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Sat 17 Jul 2010 04:00 AM

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Qatari contractor on the prowl

Black Cat Engineering and Construction's general manager, Adnan Al-Mubarak on how the oil and gas specialist is branching out into new territory.

Qatari contractor on the prowl
Al-Mubarak: “When quality becomes the watch-word for the civil projects we want to be ready...”
Qatari contractor on the prowl
Black Cat is an established player in the Qatar construction market, having specialised in supporting the development of the local petroleum industry (picture for illustration purposes only).
Qatari contractor on the prowl
Black Cat is expanding into civil work (illustration only).
Qatari contractor on the prowl
Black Cat counts QatarGas and other heavyweight oil industry companies among its clients (picture for illustration only).

Black Cat Engineering and Construction's general manager, Adnan Al-Mubarak on how the oil and gas specialist is branching out into new territory.

Qatar's home-grown Black Cat Engineering and Construction has been grabbing headlines for all the right reasons. The company, which began with a small office in Doha and a single portacabin site office in the Dukhan oil and gas field, is today stamping its mark upon many of Qatar's most ambitious upstream and energy related projects.

The company's evolution into Qatar's largest EPIC and maintenance contractor for the upstream oil and gas industry has coincided with quite unparalleled activity in the small Gulf state. Today the company claims a manpower base of over 2500 men and anticipated annual turnover just shy of the US $100 million mark.

Now it is starting to look around the Gulf, as well as international markets, in the search for more projects to make its mark on.

"We have also begun to properly invest in areas outside our traditional energy remit, in particular civil engineering," said Adnan Al-Mubarak, the general manager of Black Cat Engineering and Construction. "Doha will see around $60 - $70 billion worth of rebuilding and civil engineering projects in the coming years."

"We obviously want to be aligned with those opportunities. Roads, utilities and MEP work is all something we can bring with our background."

Al-Mubarak has been with Black Cat since 2007 and has presided over a period of significant growth. This period has seen company turnover grow from around 40 million Qatari riyals in 2007 to 450 million riyals in 2009. Like other specialist contractors who have migrated from the demanding field of oil and gas, with its detailed specifications, civil engineering work is something well within the company's scope. Currently much of the civil work it does is to support other company divisions.

"A lot of our experience in the oil and gas business is geared around the support infrastructure of the massive engineering sites and projects, which have sprung up in Qatar," said Al-Mubarak.

"In Qatar we have become known for the strength of our technical ability. Trust is a massive issue in Qatar, so once you have fostered that sort of relationship with companies here then life becomes much easier when the big contracts come up."

The company has expansionist ambitions. It is eyeing work in the UAE and Iraq and is looking to establish itself as a skilled engineering contractor in these markets, but is aware that competition for work will be tough.

"The system we have put in place to handle the type of complex jobs we are undertaking is totally suitable to being rolled out further," said Al-Mubarak. "I think the Emirates will be a good place for us to do business, plus, we all hope Iraq.

"Abu Dhabi is, of course, the hub and the greatest potential business area for us in the UAE. We have already begun negotiations to form a company in Abu Dhabi. Once Iraq is stabilised it will be a good place to move in for a company with our skill sets."

Black Cat is also investing in an operation in India, which it hopes to use as a vast source of engineering manpower.

"With more engineers in the organisation we can take even bigger jobs, as well as enabling a faster in-house implementation of engineering tasks," said Al-Mubarak.

The kind of work he has an eye on is civil engineering, especially the associated packages that come with big oil and gas jobs. The civil work is intended as an additional business stream for the company, which is well aware that the competition will be stiff.

"Around the Middle East there is a tendency not to invest top dollar in civil projects, but in Qatar they will," he said. "When quality becomes the watch-word for the civil projects we want to be ready and there with proven capabilities under our belt, and that's how we will position ourselves."

Al-Mubarak acknowledges that developing know-how and management systems takes time, so the company is not rushing into new markets. He raises a concern that operating companies are looking for the highest technical and safety standards, but ‘aren't really willing to pay for it'.
"Often we have seen technical competency and safety compliance like a finish line," he said.

"Once you cross a certain threshold - that's enough. Going much further than that isn't valued as highly as it should be. Because of this, performance throughout the market doesn't improve. It's like saying to contractors I don't want injuries, so firms just hide them and deliver a clean safety record."

Naturally safety is a big issue for a company which started out in the oil and gas business - just as dangerous as regular construction, with the added risk of explosion - but there is a price to pay as a contractor building a record like Black Cat's.

"The difference between having all the best systems in place is ultimately higher overheads," said Al-Mubarak. "We have layers of safety managers and technical advisors, which other firms do not bother with, so our base operating cost is obviously higher. But we want to go forwards and this is the way to do it.

"It's the same with those companies who do not pay salaries for six months. For a responsible company to compete with cowboys is impossible, so I think there should be more responsibility on the client to understand who he is doing business with."

Al-Mubarak knows his company's strength lies in EPC work and lays claim to being the only Qatari contractor with its engineering capabilities in-house, something he believes creates an advantage.

"All the others have alliances with international companies, but for us that is a big handicap," he said. "Having engineering in house is much more flexible, otherwise you are not much more than a paper-pusher."

That said the company is not averse to developing the right partnerships and JVs, if they can strengthen its position.

In October last year AMEC, one of the largest international engineering and project management companies, joined forces with Black Cat, forming a joint venture agreement to offer asset support services to the oil, gas and petrochemical sectors working in Qatar.

"Ras Laffan in quite an amazing sight these days and these vast investments will take a lot of looking after," said Al-Mubarak.

"I think the technological know-how is vital when you are dealing with such safety-critical, and valuable assets and infrastructure. That's one of the primary reasons for the joint venture with AMEC. Through the joint venture we can bring vast international know-how and experience to the Black Cat offering."

The JV should be seen as part of a wider trend, which is accelerating in the region, of forming top tier, preferred bidder status firms with global competencies, but national backing.

But this large-scale international co-operation doesn't mean Black Cat's business development work is just focused on scooping up the biggest jobs. Al-Mubarak is a strong advocate of looking out for the smaller ones too.

"We are engaging with as many customers as possible, even on quite small jobs," he said.

"I am often asked by the board ‘why do you take this small job?' The answer is because this is the best way to learn the [clients] characteristics and processes, direct from our customers.

"I want my guys everywhere, learning all the time. That way when the big jobs come, we are there and we know how they [the customers] operate."

Other contractors take note, when the big jobs come round, there may well be a Black Cat waiting to take them.

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