Thursday, February 26, 2009

Contractor Survival


The infrastructure business shifts as the economy reels

This article appears in the March 2009 issue of Oilsands Review; photo from here.
By Peter McKenzie-Brown

Infrastructure reflects the times in which it is created. In Alberta, a literally off-the-wall example can be found in the control panels at the Turner Valley Gas Plant – a mothballed facility now being prepared for restoration as a historic site. Made in Germany during the 1930s, its control panels sport swastikas welded into the steel – a reflection of the political turmoil of the day.

The network of firms that create and maintain roads and industrial facilities make up the infrastructure business. Combined, they represent a huge segment of the modern economy. In Alberta in recent years, this business has been increasingly dominated by efforts to develop oilsands infrastructure, but since the beginning of the global financial crisis that has changed.

Infrastructure firms with contracts to design, engineer and construct massive projects like Petro-Canada’s postponed Fort Hills project have led to layoffs in professions where, a year ago, the demand was almost desperate. However, these cases have not yet been large. Indeed, many companies sense a need to rebalance the sector. Once that’s done, they say, demand for new and revitalized infrastructure will remain strong. Indeed, there is even a sense among some firms that both the province and the oilsands industry itself can benefit from the breathing room the slowdown is providing. Perhaps the irrational exuberance of the last few years really needed a pause for serious contemplation.

Spider webs and feeding chains: The infrastructure business consists of a spider web of design, engineering, manufacturing and contracting firms working with owners to build and install roads, pipes, wires, vessels and related technology. And in recent decades, the business has changed in dramatic ways. For example, said Bernie McAffrey, “It used to be that electrical and instrumentation was maybe 10 percent of the cost of a compressor station, say. Today that part of the equation I would guess is over 23 percent. A typical project now needs more than twice as much automation technology as it did a couple of decades ago.”

McAffrey founded Ber-Mac Electrical and Instrumentation in 1981. As last year wound down, a largely unnoticed item in the news – the acquisition of Calgary-based Ber-Mac by Swiss multinational ABB – received regulatory approval to proceed. More than three times larger than ABB’s previous western Canadian operation (built up through a combination of organic growth and small acquisitions), the new entity is an especially big player in the oil patch. McAffrey is now a vice president of ABB Ber-Mac, which employs about 750 technical and field people in the three western provinces, including 715 in Alberta.

Even though the financial crisis became apparent while the acquisition was in the works, ABB did not pause in its efforts to acquire the Canadian firm. According to ABB Ber-Mac’s new vice president and general manager, Marcus Toffolo, “This acquisition was not for cost-cutting but for growth. Long term, we may take skills out of Alberta to the rest of the world but that’s not feasible just yet because of regional demand.” He added, “When we looked at this acquisition (we were impressed with Ber-Mac’s) basic business model of vendor neutrality, regional distribution, customer satisfaction. We don’t want to change that.”

In broad terms, the infrastructure business applies technical and scientific knowledge and uses resources to build systems that benefit the economy. It employs a feeding chain that begins with minnows – firms of just a few technical staff – but ranges up to large multinationals like Zurich-based ABB. That global giant has more than 100,000 employees and annual revenues in the tens of billions of dollars.

McAffrey, whose company has successfully risen from the bottom toward the top of the feeding chain, has seen huge changes in the entire business since he set up his firm. “The amount of installed technology in Alberta has grown by leaps and bounds. In the beginning there were only two oil sands plants. In terms of magnitude and sophistication (infrastructure in Alberta) has grown dramatically.” The good news for the business is that these huge amounts of installed infrastructure have to be maintained and continually upgraded. Nowhere is this truer than in the oilsands.

Colleaux Engineering vice president Al Striga sketches out the size of the challenges. “It’s very unusual to see so many huge facilities packed into such a small area as (the Fort MacMurray area). If you throw in the need for cold weather operation, you don’t see anything else like this anywhere in the world. You have to specify cold-weather compatible equipment, instrumentation and metallurgy. Enormous pieces of equipment have to move at temperatures ranging from -40 to +30, and everything has to be reliable. The challenges are huge.”

His company is one of the minnows at the bottom of the feeding chain, but has done some oilsands work. “Large firms get the project. We get involved as subcontractors to the big firms. We get awarded a module or component of a facility.” Like other firms, Colleaux Engineering has been hit by the postponement of oil sands projects. “Within 72 hours of the time Fort Hills went down, we got a call saying our part of the action was all over.”

Like everyone else interviewed for this article, the principals at Colleaux Engineering are optimistic about Alberta’s medium-term outlook. “We’re hearing everything from doom and gloom to an optimum environment,” said Striga’s sidekick and the company president, Steve Colleaux. “We aren’t too worried about the future. We’re in an interesting part of the market. We don’t need a lot of work to stay busy. A company with a thousand people needs 200 hours per person per month. That's a lot of hours.” His 20-year-old company only employs ten technical staff.

What’s hot, what’s not:Although many oilsands projects are disappearing into the black holes of indeterminate postponement, opportunities for the infrastructure business in Alberta still abound. The amount of effort needed for infrastructure maintenance is vast. Consequently, there will be a rebalancing of the infrastructure industry in the province, with the slack from project cancellations being shifted toward these other areas.

The construction of new oil sands projects is an area of disappearing opportunity, and the business is alive with reports of large-scale oil-sands related layoffs. Some projects are staying the course, however – notably Imperial Oil’s Kearl project.

