Carlos Pone – CEO, AECOM Africa
Carlos Pone, CEO of AECOM Africa, defines the company’s strategy to grow their African footprint and services they offer within the oil and gas space. Additionally, he highlights the steps needed to see greater investment into the continent and how a regional mindset will open up doors for greater development.
Could you introduce yourself to our international audience and the scope of your role?
“What Africa needs is to establish an ecosystem that promotes innovative and collaborative investment between the private and public sectors so that we all work towards development on the continent.”
The group globally divides itself into different regions and business groups, and AECOM Africa falls within the EMIA – Europe, Middle East, India and Africa – region. I head up the Africa operations, which has around 800 staff, and where, South Africa is the hub of our Africa footprint with around 750 employees. The company is focused on having the best engineers, architects, and scientists and we are mostly involved in design consultancy and integrated infrastructure services – a one-stop shop approach.
I took up this position of CEO of AECOM Africa in 2015 as a new challenge.
I was coming from my previous company of employment – a company with bigger revenues – to be a part of one of the biggest and best known integrated infrastructure firms with a huge capacity in design and construction globally. However, its Africa business is relatively new and so when you come to a smaller company you have two solutions – first, you either are acquired by a company, which was not an option for AECOM, or grow the business, and we started a vision to grow our business exponentially. Our objective over the next five years is to achieve a US$ 1 billion business and we call this the “road to a billion”.
What is the strategic importance of Africa for the company?
AECOM has not been in Africa for a long time, only positioning ourselves here in 2012 through an acquisition. Since then, we have changed the way we do business in Africa. We are not just a consultancy house, but offer integrated solutions, from environmental studies and standard infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, to other areas such as pipelines and oil refineries. Furthermore, if we do not have the expertise and capabilities in Africa, we can source this resource from elsewhere in the world.
What have been the main growth drivers for the company in Africa?
The first thing I did when I started at AECOM was to define a strategy for the continent, based around three pillars. The first was to target seven key nations: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Botswana and South Africa, and to a lesser extent Nigeria and Ghana. Second, we will follow our big clients within these countries, but if they chose to go outside this zone, we would go with them to extend our reach. Third, we are going to chase the big projects that fall within our areas of expertise, even if they are outside our normal regional area.
Attached to these three pillars, we have defined areas of growth that will allow us to achieve our objectives, such as transportation, water, power, oil and gas amongst others. On a softer side, we are experts in buildings, be it residential, industrial and/or shopping centers.
You now have a strong presence in South Africa. Where else are you looking to increase your reach?
We have a strategy, though our growth will depend on financial and people resources. Currently, we have a hub in east Africa, and will use our footprint in Ghana to establish a West African hub and by 2020 we would like to have a major centre of activity in North Africa.
What do you offer within the oil and gas sphere?
Unlike many other EPC players, we do not own processes, but are more experts in project management and construction supervision of large projects and we are involved in the enabling of infrastructure associated with oil and gas projects, such as construction and the decommissioning of pipelines; setting up water sources; disposal of waste and new roads amongst others. Equally, we are specialists in environmental and people settlement services.
Many companies when moving abroad take on a local approach. How does AECOM contribute in this way as you expand your African footprint?
One of the things we pride ourselves on is building local capabilities, such as skills transfer and the introduction of new technologies. As we enter the fourth industrial revolution, we see that digitization is playing a larger role, particularly with concepts such as virtual reality. We must transfer these innovative technologies to Africa, by either moving our top people to respective African countries or training locals or both.
Africa has been considered the final frontier for many years, though still it seems to not have reached its full potential. What is causing this blockage in greater development?
Finance and regulatory framework. If investors have US $5 billion to invest in projects, they will find US$5 billion worth of investment opportunities in Africa, as the list of infrastructure requirements on the continent grows every day. Nevertheless, challenges are often preventing governments from unlocking infrastructure development spend.
For example, we have been privy to discussions on some power projects in Africa for the last 20 years with no momentum or action seen as yet. Africa has set up Agenda 2063, which was signed by most African countries in 2015, looking at setting up continental priorities. Now that we have a vision, we want to see action and a regulatory framework built around it.
For instance, if a company wants to operate in another African country, it is a challenge due to issues with telecommunications, roads, visas and permits, etc. Also, nations have competing agendas, so much so that if neighbouring countries are both wanting to construct, for example a power plant, and are competing with one another, in the end, nothing gets done. What Africa needs is to establish an ecosystem that promotes innovative and collaborative investment between the private and public sectors so that we all work towards development on the continent.
Is a regional mindset a dream or a reality?
The Africa Union’s Agenda 2063 is a good, first step towards action, though we must also understand Africa is a continent with 54 countries that have very different governments and ideologies. However, in the last few years we have witnessed a more common movement towards democracy and good governance, and this is good news for Africa and good news for investment.
The EPC landscape in South Africa is quite dense, and AECOM has been in the market for just over five years. What is the differentiating factor of the company over its competitors?
It is our level of expertise and skills sets that we deliver. Additionally, we can act from a local and global level and provide an integrated offer, as well as having a deep commitment to the continent. We provide our clients with all facets for an integrated solution, while incorporating new technologies and innovation.
And we see that Africa is ready for innovation, with no real obstacles hindering its involvement in our operations. With a click of the button, a design or idea can be sent to any country across the continent. Nevertheless, the overriding concepts to keep ahead of the pack are cultural awareness and involving local people into our processes.
How do you achieve success in increasing your African presence?
As a company we need to make sure we are involved in the biggest projects that Africa has to offer. It is fundamental that with these projects we are able to deliver using the best technologies, on time and within budget. Also, within every country that we work in, we must leave a legacy, so the local people can continue carrying out the work of AECOM.
AECOMis a level-one BEE company, and also has a focus on woman in business. How important is diversity for the company?
We aim to be market leaders in diversity and transformation. When you look at South Africa in particular, as the circumstances are different to most African nations, we are very active in training previously disadvantaged individuals. For example, we have a trust in place that gives education to black women in engineering, science and environmental services. Additionally, we have an-executive committee made up of 6 woman – out of 13 members in all – and four of them are women of colour. We want to be market leaders in all forms of diversity, from race and age, to sexual orientation and religion, and this is another differentiating factor that places AECOM above the competition.