Sovereignty by the Barrel: D. Dave Williams, President and CEO, Missouri River Resources

Dave Williams is a Native Business Top 30 CEO.

With perseverance, God’s grace and optimism (“the curse of an oil man”), Williams built and leads Missouri River Resources

D. Dave Williams was just 19 years old when he started working in the oil field. It was the summer after his freshman year at Dickinson State University, where he played college football. “I was a rookie — they call them grunts or worms, a new guy who’s the greenhorn in the oil field,” Williams laughs. “My first day at work, I was pulling pipe out of the ground.”

Just prior to his scheduled return to football practice and his sophomore year, Williams received a paycheck for 160 hours for two weeks of work. He was hooked. “I was hesitant to tell my mom, but I quit college and stayed in the oil field,” says Williams, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara (MHA) Nation. 

From a 19-year-old grunt to President and CEO of Missouri River Resources, D. Dave Williams has worked in all facets of the oil industry. Click To Tweet

For the next 12 years, Williams worked in all facets of the industry with Gulf-Chevron Oil Company from 1979-1991. “I worked all over — Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Utah, West Texas, North Texas, Oklahoma,” he says. 

When the price of oil plummeted to $7-8 a barrel, Williams returned to school, intending to study petroleum engineering at North Dakota State University. That program was phased out, so he pursued his other passion: education and coaching — a career Williams enjoyed for nearly 20 years. 

Life later landed Williams and his wife back in New Town, North Dakota, where Williams took a position as head high school baseball coach. Six years later, the Bakken oil field started to boom. 

Finding Our Compass in the Bakken 

Williams had a unique advantage, given his diverse experience in the industry — from drilling wells to completions of wells to serving as a lease operator in the Permian Basin in West Texas. He was ready to dive in head-first, forging a path of economic and energy sovereignty for the MHA Nation. 

Williams spoke to the Chairman and Council at the time, and in 2008, he took on the title of Exploration and Production Analyst for the MHA Nation. “I was working with a gentleman named Councilman Scott Eagle, and we were just trying to find our compass in the Bakken, and figuring out what to do,” Williams says. 

Efforts to create a shared vision and path forward fell short at the time. “We had leased out the Tribe’s portion of land to almost all the oil companies that came in,” Williams says. 

Come 2010, Williams convinced then-Chairman Tex Hall to grant a resolution for Williams to start a company — tasked with the mission of securing money and land for the Tribal business. 

Williams tapped his resources, flying to visit the Southern Ute Indian Reservation in Colorado in 2010. “They were very highly successful in creating an oil gas company in the Indian Country. I went down there by myself and asked for their business plan, and they gave me their business plan from 1991,” Williams says. 

The Southern Utes had previously leased about 25,000 acres on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation — “but there was no fossil fuels there, and no hydrocarbons,” Williams said. So the Southern Utes didn’t sell or renew their lease, and the MHA Nation inherited those non-producing lands — “except, except,” Williams emphasizes, “part of that lease [included] a 320-acre lease, right next to Mandaree. For me, that was a little bit of intervention by God.”

Williams created a resolution to hold those 320 acres. “And I said, when the time comes, when I get money, I’m going to drill four wells on that lease. And I held on to it.” 

Williams and the Tribe officially formed Missouri River Resources, complete with a Board of Directors, in 2011. “And I fortunately found a few hundred thousand dollars through a deal that the Tribe overlooked,” Williams explains. 

Persistence Wears Down Resistance 

Come 2013, oil prices reached $147 a barrel, and the Tribe was financially stable, thanks to their oil leases that had generated a few hundred million dollars over the past 5 years.  

Williams approached the Tribal Council again. “They allowed an equity infusion for us to drill our first four wells,” Williams says. Meanwhile, Missouri River Resources had acquired a minority interest in about 15 other wells, and Williams secured another resolution for “first right of refusal — essentially, if there’s any breadcrumbs, please pass them this way,” he says of unleased Tribal land. “We were kind of surviving on working interest.” 

