LIKE PEAS IN A POD, THE PETROFAC AND CLIENT GROUPEMENT ISARENE TEAMS BOTH WANT TO DELIVER A QUALITY PROJECT ON TIME AND TO BUDGET. AND THEIR ULTIMATE SUCCESS IS LARGELY DETERMINED BY THE QUALITY OF THE COLLABORATION THAT DEVELOPS BETWEEN THEM
HOW WE WORK
If you are new to the oil and gas business, you may think of the Home Office as a large government department, or perhaps a desk in the back bedroom. But, in Petrofac parlance, it means something altogether different.
For Petrofac, the Home Office is the place where a close-knit central team plans, choreographs, and presides over the progress of a large project. Typically, it is home, not just to the Petrofac team, but also to any joint venture partners, as well as a large client-side contingent.
This means that, at any one time, the Sharjah Home Office could be hosting several hundred people from many different organisations. And, depending on their role and the scale of the project, they could be in residence for anything from a few weeks to a few years.
The US$1 billion Ain Tsila project in Algeria is a case in point. Soon after the contract was awarded, an advance party of five trailblazers from the client, Groupment Isarene, landed in the United Arab Emirates. Within a few weeks, their numbers had swelled to more than 20.
As the project progresses, this client-side team will exceed 40 people. Several of them may be based in Sharjah for the three-and-a-half years it will take to complete the project. But, as the construction phase draws close, many will relocate back to Algeria to join the in-country delivery teams.
Hand-in-hand with their Petrofac counterparts, they will work together to ensure that this large and strategically significant project is delivered to specification and on time. And the early phase of their collaboration is arguably the most critical.
Graham Mac Millan, Senior Vice President, North Africa for Petrofac, explains: “What happens in the first few weeks sets the tone for everything that follows. The client relies on us to be quick, disciplined and meticulous. And we rely on the client to be technically strong, to be approachable, to be empowered, to make swift, well-informed decisions, and also to challenge us.”
So, what’s happening in the Home Office on Ain Tsila? What activities are the teams prioritising? And how are they all getting along together?
The first thing to get straight is that, for several people, Ain Tsila is NOT a new project. They have been living and breathing it for many months and, in some cases, several years. And the collaboration began long ago.
For example, on the client-side, Project Control Manager Steve Bungey has already devoted more than three years of his life to Ain Tsila, having been involved in the front-end engineering designed (FEED) phase as well as the tendering: “It’s as though I’ve already delivered a project. Personally and professionally, I’ve already invested a huge amount in it.”
Similarly, on the Petrofac team, Electrical Engineer and Algerian national Nassim Benmessaoud, was involved during the tendering phase, and spent an entire year travelling to and from his home country as part of Petrofac’s work on the proposal: “This is the first time I’ve been so closely involved from such an early stage of a project. Seeing it evolve from a proposal to a project is very rewarding.”
But, irrespective of when or how they were introduced to Ain Tsila, it’s clear that everyone on the team is excited by the challenge of delivering such a large and strategically important development.
A useful perspective comes from Mokhtar Boufligha, Lead Electrical Engineer on the client-side. He has spent his entire career with Sonatrach (one of the companies behind Groupment Isarene), and has experience of working in many other Home Offices on many other projects, including spells in China, France, Malaysia and Spain. Mokhtar was actually settling into a well-earned retirement when the Ain Tsila opportunity came up and tempted him back to the world of work: “It’s a high profile, high-stakes project for Algeria. As a country, we need it to supply gas domestically and also to earn money from exports. It means a lot to me to be a part of it.”
As well as its scale and significance, the nature and location of the project add to the intrigue.
Steve Bungey continues: “We’ll be working deep in the desert on a greenfield site, which immediately makes it interesting and unusual. Also, it’s being engineered remotely, much of it is being prefabricated remotely, it has to measure up to the international and domestic standards and approval regimes, plus we’re working to a short schedule and a tight budget. In combination that gives it as much intensity as any mega project.”
In terms of their structure, it’s interesting to see how the two teams mirror each other.
Both sides have a project control function, responsible for establishing the terms of engagement, and setting-up the procedures, including the document management, the cost reporting and the flow of communications. Both sides also have sub-teams for each of the main engineering functions, of electrical, mechanical and piping. And each of them has an administrator to look after the details of the office set-up and the in-country needs of the client.
