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Interview

Ian Bell, Founding Director, Optimus, Aberdeen, UK

23.04.2014 / Energyboardroom

Ian Bell, Founding Director of Optimus speaks of his business’ efforts to deliver excellence in engineering consultancy. Driven by excellence, Optimus’ small size and proactive nature for problem solving has created a thriving business—Bell details current developments and his aspirations for the future of the business.

 


This January you added architectural expertise to your 16-strong structural design team. What specific benefits does this offer your clients, and what synergies does this create within the team itself?

Optimus has identified that the aging assets in the North Sea, particularly the older platforms, need significant enhancement, maintenance and repair. This includes substandard accommodation modules, for example—we see a market for upgrading such extant units. Also, on the prime generation platforms, where cost cutting occurred during the capital expenditure phase of the project, there is insufficient accommodation offshore for big maintenance projects. As far as the prime projects were concerned, investors felt enough finance was put forward to produce oil, and they are still producing oil. However, these platforms need maintenance and there are not enough beds on board to sustain additional staff necessary for these essential procedures. Having our own architect strengthens Optimus’ ability to address this issue. The structural design team has undertaken work in the past to develop improved accommodation modules—for this reason, the addition of an architect seemed an obvious move.

Some analysts predict 30 billion GBP will be invested in decommissioning work over the next twenty or so years. What is Optimus doing to seize the greatest market share of this opportunity?

Well, at the moment there is not a great deal of decommissioning work taking place for the reason that as long as the oil price remains high, at the moment around 100 USD per barrel, then platforms will continue operating. One day, soon, however, decommissioning will kick in with a vengeance. Our team is able to look at a client’s potential liabilities, and detail these prospective costs for the client. The team also has the capacity to undertake frontend engineering work for decommissioning options, and Optimus would hope in the future the project teams currently building developments offshore will be able to turn their skills towards significant decommissioning works.

Optimus’ team has grown immensely since 1999, when the company was founded. What is the business doing to ensure fresh talent?

Despite being a team of only around 100, the company offers placements to two or three graduates every summer. Typically over the summer we also give an opportunity to two undergraduates as well. Optimus opened an office in Inverness too, to hire staff. There is no specific geographical reasoning for this location with regard to oil and gas hires other than the fact that over 100, even 200 individuals commute from Inverness to Aberdeen weekly. Our business figured opening an office in Inverness would therefore enable personnel to cut transit times and this would allow Optimus to access the best of this previously mobile talent.

Optimus places great value on frontend engineering and design (FEED). How are you ensuring Optimus is known for excellence in this field?

Simply, a task that Optimus states it can do well, it will do well. As long as we continue on this path, we will be head and shoulders above competitors who have louder voices, but poorer capabilities. This enterprise has been commended on its work by clients, and client retention is exceedingly high. Optimus is Latin for ‘we are the best’; the goal and intention is to make sure that this reputation is widely acknowledged.

In the first three months of 2013, your business had gained over 3 million USD in contracts. What was the investment that set up this success, and how has the company maintained this direction?

There has been no investment behind Optimus other than revenue that the company has generated itself since its beginnings, where I had been compelled to borrow my son’s bedroom for use as an office! This has all been achieved through organic growth: seeing opportunities and hiring people to achieve them. One of the reasons for Optimus’ success is that our staff has been hired by reputation amongst existing staff. This is not in any way nepotistic, but guarantees new hires are known for their competence and ability—abilities that have become representative of our company.

Optimus has claimed that one of its specialties is achieving lower overheads than the North Sea is accustomed to. How does your business achieve this efficiency?

That’s straightforward. The big companies—Wood Group, Aker, AMEC, Petrofac—due to their size, cannot be as selective in their hiring as Optimus can. To make sure all tasks, jobs and operations are completed to the appropriate standard, they are compelled to rely on bureaucratic cross checking of ongoing processes. These are very fixed and ridged processes.

Due to Optimus’ smaller scale, high quality, and experienced human resources, Optimus can direct resources more efficiently. This is not shortcutting, but simply using our technical capabilities more effectively. The individuals that Optimus hires have the experience to guarantee that the final job is completed to a more than adequate standard. This is reflected in our record. One could state that Optimus was an example of the ’80-20’ rule: one receives 80 percent of the progress for 20 percent of the input.

As a company, Optimus seeks to grow to around 150 staff, as a limit, because beyond that number of staff, one would have to start bringing in procedures like that of the larger companies which would impede progress.

In terms of experience, Optimus’ Thai venture gained one million USD in contracts. How reliant was this success on the brand that your North Sea experience gave you?

What we have in Bangkok is a North Sea type consultancy, which is unique in that city. The alternatives for clients are big multi-national companies such as Worley Parsons, for example. Optimus has arrived with the procedures and attitude typical of North Sea firms, and that is very attractive to clients. Day to day, there is little or no direct control of the Thai operation from Aberdeen; our staff in Bangkok is largely independent.

In your business, where do you see the greatest prospects for growth?

The biggest opportunity for us, and some might state the biggest challenge for operators is keeping aged infrastructure in the North Sea running, often built 35 years ago with a 23-year design life. Now, these platforms are meant to run perhaps for another 15 years! There are many integrity issues that are all solvable, but they must be attended to. Some of these jobs are relatively mundane: replacing grating for instance, but it must be done.

A large proportion of platforms in the North Sea have small safety issues, nothing dramatic, but, for example, the platform might have had grating replaced with scaffold boards. Handrails that are rusty must be replaced; this is not a big headline issue, but small-scale jobs are constantly required to keep these platforms running smoothly. From a mechanical point of view, there are many systems too in need of attention, such as cooling medium systems.

Where do you see Optimus in four to five years?

The company plans to acquire 150 staff, and following that continue operating as effectively as it has done. I would like to see Optimus seen as the ‘contractor of choice’. Indeed, that clients are approaching us more, rather than having to seek work to such a great degree. At the moment, we are seen as a customer that delivers. It would be excellent for this reputation, to a greater extent than it does now, to bring Optimus more work in the future.
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