Both ready and assured to minimise the risk factors

Pictured are: Callum Taylor (Office Manager); Iain Wallace (Senior Consultant); David Powell (MD); Alex Cunningham MP; John Arbuckle (Senior Consultant); Tim Duckworth (Senior Consultant), with visitor Helen Powell.
Pictured are: Callum Taylor (Office Manager); Iain Wallace (Senior Consultant); David Powell (MD); Alex Cunningham MP; John Arbuckle (Senior Consultant); Tim Duckworth (Senior Consultant), with visitor Helen Powell.

A Cloud-based system that monitors processes in real time had made this Teesside company a leader in projects for the international oil and gas industry

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By Mike Cowley

As the author of the only authoritative text book on Operation Readiness and Assurance for the oil and gas industry and arguably one of only three leading experts in the field, what do you do next? In the case of David Powell, it was to turn the knowledge gleaned over four decades in the sector into a unique software system that forms the basis of a lucrative export business.

Formerly an Operations Readiness Manager for several international companies, he has set up North East based OR&A Ltd to do just this, using the acronym also as a registered trademark, to clearly spell out what the company offers.

Cut through the inevitable industry jargon and the bottom line is that the system pulls together all the pieces of the project jigsaw to provide confidence to the end user that a project is finished and ready to start up (and the user is capable of operating it in a safe and sustainable manner). Studies by heavyweight industry performance analysts like IPA and Dupont, and most recently the UK Oil & Gas Authority, show that only some 25% of projects achieve their own basic success criteria for cost, schedule and performance, indicating that there is significant market niche for OR&A. Operational delays on the smallest project can cost $5m a day in lost production revenue.

“Before we developed this software it used to take months for a problem to be identified and reported and even longer to implement the remedial action,” he says. “A delay in this sector is a major expense, but back-tracking to do rework adds even more cost and delay.

“What we do is minimise the operational risk factors by monitoring the process in real time and making sure that information is always available to the project team, providing assurance that the project is on track (or not!!).”

The subject can be difficult to grasp for some within the industry, let alone those outside it. So in training courses and the online e-learning system within the software, David Powell uses the analogy of ordering a new car to explain the concept.

“Just imagine you go into a garage, put down £100,000 and say ‘give me your best car’,” he says. “Then, when you go to collect your new car, you see it is a horrible green colour and you say ‘I didn’t want green!’

“Then you ask ‘where are the tinted windows?’ but there aren’t any, and then you discover it has a petrol engine and you wanted a diesel. Suddenly you find that things aren’t going to turn out as you expected – but it is your fault because you didn’t tell them”.

“It’s not as simple as the car analogy, but the principle is valid. We get the owner involved from the start and make sure the message (operations requirements) is properly communicated to the project team, then monitor it.”

The OR&A system is Cloud based and accessed by secure internet connection. This means a manager can sit in London and see project data from a site in Africa, from modules being built in Houston and the design in Singapore, in real time.

David has drawn on his time spent working for Shell and others to develop the OR&A concept, starting out in Electrical Engineering, then Automation and Controls, then Projects and Operations and finally OR&A Management.

“What I’ve done is basically document my experience, learned from people around me, and developed a robust system that amounts to some 4,000 web pages,” he says.

David left Shell in 2008 to pursue the development of OR&A as a discipline his way, rather than the way Shell wanted it done. Setting up OR&A Ltd. in his native Teesside, then writing and publishing the text book in 2009 to explain the way he wanted to build OR&A into a discipline.

He self-funded development of the system and tools by working on projects in Dubai for two years, then the USA for three years before it went live in 2014.

“I wrote the book to copyright the OR&A concept,” he says. “It was never intended to sell loads of copies, but as the published author on a technical subject, you become the expert.”

However, after ploughing half a million pounds into the system, and, at times, having to juggle to make ends meet, David achieved a turnover of £145,000 in his first full year of operation and is currently on target to hit the £1 million mark in the coming 12 months.

With the copyright and trademark established and therefore no competition, things are looking good.

The first client was Tullow Oil Ghana who have just renewed their licence. A second project in Vietnam by Idemitsu Kosan followed and they have also indicated the intention to renew. There are currently more than ten further contracts in the pipeline covering projects as far afield as Norway, Russia, Africa and the Middle East.

As part of his campaign to establish Operations Readiness and Assurance as a discipline, David approached City and Guilds to certify the e-learning package incorporated in the software but this presented a problem as they wanted an expert in OR&A to endorse it.

“There are only three in the world. One runs a bar on a beach in Sao Paolo, the other is in his 70s and has recently retired and then there is me. Obviously the first two don’t want to do it and I can’t endorse my own work.”

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Licence to expand was hard won

David Powell could be regarded as Mr Export as his company’s software system is currently licensed to overseas clients, a classic example of UK expertise being exported.

Globetrotting with Shell and others over four decades had also seen him build up a formidable list of contacts in the oil and gas sector.

And with the cost of one software licence more than covering his company overheads for the year, he initially thought it would be plain sailing.

The reality was a little harder going as there was a huge gap between the people he knew and the ones he needed to know.

Enter Chris Simpson of DIT in the North East who David Powell readily admits has become his ‘go-to guy’ in terms of everything export.

“He has been invaluable in helping my business,” says David Powell. “He has got me through doors, which I would never have managed to do on my own. Business is all about contacts and DIT is all about contacts.”

One of the people to whom Chris provided an introduction was a lady by the name of Tracey Grindal, who originally hailed from the North East and had become a trade adviser for Canada. The end result of this was two more companies on the prospect list.

“There is always the feeling they have got your back,” he adds. “When I was in St. Petersburg last year, I had a number to contact in the case of any emergency. And that is very reassuring.”