Also, the two are just a floor apart in Petrofac House, and you get the impression there’s a well-worn path between them. Petrofac’s Lead Pipeline Engineer, Nursulu Sarbalina, explains: “Yes, we have regular formal scheduled meetings, but we also have plenty of informal, spontaneous meetings. Several times a day, you may see me heading upstairs with a document in my hand or my laptop open, and going to sit with the client team to discuss a point of detail and reach an immediate decision.”
While the first members of the Groupment Isarene team touched down in Sharjah in mid-April, the pivotal moment came a couple of weeks later, on 29 April, with the project kick-off meeting. Attended by upwards of 50 people, this three-day session brought together all of the key players as well as the top management from both companies. Running through the guiding principles of the project and its execution, this culminated in the signing and publishing of a Project Charter.
So, how would you characterise the early phases of the project and the work of the two teams?
Steve Bungey explains: “The immediate goal is to feel we’re in complete control. As a team we all need to be 100% confident we know where we’re going, how we’ll get there, and the role everyone will play. It’s about creating clarity and banishing ambiguity.”
To achieve this goal, the teams make their way methodically through the front-end engineering work, fleshing out the details, and flushing out any anomalies. Petrofac Project Control Manager, David Graffouillere, adds: “We’re transitioning from the proposal to the project, going from broad brush strokes to the fine detail. Every step of the way, the client needs to be onside, so close collaboration is mandatory.”
A big consideration, and one which appears to weigh heavily on everyone’s mind, is the tight project schedule. “Time is the biggest driver. It’s also the enemy,” explains Graham Mac Millan. “That’s one of the advantages of having such a strong client team working side-by-side with us. They understand the urgency and are highly responsive to every question and request.”
Indeed, there is strong consensus that, for a project of this scale run at this pace, there is no option but to have a strong and empowered client team in the Home Office.
Ian Lamont, Senior Cost Engineer with Groupement Isarene, who was among the first to arrive in Sharjah, adds: “You could argue that, with modern technology and plenty of bandwidth, it could be possible to work remotely, with one team in Algeria and the other in Sharjah. But the infrastructure, the distances, the time zones, and the potential for misunderstandings could all conspire against us. It would leave too much margin for error and too much scope for frustrations to build.”
He also played the key role in setting up the project office and, in this regard, has high praise for his Petrofac hosts: “To be honest, I was a little apprehensive when we first landed. But I have to pay tribute to Charbel Semaan and his team and also the IT support team. Everyone’s gone out of the way to ensure we feel at home, and that the office was functional in double-quick time. They’ve all been worth their weight in gold.”
Several team members also spoke of an innate but healthy tension at the heart of the project, which is probably characteristic of most client-contractor relationships. “As the client, we want the best possible quality and value. Ideally, we’d like a Mercedes, but Petrofac is contracted to build us a Volkswagen,” continues Ian. “It’s up to us to be happy with a Volkswagen, and it’s up to Petrofac to build us a genuine Volkswagen – one that’s reliable, and safe, and has great build quality.”
It’s important to point out that the Engineering phase isn’t just about remote, office-bound work. The team members also need to get direct knowledge of the site and its surroundings, and this is particularly the case for Nursulu Sarbalina and her pipeline engineering colleagues. “There is so much complexity with this project, and both sides of the team need to be on top of the details.”
So, for example, the pipeline engineers need to choreograph the routes of around 450 kilometres of pipework, encompassing six different sizes of pipeline, and hundreds of valves, and also ensure that the right components are delivered to exactly the right place at precisely the right time. To do so, they will travel along the entire route, to understand the terrain and its topography, and minimise the number of times the pipeline needs to cross roads or watercourses. “It’s a challenging project, in a challenging environment, covering challenging and rocky landscape,” she says.
There was also an acknowledgement that the project was still in its formative stages, and the two teams were perhaps enjoying what could be described as their honeymoon period. “Further down the line, there will be tough questions and hard conversations, and frustrations on both sides. On a project of this scale that’s inevitable. But I think the relationships are sound, with strong leadership on both sides and great technical capabilities in the respective teams,” says Ian.
Meanwhile, there was general agreement from Groupement Isarene that Petrofac had been the good hosts – and an acknowledgement from Petrofac that it’s always easier to be in your own home than in someone else’s. As Graham Mac Millan puts it: “We sometimes take it for granted that the client is here. The fact is, each member of the Isarene team has made sacrifices to come and live in the UAE, away from friends and family for a long period. We seldom say we appreciate it, but we really do – and we ought to say it more often.”
WORDS PETER HALLIDAY
IMAGES XAVIER ANSART
PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 2019