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Interview

Paul Dixon – Regional Director and General Manager, ODE North Africa (ODENA), Egypt

Paul Dixon, Regional Director and General Manager of ODE North Africa (ODENA), outlines his remit for the region; the service offerings that ODE, as a UK design and engineering house, can contribute to the oil and gas industry in Egypt and the wider MENA region; the strategic importance of Egypt as a center of excellence for both the wider ODE group and the parent DORIS Engineering group; and ODE’s commitment to Egypt as the regional operations hub.

Paul, can you start by giving our international audience an overview of your role and responsibilities as Regional Director for ODE in North Africa?

“As an Egyptian company with international backing, we have a focus on quality and schedule while – critically – being able to leverage on cost.”

I act as Regional Director of North Africa on behalf of ODE as well as the General Manager for the ODE subsidiary in Egypt, ODE North Africa LLC. I cover the whole of North Africa, from Mauritania all the way to Egypt and down into Sudan, as well as opportunities in East Africa. On top of that, I also keep a watching brief on countries within Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Within that extremely broad scope, however, Egypt is my main focus. ODE as a company has been in Egypt since around 2005, and in 2008, we established ODENA as an Egyptian-registered company. At that time, I was the operations director for ODE, based in the UK, with a watching brief on company developments in Egypt. In 2010, I moved to Egypt to focus on the developments of ODENA while still overseeing operations across the company, before taking on the role of General Manager in 2012 to focus my attention on the region.

I see two key objectives for our Egyptian operation: The first is to expand the business locally, maximizing the use of local employees whilst drawing on expertise from the UK and our other operations worldwide if necessary, and also in supporting the Group’s global operations from Egypt. The second is to export our expertise from Egypt into neighbouring countries. Many of our Egyptian staff have excellent overseas work experience in the MENA region.

ODE is a global engineering and project management company offering a range of services. What is ODE’s main scope of activities here in Egypt and North Africa? 

ODE are engineers and project managers working in the energy sector, primarily oil and gas. As a company, we also look at renewables, in particular offshore wind, but our focus in Egypt is oil and gas. We look at engineering projects from wellhead through the production infrastructure through the distribution pipelines to the reception and processing terminals.

As a company, we work across five service offerings: consultancy, asset development, brownfield, asset management and decommissioning. In the UK alone, we provide asset management, a very specialist area where we operate a number of gas production facilities on behalf of clients. We are recognized as a very competent operating company for this, which includes a raft of support activities covering asset integrity, maintenance planning, operations interface, workovers and so on. We also work in decommissioning, where we deal with the end of life of field assets on a technical, economic and practical basis.

In Egypt, we primarily offer our consultancy, asset development and brownfield engineering services, which reflects the market needs. We do leverage some of our asset management knowledge in our consultancy service in terms of improving asset integrity, extending the life of a facility and improving overall operations.

EPC is quite a competitive field, particularly as low oil prices have forced the oil and gas industry to cut costs. How does ODE differentiate itself from other companies?

ODE is quite unique as a company. Firstly, ODE is a wholly owned subsidiary of DORIS Engineering Group and is the largest and oldest of DORIS’ subsidiaries; ODENA is an ODE Group company, which means that we have access to the skills, technology and experience in the overall Group. DORIS dates back over fifty years with a track record of successful delivery of some prestigious projects across the oil and gas sector. What we are doing is bringing skillsets and an approach built over decades of working on a diverse range of oil and gas engineering projects.

As we also operate production facilities in the UK, we understand the challenges and problems that operators see on a day-to-day basis. We harness that operational knowledge in our engineering design and recommendations to deliver extra value to our clients in a way that classic engineering design houses may not be able to.

Secondly, ODENA is a fully registered Egyptian company, which means that we have a long-term commitment to the country and to the region. The company is staffed predominantly by Egyptian nationals; out of around 60 personnel, only two employees are foreigners: myself, and the projects manager.

As an Egyptian company with international backing, we have a focus on quality and schedule while – critically – being able to leverage on cost. We have a good cost base to work on projects both here and internationally; at the same time, we can tap into the expertise of the mothership. That is a huge differentiator.

