with Tina Wang, Sunbridge Engineering & Consulting Co., Ltd.
Ms. Wang, you explained to us prior to the interview that you fell into this industry a bit coincidentally, and your founding of Sunbridge grew out of a need that international companies had for Chinese engineers with not only strong technical skills, but also English-language capability. Can you extrapolate further on the early days of this company, and how it has evolved over these last ten years?
Tina Wang: To be honest, when I founded Sunbridge, I never planned for the long term. I was running forward with my eyes closed, without a particular direction. I worked very hard, and did not strategize very much. At that time, I barely had time to think! From the onset of the business, there was a lot going on—we were providing English speaking skilled electrical engineers, pipeline engineers, structure analysis engineers, etc to our foreign clients. I did a lot of small things myself, such as renting apartments for our workforce on particular projects. I was pulled in all directions.
In the beginning, we did not have much of a structure to the business. We simply tried to address the unique demands of each new client. Our ultimate goal was—and is—to ensure that their business went smoothly in China, and that they were able to integrate into the market. With time, and as our reputation grew, we increasingly built our client base. We continued to work in a fragmented way—dabbling in equipment provision and human resources to try to respond to client requests. We tried to accommodate as many requests as possible! Unfortunately, because I do not have an engineering background, there are several good opportunities that we missed: for example, during our beginnings in 2001, there were very few drilling manufacturers in China. We had the opportunity to become involved in the manufacture of drilling rigs. The company that took on the opportunity instead of us is very large now, and we have sometimes provided engineers for their operations!
In any case, not taking the manufacturing opportunity allowed us to continue to focus on human resources. My personal belief is that a company should not do too much: it should be focused, and perform well in its core expertise.
Gary Ward: 8 or 9 years ago, there were not many Western companies drilling onshore in China. There were pricing issues, there were infrastructure issues, and unconventional segments like CBM were in their infancy. Now, as the industry has matured and unconventional segments are being actively developed, there are a greater number of foreign companies coming into the market. Older oil fields are declining in production, and PetroChina is looking to transfer production rights to smaller Western companies who have the technology or cost management ability to exploit these mature fields to abandonment.
In short, there are many opportunities for Western players of varying sizes here, in niches were high technology is required. However, there is a need for a company like Sunbridge, which can marry the Chinese language with Western technology, and apply it in the field. There are very few companies on the market that can provide that kind of service.
Tina Wang: The market is also globalizing: Chinese companies have become more international, while international companies working in China want to be local. These cultures are mixing.
What does it mean, in practical terms, to ‘marry Chinese language and Western technology?
Gary Ward: When an international company goes in to evaluate Chinese fields, everything is in Chinese. Therefore, there is a need for people that can read the technical reports, prepare Chinese reserve certification documents, look after the logging information and the well-test information, etc. Someone must interpret this data. Translating documents and giving them to a Western engineer is often a precarious thing to do—elements are lost in translation. The gap must be filled with English-speaking, Chinese engineers, who have an understanding of, or direct background in, Western technology.
Tina Wang: I remember we worked on a project for National Oilwell. They had a group in Beijing, and this group worked together with a group from Sunbridge. The international team of engineers was hence able to integrate into the Chinese market via our Chinese team. At the same time, the international engineers helped the Chinese engineers to work at an international level of standards. When they had finished the project, Sunbridge’s engineers had matured significantly. They have since advanced quickly in their careers, and many of them hold top positions. We are happy to see that happen, because we always maintain good contact with our previous employees.
It is important for different companies, and different cultures, to work together. We can provide a service to IOCs—and they, in turn, can help us improve. More and more foreign companies come to China, and train Chinese engineers in international practices.
Gary Ward: From personal experience, in China, many engineers go to work at, say, the Daqing oilfield, and subsequently spend their entire career working for that one field. Their experience level becomes quite limited, although quite good in that one field. On the other hand, engineers that come here from the U.S. typically have had experiences all over the country—in gas, oil, waterfloods, high pressure zones, low pressure zones, etc. They bring a much broader mindset to managing production than currently exists among Chinese engineers. Chinese NOC tend to adopt a bit of tunnel vision in terms of thinking they must execute a particular task in a specific way. People are needed who can offer a different perspective. One thing that Sunbridge focuses on is safety. In this area, Western technology, and, as Tina mentioned, Western standards, are particularly important. Everyone needs to be safe and Sunbridge believes strongly in bringing the best safety procedures to the field and to the rig. Organizations that can bring up the safety standard of Chinese drilling and service companies, in order to minimize damage and accidents, are always welcome.
Sunbridge works not only with IOCs, but also with notable Chinese players such as COSL. It is clear where IOCs need a Sunbridge; how do China’s national companies utilize your services?
