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Interview

with Howard D Woodcock, CEO, Bibby Offshore

29.11.2008 / Energyboardroom

Bibby Line Group celebrated its 200th anniversary last year, but Bibby Offshore is somewhat newer; would you give us an introduction to Bibby Offshore and the role it plays within the larger company?

Bibby Line Group has been working in the offshore industry since the early 1980s. The company was first involved in providing accommodation barges and jackup accommodation and service units in various places throughout the world. We’ve had a long involvement with the offshore industry, and the company graduated from being a provider of steel to a service provider 15 years ago, after winning a contract with Chevron Upstream Europe in Aberdeen to provide operations and maintenance services for their ALBA floating storage unit, a contract still held today. . This contract is central to what we do at Bibby Offshore, and was the start of our presence in Aberdeen in 1993, when we first came into the industry in the North Sea quite quietly.
For the Alba contract, Bibby Offshore employs everybody onboard, is the budget holder onboard, performs all operations and maintenance, and looks after the unit completely for Chevron, creating a small oasis of Bibby within Chevron in the North Sea. This is the cornerstone of what Bibby was doing in the UK in the offshore industry, and meanwhile the company was working quite extensively in the Middle East, with a fleet of jackup units which did accommodation, workover support, early production, and various other tasks, building up a business from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. In early 2003, Bibby purchased a diving support vessel and decided to open up a permanent presence in Aberdeen and create a company to undertake subsea contracting. The DSV Bibby Aquamarine joined Bibby Offshore at the end of 2003, and the company recruited six individuals to start creating an entity; Bibby Offshore Limited in Aberdeen. This drew together all the other aspects of the Bibby Line Group offshore activities from elsewhere around the world, to be managed from an office in the Bridge of Don in Aberdeen. We started out by chartering the vessel, the Aquamarine, back to the company we bought it from. Following that, Bibby Offshore entered into a partnership with Integrated Subsea Services to provide diving and subsea services, which is still going strong to this day, and is a very close working relationship key to Bibby Offshore’s growth over the last four to five years. In early 2004, the company had started winning small pieces of IRM work in the North Sea which we started executing in our own name as lead contractor. We soon created a reputation of being good at this, and started getting repeat business, and recruited more people; by the end of 2004, 20 were working onshore with the vessel in the North Sea.
I took over as Managing Director of Bibby Offshore in January 2005, having previously run the shipping business unit in Liverpool, adding to my earlier offshore experience in the North Sea and in the merchant Navy for nine years in the 1980s. When I arrived, there was a small team of dedicated and key people who had created an appealing offering for the marketplace and our clients. We quickly recognized one ship was not enough, so we set off trying to buy another ship to supplement the Bibby Aquamarine, on a larger and more capable scale. When a deal fell through at the last minute to acquire a vessel from one of our competitors, we recognized that they probably realized we were going to use it to compete against them. The market had started taking notice of Bibby Offshore.
Subsequently, Bibby Offshore decided to convert a new build vessel using a ship that was already under construction. The vessel became the DSV Bibby Sapphire, a 94m long and 22m wide construction support vessel with 150 tonne crane. Bibby Offshore purchased a full 18-man saturation diving system, and started installation in 2006. That presented its challenges, as conversions do, even given the long maritime heritage of Bibby and the experience in managing, operating, and owning ships. However, despite the complexity of installing and outfitting a saturation diving system into a vessel, she has now completed over 1,200 dives in the North Sea, working 365 days per year for Talisman Energy. During the conversion in 2006, Bibby Offshore decided to acquire another vessel to capture growth seen, not necessarily in the North Sea market, but through the company winning market share. The company commissioned a further 107m long vessel, called the Bibby Topaz, a purpose-built new build diving support vessel (DSV). The Bibby Topaz entered service in April 2008 and went straight to work for Shell, completing a very successful campaign in the Southern North Sea, and is now in the Caribbean working for an oil major. Bibby Offshore learned a lot about building DSVs, as many people know, it’s a difficult thing to do, and has not been done in the UK since the end of the 1990s. What we learned with Bibby Sapphire we put into play on Bibby Topaz, creating a technical query register of 550 lessons learned in project one that were integrated into project two, which meant that the second vessel was delivered right the first time.
At present, Bibby Offshore counts 140 people working onshore in Aberdeen, plus in excess of another 300 offshore. We still manage the ALBA FSU , and a DP FPSO for a Norwegian operator. The company also performs crew management on a DSV in the Caspian, and in total has a large project delivery business here,. We are very proud of what we’ve created so far.

