Ever since arriving in the country in 1996, Butra HeidelbergCement has played a critical role in developing infrastructure across Brunei, its high-quality cement products ensuring it is built on firm foundations
Writer: Tom Wadlow | Project Manager: Josh Mann
Brunei – a tiny Sultanate nestled on the northern coast of Borneo, this southeast Asian nation is something of a scenic and economic gem.
The quiet Darussalam, Arabic for abode of peace, has managed to preserve its beautiful wilderness with the country’s government embarking on ambitious plans to diversify its economy away from overreliance on hydrocarbon exports.
Its population is highly educated and benefits from excellent infrastructure, made possible by a well-developed and well-supplied construction sector, an industry which has welcomed enormous investment from multinational firms such as HeidelbergCement.
Indeed, the German building materials giant has been a keen investor in Brunei since it set up Butra HeidelbergCement (BHC) in 1996.
Since 2012, the organisation has been led by Managing Director Marcelino Ugarte, an industry veteran with two decades of experience under his belt, and who has come to fall in love with the country.
“For the past 20 years, I have managed in a few countries across Asia,” he says. “The opportunity came in 2012 for a new challenge to manage the sole cement manufacturer in the Sultanate, and I must say the experience has been rewarding so far.
“Brunei Darussalam is a small and beautiful country with a rich heritage and culture. It is a privilege to be managing BHC with my talented team.”
Today, the company operates a plant which, albeit smaller than most HeidelbergCement subsidiaries, produces more than enough cement to cater for the Sultanate’s needs.
This translates into around 500,000 metric tonnes a year of Ordinary Portland Cement and, since 2017, Portland Composite Cement (PCC) – bags are distributed to end users through distributor partners and the retail supply chain, with more than 100 hardware stores stocking BHC products.
The operation currently employs more than 65 people, a major challenge faced by all of the team in 2020 being the onset of the coronavirus pandemic which has impacted just about every region on earth from a health and/or economic perspective.
“Before 2020, we were privileged to be part of two megaprojects, namely the Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Bridge and the development of Pulau Muara Besar,” Ugarte details. “These projects helped spur the local construction scene immensely.
“But the current global pandemic certainly did not spare Brunei’s construction industry. We see the slowing down of major construction projects for the best part of 2020, and that is understandable. However, we are optimistic for the near future as the government has announced new major projects for the pipeline next year. We are excited for things to pick up again.”
Building a Nation
Indeed, BHC has been there through various periods of Brunei’s recent history.
The company is the second largest investor in the country outside of the oil and gas sector, a great source of pride for the Managing Director, who also points to the sustainable nature in which the firm has contributed to the building of Brunei.
“Since commercial production began in 1996, BHC has built foundations for buildings, homes, highways, schools and many other vital infrastructures for the people of the nation,” Ugarte says.
“We practice a sustainable approach in our operations by taking on the responsibility of safeguarding our environment. We are diligent in our operations through resource optimisation, waste reduction and creating sustainable solutions. This approach is part of our corporate social responsibility initiative through the holistic Building a Nation programme.”
As well as contributing directly to Brunei’s GDP, the BHC effect ripples through to thousands of individuals through employment for contractors, suppliers, tanker drivers, freight services and many others directly and indirectly.
Within Butra HeidelbergCement, a Bruneianisation policy is paying dividends in many ways.
More than 70 percent of the 65 staff are Brunei nationals, the company prioritising local hiring and development in line with government directives to build up skills within the native population.
The policy has led to a loyal, motivated and productive workforce which Ugarte is immensely proud of.
“The majority of our employees have been with us since the beginning,” he adds, “and our employee turnover is encouragingly low. We provide excellent compensation and welfare packages, and from 2016 to 2019, we have invested over $2 million in the development of our workforce. The employees are sent for training and development programmes locally and overseas.
“It is important to note that we truly develop and nurture local skills, as more than half of the top management comprises of Bruneians. They serve critical management positions in HR, sales, production and logistics.”
Beyond employment, the company is actively in pursuit of a goal to uplift living standards through the Building a Nation initiative.
Ugarte continues: “We believe that growth can only be achieved by generating added value to the nation as a whole. Through this CSR initiative, we have designed a development programme with an integrated approach that focusses on three core components – social, economic and environmental. These three integrated components create long-term socioeconomic added value to the community in Brunei Darussalam through substantial contributions and noticeable improvements.
“For example, we have contributed millions of dollars to projects that champion community causes, health programmes, economic activities and sporting events.”
A sustainable future
And looking ahead, it is very much the priority for Ugarte and BHC to continue contributing positively to the upliftment of living standards in Brunei, both through employment and the comprehensive CSR programme.
In order to continue serving as a socioeconomic stalwart, the company needs to ensure its own longevity and viability operationally, and this means maintaining its motivated workforce and embracing new ideas where necessary to keep productivity levels high.
It also involves making a sustained effort to reduce its environmental footprint. Recent years have seen the introduction of the new line of Portland Composite Cement, a cement which is superior to Ordinary Portland Cement in a number of ways, chiefly its greater long-term strength.
BHC has also experimented using fly-ash as a component of the cement mixture, which again has helped to improve the composition and provide a more sustainable solution with the environment in mind. At this stage, the production team is still researching and conducting more tests to optimise the composition of its PCC formula.
And such activities leave the Managing Director full of optimism about what lies ahead for Butra HeidelbergCement.
Concluding the conversation, he says: “We will continue to consolidate our operations and sales for the coming years.
“As I have already emphasised, we are optimistic about facing new challenges in the next few years. We will continue to streamline our operations in order to improve efficiency, and perhaps look for opportunities to export to neighbouring countries. I am excited to see what unfolds.”