Life Lessons: Strengthening relationships
Terry Willis narrates his journey from his introduction to the oil and gas industry in the 1970s in the UK, to his current role leading the Energy Industries Council's activities in the Middle East, Africa and CIS regions as director
I worked for a major UK cable manufacturer, which involved engaging with customers who were based in the UK but were delivering projects abroad, especially in the Middle East. Then, in October 1982, a couple of vacancies for sales engineers in the GCC came up, so I applied and was successful.Upon arrival, I worked across many sectors, not just oil and gas.
I think the major difference has been one of integrated efficiencies. For instance, there could be two separate standalone entities, one covering onshore operations and the other offshore, with no interaction whatsoever between the two.
In Bahrain, there was a minimum of engagement with BAPCO, which in those days was run by Caltex, while in Saudi, Juffali’s office in Dammam handled all the oil and gas work. The similarities are that in all aspects, a very high standard of product was always demanded. Safety remained a number one priority, but price was not as sensitive as it is today.
In all our engagements, security is paramount. We have successfully delivered delegations to both Basra and Tripoli, where it was decided to engage with security providers to ensure an incident-free visit, which was achieved in all cases. We are also cognisant of the UK government’s published travel advice, which is always embraced in everything we do.
During the period leading up to the first Gulf War, we seized an opportunity to offer a variety of services that we knew we could offer with minimum lead time. Whatever was required, was required without any delay. I can remember meeting the Corps of Engineers and demonstrating what then was high-end technology, involving the successful splicing of fibre optic cable. I was able to sell more machines within that short period than in the whole of the preceding year.
Looking back, I think the quality of information was perhaps the main key to remaining positive. Unlike today, one relied on word of mouth and discreet briefings in order to be kept abreast of developments. Gas masks were issued by the British Embassy not long after our departure.
My first exposure to the oil and gas sector was back in the early 70s, when the North Sea assets were being developed, and it soon became obvious that this sector was managed in a whole different way to other areas of the business, like the Ministry of Defence work or general infrastructure developments. As a result, the oil and gas sector required a different range of skills to be applied in order to successfully market new product developments, such as, for instance, flameproof cables, something that in those days was revolutionary and needed careful introduction in order to replace what was the accepted standard engineering practice.
With 60% of the world’s oil and gas reserves found in the Middle East, one cannot ignore the importance of this region, which has its own set of cultural and business standards. It is a failure by western companies to acknowledge and work within these parameters that causes a lot of companies to decide that there are substantial barriers to enjoying successful business here.
The key is always to have a deep reservoir of patience and not be a stranger. Relationships are perhaps the main ingredient for being successful. It is sometimes difficult for western cultures to appreciate and work within the unique nuances that exist in this part of the world, and unless a company’s management can identify and then work not only around these parameters but within them, then they will continue to struggle. However, recognising and embracing them will lead to considerable success.