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Interview

Gabriel Sampol – President, SAMPOL, Spain

Gabriel Sampol, president of Mallorcan engineering specialists SAMPOL, discusses the company’s rich history, ambitious globalization strategy, innovative mindset, and family values, as well as the continuing importance of the oil sector to the group.

Having been head of SAMPOL since 1967, starting out supplying electricity for hotels, then airports, and today as a global and diversified company, can you take us through some of the key moments in the organization’s development?

“For SAMPOL, the opportunity to be based in Caribbean since the 1990s has allowed us to expand all over South America.”

My father started his business on the island of Mallorca in 1934. In Mallorca, there was great industrial activity before the tourism sector appeared and a lot of big factories which produced electricity, shoes, tractors, zippers and glass, among others. At a certain moment, the island’s economic focus switched from industry to tourism, but luckily there were no issues with unemployment or displacement.

We worked for many years for the tourism industry, doing installations in hotels all over Mallorca but also in the Canary Islands. When tourism seemed to be exhausted, I discovered that there were big opportunities in public works and, moreover, found out that it was possible to export from the island to the peninsula. However, it was difficult for small companies like ours to obtain some classifications which could only be given by the Ministry of Industry and were mainly granted to large companies. Those companies needed us, but only as a subcontractor and we wanted to be contractors but, as an SME, they would not let us in.

One day, a new project appeared that opened the door for us. A project was launched through the state bulletin to illuminate Palma Cathedral; a well-known monument on the island. Despite the fact that we did not have the correct classifications, a good engineer from our team discovered that if an SME could demonstrate other important works, it could apply to take on a project, even without classification, but only once. If that company won the competition, it would get the classification, but if it lost, the company could never again take part in any state competition.

We applied for the work, presenting certifications, installations, all our works, and highlighted the fact that our company was from Palma. Luckily, it was not a competition, but an auction. In the auction, there is no surprise in terms of costs. And we won, because we managed to cut expenses.

Once the project was finished, we were asked to carry out works in Toledo, Andalusia, Gerona, and Ibiza. The next markets we entered were airports and power stations. In 2005 there was an important competition to develop a cogeneration plant for Madrid-Barajas airport, mostly for big companies, like Iberdrola and Endesa. However, we decided to participate, without any support. Applying on our own, I knew we had to give the best price, the best engineering project, and deliver in the shortest time possible. We also got that project and we still maintain the plant at the Barajas airport. It was very similar to what had happened in Palma and that project opened us the doors to the cogeneration market. Since then we have built several plants for different industries like Fiorucci in Italy and Granjas Carroll in Mexico among others.

What are some of the reference projects that SAMPOL has executed?

To name just a few: Trigeneration Central at Madrid-Barajas Airport; Beacon installation in over 50 airports in Spain (This experience has helped us to work in international airports as well such as Panama and Cali); Cogeneration Central in Campofrío (Spain) and Fiorucci (Italy); District Heating & Cooling Technological Park in Parc Bit (Mallorca, Spain); UEN Sonora (Mexico): Trigeneration central to generate cold water in this plant; and Granjas Carroll in Veracruz (Mexico): cogeneration central designed and executed by SAMPOL; we have collaborated in the Panama Canal; complete electrical and plumbing installations in hotels in the Caribbean, allowing the hotels to develop their business in that region, etc.

SAMPOL today has a large international footprint. When exactly did you make a decision to globalize and what was your strategy in this regard?

Our internationalization started when an important hotel group decided to expand to the Dominican Republic. They were offered agricultural land there with a lot of cocoa, but there was no light, no electricity, and no water. They invited us to take care of electricity, so I took my team and we all went to the Dominican Republic. We spent many hours in a car to get there, and we found a beautiful place. On the spot where our power station was going to be built, there were crocodiles and snakes. The hotel group told me that if we built the power station, they would buy the land. Though it was hard to explain it to my employees, this was one of the most important milestones in the history of SAMPOL and the beginning of our international expansion.

In the Caribbean, SAMPOL now has offices in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Panama, as well as a presence in Mexico City since 2010. There are a lot of English, American, Dutch contractors in oil and gas; why did you enter this sector and what are your advantages?

