Blair Ferguson, Executive Director of Kenson School of Production Technology, discusses the group’s potential to export its oil and gas sector expertise to countries with a budding industry
First of all, I would like to start with some general questions about the energy sector and Trinidad and Tobago. There are urea, methanol and ammonia projects and you aim to be the biggest producer in the world of these products in order to diversify the energy sector and add value to the natural resources you have. Could you comment on this?
We are basically an upstream oil and gas service provider. Trinidad is a unique environment where we have both the upstream and downstream petrochemical industries. You really have two separate industries within one small nation. We are solely an upstream oil and gas company and we deal with the production of oil in Trinidad. What is happening now is nothing new – the development of the industrial estate is still in an expansion mode, so the petrochemical industries will expand further.
We are still in interesting times where the global economy is not doing so well. One of our challenges is the price of gas, since we depend heavily on the price of gas; although it is very low at the moment, we are going to look for value for money. We see these as opportunities rather than downsides. Our core mandate for the school is building capacity within the country. Once there is expansion, there is a great need for capabilities. We believe in local capabilities; we have been doing this for a hundred years, and we still do not see a reason why we should not maximize our local capacity in Trinidad. The school is doing its best and we are actually doing pretty well to build that local capacity within the industry.
At present we are pursuing opportunities in Africa. We presently have seven Ugandans in Trinidad pursuing the IVQ for Oil and Gas and we expect another 24 students by the beginning of April. We have been recognized by the African Nations and we are looking at other challenges.
Roger Parker said that it is not so much about the energy sector, but rather the T&T energy services brand because you export the expertise. Young children in schools dream about working in the energy sector because they know that they will have a great future. How do you promote this T&T services brand globally?
We look at some of our advantages. Being a small nation, there is a positive. For example, with a very small population of some 1.5 million people, countries that require our type of services will not see us as a threat but rather than a partner as we have no ulterior motive to supplement their labor forces with ours. To us, that is an advantage. Unlike countries like China where there is a fear that although they throw around a lot of money, they are also coming with a lot of Chinese labor, but that is not an option for us. We provide that technical know-how to use and build that capacity within these countries. I support Roger on that. A lot of people in Trinidad see the oil and gas industry as the way forward, and they also see it as an opportunity to leave the country to work for service companies like ours in these nations.
Fifty people in Trinidad is a dent in our oil and gas industry, so if we have an exodus of 50 people leaving our country, that is good for us. It is also good for the other country, because 50 is a negligible quantity. We have to use our well-known technology (our minds) as much as possible, to be able to bring that to those countries. That is where we have been able to use the advantage of being a small nation, to be able to get that out to people. We have the knowledge and the know-how, and we will build capacity through that expertise.
Considering the difficult geological conditions when it comes to offshore grids here in Trinidad and Tobago, would you say that you are creating a world-class workforce for the whole world?
Not necessarily. The reason being that we have not really experienced any difficulties here. We are still in what is considered as shallow water drilling. However in countries like in Brazil where they are going into deep-water drilling, that is a new realm of technology, where you might even have to use FPSOs (Floating Production Storage Facilities). I do not think we are there yet, but we do have acreage into very deep water drilling and that is the next step. I know the Minister is looking at that. That would be something new for us.
Speaking about the entire group, could you elaborate on your role in the development of the country and the diversification of the economy as well as adding value to natural resources in the country?
I think we are unique in a number of ways. Firstly, our core business is operations and maintenance services in the upstream oil and gas industry. We have employees that work and operate and even assist the operations and maintenance of platforms. We started off as a very small company, and the timing was correct where new companies were coming into Trinidad and the services that were required started to expand. We no longer could have provided to our clients the one resource that made us unique and that was the experience operations personnel. This could have meant that there was a potential opening for other companies to come into that realm, hence the birth of the Kenson School of Production Technology. Our founder’s philosophy about the school was to build capacity by developing the capabilities of young Trinidadians coming out of the Technical Institutes. To date we have trained approximately 500 to 600 individuals (it should be more) within the last 17 years. A great number of them have moved on to work for the major upstream operators.
The majority of the offshore operations personnel in the oil and gas industry are either Kenson or ex-Kenson employees. We have never had any reason to import operations and maintenance services from outside. It is a rare sight to see expatriate operations personnel working in Trinidad. I think in the upstream oil and gas production environment, we have played a major part in being able to keep that local capability within that part of the sector. That is how we have contributed.
Considering the American audience and the fact that we are attracting investors through our report, what can your company (as the group and the school) offer to foreign investors coming to the country?
