- ACCIONA Infrastructure
- Jesús Sierra interview
This year marks four years since you joined ACCIONA Infrastructure. Could you give us a brief summary of this period?
It is unquestionably my most positive experience. What I found when I arrived was a company with a really solid foundation. A solid foundation to grow in a market as difficult as ours, and to thrive, which is sometimes missing in the sector. We are a company that excels in designing, constructing and executing – and with an excellent reputation, which we are not always aware of. My work primarily takes place outside of Spain, and I can assure you that ACCIONA’s reputation internationally is excellent.
It is a question of size, among other things, because we are certainly a large company and in this sector size matters, but it is right that size matters. The bottom line is that, being who we are, we do not compete on price but on quality, understanding what the client wants. We compete on quality, and we do so against the largest companies, on equal terms. At the same time, we do so with this solid and thriving foundation that the company provides. It works for us in an environment in which others have failed to succeed. The reason? We do things well.
A complicated sector in which your area is extremely diverse
It’s true that on paper the EMEA territory (Europe, Middle East and Africa) looks like an incongruent combination. But ultimately, the projects are the same and our clients all have the same needs. Naturally, we have to be aware of the cultural implications and know how to respect these.
Respect is key in any location. If you do not show respect you cannot demand respect from the client. Respect is essential –as I said– but it needs to be accompanied by something fundamental – adding value. My intention is to add value. We prefer not to participate in projects in which we cannot add value. Underneath ACCIONA lies an engineering firm and that certainly adds value. We have people who are excellent thinkers – we have talent. Consequently, if we approach countries respectfully, creating value, while being consistent and remembering that you win through perseverance, we will end up achieving results.
With regards to the complexity that comes from diversity, I would like to offer some clarification. There are 54 countries in Africa and we are only in seven. In the European Union there are 27 states, and we are only present in four or five, in addition to Norway, which is not a member. In the Middle East, we are present in four – the Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In other words, we study the locations that we enter in detail – prudence that is not incompatible with ambition, naturally. We are ambitious, we want to get ahead, but we also want to be consistent. We are really thorough when analysing our objectives. We identify the requirement and then assess whether we are one of the potential players to help develop a country or region.
And one more thing about the difficulties. In Europe there are 24 official languages and more than 60 minority languages. When I go to Africa I manage perfectly well with English, French and Portuguese… and Spanish if I visit Equatorial Guinea. In the Middle East, the language is English. My journeys by plane take no longer than seven hours, unless I go to South Africa, while my colleagues’ flights that work in America can take twice as long. And that’s before you talk about time zones. My time zones span four hours, so not everything is complicated.
With regards to your areas of responsibility, what about Europe. Is the Follo Line in Norway the most important project?
Absolutely. We entered an international tender in 2015, which we won. We won because we submitted the best offer both financially and technically (which is not always a guarantee of success). We began construction in Norway, where we found a significantly autocratic market, dominated by just a few local companies. We had to overcome this initial distrust and that is what we achieved. We are carrying out an excellent project and we have demonstrated that we know how to do it. In fact, now it is them that call us. We now have a couple of joint ventures with Norwegian companies, which we have integrated into our offers. Naturally, we have to create local synergies, which in our case has meant attracting Norwegian talent. We now have excellent professionals. I think that proof of our excellent reputation is illustrated by the fact that a Norwegian will decide to leave his lifelong company and come to work for a Spanish firm. I would like to add that in Norway we also have a 445 million project in the shape of the Ranheim-Værnes section of the E6 highway, in addition to the Follo Line project.
Trust and respect. Two values that presumably are also crucial in the Middle East market?
Of course. They are extremely demanding and you need to be meticulous and able to argue your own position. It has become a price-orientated market following the decline in oil prices, since they take it for granted that everyone present offers a certain level of quality.
Our star project in the Middle East is undoubtedly the Dubai Metro – a 2.5 billion project in which we have 60% of the civil engineering worth one billion. It is a project with clearly defined deadlines, especially its completion, since it must be ready for the inauguration of the Expo – and I should point out that we are perfectly on schedule. Dubai is a magnificent example of something that I say a lot in this firm – that when we align ourselves, we win. We managed to be awarded the contract without being the cheapest. We won because we were the best. We submitted an extraordinary project, in which the whole company participated.
What’s your outlook for this market?
Very simply – to continue being there. We have two basic markets, which are the Emirates and Saudi Arabia in terms of Construction. We also have the Al–Khobar desalination project, which once completed will be the largest in the world. We manage 30% of the drinking water in Qatar, a fact that carries enormous responsibility, because one third of the population in this country depends on us for water. We have great expectations in the water sector in this area. Those responsible have seen that the concept of burning energy to produce drinking water -the age-old thermal system based on evaporation- does not work. It is now shifting to reverse osmosis, which is what we do and we are the best.
In relation to Africa, people always talk about the dominance of the Chinese companies…
In Africa, European diplomacy is largely commercial –it’s done by companies– except in the French-speaking areas. The growing Chinese presence is a fact. They have arrived for the first time, with no historical precedence, and they intend to make major economic investments. Their presence is based on a very clear concept –a trade– highway and railway infrastructures in exchange for raw materials. However, whether these agreements are long-lasting will depend on the type of governance in each country. In my opinion, this will not work in the long run.
Can you tell us about ACCIONA Infrastructure’s projects in Africa?
At the end of April, we will officially open the Kathu solar thermal plant in South Africa for our client, the second such plant with this technology that we have constructed in the country, together with the Bokpoort plant.
We are very cautious in Africa, in the sense that we opt for large tenders. If projects such as Kathu, worth 500 million, are launched we will be there, but none have been forthcoming so far.
With regards to the outlook, we basically see two regions. In the east we have Kenya and its neighbouring areas, where there is a list of well-defined projects, with funding, but a certain degree of difficulty, in which we could be an important competitor. In the west, with Senegal being the most representative country, there is political stability. Our targets are focused on water projects, naturally, and on complex one-off transport infrastructures. Our greatest competitors in this region are French companies, which are fairly similar to us in terms of size and competitiveness.
I would like to highlight one of ACCIONA’s principal strengths around the world, although given the level of its requirements, this aspect is not the most important in Africa at the moment. Concerns about the effects of climate change are now recognised worldwide. Reducing CO2 emissions is increasingly important when awarding projects. For us, it is something that is part of our basic ideology and the way we work. For example, when we construct desalination plants, which require a lot of energy, we usually incorporate a plant that generates this energy from renewable sources. I would like my final message to be this: in this new panorama, ACCIONA has made huge progress, because sustainability is in our