The more I look at large projects all over the world, the more I am convinced that they all relied on inspired leader- ship and a significant element of inspired risk taking.
It is well known that, if you put your money into an investment, the financial return is least for the lowest risk. The return on your hard-earned money is most if you take some risk. That is because whoever is the person offering the higher return is the person who has an adventurous plan to do something that is not being done by everyone else.
The same is true of major projects in both the private and public spaces. If you keep doing only those things that are totally ‘proven’ to the last rand, you will stay well away from leadership of the herd and will forevermore follow in the dust of others.
A project that comes to mind is a new South African oil refinery. We should do it. There has been talk of a new refinery for years. I have come across it time and again. Invariably, I find myself at some cocktail party or other and I am talking to a group of businesspeople. Then, with a pondering tone, some fellow will say: “The cost just does not justify it at the moment.” Somebody else often quickly agrees, saying: “Yes, the return on investment is not guaranteed.”
I then wonder to myself what those fellows know about the engineering involved. I wonder what type of leadership drive they have. Frequently, my wine-glass-in-hand analysis leads me to conclude that these people have never stood out in true leadership roles.
Further, one has to be able to imagine what a new, modern plant will look like. One thing is for sure – it will not look like any existing plant. The technology has advanced to such a degree that new things are coming into play daily.
The decisions to build the oil refineries that are currently operational must have been taken on much more of a shaky basis than any decision that would be taken now.
Before the first refinery was built, South Africa had zero oil refinery experience. We did not have a cadre of oil and gas industry welders and fitters. We did not have a major group of chemical, mechanical and electrical engineers with significant international, large-project experience. We did not have any computers, and we did not have any software engineers.
Now, in this day and age, we have teams of people who are probably a thousand times better than they were over half a century ago, when far-sighted people with nerve took the decision to build South Africa’s first oil refinery.
We also now have construction and fabrication methods that are way superior to back then. We now have computers – computers which can be used in the design phase of the project, but also computers which will be used to actually run the refinery.
We now also have the macro planning capability to step backwards and to decide where a new refinery should be built. We have fuel pipelines which carry petrol and diesel from Durban to Johannesburg. They did not exist, and neither did the technology to build them, when the first refinery was planned. So, the early planners were limited to placing the refinery near to where ships unload and near to road and rail links. But now we can add pipeline technology. We can add the technology of ships unloading at sea without docking, which is now done at Durban.
So we have much more flexibility as to where a new refinery can be built.
We can even contemplate bringing oil from West African countries. So, the time is ripe for the traditional South African spirit of adventure and dream of the horizon to be evident. Yes, of course, we must do all the financial calculations. But a refinery decision must not be a bean counter decision; it must be an engineering decision, backed by inspired leadership spirit and a faith in the future.