The group’s core activity is operations and maintenance, as I said. We always look to expand or go to the next level, which are joint ventures. For example you might look to go into design and engineering services – these are capabilities that are mainly housed outside of Trinidad. With regard to the training institute, we have had affiliations and we continue to look for more, which will carry our accreditation much further. At this point in time we have an excellent relationship with the City and Guilds in the UK and we also have a strategic alliance with the Nova Scotia Community College in Canada. These alliances give us the ability to move our programs Internationally. For example, we are looking at possibly brining our expertise into Suriname using the Nova Scotia Community College as our strategic alliance for international accreditation for those types of programs.
Could you elaborate on how you moved from Kenson Production to Kenson Group? How did you expand?
Kenson Production was the first company within the group. That company basically had the account of BP AMOCO at that time, which was involved in operations and separate maintenance. With the expansion of the group and the oil and gas industries, companies such as EOG Resources, BGTT and BHP came in with a different model. Their model was operations and maintenance. So you found that a different kind of individual was required to operate those facilities. That meant that Kenson Production Services could no longer have provided that type of individual. Because of the contract we had with BP AMOCO, we founded the Kenson Operations Services, which had the capability of providing the Operations Technician which was a cross crafted Technician with a Mtce Biase.
The expansion led to PF Engineering. At that time, Atlantic Energy were building trains, and the CEO believed that we should move into the engineering side and steel bending for the construction of the Atlantic LNG (Liquefied Nitrogen Gas) train. PF Engineering is unique because it does not carry the name of Kenson Group, but it is really around construction and engineering. That is a totally different field of work altogether. Then we have the Kenson School, which was formed much earlier than PF Engineering, with a mandate to deliver our capabilities. However, within the last five to six years, the school has become the focal point in the group’s development, which is in line with our strategic vision to take our capabilities abroad, by developing and building the capacity of the emerging oil and gas countries in Africa and South America. I mentioned these continents because barriers to entry in countries north of us make it nearly impossible for us to operate in.
We have seen the simulators and the emergency capsule. What competitive advantages does the school have? What are you offering to students that make them so eager to come here?
In 2000 we realized that we cannot just have a school that teaches courses – everyone can do that. We also found out that the learning curve required for our young trainees was too sharp, and our clients were demanding people with experience from us. At that time, the perception was not to be in front of the game, but more about meeting the needs of our clients. We had to find some way that we could get young trainees to do things that they actually see on the platforms. That is why we designed and built a simulator. I am proud to say that it was built right there in Trinidad using Kenson’s own resources.
At that time the school was not public – it was just to meet our local capacity. It is only when we decided to go public that we also noticed that in order for us to be unique within the environment, we needed to have hands-on training, which only a few of us could teach. Our lecturers have over 25 years work experience. They are great guys and they are very passionate and proud of what they do.
What are your HSE policies regarding educating sustainable workers?
The group has a very detailed HSE policy. We also have quality management policies based on the demands of our clients, as they have very high HSE standards. It is important for us to ensure that every one of our employees, when they leave their house in the morning, it is our job to ensure that when they come back in the afternoon or one week later, their kids will see them in one piece. That doesn’t happen by guess or magic. We have done very well with ensuring that our employees don’t get hurt. To date we have never had a fatality nor had any major injuries sustained by our employees. This has been due largely to the consistent overseeing of our HSE policies as well as the commitment our employees, who understand the culture of being safe and are aware of what to do in order to be safe.
The CEO and the founder of the company has had over 30 years’ experience working offshore, just like those guys. I am familiar with the platforms where I used to work. We understand the importance of safety and where we want to be in the upstream environment as well.
Where will Kenson School be 10 years from now?
We will be a global institute. We have no fears of competing with a larger global company within the oil and gas industry. The Kenson School’s vision is a lot more aggressive than the group’s vision, namely because we have already started to pick up momentum in the African nations. Our target is also South America; we know that we could add value to Suriname and French Guiana.
Any country that is in its embryonic stage with regard to finding oil and gas, we intend to be there in the next 10 years.
This is a family-owned business. How does your management style differ to that of your father?
Before my dad started this company, he was a platform superintendent with AMOCO. So he had no formal business training, but he had a very broad vision. He also had very loyal employees and a son and a daughter that fitted into both the operations and finance side of business. You hear a lot of horror stories with one man starting a business. So I think the combination of having loyal employees who worked alongside him and his son and daughter being part of the business gave him an opportunity to look at other areas or expand his vision as widely as he could.
Obviously, there is only so far that family companies can go in this environment with the influx of foreign companies coming into Trinidad, which are allowed free passage to provide similar services. This is further compounded by the lack of support for the protection of local companies. Notwithstanding these challenges, some form of partnering is required for us to get to that next level. His generation sees business as a legacy of what they have done, but I suppose our generation would see it more as an opportunity to expand that legacy further. There is not much of a difference.