SPEX-Malampaya: Discovering The Power Of People

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By Michelle Orosa-Ople

The discovery of the Malampaya natural gas reserves Northwest from off-shore Palawan in the 1990’s was a milestone that gave birth to the Philippines’ natural gas industry, and opened doors for the country’s thriving economy to access cheaper energy from its very own backyard.  With proven reserves of about 2.5 trillion to 3.5 trillion cubic feet of gas, and at least 20 million to 40 million barrels of oil, the historical event remains to this day one of the most significant finds in the local energy industry’s books.Behind the scenes however, Shell Philippines Exploration, B.V. (SPEX), the lead company in the joint venture which constructed the wells that would extract the natural resource from the ocean, felt mounting pressure to deliver Phase One of the “Malampaya Deep Water Gas-to-Power Project.”

David Greer, then SPEX Managing Director and Malampaya Project Director, says the pressure came from several points: the magnitude of the 4.5 billion-dollar project; a thriving economy’s need for cheaper, indigenous supply for power; and the challenge of aligning the vision of employees coming from different parts of the world to bring the project to completion. All these came amid a tight, three-and-a-half year deadline to complete the project.

“This was an enormous and very challenging project and could only be accomplished by a large but globally-dispersed team of professional engineers and support staff. With the Head Office based in Manila, where most of my excellent team of Filipino staff were based, I was faced with the challenge of how we would continue to work effectively as a global team, but have a common set of shared values that we could all relate to and bind us together to help us accomplish our daunting task,” David says.

Agility Boot Camp and “Check 9”

 In 1999, after the Department of Energy confirmed the commerciality of the natural gas reserves in the Camago-Malampaya gas field, David and his team enlisted the help of Management Strategies (MgtStrat) to design the “Agility Boot Camp.”  David himself spelled out the vision and objectives, which MgtStrat then customized into a boot camp setting intended to galvanize the different cultures and personalities of Malampaya’s global project teams.

“I was immersed in it completely! It was a risky project to undertake. Get it right and we could be confident in our collective ability to succeed. Get it wrong and we could have ended up with a train wreck in terms of project execution and staff relationships,” says David.

A term fondly remembered by David is the term “Check 9”.  This was introduced as part of the rappelling activity that MgtStrat had used within the Agility Boot Camp to stress the values of cooperation among members of every team.  Team members would check each other’s equipment before the activity, and say the words “Check 9”, along with a quick embrace, to signal preparedness.

“Trust, camaraderie, pride, care, respect and fun were key hallmarks of the program. To see senior engineers and secretaries working together in harmony caring for each other and working together in unity was very inspiring. It meant that whereas before the boot camp they only knew each other as a result of seeing an email reference perhaps on the cc line, they left the boot camp with a true sense of knowledge, friendship trust and respect,” says David.

He adds candidly, “I can still do the Check 9 routine. Some things you don’t forget!” he says.

Managers all the way to the downstream business, Pilipinas Shell Petroleum Corporation (PSPC), went through the Agility Boot Camp as well. Paulo Gavino, then a retail front-liner for PSPC says the lessons he learned have stuck with him to this day.

SPEX External Relations Manager Paulo Gavino and his Agility Bootcamp Booklet, which he kept to this day

“I still have my booklet. Normally one would forget the notes learned in lectures, but that’s what was effective about MgtStrat’s method, I call it muscle memory. To this day, I remind myself to do Check 9. It means I am covering your back, whether it is my staff, whether it is my colleague, whether it is my boss. Check 9 reminds me it’s not just my objectives I have to deliver, I also have to be mindful of the objectives of those working around me,” Paulo says.

David and his team transcribed the values developed in the Boot Camps into a set of Project Values, and mounted the Boot Camp photographs on large posters portraying the staff to reinforce learned behaviours, and help sustain the benefits of the program. 