It was an historic moment when the Tribe drilled its first wells. “Out of respect for the Nation, we named the first four wells: The Mandan, The Hidatsa, The Arikara and The Nation. We put our proverbial flag in the Bakken,” Wiliams says. “It was a good feeling.” 

Williams’ success is rooted in perseverance. “My tenacity or my self-determination to pursue maybe what people think is impossible…. I’m a can-do-it guy,” Williams says.  

Today, Missouri River Resources’ total acreage is over 4,300 acres. The company has developed 8 producing wells and has participated in 26 working interest wells in the Bakken oil play in western North Dakota.

“We drilled four other wells a year ago — which are the highest producing mile lateral wells in a 60-mile radius in the market, which really put a feather in our cap. We’re really upping our completion techniques,” Williams says. 

“As a Native oil company that really came from the ashes, so to speak, we’ve almost produced over 2 million barrels of oil on our own, as just a little company with 10-12 employees,” Williams continues. “For us, it’s phenomenal. I mean, we’re not Exxon or Texaco, or anybody like that. We’re just a small oil company that goes to work every day, puts our nose to the grindstone, and contributes as much as we can. But I believe we’re doing a job over and above.” 

And hard work pays off. 

“We do have another 33 wells right now to drill. So we’re looking forward to a 33-well program that would bring us to a higher level, or the medium echelon in the Bakken. And God willing, we could be producing, instead of 1,200 barrels a day, 12,000 barrels a day. So our expectations are high. We’re very optimistic. I think that’s the curse of an oil man — optimism. But I always look up at the sky when I ask for something. And God usually provides if we work hard enough.” 

Leading From the Front

Dave Williams’ morning starts off at 6 a.m., when the satellite TV kicks on a Christian station, and he sits for half an hour, with his coffee, listening to the message. That’s followed by a prayer, board meetings, “and looking forward to God’s grace. Then we go to work and try to create an atmosphere where our employees are happy to work there,” he says. “We’ve been doing that now for eight years.” 

Williams then heads to the oil field. “I’ll go to the locations and check on the pumpers out there. We’ve got three pumpers that are all Tribal members,” he says. 

Next he pays a visit to the operations managers, the landman and hired experts. “In any business, you’ve got to get the right people on the bus,” Williams states. 

Williams considers his Chief Operating Officer the most essential tool in his tool shed. “It’s Ron Kaler. If I don’t have a Chief Operating Officer who knows his stuff, I can’t drill a well. I can’t make any money. Period,” Williams says. 

To put things into perspective: North Dakota produces nearly 1.5 million barrels of oil per day. It the second largest oil-producing state in the nation behind Texas. “So our work ethic up here is very high — especially, you know, when it’s 40 below,” Williams adds. 

And that’s a two-way street. Williams employees show up for the job, because he shows up for them. “I can’t emphasize enough: you’re the leader. And by leading everyday, it sets the tone for years to come.” 

In addition to regular safety trainings, Williams is big on communication. “I make sure, especially in the winter, that everybody touches base with me and tells me that they made it to the location,” Williams says. “The work doesn’t mean anything unless you back it up with being a safe operator, a responsible operator,” he adds. 

At the end of the day, it’s his love for his Tribe and people that motivates Williams. “I love my people. I want to create a better environment and possibilities for the kids. I put my heart and soul into helping our youth,” says Williams. “We’re blessed with this oil. The money we get, our kids and elders can have access to better healthcare. Our youth can go to college,” says Williams, who himself counts three kids and nine grandchildren. 

“It’s all heartfelt,” Williams says. “It’s my land, and it’s my people. I have blood, sweat and tears in this.”

D. Dave Williams, President and CEO of Missouri River Resources, was named a Top 30 CEO in Indian Country by​ Native Business Magazine. His profile originally appeared in our 2019 Leadership issue.