What are the most interesting or challenging topics on your agenda?

There are two or three main challenges. One is where the company will secure finance to continue growth. Financing has slowed down in all areas of the industry, affecting clients, competitors, and of course us. Our suppliers are also starting to feel the pinch, and we’re seeing more and more moves toward operational and cost efficiencies, finding ways to squeeze more out of every dollar they spend.
Growing a business is not easy, one of the biggest difficulties is maintaining growth and momentum within the business, because the natural tendency is allow things to plateau and assume a ‘business as usual’ mentality – and that’s when waste and unnecessary costs tend to creep in. So, we’ve got to fight against that, and it’s going to be a big challenge as it is for anyone else.
Finding the right people is also a big challenge. The number of highly competent and qualified people available is limited, especially in the North East of Scotland, because there’s a lot of large calls from many companies, and choice in terms of employment at the moment. To overcome this, Bibby Offshore has had to think a little bit laterally and be innovative. For instance, the company opened an office in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in early 2008 after recognizing that Tyneside, historically, has a lot of links with the subsea and offshore industry, and there are many people living and working in the area who have the kind of skills needed up here. The fact is that many of those people make a weekly commute to Aberdeen to work in the offshore industry, which is what gave us the inspiration to open an engineering facility in Newcastle. This has both extended reach in terms of our resource pool whilst reducing carbon footprint in travel to and fro, hopefully creating more satisfying and happier jobs and careers for our people. One of the Bibby Line Group policies is to attract, develop, and retain talented people, and that’s what we aim to do. We aim to get good people on board, and we’re never afraid to employ the best people we can, and to stimulate them to get interesting and satisfying careers that make them want to stay with the company for a long time. This is my 16th year in Bibby, and I’ve never had the same job for more than three years’ time. It’s about opportunities arising and giving them to people to grow and develop. I first worked for Bibby as a deck cadet in the early 1980s, and so have come some way in this respect.
The most interesting topics are the most challenging; challenges drive me, and this company thrives on its will to win. We adopted the tagline ‘Because We Love This Business’ earlier in 2008, to reposition the Bibby brand which is 200 years old in the local Aberdeen marketplace, as well as represent the company as we move overseas. It reflected the passion in the business, being built up from bottom to top. I didn’t sit there and think of it; we had a cross-section of people from the entire business talk about what was important to them and what they valued in Bibby Offshore, and what made them want to come to work and do well. There was a will to win. We give our people responsibility and empowerment, and need them to make decisions themselves. We want them to roll up their sleeves, get stuck in, and drive the business forward. It’s the people in the company driving it forward. We’re hoping to give our people satisfying careers as a result of energizing them into helping us succeed. ‘Because we love this business’ recognizes the energy and passion in Bibby Offshore, the love for it, and also that it’s a business, and therefore must be professional, safe, and deliver a product to the client that is on a par with or in excess of what they’re used to and looking for.

For stronger companies like Bibby Offshore, is the tough economic climate and shortage of human resources in a sense a good thing?

