Going the extra 9,000 miles
“People don’t want to interact with virtual world: providing a service is a ‘people business’ Pierpaolo Barbone of Wärtsilä tells Stevie Knight. “Professionalism can’t even begin to play a part unless it’s based on being human.”
Although now Wärtsilä’s executive VP and president of the Services Division, one of his earliest jobs back in ‘89 involved repowering high speed vessels: “I really liked this kind of hands-on, concrete activity: you are measuring up inside the engine room, it is nobody but you and the machine....”
The other part of the job was negotiating with work-hardened fishermen, a challenge in itself. “The fishermen in Paros come back to harbour in the middle of the night with their catch: this meant I had half an hour with them in the tavern between 3:00am and 3:30 to talk about the engines before they were off again.” Forging connections in this kind of environment certainly taught him a thing or two about the importance of listening, “something I believe you need to do, before you make any assumptions”.
While communication is pivotal to maintenance and services, cultural differences have shown him that understanding goes much deeper than language, even when you are talking about technology.
For example, the difference between Europe’s north and south. “In Southern Europe, if you are convinced of a point there’s a tendency to become voluble and use a torrent of words to underline it... It’s very different in the north, where people become quiet, put very few words together and let the facts speak for themselves.”
And while one of his first moves was to South America, “perhaps not such a big cultural jump from Southern Europe”, the next was to Asia.
He explains that unlike Europe or the Americas where cold reality is accepted on the trial results, Asia is very different: “In many places, for example, it’s all about ‘clicking’ with a customer, so you have to find a way establish mutual trust before anything on a business level can be accomplished.”
However, for him the cliché of the history-steeped East and nouveau West is inverted – at least as far as technology is concerned: “The first thing I noticed in China is that these people are strikingly young, fast and eager for change.” He adds: “I’d say they have fewer boundaries whereas in the West, well, to be honest we tend to be a little more caught up by the rulebook. Don’t misunderstand me, its part of our strength: we have a huge tradition of ideas. It’s just that there’s plenty to learn in both directions.”
There is also a certain level of adrenaline inherent in the marine services sector. One of the notable ‘highs’ was being on sea trial for high-speed patrol craft, “We were sailing at 70 knots against the waves, cutting through the sea like a knife... not a moment I am likely to forget,” says Mr Barbone.
“On the other hand when there’s an emergency you have mobilise immediately, so there’s been a fair amount of working right across the weekend till a problem is solved.” One case involved a supply vessel facing extremely difficult weather conditions en route from Africa to the Americas.
“We got a call from the owners in the early hours of the morning; the crew had managed to message them to say the vessel had a power blackout, but they were struggling to get it back again – and the vessel was facing extremely steep seas. The issue was that along with the power, the communications had gone down too.” It was a tense, nerve-wracking few hours for everyone while an emergency relay was set up via Europe, allowing the team to troubleshoot their way to a solution. “When they had made it into the nearest harbour we flew out to make sure the installation was OK.” Despite the ordeal, everything was fine.
However, Mr Barbone says: “It’s really more important to avoid this kind of excitement when you can...” He points out that during his time at Wärtsilä awareness has been growing about the innovative side of maintenance, a lifecycle approach which comes down to “prevention rather than fixing”. He explains: “These days you need to be proactive; what’s emerged is that long term maintenance agreements can be a tool either to avert or limit the consequences of the unexpected.”
He concludes: “It’s a satisfying business: there’s always new ground opening up – in the end this means you and your customers grow together...”
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