Spreading the word

Meg Chesshyre
Thursday, September 1, 2011

‘We don’t see ourselves as just the crane people, we want to be seen as a lifting solutions provider.’ So says Doug Sedge, the highly regarded and much travelled chief executive of Sparrows. He talks to Meg Chesshyre.

As a company we have a significantly large engineering resource base, somewhere around 15% of our total manpower,’ explains Doug Sedge, chief executive of Sparrows. ‘We feel that there is a premium to be had as service provider by being a group with a strong engineering background, and we are spending more time making our customers aware of what our capabilities are.’

Sparrows Offshore was established in Aberdeen in 1974 following a request from BP for offshore cranes and operators on Forties. Headquartered at Aberdeen’s Bridge of Don, the company now numbers 1500 employees worldwide, of whom 900 are in the UK. Sales are £160 million a year, of which roughly 56% are overseas, and both international and domestic sales continue to grow. Having more than trebled its annual exports to £78 million, the company received the Queen’s Award for Enterprise (International Trade) in 2010.

And the global run of success continues. In just three months this year, from March to May, Sparrows signed more than £32 million in contracts covering the operation and/or maintenance of 251 cranes working on 144 offshore production installations in four countries. Representing renewals or extensions of contracts with existing clients such as Chevron, Total, ConocoPhillips, Shell, Fairfield Energy and Bluewater Energy Services, they cover work in the UK, Netherlands, Nigeria and Indonesia and range in duration from six months to two years.

Sparrows expanded into fluids power with the acquisition of Aberdeen Hydraulics – now Sparrows Fluid Power – in 2007. The following year it also bought a small subsea company, Baracom, which specialises in tensioners and spools. Both companies have been well integrated into the group now.

‘We’ve seen significant global growth and at the same time we’ve seen some very good consolidation in the UK and a pick-up in the Gulf of Mexico,’ observes Sedge. ‘The Gulf of Mexico has been depressed for the past two years, and was further impacted by Macondo last year. For us, we have now seen a shift change in the opportunities, mainly due to the management we have established in the US, who have adopted a more North Sea-type model and gone for service provision, offering the crane mechanic type operator, instead of just the service provision that was there in support of the rental business.’

Sparrows’ drive is very much to increase its international expansion, against a background of continued UK growth. It has three main international targets. Brazil is a market which it wishes to re-enter, and where it already has a joint venture partner in place.

Africa is another key area. ‘We have been successfully active in the last few years in two significant areas – Nigeria and Angola,’ adds Sedge. ‘We now see workscope opportunities in equatorial Guinea, Cameroun, Gabon and Congo.’

Another big market is India where the company began operations in March. At the moment there are around 200 Sparrow-branded cranes – American Aero, Bucyrus Erie and Weatherford – in the region. Many of the company’s Middle East personnel are Indian in origin. They’ve come to the end of their time in the Middle East and want to return home, a piece of fortuitous timing since it presents Sparrows with an experienced Indian workforce. ‘We’re now in a position to transfer them back to India,’ says Sedge, who anticipates moving about 28 people back into Mumbai covering all disciplines.

The company is also committed to opening a centre of engineering excellence in Mumbai and is currently recruiting senior design, support, mechanical and electrical engineers. It is targeting about 120 worldwide and about 20 into India. Sedge points out that with advances in technology in real-time it will be possible to carry out work from Mumbai on a global basis.

