Koos van Oord, Egbert Vuursteen and Rob Wagenborg had been invited as guest speakers to the 12th meeting of Wagenborg Young Management at the company’s head office in Delfzijl to address a group of about forty Wagenborg Young Professionals. Koos van Oord is Manager Subsea Rock Installation at Van Oord Offshore and joined Egbert and Rob that evening to explain the parallels between Wagenborg and Van Oord as family businesses, taking HSEQ and working methods as his key themes.
After dining together, Egbert Vuursteen and Rob Wagenborg, the CEOs of Royal Wagenborg spoke to the group about their ambitions with regard to safety. A number of HSEQ issues were triggered at Royal Wagenborg by a series of incidents at Wagenborg Shipping. And too many incidents are still happening. And not just at Shipping. “This was a real wake-up call for us and it has become clear that we should be more in control. We are not the only ones who think so – our colleagues and clients do as well. Wagenborg is a family business and we cannot allow people who belong to this family to be injured or even lose their lives at work”, Rob Wagenborg explained.
“Besides, serious incidents put at risk our reputation as a good employer and reliable commercial partner”, Egbert Vuursteen added. “Over the past few months, we have held intensive discussions about the issue of safety at Wagenborg and have concluded that the safety incidents are the result of a certain way of working, collaborating and organising in the past. The increasing complexity of the work, clients’ high expectations and more stringent regulations require us to adopt a professional – state of the art – way of working. We believe that our current way of working no longer appears to be adequate and that we will have to do a number of things differently. If we don’t take any action in this area, we as a company will be heading for the exit”, Egbert concluded
Following this passionate statement by the parent company CEOs, everyone was asked to think about whether they recognised this way of working in their immediate working environment. And the responses from the room were breathtaking. “’Cut the crap and get on with it’ is our typical Groningen mentality”. “Having different cultures makes it hard to work safely”. “Doing first and thinking later is what made Wagenborg great”. “We’ve achieved a lot by showing a lot of nerve...”. A range of responses, all of which reflected Wagenborg’s culture and strength: entrepreneurship. Or as Egbert, pointing to the barge ‘Liberté’, explained: “Entrepreneurship has always been in our genes. My great-grandfather Egbert Wagenborg really didn’t think about safety at all – neither he nor his wife and seven children could swim – before he sailed from the northern Netherlands to Scandinavia along the Jammerbocht. He just did it!” Although it will be difficult to break our habits in the way we work, we will have to find a sort of happy medium. So we will have to think before we do without losing our entrepreneurial spirit in the process. Regularly smiling at the responses from the room, Koos van Oord could no longer contain himself and described, in turn, the course that Van Oord had taken.
Van Oord comprises three divisions: dredging, offshore wind and offshore oil & gas, where Koos is ultimately responsible for subsea rock installation in this last division. Using a variety of vessels, Van Oord is able to install rocks to a depth of 1,800 metres to protect pipelines under water. “This was a niche business with a lot of projects, a real cash cow for us in those days”, Koos explained. “At the end of 2012, we were working for Shell when two fallpipes fell to the seabed in rapid succession. And this was a problem as, if there is a third incident, you are simply out of the market”, he explained. “In view of the similarities between the two incidents, we could only conclude that the root cause lay deeper than purely and simply focusing on safety would reveal. It had everything to do with our way of working.” Van Oord therefore began a process in which management and implementation were put under the spotlight. Van Oord’s conclusion was that the company’s strength was its decisiveness, optimism, problem-solving skills and autonomy. “A nostalgia trip”, as Egbert Vuursteen put it. Koos went on to explain that these strengths also bring risks with them. “That’s why we forced ourselves to work in a more systematic way and consult together before launched into projects without thinking. We no longer take shortcuts. If we did, the cost of failure could be enormous. And this is a process, as it does not happen from one day to the next. I also find it difficult to break out of existing routines and will probably make the same mistake once in a while, but if we all have the courage and will to address issues and learn lessons from them, we will work better and more safely”, Koos concluded firmly.
By the end of the evening, the participants had found out for themselves how difficult it is to change their way of working. To make this clear, about twenty of the participants stood on a large tarpaulin and were given the task of rotating this tarpaulin with no-one being allowed to step off. And, evidently, Koos’ message had got through to everyone because, instead of starting work immediately, without thinking and each on his or her own, the group entered into discussions, made a plan and then implemented it flawlessly. A nice detail worth mentioning is that Wagenborg management performed the same task a few months ago and found it much harder. This shows that we have made progress!
We can look back on a successful evening in which Egbert and Rob’s ambition with regard to safety, boosted by Koos’ practical experience, “woke us all up” to the fact that safe working starts by holding up a mirror to yourself and by constantly challenging your colleagues.