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How Gigi Lazenby Became ‘Queen of the Strippers'

Office assistant turned MBA rose to become national leader in petroleum industry

Virginia B. "Gigi" Lazenby
Founder and CEO, Bretagne, LLC

Vanderbilt MBA 1973

Virginia “Gigi” Banks Lazenby graduated from Vanderbilt with a degree in European history and fine arts—and few job prospects. When family friend Henry Hooker, BA’54, said that he would hire her as his assistant if she learned to type and take dictation, she was more than willing to oblige.

The job would turn out to be a window to some of the most exciting entrepreneurial ventures Nashville has ever seen. In the late ’60s Hooker helped launch the ill-fated Minnie Pearl Fried Chicken restaurant chain. He also helped found Hospital Corporation of America, which is today the largest private provider of health care facilities in the world.

As Gigi witnessed these ventures take shape, her interest in business grew. At Hooker’s encouragement she decided to enroll in the MBA program at Vanderbilt. “What I really learned at Owen was the ability to work with people and deal with them,” she says. “There’s a lot more to running a business than crunching numbers.”

After graduation she joined up again with Hooker, who was then in the oil business. In this industry Gigi found her calling. She struck out on her own in 1988 to form Bretagne LLC, an oil and gas exploration and production company in Eastern Kentucky.

Her workers operate “stripper wells,” which produce less than 15 barrels a day by injecting nitrogen into the wells, letting it soak with the oil and then “puff” it back out. It’s slow going, but as much as 18 percent of the oil in the United States is produced in such a fashion, she says, adding that she sometimes begins presentations by jokingly referring to herself as “queen of the strippers.”

She also has served on the board of directors of the Independent Petroleum Association of America and on the National Petroleum Council. In meetings of the former—which promotes understanding about industry concerns, including taxation, accessibility and regulation—Gigi often is the only woman in the room.

As CEO Gigi has successfully navigated the ups and downs of the oil and gas business. In her office is a photo that reminds her of why she perseveres through times when oil prices sag and equipment breaks. In that photo, 40 oil field workers—blue-collar guys in overalls living off the sweat of their brow—look happily into the camera at lunchtime. “Without Bretagne, they wouldn’t have a job,” she says. “This is why I keep going.”

Visitors to Gigi’s office may also notice another photograph, of a smiling young man standing beside a gas pump at a Spur Gas station in Henderson, Kentucky. The photo was taken in 1931, and the man is Gigi’s father, who eventually worked his way to become president of that same company, Spur Distributing.

His persistence and dedication are characteristics that Gigi has taken to heart in her own career She may have come a long way since those days of few job prospects, but she has not forgotten the lessons she learned. For today’s students who find themselves in a similar position, she offers this advice: “Don’t worry so much about where your job is or how much you’ll be paid. Just find a job and do it well. Appreciate all the people you work with, and go from there.”

You never know, after all, when you might hit paydirt.

“Don’t worry so much about where your job is or how much you’ll be paid. Just find a job and do it well.”