I’m not sure a financial crisis is, but the Bibby Line Group of which Bibby Offshore is a part has been family owned, managed, and controlled throughout its long history. My boss is Sir Michael Bibby who is the sixth generation of the family. They have a spread of investments across different marketplaces and industries. For example, offshore gives exposure to the oil and gas industry. They own a large logistics and distribution company called Bibby Distribution, which has about 2,500 employees and 1,000 trucks in the UK, giving exposure to that kind of retail and logistics industry. They have a large financial services group, Bibby Financial Services, which primarily undertakes debt factoring and invoice discounting, and is the largest debt factoring company in the UK outside of banks, and is located in 11 countries worldwide.
They also own a majority share in Cost Cutter, the convenience food store business.
Undoubtedly, Bibby Offshore is in a strong position, with a well-organized and robust business which is part of a much larger, financially-stable group, and there will be opportunities that arise over the coming months and years. We are monitoring these opportunities closely and at the right time, with the resources and backing from our shareholders, we will move forward with them.

In terms of strategy, what kind of opportunities are you investigating? Can you elaborate more on the prospects of international expansion?

The first part of the strategy is the fact that Bibby Offshore does a good job here, and we must not compromise that. The North Sea is our backyard, and we’re committed to it. What we are able to do is transfer those skills into different geographic markets, so we opened an office in Trinidad at the end of 2007 in recognition of the fact that there was a similar client base in the North Sea, although in quite a small market, but with some very important work to get done. Trinidad has very similar standards to the North Sea, and Bibby welcomes high standards of operation because it allows fair competition against other contractors. In Trinidad we have employed a team of local people who are working to develop client relationships and establish our presence in the region. We have won a five year master services agreement with an oil major and Bibby Offshore currently has two support vessels in Trinidad working on two separate projects, one opex and one capex. We will continue to build on that local office as a hub for further expansion within the central and South American region. There are also opportunities elsewhere in the world and we continue to review those on a regular basis. We spend time traveling and looking at opportunities, there is no substitute for actually going to see somebody and sitting face to face with them, and getting to know them and their business. It shows commitment to finding out what it is they’re looking for. There are three or four regions where Bibby has big plans. Watch this space.

Moving from deck cadet to chief executive, how has that evolution in the company influenced your management stile?

As a 16 year old deck cadet, I didn’t really have a management stile. Now, I’d like to think my management stile is inclusive, but in my opinion the key to good management is varying your stile at the right time, in an appropriate way to the circumstances. For example, if you were managing a room full of six year olds, you’d potentially use a particularly directive stile. If you’re managing a team of highly skilled, competent, and experienced individuals who are general managers in their own right, there’s a more open and collaborative approach to take. It’s important to vary a management stile. I don’t think that’s a matter of being inconsistent, but rather recognizing that different circumstances and people require a different approach. One thing I like to promote in Bibby Offshore is that people enjoy coming to work. I don’t expect them all to be skipping down Waterloo Quay whistling every morning, but the point is that it should be enjoyable and satisfying. Bibby Offshore strives to create an atmosphere and culture that is fun and open. We do an annual staff survey, and employees consistently like the culture and atmosphere. I’d like to think the senior management is all very approachable, and we’ve got time to spend with people at whatever level in the organization, whether onshore, offshore, or wherever.

What’s your vision for Bibby Offshore in the next five to 10 years?

The vision is to become a major offshore subsea oil and gas service company. This will be achieved by absolutely excellent project execution, having outstanding people working for us, and delivering exceptional value to shareholders. Those are the three key aspects of our vision. Overall, this involves being a much larger and capable organization that can do more for our customers than currently. Not only will we do more geographically, but provide more services. It’s quite a simple strategy: do what we do know, do it in other places, and then do other things you don’t do at the moment.

What is your final message to OGFJ readers?

Everybody says it, but at Bibby we really mean it: this business is about the people – the guys and the girls who put in a shift and a half every day of the week and who absolutely want to win. We’re out there to succeed, beat the competition, and it’s an absolute pleasure. I love it. We had a staff awards session last week, and I said something at the end I really meant, that it’s great for me to be part of their team. It’s an absolute pleasure to be part of it. . At the end of the day, it’s not about the guy who sits in the top office, it’s about the people who actually do the work and deliver it, and that’s everybody throughout Bibby Offshore.

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