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Interview

Arthur Psaltis – MD, Pritchard Francis, Australia

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With the growing involvement of award winning civil and structural engineering consultancy Pritchard Francis in O&G, MD Arthur Psaltis describes the added value that it has provided to LNG projects during Australia’s construction boom, as well as the company’s key assets that have sustained its impressive development.

Could you please introduce Pritchard Francis to our international readers as well as describing its involvement in the oil and gas industry?

Founded in 1977 and established in Perth, Pritchard Francis is a leading civil and structural engineering consultancy with a wide range of expertise, comprising secondary structural consulting, lead consulting for projects with a major engineering component, civil consulting in land development and major civil infrastructure. Our clients are private companies and developers, as well as local, state and federal agencies or public departments.

With the recent LNG boom that occurred in Australia, we decided to leverage our excellent relationships with some Tier 1 and Tier 2 contractors involved in the North West Shelf project to broaden our commitment to this industry. Many contracts on these projects were furthermore issued as Design and Construction projects, meaning that constructors would need to team up with consultancies to bid for these projects, which created interesting opportunities for consultancies with excellent track records – such as Pritchard Francis.

Most of the LNG-related projects we have been involved in are onshore Non-Processing Infrastructure (NPI) works. Pritchard Francis was indeed commissioned by John Holland to execute the permanent buildings on the Chevron’s Gorgon project as part of the Kellogg Joint Venture contract. Pritchard Francis provided lead, civil and structural consultant roles for the development and was also responsible for sourcing the preferred consultancy team. The permanent administration buildings consisted of a warehouse, workshop and fire station as well as additional supporting structures around the site. These buildings complement the existing operations and laboratory buildings, providing operational control and support for the Gorgon Gas Facility at Barrow Island.

In the meantime, we also won the commission of an identical scope of work on Chevron’s other project, Wheatstone. This was probably even more technically challenging than Gorgon, as all the buildings on this project are exposed to potential blast loading, which forced us to ensure buildings could resist potential explosions.

How has Chevron evaluated the quality of your important contribution on its two main Australian LNG projects?

Our contribution, particularly in relation to blast loading expectations, required technical expertise that only a small number of consultancies at international level could offer. Despite a relative skepticism arousing by the fact we are not entirely specialized in this industry, as soon as we reached mid-process design reviews Chevron and its subcontractor Bechtel were already particularly impressed by the quality and the value of our contribution! Although we are a relatively small firm on the international scene, this contract and the product we delivered clearly demonstrate that Pritchard Francis is a highly technical firm, which has been able to gather a team of engineers boasting an impressive amount of technical expertise.

As a testimony of its satisfaction, Chevron started to refer us to some of its other subcontractors, and we thus contributed to many other projects thanks to Chevron’s precious referral. Finally, the Chevron’s Australian affiliate also sponsored us to participate and attend the last Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) in Houston, an honor usually reserved to only one or to local companies every year. This opportunity was particularly interesting for us, as we envision realizing more and more overseas projects in the upcoming years, particularly in relation to blasting engineering. We are thus particularly focused on Asian markets, as Vietnam, China and Taiwan.

What have been the main engineering challenges you had to face when contributing to these world-class LNG projects?

Regarding Gorgon, the remoteness of the project was a real challenge, as well as the stringent quarantine requirements. Barrow Island, where the LNG plant is settled, indeed is an ‘A’ Class Reserve, which implies special requirements for the construction of the buildings onsite. All materials and machinery were thus fumigated and quarantine controlled, and it was imperative that trades, site welding and in situ placement of materials were minimized. This island also posed unique challenges for our design team due to the flat nature of the site, its cyclonic conditions (wind and impact loadings) and overland flooding concerns. On the island, heavy vehicles loads and road access were also extremely limited, so ensuring that all materials could be transported to the right place was also at the top of our agenda. From the very early stage of conception, we had thus to design for transportation and pre-fabrication in favour of onsite construction.

Regarding Wheatstone, we also had to cope with cyclonic conditions, while blast loading requirements also implied a lot of testing and stringent requirements beforehand – for all parts of the buildings we designed. As most of these building are permanently occupied and hold a strategic importance from an operational point of view, blast-loading requirement impose that they could start aging to be effectively operating immediately after an explosion occurs.

