Adrian Meerburg – Managing Director, Fairbrother Geotechnical Engineering, South Africa
Adrian Meerburg, managing director of Fairbrother Geotechnical Engineering, shares the company’s successful development from a one-man show in 1974, its significant service offerings within the geotechnical drilling and investigation space, their activities across the African continent, and his growth priorities for the next few years.
Adrian, could you start by introducing Fairbrother to our international audience?
“Our fully equipped workshop produces most of our specialized plant and we have gained extensive experience in designing and constructing plant at substantially lower prices than that of local and international plant suppliers.”
The company was established in 1974 by founder James Fairbrother who decided to design and build his own drilling rigs for installing domestic water wells and carrying out geotechnical drilling investigations.
His son, Ian Fairbrother, a qualified civil engineer, joined the company in 1979 and has been responsible for the design and construction of the company’s in-house plant. Ian retired from the position of Managing Director in 2013 and is currently Chairman of the board of directors. His other son Peter Fairbrother, a chartered accountant, joined the company in 1986 with the expansion of the company’s range of geotechnical services offered to clients.
I joined in 1990 and was responsible for all contract management of the expanding geotechnical division. A few years later, I took over management of all contracts when the drilling investigation side of the business and our other geotechnical services were consolidated under one company. I became a shareholder in 2001 and held the position of Contracts Director until being appointed Managing Director in 2013.
Fairbrother focuses on providing a range of geotechnical services, which includes marine and land-based drilling investigations, pipejacking, thrustboring, dewatering, underpinning of structures, dam grouting, anchoring and shotcrete services. In 2006, we made a decision to enter the piling market, which allowed us to offer our clients the full range of geotechnical services, which included offering a complete solution for basement “design and construct” projects.
Over the following six years, we designed and built a fleet of dual purpose piling rigs which were optimized to meet the specific needs of the piling market in the Western Cape. We were also able to expand our range of services offered on marine drilling and now have three Self Erecting Work Platforms (SEWP) designed specifically for near-shore marine drilling investigations.
The company has grown organically from strength to strength in the past few decades. I can comfortably say we have drilled most of the large ports in South Africa, from Saldanha, where we provided extensive geotechnical services for the upgrading of the iron ore terminal, the largest iron ore export facility in Africa; the drilling investigations for the upgrade of Cape Town Container Terminal; Port of Durban, Port Elizabeth Harbour as well as the initial drilling for the Port of Ngqura at Coega, including the upgrades 10 years later.
We have also expanded our marine drilling services to Southern Africa and have completed a number of marine drilling investigation projects in Namibia, Angola and Mozambique. We are currently busy with a marine drilling investigation on Lake Malawi and in the past year, have had enquiries for work in Gabon, the Comoros and Madagascar.
How significant is the oil and gas sector for Fairbrother?
We have done a significant amount of work for Chevron Texaco in Angola, starting with their LNG plant, where we conducted geotechnical drilling investigations to determine a suitable location for the LNG plant. The location was initially identified on a site in Luanda and then moved up to Kwanda Base, which culminated in a marine drilling campaign in the Port of Soyo. We moved onto completing a number of land-based drilling campaigns on Malongo Base in Cabinda and were then introduced to the Angolan national oil company, Sonangol. Sonangol went on to employ us for land and marine based drilling campaigns for the Port of Luanda quay expansion. In the past decade, however, we have faced significant competition from Chinese companies and have found it difficult to compete in this market.
In recent years, with the fall in oil price, there is no doubt that the larger companies are not investing as much. We used to do a lot of work in refineries, for instance, but that stopped for a few years. Recently, we have been approached by a former client on some new refinery work, so we are optimistic that the industry is picking up again.
On that note, one of the major concerns for investors when it comes to the continent is volatility and instability. What advice can you provide, as an insider of sorts?
Volatility is a significant issue but can be managed. After 1994, South Africa became the desired investment location on the continent for a few years, with everyone wanting to work with us. With many previously-closed African markets opening to us, many South African companies expanded into the continent providing much-needed expertise and capital. Then there was the global financial crisis in 2008. South African contracting companies were fortunate in so far as we were somewhat insulated from this as we had enormous infrastructure development projects underway in order to prepare for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. After 2010 when the investment dried up, many companies suffered. Companies that had over-extended themselves on the continent began to feel the effects of decreasing investment into infrastructure projects and often non-payment.
For investors, there is opportunity in volatility and Africa presents many opportunities. Investors and businesses would like to see stability and in particular policy certainty surrounding the business environment in which they operate. Without certainty in the business environment, it makes it difficult for companies to plan their operations and fulfill their growth path. For example, we recently bid for a large rockfall netting project for the Luaca Hydroelectric project on the Cuanza River in Angola. We now consider ourselves fortunate for not having been awarded this work because once the oil price crisis hit Angola, a country heavily dependent on oil revenues, the government immediately stopped all foreign exchange payments, which hurt many contractors.
My advice to investors would be to partner with reputable companies who have experience in managing the volatility and instability that is prevalent in African economies.
What exactly differentiates Fairbrother from your competitors?
Due to being in the geotechnical industry for over 40 years, we have considerable expertise and experience and clients can rely on us providing a professional geotechnical solution on every contract.
We have around 100 permanent employees, who are extremely loyal, skilled and experienced, many with a service record with the company of over 30 years.
Our fully equipped workshop produces most of our specialized plant and we have gained extensive experience in designing and constructing plant at substantially lower prices than that of local and international plant suppliers. This allows us to offer cost effective solutions.
We have a dedicated professional management team and focus on delivering a quality product, on time, every time. We focus on giving our client the best solutions based on their budgets.
For contracts in other African countries, we believe that, as a South African company, we have an advantage as we have a track record of working in under-resourced neighboring countries. Our rand-based economy also gives us the ability to be more competitive.
We believe that it is our level of service, coupled with an uncompromising stance on quality, that sets us apart from our competitors.
Given the technical requirements of this sector, how do you invest in your people to maintain the highest level of service and standard?
The skills required for the execution of our work are developed over many years of in-house training, which cannot be learnt in traditional education. We have a strong mentorship program in place whereby we able to transfer the wealth of knowledge and experience, that has been accumulated over the past 40 years, onto the next generation.
While the country does spend a lot of money per capita on education, this does not always get reflected in educational outcomes. In particular, one of the greatest hurdles has been the disbanding of the successful artisanship system that used to be in place prior to democracy. The replacement learnership program has not worked as desired. Many of our artisans are now aging and there is an acute shortage of skills.
What is positive is that this is being rectified, with the government returning to a system more similar to the old one. We are starting to see some really good artisans come through the system.
We have recently shifted focus on putting students through in-service training, giving them an introduction to the industry. We try to retain the best candidates with the rest going on to share the knowledge gained elsewhere, which benefits the whole industry.
Looking forward then, what are your strategic priorities for Fairbrother in the next few years?
We would definitely like to see Fairbrother take an even larger segment of the geotechnical market in Cape Town and the Western Cape. The Western Cape has its own economy, as evidenced by the fact that the province’s growth is outpacing national growth by around five times! This has partly been driven by the large influx of population from other parts of South Africa – what we call ‘semigration’ – as a result of the better economic opportunities and lifestyles available here. This means that there are more businesses and real estate activity, and land is becoming more expensive, so people need to either build up or down – which is where geotechnical expertise comes in.
On the continent, we would like to continue expanding our land and marine drilling activities into the various lakes of Africa, as well as make inroads into East Africa, which is a region we see as providing many business opportunities.