According to a source who requested anonymity, “Kearl is going ahead like crazy…. Rather than scaling back their efforts, (the project team at Imperial) are doing the opposite. They are spending about $1.5 million dollars per day on more than 1,000 engineers to engineer the hell out of it right now while contract engineers are cheaper. (Because of parent ExxonMobil’s strong cash position), they have the option to be greedy when others are frightened and frightened when others are greedy. In a couple of years when the competition is just starting to re-examine their preliminary plans, they will be digging holes and welding steel based on contracts formed in a down market.”

Despite the cancellation or downsizing of some projects (notably two Enbridge proposals to take bitumen to US markets via Ontario and Quebec), transmission is still a solid area of growth. So is the creation of new infrastructure in areas where oilsands operations are strong.

Asked how the shifting sands of the bitumen business have affected his business, Mark Wrightson – president of Whaler Industrial Contracting – was direct and to the point. “We submitted a proposal (for a SAGD project) to Connacher Oil and Gas in the fall. Just prior to the contract being awarded, the project was shelved. When Petro-Canada postponed Fort Hills, half a dozen projects fell off our project board.” However, he said, “our primary focus is on transmission – pump stations primarily. Eighty percent of the work we are doing is in transmission infrastructure, and Enbridge, TCPL, Husky and others have projects to take away bitumen. There is such an infrastructure deficit in take-away capacity that we expect these projects to remain strong.” The downside, such as it is, is that “there will be a lot more competition for that kind of work.”

Similarly, built-up infrastructure needs to be maintained, and basic oilsands maintenance presents tremendous opportunities. According to Pinal Gandhi, a project manager with Whaler, “It’s not going to stop. Syncrude and Suncor have old plants. They have a tremendous need for maintenance. They will cut down on the expansion side, but they will continue to put a lot of money into maintenance.” His enthusiasm is infectious. “Until recently (Suncor’s) upgrader was operating at 150 percent of capacity. Pumps were worn out” and so was a lot of other equipment. The company “wanted production. They didn’t care about the cost. The downturn is an opportunity to slow down on production but put money into maintenance.”

He adds that “Fort MacMurray itself has a huge need for infrastructure. They need (highway) flyovers, all kinds of supporting facilities. Anyone who works outside of the city has to spend a minimum of three hours per day to commute to work.” Again, he believes that the slowdown in oilsands development provides the opportunity for the infrastructure business to work with the city and the province to upgrade roads and develop other infrastructure. Wrightson concurs: “It’s embarrassing how little has been invested in infrastructure at Fort MacMurray.”

A construction manager with the Trotter and Morton group of companies, Mike Dickson has the ironic motto that during construction “contractors are merely an inconvenience to someone else making money.” In today’s environment, he says, “long-term projects that are three to four years out are being cancelled. (That is why our company) sees opportunity and is more interested in the smaller projects involving the necessary infrastructure maintenance and not mega-expansion.”

In general, newer infrastructure employs fewer people than the systems it replaces. According to Colleaux Engineering’s Al Striga, it develops in a virtuous cycle. “The more automation you implement, the lower the cost becomes, and the more automation you want.”

An oilsands automation engineer with one of North America’s largest engineering firms (he requested anonymity) discussed the potential of recent breakthroughs. “Digital automation has been around forever and a day, but the fact remains that if you go to any plant anywhere in the world, you will find that 80 percent of the loops are on manual. So we are not doing our job correctly. Ideally, you should have a plant that operates on automatic 100 percent of the time. We’re missing the boat somewhere, and I just can’t put my finger on why. If we can put more loops on automatic, we can approach that Holy Grail.”

As beguiling as such a development sounds, it’s going to be a long time coming. As Steve Colleaux acknowledges, automation (one of his firm’s specialties) controls processes better than people. “In a perfect world, automation can do everything. However, in the real world things aren’t like that. The system may come up with an alarm that says ‘We have a malfunctioning pressure transmitter. We can’t see what’s happening in this vessel.’ You need operators around to deal with those real-life problems.”

There are other problems in the wind. According to Trotter and Morton’s Mike Dickson construction used to be founded on the “three-legged stool of owner, engineer and contractor.” That changed, he says, with the advent of engineering, construction and procurement (EPC) teams serving as project managers. “Contractors are now the labour, which really means the risk.”

He believes relationships between owners and contractors may become strained in the emerging marketplace. “The sustainable win/win contract philosophy we have been experiencing (which was based upon the owner’s need to woo contractors and the contractors’ need to see repeat or possibly evergreen contracts) has given way to the more win/lose style of heads-up construction.” This, he says, may result in a more litigious environment.

What will mark the infrastructure development of the next few years? Nothing like the swastika in the gas plant – that much is for sure. Perhaps the mark of infrastructure during the next few years will be welded instead on the bottom line. “In the boom,” said Whaler Industrial’s Mark Wrightson, “just-in-time construction didn’t work at all – in fact, it rarely works well at the best of times. You couldn’t get deliverables on time. Everything was delayed. But today you can get turbines and gensets (electrical generators combined with engines). They are now being manufactured for a smaller market. A lot has changed.”

For the infrastructure business, perhaps the real mark of this changed era will be slower-paced, lower-cost, more orderly development. Surely that isn’t all bad.
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