One Team, One Goal, One Vision

 The success of Malampaya Phase 1 was just the beginning of a longer journey, however. Fast-forward to the year 2012, at the cusp of Malampaya Phase 2 and 3, were bigger challenges, not the least of which was sustaining the momentum for the next stage: adding two new subsea wells as well as adding a new offshore platform while simultaneously continuing to produce natural gas for its customers.

SPEX Managing Director and General Manager Sebastian “Baste” Quinones says that by this time, the entire SPEX organization had doubled its workforce, adding hundreds into the team that would see the Malampaya Project to completion. Later on, even the power plants serviced by the Malampaya platform would expand, demanding more supply output from the gas field.

“For Malampaya Phase 2 and 3, the safe execution of the project, on-schedule and within-budget were the key deliverables.  These projects were highly fraught with non-technical risks, which could adversely impact the projects.  Significant coordination across the globe was needed all the more, as components of the equipment were sourced from multiple countries,” says Baste.

Baste adds, there were now 29 nationalities in the project team, notwithstanding the different locations of worksites from Alabang, Keppel Subic Shipyard, Batangas Supply Base, and the Puerto Princesa Heli-base. One miscommunication and the entire project would be delayed, potentially causing massive power outages across the Luzon grid.

For this part of the project, even MgtStrat’s program evolved: from Agility Boot Camps, the group then created the theme: “One Team, One Goal, One Vision.”  The strategy, however, was similar: going beyond lectures, into experiential models to align the teams’ objectives.

Baste notes that MgtStrat approached this goal strategically by meeting different teams across different activities, team summits, and planning sessions, and carefully weaving these activities afterwards to remind each team that every action links and contributes to the deliverables of another group.

“All the events were necessary, they all built up, some were team buildings with smaller groups, other ones were the whole Malampaya Phase 2 and 3 Asset teams. All of them needed to be aligned,” says Baste.

SPEX’s partnership with MgtStrat galvanized a global workforce to complete the Malampaya project

Lorenz De Castro, SPEX HR Manager agrees, adding, “Opening conversations and facilitating intelligent dialogues was key for people to align, and at the same time integrate in a creative way, not just through meetings and regular sessions in the office.

It was this tailor-fit approach to culture-building that SPEX appreciated from MgtStrat, says Baste.  “We were not process-based. We were end-result looking. This is what we liked about MgtStrat, they did not tell us okay, this is the process that you need. Rather, they would say what are you wanting to achieve, and then they would adjust,” he says.

Even his leadership style changed: “I found out that whenever you focus on serving others, you can deliver the hard messages about targets, about things that have to be done, and keep the humanity in it. It helps everyone realize that yes, I am part of a cause,” he says.

Paulo by this time was already also a part of SPEX as its External Relations Manager, “I saw MgtStrat be able to cut through silos and create that glue across different teams. These were very diverse personalities and not just because of different nationalities but we all had to work as one team with one goal. That was most memorable for me,” he says.

“Those workshops generated commitments from people. It was really about collaboration. It is in these venues that people were really asked, and they were comfortable enough to open up,” says Lorenz.

 Powering the future

The results of the various programs are seen in no other than the successful and timely completion of the Malampaya Deep Water Gas-to-Power Project.  Today, the Malampaya Natural Gas platform today powers about 30% of the Luzon grid.  It has become a vital source of cheaper, locally-sourced, cleaner-burning energy, amid an emerging, fast-growing economy.  Malampaya Phase 3 was particularly a source of national pride, being the first natural gas platform designed and built by Filipinos, for Filipinos.

Malampaya Phase 3 saw the first gas platform to be designed and built in the Philippines

Baste proudly adds that SPEX was awarded by the Royal Dutch Shell group as the Best Upstream Asset in 2015 besting all other oil & gas platforms that Shell operates globally.

To this day,  Malampaya continues to be a symbol of the best Public-Private Partnership in our country’s history, not just delivering energy but empowering a a country and its people as well.

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