Executive Profile of Check-6 CEO, Yarema, “JJ” Sos. Stephen Pendergrass, a Video Production Coordinator at Diamond Offshore, is continuing his studies in Journalism. He spent several weeks interning with Check-6 in our Houston office, and wrote the following profile:
His parents named him Yarema Sos, but his employees call him “JJ”. As President and
CEO of Check-6, a consulting firm comprised of former TOPGUN instructors, astronauts and special forces operatives, using his call sign at work seems appropriate. After all, his aviator mindset of continuous improvement is critical not only to his company’s success, but also in helping to prove to the world that the oil and gas industry can operate error-free. It’s a tall order.
It’s Monday morning and Sos is busy preparing for his company’s weekly international phone conference in Houston, TX. He’s scurrying in and out of his office which smells like freshly brewed coffee. His wooden desk is covered with receipts, a silver Dell laptop, and a few stacks of notebooks. On his office walls hang several framed pictures of fighter jets. It was only a few years ago that Check-6 was “three people around a card table”. Today the company has grown to 250 international employees and contractors, and their reputation for getting results is quickly spreading throughout the oil and gas industry. The company was ranked #100 by Inc. magazine’s list of fastest growing companies in the U.S. in 2011. The same year the Macondo tragedy occurred, the company saw a growth of 2,661%. (Check-6 training had not been implemented on the Deepwater Horizon, the rig involved in the incident.)
Sos plops down in his chair behind his desk, gulps the remaining bit of coffee from a paper cup, tosses it in the trash and then immediately takes a swig from his plastic water container. The Vanderbilt engineering graduate starts thumbing through a stack of crumpled receipts on his desk. At 49, Sos is about 6-feet tall and has an athletic build. He ran a half-marathon last week. His dark brown hair is short and neat, but long enough to part perfectly to the right. His white shirt is starched and unbuttoned at the top, and stitched on the chest area is the Check-6 logo.
“Monday mornings are where we get together and communicate,” says Sos, referring to the international phone conference kicking off in a few minutes. He says that his employees are working all over the globe and that communication is critical. “This is a day where we drink our own Kool-Aid. We really do try to practice what we preach and talk about communication and ways to improve.”
The high-risk characteristics associated with the oil and gas industry are similar to those found in military aviation. Mistakes in either industry can easily lead to massive losses of life and assets, as seen in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. In short, Sos’s job is to lead his team as they help ensure that their clients’ personnel don’t make mistakes, but if they do, that they don’t happen again. According to many oil and gas industry executives, Sos’s team has been highly successful in achieving these goals.
Scott Vaughn, vice president of health, safety and environment for Diamond Offshore, the world’s second-largest offshore drilling company, says that Sos’s team played a substantial role in helping his company achieve its safest year ever in 2012.
“They’ve been an awesome investment,” says Vaughn. “The guys out on the rigs respect what they have to say, and they’re definitely helping with safe operations.”
Sos has been sending members of his Check-6 team to Diamond Offshore’s rigs for a few years now. Once onboard the rigs, the Check-6 teams work closely with rig personnel to study how they perform everyday tasks and to develop custom-made safety systems that foster continuous improvement. One of the first things Check-6 noticed upon working with Diamond Offshore was that the company’s job safety analysis process, a system by which personnel list the steps in a job and determine ways to mitigate the hazards involved, could be improved substantially. Check-6′s recommendations for improvement have evolved into its Job Planning System, a computer-based program that helps personnel capture and share job-related wisdom. The program has been so effective on drilling rigs that recently NASA requested a version of the program and is now using it on a trial basis.
Year by year, Check-6 is picking up major clients left and right. As with growth at any company, some pains can be expected. Sos says that in the past two years Check-6 has had four “customer service issues” where communication had broken down and led to subpar service for his clients. While most international companies experiencing comparable growth might be happy with such a low number of customer service issues, Sos says there isn’t any room for error.
“Unlike other oil field services companies that provide essential products such as mud or drilling equipment, our services are seen as discretionary,” says Sos. “While training, safety and leadership are critical to success, companies don’t have to use Check-6 to extract carbon.”
Sos is accustomed to working in environments where even the smallest errors are unacceptable. For fifteen years, he flew F-14′s for the U.S. Navy and was even selected to attend TOPGUN as a student in 1990. In 1996, he was invited back as an instructor. He also says that TOPGUN is not anything like what most people think.
“There are two things accurately portrayed in the movie TOPGUN,” says Sos. “First of all, there is a place called TOPGUN. Second, people fly jets there.”
Check-6′s sudden growth is keeping Sos busy. ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron and several other big players in the industry have recently recruited Sos’s teams to help them revolutionize their safe work practices. Sos says he has had to work hard to “stay out of the weeds” during his company’s rapid growth and instead focus on handling “strategic aspects” of the company. He’s proud of his company’s success, but he’s quick to point out that he’s fortunate to have such brilliant individuals working for him, many of whom who happen to be service-disabled veterans.
Sos’s relationship with the military and a commitment to country began at an early age. Both of his parents are immigrants from the Ukraine. His grandparents had to flee their native country in the middle of World War II, around the time he says that his grandfather was murdered by the Soviet Secret Police (NKVD) in 1942. Soon after coming to the U.S., Sos’s father served in the U.S. Air Force, went to college on the G.I. Bill, then worked for NASA for twenty-six years. His mother worked as a linguist for the Department of Defense for more than twenty years. He says his family is a textbook example of the American dream. He says his family still has a deep pride in their Ukrainian heritage, and he was even featured in the U.S.-based Ukrainian Weekly in 1997, when he was named “Aviator of the Year” by the Commander of the Naval Air Pacific in Japan.
Sos suddenly picks up his silver Dell laptop and carries it over into the conference room just around the corner. The conference call begins as dozens of Check-6 team members working from around the globe say they’re present often by using their call signs such as “Motek” and “Burner”. Over the next two hours, the President and CEO listens closely to what his team members are doing to ensure that Check-6 and the clients they serve are achieving continuous improvement in safety and efficiency. Before he joins in on any conversation, he says, “This is JJ.”