Australia has been ‘our surprise’ this year, he says. The Sparrow brand enjoyed ‘a very good first four months’ there, enabling it to service companies that it had worked for elsewhere, such as Woodside and Oceaneering. ‘It’s been very commercially attractive, but also very technically challenging for us,’ notes Sedge. OE

Sparrows Solutions
Sparrows cites as an example of the company’s problem-solving versatility a recent request to its Abu Dhabi engineering centre. Gulf Drilling needed to source and install two new cranes on its Gulf 2 jackup rig as part of a 12-week refit being carried out at the Lamprell yard in Sharjah. With lead times on new crane orders in the industry running at 40-50 weeks, that left Sparrows with the challenge of identifying and acquiring two refurbishable cranes, engineering a scope of work for the refurb, sourcing the parts, executing the rebuild, factory testing and installing the cranes – all in 12 weeks.
Gulf Drilling’s brief called for cranes with 100ft booms, 45t main hoist capacity and man-riding capability on the auxiliary hoist. A used National OS 215 already located in Sparrows’ Abu Dhabi yard fitted the bill, but finding the second crane was more of a challenge. The most suitable and immediately available was 27 days’ sailing time away at the company’s Aberdeen yard, but by chartering a fleet of trucks and a giant Antonov 124 cargo plane the delivery time was cut to just 84 hours.
Both cranes were stripped bare, with every pump, motor, winch and brake assembly being stripped, rebuilt with new components where needed, and tested prior to re-assembly of the crane. Every centimetre of hydraulic and pneumatic pipe and hose on the cranes was replaced. The slew bearings were stripped, refurbished and re-assembled. All paintwork was stripped, every weld inspected, re-worked and re-inspected where needed, and protected with Sparrows 3-coat paint protection system. Each crane was built up on a test pedestal in the Abu Dhabi yard for factory acceptance testing, before being shipped for installation onboard Gulf 2.
‘This project was a massive undertaking, brilliantly executed,’ says Steve Ord, Sparrows regional operations director in the Middle East. ‘It drew on the resources of almost 40 people in Sparrows offices around the world, and was delivered on time, on budget and without incident.’
Another recent project involved the replacement of two pedestal cranes on the BP Magnus platform in the North Sea – an 18-month project to specify, procure two cranes, design temporary support structure for a third (temporary) crane supplied on rental by Sparrows to decommission the old cranes and install the new ones. A novel skidding deck allowed the rental crane to move between the crane installation sites without being dismantled.
But probably the largest and most complex mechanical handling task ever assigned to Sparrows Offshore was the design and recently completed implementation of a handling system for the extraction and replacement of four heat exchangers on BP Plutonio offshore Angola. It required the design of a system of jacking and skidding structures which could be shipped and assembled piece-small in confined spaces in the bowels of the Plutonio FPSO. Each heat exchanger weighed almost 20t, and the system Sparrows built for moving them weighed over 100t and needed 2500 bolts to assemble it.


The old and bold

Sparrows has a very high staff retention rate, particularly for offshore employees, where the turnover is in single digits. Jeff Adams, the group’s longest-serving offshore employee, hung up his hardhat for good when he left Shell’s Brent B platform for the last time in August.

Adams was one of an initial group of eight Sparrows crane operators assigned to work offshore on BP’s Forties field. ‘It was 1 September 1975 when I was assigned to operate the cranes on BP Forties Alpha,’ he recalls. ‘We practically watched the Forties jackets being installed. ‘Crane operation was considered the second most hazardous job offshore after diving.

Sparrows’ aim was to set a new standard in safety, and I think we succeeded.’

Training before going offshore was rather different in those days. ‘Well, there wasn’t much back then,’ says Adams. ‘We were thrown in at the deep end, and just got on with it. In the late-1970s, the first offshore survival training started. It consisted of showing us some slides of the work sites and environment offshore, and then sitting on an upturned rowing boat in Aberdeen harbour to learn about survival at sea.

‘The first fire training was even more memorable. It took place in Dundee. We were told to put on the breathing apparatus and walk uphill on one of Dundee’s main streets to experience breathlessness. We did, and decided to stop and peer in the window of a local bank; needless to say the bank staff were mortified and the trainer wasn’t pleased!’

Adams spent 18 years working on BP platforms, moving through the ranks from crane operator to senior crane operator and then to foreman crane operator. He transferred onshore in 1993 to instruct at Sparrows’ training centre, before returning to offshore operations in 2000 and working as a crane operator on numerous installations.

Categories: Activity Europe Engineering

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