We were first involved with tourism in the Caribbean and then moved to Mexico City, where we have built several power stations and developed different engineering projects; this can be seen as our second internationalization phase. Our engineering team has managed to show that they are one of the best in Europe and, therefore, the whole world. I came to this conclusion when we were invited to bid for a power station contract in Rome, along with Italian, German, and British companies. We won it, because we demonstrated that we had the best engineers. They are young people, but very unified, implementing projects with the best fuel: natural gas. We create power stations, but there are engines that produce the energy, so we always need to work with the British and German companies that produce these engines.

One such project was a big complex in Jamaica. Usually in such hot climates, when we install electricity, we also need to create cold. During the whole year, they get cold that comes from recovered energy that the engines provide. It is pure engineering. When using modern machines made of lithium bromide, the process starts at 120 degrees and comes out at six degrees. This is also how we started working with Pemex; a very important client to us today.

Spanish companies have a good technical experience and can export their knowhow to Latin America. For SAMPOL, the opportunity to be based in Caribbean since the 1990s has allowed us to expand all over South America.

With the oil sector still in somewhat of a crisis, what is the importance of the oil & gas sector for SAMPOL?

Our ambition is to become one of the top four Spanish companies in the market. Our King often goes on business trips abroad to promote Spanish industry. For the next trip, the Ministry has suggested involving medium-sized companies like us and thus opening more doors to Spain.

I am always eager to hear ideas from entrepreneurs and companies interested in energy. For example, an Argentinian oil company asked us to install a power station in the Peruvian Amazon, as the Peruvian Government wanted to fix the problem of waste oil being dumped in the river. We took over that project and negotiated it in kilowatt price. We asked for a guarantee from the French bank BNP Paribas and we could not sign until we received it but unfortunately the guarantee never arrived and we could not go ahead because the risk was too high.

SAMPOL is now developing a footprint in North America with a new office in Vancouver. Why take this step and in what other regions or sectors are you looking to expand?

There are a lot of possibilities in the industrial sector in the US and they lack energy; it is a bet for the future. However, we were not ready to enter this market until we found the right partner. We have already participated in several competitions. It is very important to win the first ones, then everything will be resolved. Until now, we have been talking about energy, but we also have other subdivisions, like technology. In Mexico, we are now finishing a great project related to kindergarten surveillance, since it is an insecure country. Everything can be controlled from the central office in Mexico City, it is amazing.

You built this company with the support of your family, who will inherit it later. What are the most important family values for you?

My father founded the company in 1934 and transmitted his values to me, so I try to do the same. My sons and daughter work in the company, so we all work together. For the company’s continuity, especially as a family business, it is crucial. I started from the bottom as a trainee, working while studying and taking the boat to the mainland every week to go to University. This is also what my children have experienced. We have employees who have been working here their entire lives, even the grandchildren of former workers. We also have an innovative spirit and are ready to take risks. We are not afraid of any market and have always gone to those markets with the greatest opportunities.

What does innovation mean to SAMPOL?

Innovation has always been the engine of SAMPOL because it is in my DNA as it was also in the DNA of my father, the founder, Jose Sampol. He and I have never been afraid of new challenges and have always been ready to develop new products, new sectors, and new countries. Nowadays, SAMPOL has an R&D department and participates in several European Projects. SAMPOL’s speciality is to design engineering solutions for different matters, we love to explore and find the best solutions.

We believe in sustainable energy. The Paris Agreements are our model, we should all make an effort to accomplish the requirements.

What are the specificities of being a Mallorcan company and the challenges of finding the right talents locally?

The advantage of today’s technology is that you can work from any place in the world, and globalization has permitted us to work from anywhere. Our business proposals and plans can be sent digitally from Mallorca, and the clients can receive them the next day. However, it is true that Mallorca is focused on tourism and it is sometimes hard for us to find the right talent locally. There are not many engineers on the island and we therefore also need to hire people from the mainland or abroad. But Mallorca is an attractive proposition! Mallorca is a paradise, our home, and a natural place to base our headquarters.

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