None of our projects are the same. We are always working on unique projects so our engineers are prepared to always think outside of the box. We have been thrown all sorts of challenges by clients. For instance, we were asked to analyze, validate and adapt certain non-standard materials a client had in stock for a pipeline replacement program. It saved them the time and money they would have spent on purchasing new materials with a long lead time from the market. This is just a small example of the sort of creative problem-solving that we apply to all our services in order to deliver maximal value to our clients.

Another example is the production trains we have designed for some clients. Typically these are designed from scratch, with tailored specifications for the vessels and equipment. We have had clients come to us to tell us, here is a separator, here is a heater, take a look, validate them and see how you can integrate this existing equipment into the new train.

At times, this out-of-the-box thinking can be frustrating for our engineers because it is so challenging, but at the end of the day, we feel validated when clients tell us we did a good job or when we have repeat business.

On that note, how do you adapt the technology and knowledge from the overall group to your operations here?

As a Group, our technology focus is driven by international oil & gas practices including the North Sea. Looking at it simplistically, many aspects of North Sea technology are directly transferrable often because of the nature of the facilities involved – if they are tailored for the region, it is because of the differences in climate and environment.

In particular, in terms of production facilities, solutions like minimum facilities platforms and automation are very applicable to this region. Other areas where there could possibly be more focus on in Egypt is the use of smaller solar or wind power generation methods on production facilities, which will save on maintenance time and operational cost.

The other area where really important tech transfer can happen – and is already happening – relates to deepwater and subsea technology. The UK obviously has vast experience in that area and has developed the advanced technology required for such operations. As a Group, DORIS is respected by many as one of the world’s leading specialists in deep and ultra-deep developments. With Egypt moving further into offshore Mediterranean exploration and into deeper waters, more of that will find increasing relevance here.

One important lesson I learnt when I first arrived here was about the role of automation. In the North Sea, the norm was to automate as much as possible, whereas in other parts of the world, local employment is extremely important. Maximal use of technology may not always be the most appropriate strategy for projects when you look at the whole economic lifecycle. On the other hand, within Egypt, there is more of an acceptance and realization that these technological elements are also very important.

Egypt and North Africa region also has a more pragmatic approach in terms of how work is done and implemented. Rather than customizing every single time for an exact solution, the idea is to look at what has been done before and apply something that is fit-for-purpose – standardization, repeat engineering and simplification, all values that we can bring back to the parent group.

What are some flagship projects that ODE is working on here that showcases the expertise you are bringing?

One of the most important projects we have now is with one of the JV Operating Companies for the provision of technical assurance services for the modifications being undertaken to their onshore gas reception terminal. This project is part of a large development that will enable the tie-in of a number of offshore Mediterranean gas fields by expanding and improving general terminal facilities and production support facilities. This development project will be one of the main sources of gas for Egypt’s domestic market, so this is quite a flagship project for the country. We are overseeing the technical quality of these operations, so we have a small but very important part to play. In parallel, we are also looking at some of the integrity management systems and processes relating to these subsea assets.

We have worked with a number of operating companies with existing offshore structures in terms of asset integrity. Many of these assets are now long past their original design life and many of them have been expanded with additional load and facilities added to the topside, so we have been undertaking reanalysis of those substructures to determine if they are fit-for-purpose in the long-term.

Our niche here is really the smaller, extremely specialist and technical projects in offshore oil and gas. That said, in the past few years, we have been relatively insulated from the fall in oil price because as more expensive offshore developments saw a slowdown, there was continued activity onshore in brownfield developments, especially for tie-ins of new wells and fields to existing facilities, field upgrades, and facility de-bottlenecking – those are the projects we worked on. Particularly in the Gulf of Suez, we have worked on rehabilitation, integrity-type and integrity-modification projects extending the life of the facilities there. Today, we have an even split between onshore and offshore projects.

I was very impressed when you said this affiliate is registered locally and also basically staffed entirely by Egyptians. How do you manage your HR to take advantage of the pool of talent in Egypt’s 92-million-strong population?

