It has been 10 months since IRJ last sat down with Hugh Williams, CEO of the International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA), and picking up where we left off back then looked like it could be tricky. With over 700 members spanning the offshore industry worldwide and a wealth of target issues, involvements and projects going on at any given time, leave IMCA for more than a couple of weeks and you have a lot to catch up on. Pleasingly, Williams has all sorts of encouraging news for us, following a particularly turbulent and headline-grabbing time for offshore. IRJ was thrilled to catch up with the association and hear about the industry’s promising developments today and IMCA’s exciting plans for the coming months.
Nuala Gallagher: We last spoke in September 2009, how have things been going for IMCA and the marine contracting industry over the past 10 months?
Hugh Williams: It’s a pleasure to be talking to you again! In terms of the industry, I think we discussed last time that towards the end of 2008, the offshore construction sector had decided to commence a new-build program, for the first time in 30 years. This came from the confidence in the offshore industry from 2005 to 2008. Then came the credit crunch. It’s been around for two years now and it has had its effect on the offshore sector. Contracts were delayed and cancelled. A few of the new vessels were cancelled, but many were built and some of them have been underutilized in the first few years of their life, which is a pretty tough situation. I would say towards the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010, things were beginning to look up. We were getting back on our feet again. The work of the marine contractor is of course dictated by oil which relies on the optimism of the oil companies.
Since April and the Gulf of Mexico, BP incident, we have been plunged into a period of doubt again. We don’t really know what is going to happen but there could be another slowdown or new regulations might emerge.
In terms of IMCA and what we’re doing, last September I think we had just announced that we had reached 600 members. Well, it’s 700 now. We’ve continued to grow very fast this year, which is good. That continues to spread the word and recognition of IMCA around the world which is very important. We need to continue to look at the structure of the association to make sure it’s right to deal with the growth of our membership and the aspiration of our members for us to help them. In that connection, we moved to bigger and better offices before Christmas which provide scope for expansion. We also have quite a few new staff since then, so we are continuing to grow as a secretariat in order to support our members.
NG: In our last interview we talked about IMCA’s focus on Rio and Brazil and the building up of your new Central & South America section, formed June 1, 2009. That’s just over a year ago, how has that grown and how healthy is the industry there for its contractors?
HW: Everything went according to plan last year. Last September we discussed the plans for our annual seminar in November in Rio. We were concerned about attendance in a new location for us and with some travel bans around. So, we were delighted that we got a great attendance of over 300 people which is a huge number at such an event. We had also had a record 28 exhibitors. The event really launched the IMCA section in that region generating a lot of new links and recognition.
So the section has been launched and since then we’ve elected the regional chairman and vice-chairman. There’s still a lot to do to get more members to join in the region and there is quite a lot to do to get further recognition in the region, being firstly Brazil, and then the wider region, like Mexico, Venezuela and Argentina. There’s more to do but we’re pleased with our start and now we will have regular meetings in the region.
At our first meeting in April we had a good attendance and cemented our relationship with our Brazilian counterparts IBP, (Instituto Brasileiro de Petróleo e Gás) the Brazilian Association for our industry. They sponsored our conference last year and we will sponsor Rio Oil & Gas which is a huge event in September this year. I think it’s a very important relationship that we have established and we’re very pleased to support one another.
Secondly, I’d like to mention Petrobras itself which is hugely dominant in offshore Brazil. Petrobras has lots of projects going on with lots of input from IMCA members. I think it’s good to see in the last year or so that Petrobras has continued to support a very big program of projects right through the credit crunch. So, the focus of worldwide construction companies, if it wasn’t on Brazil before, has switched more in that direction because there will be work there, whereas in some other parts there may be some delays.
I think it’s been a good start for IMCA in South America but we still have a lot of things to do. One success was finding a way forward for recognising IMCA’s diving in Brazil. Other technical topics will follow as well as spreading geographically, as mentioned, from Brazil to include Mexico, Venezuela and Argentina.
NG: Great. So where’s next for IMCA? Are there plans to build up your work in any other sections of the world or perhaps even to enter any new waters?
