From philanthropy and charitable efforts to employee and enterprise empowerment, the local entrepreneurial success story that is Belait Shipping is helping to build a better future for the Darussalam
Writer: Jonathan Dyble | Project Manager: David Knott
Situated on the island of Borneo, the quiet Darussalam (Arabic for ‘abode of peace’) is characterised by lush, misty rainforests, outlandish flora and fauna and eclectic Islamic architecture depicting the history of a once prosperous naval empire.
This is not all modern-day Brunei is known for, however. Despite being home to roughly just 430,000 people – its populous being the second smallest of all 51 Asian nations – the country somewhat surprisingly lays claim to the largest oilfields in Southeast Asia.
As a result, Brunei has become a small yet wealthy country with an economy largely built upon the efforts of entrepreneurial entities, each capitalising on the opportunities made available by the production of approximately 180,000 barrels of oil per day, 365 days a year.
Indeed, one such organisation prospering from these tailwinds, and doing so in a sustainable manner, is Belait Shipping (BSC).
The first locally owned marine offshore company operating in the oil and gas industry of the Darussalam, it is an established contractor, working closely with the likes of Brunei Shell Petroleum (BSP), Brunei Methanol Company, Total, Petronas, Chevron and ExxonMobil.
“BSC was initially brought to my attention in 2003,” explains Haji Awang bin Haji Ali, the firm’s Executive Chairman, sharing his story. “At that time the enterprise was just a small ferry and crew boat operator, but I saw the potential to grow something bigger against the backdrop of the country’s prosperous oil and gas market.
“I bought and took over the business in 2005, and the team and myself decided to diversify our fleet and bring in some larger workboats, owed to the fact that very little to no local workboat operators were present in Brunei.
“By 2007 we’d built our first major vessel, and in the decade or so since we’ve ramped this up, expanding our fleet while providing critical services to some of the region’s major O&G entities.”
A true entrepreneurial success story sparked by Haji Awang himself, BSC retains a reputation even today as a first mover in Brunei’s offshore marine services market.
With that has come a degree of responsibility. Other organisations have subsequently followed in the company’s footsteps, looking at it as something of a role model as they have similarly attempted to develop and provide bespoke offerings to the local oil and gas sector.
“We really value our position as a leading local company and want to play a key role in the country’s progress,” Haji Awang affirms. “One way in which we do this is by assisting new businesses in a mentoring capacity, promoting and supporting them in order to hopefully enable their long-term success.”
A local diving company has been the recent beneficiary of these practices. Last year, BSC supported it in gaining the necessary accreditations from relevant professional industry bodies required to develop its value proposition, today offering the organisation some of its first major professional contracts.
This is not the only way in which the company seeks to empower local people, however. Indeed, speaking with the Chairman further, it quickly becomes apparent that this ethos is delivered through a variety of mediums.
“Take our workforce, for example,” he reveals.
“We often employ foreign industry experts and pair them up with Bruneian nationals to impart their knowhow, educating and growing our local employees and assisting their professional and personal competency development as they too strive to become leaders in their field.
“I’m pleased to say that this has come to fruition. Today, many of our executive positions are filled by Bruneians – our vessel superintendents, marine operations managers, senior operations managers, technical experts. We even recently took on a new graduate with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and are hoping that he will be with us for the long term.
“We recognise that employment can be limited in a country as small as this. For that reason, we like to play our part in ensuring that the people who live here have the best opportunities available to develop their professional competencies.”
Beyond BSC’s mentoring strategies that are applied to the benefit of Bruneian businesses and workers alike, its overall contributions to local socioeconomic progress are evidenced in other ways.
Internally, the company readily supports its employees during periods of grief, crucially removing financial burdens and allowing them to focus on spending much needed time with family and friends following the loss of loved ones.
Meanwhile, it also backs a prominent Bruneian charity that assists those effected by autism.
“The founder of SMARTER (Society for Management of Autism Related issues in Training, Education and Resources) was a personal friend of mine,” Haji Awang expresses. “Unfortunately, he passed away, but as a promise and tribute to him we’ve committed ourselves to continuing the great work of the charity by upholding a number of its initiatives.”
This plethora of social efforts aside, the organisation is likewise becoming increasingly environmentally conscious.
Brunei is a crucial influencer in the Heart of Borneo (HoB) initiative – a unique government-led and NGO-supported programme to conserve biodiversity on the island, initiated by Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia in 2007.
Despite being a private entity, BSC has likewise embraced the goals of HoB, working closely with other local businesses to plant thousands of new trees year after year. And this emphasis on offsetting its carbon footprint continues to become an increasingly major focus.
Haji Awang explains: “In line with our ongoing sustainable environment initiatives, we recently were selected by the Shell Global team and BSP to be the pioneer of their hybridisation project in Asia. This collaborative project is to complete a retrofit of hybrid power for one of our vessels – a technology that Shell has previously used to enhance its drilling rigs.
“It’s an exciting endeavour. Not only will it make our vessel the first Shell vessel in the region to use hybrid and help us push towards stronger emissions control, it will also reduce unpredictability in our operations, build resilience in our equipment and bolster safety.
“When I was briefed about the opportunity, I jumped at it. It’s an initiative that epitomises what we’re all about and gives us the chance to show that local companies here can match the capabilities of international firms.”
Talk of new opportunities quickly turns attention to the future, a topic that is met with mixed feelings.
Oil prices remained relatively depressed during 2019, a trend that has continued in the early part of 2020 with per-barrel valuations fluctuating between $50 and $60. Compare this with the four-year period 2010-2014, where prices were often found well above $100, and it’s easy to see the current challenges facing the global oil and gas sector.
“Low prices have impacted us quite significantly,” Haji Awang affirms. “As they went south, so did our revenues, and like all other oil and gas contractors and vessel owners, we were not spared.
“Some of our contracts were terminated prematurely, and rates were slashed, but despite the financial difficulties that we faced we didn’t downsize. We didn’t lay off employees and tried our best to stay afloat. We are grateful that we have received continuous support from various parties, especially BSP and Bank Islam Brunei Darussalam (BIBD), during these troubled times.
“By support, we don’t just mean financial aid. BSP, for instance, has provided various learning and coaching opportunities for us to continuously grow and become a more competent vessel operator – technically, operationally and most importantly from a safety perspective. While budgets are tight, we still continue sending our staff for training so that their development as seafarers are not impacted and remain on track.”
In the eyes of the Chairman, however, 2020 brings with it a renewed sense of optimism, not least because of an upturn in industry activities and the continuation of a major turnaround programme that’s so far been three years in the making.
He concludes, mapping out these overriding thoughts with a degree of positivity: “We have looked into the market regionally, and things seem to be looking up. Demand for marine services has gone up, so we intend to spend the coming months getting our vessels employed, which should bring about more revenue and sustainability to the company.
“We do currently have some assets that are idle, but, looking on the bright side, this means we’ll be ready and able to deploy our services at short notice to meet the needs of any potential clients.
“Likewise, our turnaround programme, led by our COO Ikmal Azri Abdul Rahman and supported by our Administrative Director Haji Ariffin Dato Paduka Haji Sabtu, Chief of Human Capital Amirol Basri, Chief Financial Officer Rosdin and myself as the programme champion, is bringing all departments and divisions up to a higher standard of performance.
“Through resilience in continuing this initiative, we’ve been able to brave the hard times by achieving cost optimisation and established a top down approach when it comes to safety.
“As a result, I’m proud to say that we are now better off overall in terms of both governance and performance and we are very much committed to achieving continuous improvement.”