As part of the preparations of the Timor-Leste: The Energy Online Series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Neil Papenfus, General Manager of Pacific Towing. In this interview we discuss Timor-Leste’s potential, its similarities with PNG and find out more about the company, its current activities and its world-leading local content policy.
Hello Neil, thank you for joining us today. Before starting, would you like to share some things about yourself?
My name's Neil Papenfus, and I am the General Manager of Pacific Towing, a marine services business which has been operating in the region for more than 40 years.
I'm a long-term resident of Papua New Guinea, having been here for 13 years now. I originally come from South Africa but have worked in many different countries.
As a Marine Services provider, what services does Pacific Towing provide?
We provide a variety of services: Our core business is harbor-towage, we also provide custom coastal services, as well as international ocean towage. We have an excellent salvage capacity – including oil-spill response, a well-renown commercial diving capacity, and a liferaft service too. In essence, we offer a very broad range of services to a diverse client base.
In terms of the oil & gas industry, we have a lot of experience working with large players, having formed partnerships with ExxonMobil and Puma Energy.
We provide support services on the voyage, commercial diving facilities, oil-spill response capacity, and of course, services to tankers that come in and out of various ports.
Over the decades, we have formed long-term relationships with the oil and gas companies themselves as well as key service providers, such as Svitzer. We work very closely with the larger terminal operators in this region, supporting them in what they do and providing essential services.
I see that you have developed a broad variety of services and long experience in the region. What are the main reasons that attracted your interested in Timor-Leste?
We are certainly interested in working in Timor-Leste. Pacific Towing has a unique model for working in this part of the world. We have been in business for over 40 years now, having optimized our tried and tested business model which relies heavily on personnel from the countries we operate in.
We operate in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and have run operations in Fiji. Through our extensive experience, we have identified significant similarities between Papa New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. Developing countries need their own customized solutions: a domestic solution through an international service product. We have a long record of providing a high-end service, using domestic infrastructure at a competitive price.
We believe that we can utilize Timor-Leste’s existing infrastructure and provide a service that will meet offshore demand. We are very excited to train and grow the country’s workforce through our local content policy.
We are extremely interested in moving into that area, there's a lot of similarities between Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea: it's a developing country with a developing economy, and by all accounts, that presents opportunities for low-cost high-end solutions that we provide and particularly the local employment opportunities that we provide; in the long term, we believe we are very compatible with a country trying to develop its own infrastructure.
Another significant similarity with PNG is the isolation of the capital from the countryside, and the lack of infrastructure. This is the sort of environment that we have ample experience operating in. We have long-term relationships to some fairly big players around the world such as our sister companies Swire Pacific Offshore and Swire Emergency Response. We will bring these additional resources and capacity to Timor Leste. That being said, we are not, even for a moment, assuming that Timor-Leste is a carbon copy of the countries we already operate in. Pacific Towing is very sensitive to the individuality and uniqueness of different cultures, which is something we channel through our local content policy.
Speaking of local content, Pacific Towing has garnered a reputation of employing personnel in-country. What is the secret behind your local content policy?
Employing local content is at the core of our business ethic as well as our business strategy. We have a nationalization policy, where we give locals first priority for employment and provide intensive training. Investing in training our personnel to an international standard is a major priority for Pacific Towing. Our marine services and life raft services run to an international standard, while 97% of our workforce – including our senior management team - consists of employees from the countries we operate in. In fact, we are very proud to announce that in the Solomon Islands our work-force consists entirely of locals that we have trained through our programs.
We employ directly from the communities, run cadet programs and send our new personnel overseas for often extensive experience, including sea towage, which is in my opinion pretty unique.
Having operations in such a broad spectrum of marine activities, and a massive local content policy, you must have built very strong relationships with local and national governments. How did you achieve this?
We invest heavily in our relationships with government institutions, departments of transport, the Maritime Safety authorities and the tax department. Being very good corporate taxpayers is a major priority for us, and that goes hand in hand with giving back to the local community. We also help capacity build our partner organisations. For example we provide pilot training and oil spill response training to the Solomon Islands Port Authority.
My favourite examples include: The first one was a tandem towage project of an offshore vessel and crane barge to Guam in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak when the borders had shut down. This was the first time in years, where a PNG registered vessel had gone in to USA territory waters. This was achieved by working together with PNG’s government, and the operations that followed brought much-needed foreign currency into the country, during a difficult time.
We could not have done that without the support of the PNG National Maritime Safety Authority and without the support of the Department of Transport.
Similarly, in Fiji we recently salvaged the Southern Phoenix container ship, and again that was done by working very closely with the government and as many Fiji locals as possible.
We look forward to establishing a similar relationship with Timor-Leste. In fact, it's essential to the success of any marine business and essential to us. A strong relationship with the government is a critical component to our investments.
You are already supporting Timor-Leste’s 2nd Licensing Round by participating and sponsoring the official Timor-Leste Energy Online Series. During the summit, what will you be speaking about?
We will obviously talk about our capacity to service oil and gas operators in Timor-Leste. However, we’re particularly excited to talk about the investments Pacific Towing is keen to make in Timor-Leste, in terms of local content, training and capacity building partner organisations. I think that Pacific Towing is the perfect marine services partner not just for oil and gas operators but for Timor-Leste itself.