargantuan man purse.

My checked bags depending on how much I need to take are almost always my black Travelpro bag and my olive green tote bag. Both are quality bags, have held up to a lot of abuse, but unfortunately, one of them will probably not make the cut on my next flight across a large body of water. Simplify, but not that much.

atlas shrugged - comes to life!

As this economic hullabaloo has unfolded, the way the 'bailout' money has been handled and the dubious decision making that has taken place, I was struck by how much the way this has been unfolding resembles large portions of Atlas Shrugged. For anyone unfamiliar with it, um, find a good summary somewhere. If you wish to actually read the entire novel, you can save some time by skipping anything that resembles a multi-page monologue and just read the first and last pages.

Then I stumbled upon a Wall Street Journal article comparing the continuing disasterpiece that is our response to financial crises to Atlas Shrugged. Vindication for my musings!

I sincerely hope that no one thinks that the government has been getting good deals with its money. By the way, it's actually your money. Courtesy of my favorite financial blogger, take a gander at how well the government is doing against private investors. But why oh why are we doing so terribly. Well, Mr. Ritholtz sums it up pretty well and it all starts with not having a plan. Unless of course that plan had something to do with reelection which, of course, is always in the interest of the proletariat. Well, the politicians think so and surely that's good enough.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

jack in the box comes to victoria

Jack in the Box has opened a location in Victoria. Somewhat coincidentally, a Buffalo Wild Wings also opened a location but the other side of town. (Yes, this town is big enough to have opposite sides that aren't simply across the street from each other.) I haven't eaten at the JITB yet, but I have had occasion to drive by on my way to, well, it doesn't really matter where I was going. (FedEx.) Anyway, it opened just two days ago on Monday, though the local paper indicated that they did some sort of food giveaway last Friday. I drove by at both 11:15 AM and 4:45 PM today. Both times, the parking lot was full and the drive-thru line was at least a dozen cars deep. Evidently, the people of Victoria are thrilled that they no longer have to drive 50+ miles to El Campo to the next closest location.

The Jack in the Box is also sporting a new logo on the sign out front, but the classic logo is still prevalent on almost everything except the front marquee. (I cruised through the parking lot pondering how much gas was being wasted in the drive-thru line.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

the BCS "championship" game

I sort of watched the BCS 'championship' game (several other bowl games) and couldn't help but think that these teams were all terrible. The leap between the quality of play in the NFL and the pokey college game is phenomenal.

Friday, January 09, 2009

still in Victoria

I'm still in Victoria, all is well, more or less. I'm still here, still working, and still changing gears again, perhaps more of a reversal than a change. So Bossier is out again, the option/ability to go there fell through due to some of the 'restructuring' going on right now. Hungary is back in, perhaps never officially not on in the first (or second?) place. I'm somewhat stymied by the paperwork process, specifically what I believe to be a phantom mailing address that they insist is real. I've done some digging and found an alternate address using the awesome power of the internets and sent a second mailing out to that address which actually has a street name that can be found on a map. Meh.

Monday, January 05, 2009

southwest commercial

I think I just saw Kingsley busting a move (and a table) in a commercial.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

rental car review: Toyota Prius (circa Sept '08)

Last year, while doting through parts of Switzerland and Germany (and a bit of Liechtenstein and an even tinier bit of Austria which seems counter intuitive), I had the chance to drive a Toyota Prius. It was dubbed Prius Power, which seemed to be an appropriate nickname to convey its surprising strength and obvious electric bonafides.

The current generation Prius is a distinctively mid-size sedan. Obviously, it possesses a distinct shape for both aerodynamic and packaging reasons. The entire rear end with the high trunk floor and subsequent hatchback design is all about getting the batteries to fit, maintaining very respectable storage space, and making sure other drivers know how smug you are about driving a hybrid.

I thought it was a blast to drive, what with the amusing graphics and battery meter and low-end torque (imagine that). With the meter and gauges there, it does indeed become a game to see how much regenerative braking you can do and what kind of total mpg you can achieve. On that front, my only real qualm is the programming that drives the car to attempt to maintain a charge around 70% much of the time (for longevity reasons). This made it very difficult to get the battery much below 50%, even on long uphill sections so when you're going back down the hill, the amount of regenerative braking that is limited because it wasn't possible to force-drain the battery. I believe it is an issue that is being addressed in the next generation which should come out later this year. Or is it early next year?

Interior materials were adequate, nothing flashy, classically and boringly competent. The two hatch glove box was sort of nifty though. I did not like that the radio controls were integrated into the monitor, which is something it looks like I'll have to get over one days since more and more vehicles are adding some sort of GPS/display system. The best manufacturers do seem to have figured out which physical buttons that they need to leave in place.

The Prius is the kind of car naysayers need to drive. It's not going to replace the heavy hauler or whatever a family needs to haul their cargo, trailer, gear, or members, but it's an enjoyable enough commuter vehicle.

Friday, January 02, 2009

rental car review: Ford Fiesta (circa Sept '07)

Looking back on it, I never put in a review of either of the cars I drove on my last two vacations overseas. Looking to right that slight, we'll start with what I can remember about the Ford Fiesta I drove in Spain in September of 2007.

It was small and nimble, but felt a little shaky around 80 mph. Our luggage barely fit in the trunk and we travelled pretty light. We put a lot of miles on it and it was passable as a long distance cruiser, but the higher speeds definitely caused it to strain more than a more powerful car would. I had some trouble getting into a good seating position since the seat didn't go back quite as far as I wanted. Did I mention it was small? But it got solid gas mileage, even driven hard with a lot of semi-questionable U-turns. Fun enough, but definitely a budget sort of auto.

A redesigned Fiesta should launch in Europe this year and hopefully jump across the pond next year. Here's to hoping it can compete with the likes of the Honda Fit, something the Chevy Aveo is woefully in capable of doing.