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Interview

with Arnaud Dabancourt, Managing Director, Tristan Export

03.02.2012 / Energyboardroom

Tristan Procurement Solutions was founded as soon as 1997, whereas you joined the Company two years later. Can you elaborate to the readers what have been the key highlights of the company’s evolution to date?

One of the highlights is obviously the fact that we have managed to sustain and grow the business for these 14 past years. The company was initially founded by Louis and Christine Daron, and when Annick Capostagno and I joined in 1999 we were only 4 people. We first started supplying the Angolan market, which at that time was mainly serviced from Europe and the USA. Our first challenge was therefore to promote South Africa as a preferred supply base for the region. At that time the industry was still very reluctant to source supplies from South Africa and did not know that the country could supply so many goods of industrial capacity.

Over time, stakeholders realized there was a real potential for supplying oil and gas projects along the Sub Saharan West Coast from South Africa. Subsequently to Angola, we moved into other Western African markets such as Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea etc.

Another highlight over the years has been to successfully conduct a number of large scale engineering projects. We are a procurement company that supplies anything from basic commodities such as bolts, raw materials and machinery, to engineering products/projects, turnkey solutions such as warehouses or complete prefabricated camps. For this, we obviously make use of subcontractors and partners of the highest standard. We would typically take care of the engineering, manufacturing, supply, shipping and installation; projects sometimes taking several years and costing several millions of dollars. I must admit, these projects procure a great sense of achievement once they are standing proud in the African wilderness.

Tristan Export offers a broad portfolio of services to several sectors, including interior design. What is the importance of the oil and gas sector within the company portfolio?

It is the most important driver of our business. Even for our divisions that might not seem closely related to the oil and gas industry, like interior design and food supplies, the real demand of our business comes from the oil and gas sector. To give you an example, our interior design division fully equipped a hotel in Soyo, Angola, exclusively used by oil companies and operated by a major O&G company. We are also active with food products, and for example we would provide catering companies with supplies to serve the kitchens and canteens on oil rigs or remote sites. There is thus a direct link between our activities of Industrial, Food & Interior Design.

Having done projects for such companies as Baker Hughes and ExxonMobil, what would you say is the edge of Tristan Procurement Solutions that made it the partner of choice for these major international companies?

Our business is Procurement Solutions and I would insist on “Solutions”, being close to our clients, understanding their needs and finding solutions with them to their daily operational challenges, which are many in Africa. I guess our service level, our reactivity and most of all our reliability have made us over the years a preferred partner in the oil industry in Africa.

Our logistical knowledge in Africa is also an added value for our customers; we handle more and more of the transport to final destination, even to the remotest port or airstrip of Africa via road, sea or airfreight, thus relieving our customers of many transit headaches.

What are some of the company’s key projects that showcase the reliability and reactivity you mentioned?

There are many that come to mind, but I would for example mention the turnkey project we did for ExxonMobil, in Equatorial Guinea, in 2007. We built and equipped their logistics base from scratch, supplying warehouses, workshops, gantry cranes, prefabricated offices fully equipped, anti-fire system, power, sanitation etc.… all in very challenging circumstances.

Looking at the oil and gas sector as a whole, both Premier Helen Zille and Warwick Blyth of SAOGA told us about the increasing role of ports of the Western Cape, such as Cape Town and Saldanha Bay, in ship and rig repair and maintenance. How do you see the development of South Africa as an offshore hub and how is Tristan Procurement Solutions playing into this?

Besides our core business, which is procurement for the O&G industry, Shipchandling is an important part of our business. The development of Cape Town as an offshore hub is thus also important to us. Already in 1998 we envisaged that Cape Town would become an offshore hub.
The development unfortunately has not been going as quickly as we thought back then; we are in 2012 now, and we are still talking about turning Cape Town into a major offshore center. It is a very positive sign that the Industry Development Zone (IDZ) in Saldanha Bay is taking off, but nonetheless the lack of efficient political decision during the past decade has given Walvis Bay in Namibia a window of opportunity to develop and to an extend compete with Cape Town. The political will is crucial for this kind of development and I am very pleased with the current evolution.

After the E&P boom that we witnessed in West Africa, it now seems that it is East Africa’s turn to experience an upsurge in E&P. How well is Tristan positioned to capture the opportunities that this boom provides?

We see that a lot of our customers have started to go there and it is certainly a new destination for us. It seems to take off but let’s see first.
In Madagascar, we have seen a number of promising finds as well, but the coup of 2009 and the ongoing political turmoil has impaired many of these nascent developments.

What are the challenges in finding the right talent in South Africa?

The main talent we are seeking is “purchasing”. South African academic curriculum does not offer a stream of education to become a “Buyer”, like in Europe or the US. Here, it is offered as one of many subjects students receive when they study business.
It is therefore a very difficult skill to find and we do compensate with intensive in-house training.

We have lately seen an increase of Europeans coming to South Africa and especially Cape Town to live and work, but as the process to obtain a working permit is quite lengthy (up to six months or more) and complex, it makes it difficult for local companies to hire them even though their skills are greatly needed to service overseas markets like we do. Besides English our languages of trade are French and Portuguese. Work Permit application process is intentionally difficult and part of the government’s policy to protect the country’s working population – an effort that should not come as a surprise if we look at the country’s unemployment rate which is close to 25 percent. Nonetheless the government shouldn’t lose sight that foreign workers also contribute to the growth of South Africa!

The BBBEE (affirmative action) is also another hurdle, making it more difficult for small to medium companies like ours to recruit BBBEE candidates which are rare resources and attracted to bigger corporation. The BBBEE is part of the South African labour law and although a good principle to my opinion to uplift the masses of previously disadvantaged people, the way of its implementation might not have the desired effect on the economy and certainly not for our small organization.

After 12 years in the company, what are your personal ambitions?

Tackling new challenges, in new countries. Growing a competitive and enthusiastic company in a sustainable way and spreading our risk exposure.

Finding new products and services to motivate that growth in a worldwide market

With our various divisions, achieving bigger and more complex projects in Africa, as they are the most fulfilling achievements and our best marketing for the future.

Where do you see Tristan Procurement Solutions in five years from now?

We will still be standing strong! We will still grow steadily and sustainably. The risks of working in Africa are manifold, which is why it is important to spread our client portfolio over a number of countries. This is an important goal.

In our search of African expansion, establishing a good network of partners in the various countries where we trade, or even subsidiaries, like we did in Angola in 2009.

Developing new ranges of products, services, turnkey solution projects, like in the renewable energy sector for instance.
And of course forever increasing our added value in the service to our clients and growing with them. Our client base has been very faithful over the years, which we appreciate greatly as we value partnerships above all.

What would be your final message for the readers of OGFJ?

Contact us! South Africa and Cape Town have an important role to play for the future of the region, with a vast potential to contribute to its growth.

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