If we are to be successful in Egypt, we have to be competitive on a number of levels: technical product, adherence to schedule, aspects of quality, and also cost. If we are competing in Egypt against other Egyptian companies, we cannot achieve all of that if we have a vast number of internationals working here. It is not the way forward – and it is also not the right way for a foreign company to be conducting business as a local affiliate in Egypt. As a result of our decision to invest and build a business here, we also want to generate opportunities for local growth and development.

“We have spent a lot of time recruiting our core team, not just engineers but also our administrative and support personnel as every person in this organization has a very important role to play.”

We have spent a lot of time recruiting our core team, not just engineers but also our administrative and support personnel as every person in this organization has a very important role to play. Specifically, in terms of engineering and project management personnel, we have spent a lot of time recruiting the right sort of people with the right temperament that matches the ODE ethos: a ‘can-do’ ethos. For more senior positions, we also like to see candidates with some international experience and/or experience in larger international companies. As an affiliate, we have a good mix of people with experience not just in service providers but also oil and gas operators.

We then invest a significant amount in training and development. A number of key personnel here would have spent some time in our UK office either as part of their induction or for project requirements, to better understand our processes and systems as well as to meet their peers to foster intra-organizational collaboration. ODE also brings young engineers from the UK to Egypt for three-month assignments to understand this office, the skillsets here and to subsequently act as ambassadors for us in the wider organization.

Finally, we also try to foster young talent, whether through internships or employment in order to springboard them into the industry with the right opportunities for growth.

Strategically speaking, how important is the Egypt affiliate to ODE?

Egypt and Cairo is essential to ODE’s development. The Cairo office is very recognized within the ODE and wider DORIS Group as a center of excellence, especially in the area of specialist analysis, simulations and modelling.

Even more excitingly, we are in the process of developing this center as an engineering hub for the wider MENA region as well as a high-value engineering center for the ODE and DORIS Group. This will leverage on the number of well-qualified and experienced engineers and project managers we have working within the oil and gas sector, not just in Egypt but internationally as well; that knowledge is essential to the growth of this company and ODE as a brand globally.

Looking forward, what further opportunities does ODE see in Egypt and the region?

Having established ourselves here in 2008, we have demonstrated that we have a long-term commitment to this region and we will continue to invest in this region as we build and develop this engineering hub to serve Egypt and the region.

Egypt still has large volumes of hydrocarbon reserves and gas in particular to be produced. We see a very positive future here in terms of project opportunities, not just offshore but onshore in the Western and Eastern Deserts.

The climate for investment is good. For any company to invest in any region, stability is key. The country has expressed a really positive desire to move forward and encourage investment. There are some challenges in terms of administrative burdens and receivables but what is really important is that H.E. President Sisi has recognized this and the entire petroleum sector from the Minister of Petroleum to the various NOCs are promoting change actively.

Regionally, East Africa as well as Libya have some real potential in the long-term. East Africa is a relatively untapped region. In Libya, for ODE specifically, there is a multitude of opportunities in terms of providing specialist engineering support services for the brownfield resurrection and rehabilitation of oil and gas production facilities.

In short, we have been here for the past ten years and we will remain here for much longer.

Do you have any advice for companies looking to invest in Egypt?

Companies need to do thorough groundwork and investigation and be crystal clear on their reasons for coming to Egypt. They will really need to understand how this country works and to add a factor for risk to schedule, because it always takes much longer than you predict.

Relationships – long-term and sustained – are very important. Companies need to be prepared to have a multitude of opportunities and relationships in place because the time it takes for an opportunity to crystalize into a project can be lengthy.

You have to be prepared to wait for your returns on investment. Oil and gas is fundamentally a long-term business and Egypt is a long-term game.

Final message?

“ODE is all about long-term commitment to the region and the investment we have continued to make in this country reinforces this.”

ODE is all about long-term commitment to the region and the investment we have continued to make in this country reinforces this. We are well-established, we have a proven capability for delivering a wide range of projects and we have long-term relationships with repeat clients – but ultimately, as a design and engineering house, we are only as good as our last piece of work. We have to keep on improving.

As Egypt seeks to become a regional energy hub, there are great opportunities for us, both in the domestic market and in using Egypt as a springboard to neighboring countries.

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