Tina Wang: Unlike the NOCs themselves, our company is very flexible, and can respond quite quickly to any relevant requirement. We do not need to send each request through a hierarchy of processes. COSL is a very large domestic company, and any new hire has to be thoroughly processed—however, what if their project only lasts, say, six months or a year? It is more convenient for them to use our mature people on that kind of short-term basis than to undergo the formal hiring procedure.
Sunbridge has worked with Chinese NOCs in regions like the Middle East and Kazakhstan—both major targets for China’s national companies today. How difficult has it been for this business to execute international projects, and what is the significance of international expansion to Sunbridge?
Tina Wang: Our first projects were exclusively with international players like ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Baker Hughes and Schlumberger—we only began working with Chinese players in 2007. Hence, as I have mentioned, we have long had experience with international standards. We find that now, when we work with the Chinese abroad, and have to adhere to these same international standards, the difference is very small for us.
We continue to expand globally. From 2008, we began to work in the Mexican Gulf offshore—where we even provided Spanish interpreters. On that project, COSL is providing drilling platforms and drilling services for Pemex.
It does not particularly matter for us whether we receive requests to work in China or abroad. However, if we look at our Chinese clients, they are often very well-staffed for their projects at home. Our advantage is that, for their international projects, we can provide them with engineers who have international experience. It is mutually beneficial for us to go abroad together. We can also offer them people domestically for situations when a higher level of understanding is needed on certain challenging projects. We prefer to work either with international companies, or international-standard projects.
What is your strategy for attracting and retaining the level of clientele that you have mentioned? We are speaking of very large companies that surely have their choice of service providers.
Tina Wang: Normally, at first, companies like this will give you a test run. It is very important to satisfy the client this first time; it is just as important to continue to meet their needs subsequently. Now, through our ten years of experience, some of our past clients will routinely pick up the phone and call us if they need a person. They do not need to provide us with very detailed requirements: we already know what they want.
We are able to provide people that not only have the right engineering and language skills, but also people with excellent personal approaches, and people who can lead. If you provide such a complete package, clients begin to trust you, and begin to call more and more.
We are always looking for long-term relationships. Our focus on human resources—even if, as I’ve mentioned, it came at the expense of other opportunities—has allowed us to work at being the best at what we do.
What is your positioning on the market relative to your competitors?
Tina Wang: In China, there are perhaps ten companies working in our field, and I would not say that we are the leader. However, the market is quite large, and there is enough room for everyone—we even share resources with some of our counterparts.
Over the last ten years, we have matured as a human resource provider to this industry. We now would like to retain that focus, but to begin to also offer training. Especially after incidents like BP’s Gulf of Mexico spill, Chinese companies are growing increasingly concerned about reducing risk. Risk and emergency training could be a good opportunity for us, given our experience in the market. COSL, for example, just reported that a ship of theirs has sunk—and the reason was improper operation by the staff. Chinese companies have neglected to put their energies into safety training in the past, but they are beginning to realize that accidents can have a very high cost.
China’s engineers also need training in new technology. They may have been using outdated drilling equipment for many years, and when presented with newer models, they are unqualified. Here, too, is a good opportunity for us to enter the training segment.
You’ve mentioned your expansion as far as Mexico, and your strategy to enter the training market. What do you envision for the next five years of this company in terms of growth?
Tina Wang: I believe that the next ten years will be difficult for the oil industry: for political and economic reasons.. In China, and Asia at large, fields are growing more and more depleted. Our biggest markets will be in areas like offshore and deepwater. However, it is very difficult to find people for those niches, as China’s skills there are still limited.
Because of the uncertainty we envision in the future, we take things year by year. We make plans for a certain number of projects, and make sure that we do them well. In the future, we can perhaps take on project management tasks, and help clients to manage engineering. This is another way to expand.
Furthermore, many Chinese companies now want to be international and to be able to put themselves on the same level as the IOCs. Therefore, they have begun to hire many expats. The scene is changing. We recently spent over a year to find a very special single hire for a Chinese company in this line.
You are the first woman that we have met in China that is in a leading executive position. Finding yourself in a male-dominated industry in a male-dominated culture, how challenging has it been for you to establish yourself as a successful businesswoman?
Tina Wang: In the beginning, I did not feel any disparities between the men and myself. However, with time, I realized that, especially in Chinese culture, it is difficult for people to accept a businesswoman. Chinese culture likes for a woman to be effeminate. However, my own personality is quite strong—I was born in the year of the tiger! I ignore any negative perceptions or challenges placed in my path and work to the best of my ability.
What is you final message to the international readers of Oil & gas Financial Journal?
If you need good, qualified engineers, come to Sunbridge!