Pritchard Francis is operating in a great variety of industries for lead consulting, structural and civil engineering services. What kind of synergies are you able to foster between all the different industries you are engaged in and how these synergies could ultimately benefit to your oil and gas clients?

Although we don’t tend to replicate our solutions from one project to another, we nevertheless strive to maintain an innovative approach to all our projects. This strategy is then mainly driven by our engineers’ mindset and the great training we offer them, as well as by the exceptional working environment we strive to nurture within our firm. This latter is of the utmost importance to ultimately enhance our people’s creativity: as we are not a “cookie-cutter” company, we ensure our engineers will have the time they need to conceive innovative solutions and propose the most authentic response to our customer’s problems. For a LNG project or any other kind of development, empowering our people to give them the freedom to be innovative is indisputably the most important rationale behind our success.

Our industry is currently hit by an unfavorable pricing environment, which leads the operators to give a greater importance than ever to cost-efficient solutions when it comes to choosing their project partners. To what extent do you integrate this factor in the way you conceive your projects?

To better address this important issue, we have developed a two-stage approach that separates the design phase from the analysis part of a solution’s conception. We thus try to firstly address our customer’s needs as holistically as possible, by designing what could be considered the “best” solution. Once the best solution as been identified, we can then proceed to a deeper analysis and refine our initial solution to make it as cost-efficient as possible. Providing our teams with the time needed to steadily and methodically refining our solutions is probably the best way to truly provide our clients with cost-saving solutions, while it also prevents our engineers from becoming over conservative.

Nevertheless, in some sub-sectors, expected production revenues are so substantial that it is often tempting to not allocate an extra amount of time and efforts to further refine the engineering design, in order to start production as soon as possible. Obviously, the current pricing context has convinced many stakeholders of the importance to deepen their efforts on the conception phase of the project, which in the other hand strengthens our sophisticated value-proposition and eliminates the risk that bigger problems arise when construction starts.

From a leadership standpoint, how do you maintain a culture of excellence within the company and ensure Pritchard Francis remains at the forefront of engineering innovation?

In such a competitive industry, we hold our core values as one of our main assets to continue differentiating Pritchard Francis from our eventual competitors. Our mission statement stipulates that we have to endlessly maintain engineering excellence and offer the highest value possible of services – and it is really important to me that my teams fulfill both of these objectives with an equal dedication. Some engineers sometimes fall into the trap to essentially concentrate their efforts on the product, but the service part of our mission appears to me just as important as the outcomes of our products, while the DNA of the firm incites our employees to continuously display an irreproachable integrity, professionalism and – of course – innovative spirit in their daily routine.

Since you took over in 1998, Pritchard Francis’ business has grown over fifteen fold and developed into one of the highest regarded practices in Perth and in Australia. After such an impressive progression, what would stand as the next step in the company’s development strategy?

Considering this tremendous development, it is honestly tricky for me to clearly foresee where we should stand in a five-year time: we are currently receiving so many opportunities to broaden our offering and our client base that Pritchard Francis could become a completely different organization within such a mid-term horizon.

We obviously are in a very lucky situation, but it also implies that we should be even more careful than ever in choosing the strategic direction the company will follow in the upcoming years. Opportunities are abundant, but we will have to ensure the company will pursue only the most promising ones, while never compromising the core values that have steered our impressive development over the past decades.

Finally, three strategic elements nevertheless stand out as being of the utmost importance to me as well as to the company’s future development. Firstly, we are lucky to rely on particularly talented people, and we want to ensure we can retain this extremely valuable expertise within the company’s walls over the upcoming years. Obviously the best way to fulfill this objective will be to generate, identify and exploit the business opportunities that will allow our employees to continuously develop their skills and expertise as the company continues to grow. Thirdly, constantly improving our technical know-how as well as the technological tools we use on a daily basis to meet our partners’ requirement also appears as being absolutely crucial to further strengthen Pritchard Francis’ position at the forefront of our industry.

Click here to read more articles and interviews from Australia.

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