HW: You can see our geographic structure which now goes from west to east in time zones with separate sections for South America and North America, then Europe & Africa, Middle East & India, and lastly, Asia-Pacific. Within reason, that is covering the world but there are two geographical areas that are opening up for us; Russia and China. We had a meeting in Hong Kong recently to try to reach the Chinese market and that was very successful. We have a couple of Chinese members joining and again the approach to diving in China is being addressed. I think the Chinese work will continue without a doubt. We are a sponsor of Oceanology International, held every two years in London in March. The interest this year from Russia was huge. People came past our stand, some of them speaking through interpreters, saying, ‘We have heard of IMCA and we want to understand what it means. We want to work with you and we want to join IMCA’. Those are the two areas that I see becoming more relevant for us.
NG: What other sorts of projects and/or focuses does IMCA have going on at the moment? How are your guideline-publishing, events and networking activities progressing and are there any new publications to talk about and/or introduce? Perhaps your SIMOPS guidance publication from May 2010?
HW: SIMOPS (simultaneous operations) occur when two vessels work in a field close to one another probably for the same client. They both have their own captain and are responsible for their own work, but unless they are very careful, they can interact in a bad way with one another. So, a plan is needed that manages the simultaneous operations, and interaction of the two vessels. We launched the SIMOPS document at much the same time as one on personnel transfer. That’s to do with getting the personnel from the beach out to a platform or vessel to work generally using some kind of crew boat. The document does not address helicopter transfer. When personnel are in the field, the document also covers transfer between vessels. There had been a lot of discussion about those two pieces of work as the industry wanted such guidance. Now that they are published, they seem well received.
Apart from the new publications I’d like to mention our events. We’ve had two events that were not on international good practice on marine operations.
The first was on contracts and insurance, in April, in London. It was very successful, with over 100 people together from the insurance market, oil companies, consultants and contractors, talking about contracts and insurance. IMCA is a forum for bringing people together, to facilitate industry dialogue. We were heartened that several speakers and commentators after the event said that this was the only forum of its kind. Equally we had a second successful event; this time on competence. IMCA emphasizes how important competence is and how it differs from training and qualifications. You can be trained and qualified but are you competent for this piece of work, on this day, with this piece of equipment? That’s very important in our projects.
This year our annual seminar is in Dubai, in November. We will carry on doing more events.
Everybody is hugely saddened by the BP event in lots of ways—by the loss of life, the challenge to getting it under control and the ongoing pollution. But the fallout from it will probably impact everything from contracts to insurance to procedures to legislation. So everyone is really waiting to see what will happen. One of the things that we want to emphasize is working together. IMCA espouses working together, improving communications and working together practically. The response to the BP event takes cooperation in the field, including SIMOPS, and as an association we want to cooperate with all parties to try to move things forward. Working together is a key issue and I’m looking forward to playing out part in it.
NG: Taking into consideration the breadth of your past, present and future focuses, what is IMCA really looking to achieve/bolster in the offshore industry this coming year and have your objectives as an organisation changed since September 2009?
HW: My feeling is we always have two things to do. We have got to look to cover the new and upcoming areas, but we have also got to maintain our current materials which need review, promotion, and uptake by members and non-members alike.
Looking to the future, we will continue to work in our key technical and core areas, perhaps with one exception—the people. There is still quite a high turnover of personnel in the industry. The new people that come in have to be brought up to speed with what happened in the past and we always lose some knowledge when people leave. We have to make sure that this knowledge is not lost, but rather is passed on to the new people. I am back beating the drum again (as I was in 2007) on the skills shortage issue. We haven’t worried about it so much for two years because of the credit crunch since it hasn’t been on top of everybody’s agenda, but it is around the corner. I think as soon as the industry perks up there will be a skills shortage again. We’ll be looking to find personnel wherever we can. That’s true in the U.K., in Europe, in America and then drawing on resources from all over the world, from India, the Philippines, etc. The shortage will be a challenge, so a strategic goal is to somehow help our sector with that recruitment.
In terms of IMCA’s focus going forward, finally, I want to discuss two words: waste and risk. I still feel there is some duplication and waste in our industry. And it is our role to help drive it out by being safe and efficient, by promoting international standardisation and by providing clarity. The contracts and insurance event was about doing that—avoiding duplication and removing waste. Risk should be allocated fairly to the right party who is able to take the risk relative to the reward. How does the risk sit within the contractual framework and the insurance framework? That is a significant challenge for everybody. So linking these two words, we need to continue to work together to drive out waste and to understand risk and allocate it fairly between the parties.