The jungle is dense and the river is deep

This little gem of advice was given to me some years back up in the farthest reaches of Kalimantan (Borneo as we used to call it). I was PM on my first resources project, building new infrastructure on a brand new open cut coal mine.

The team consisted of me,  my resident engineer, a contracts manager and 750 locals. The project included all buildings, plant maintenance facilities, barge loading, purchase of all mine plant, and a 45 Klm haul road. Total value about $US100m. All carried out through virgin rain forest with the only access by sea or helicopter. That was the construction side, but the other part of the project was to set up a cost structure for getting the coal out of the ground, taking it to the river, loading barges and delivering it to coal ships moored in deep water. A cost structure that would accurately manage costs and report/forecast on the profitability of the business.

The mine was Indonesian owned and the owners had a very simple philosophy. They knew how much they could sell a tonne of coal for, so they simply wanted to know the cost of getting it out of the ground and delivered to their clients’ ships.

The way it had been set up was haphazard with all subcontractors charging on a cost plus basis. One of my tasks was simply to stop this and get everyone working on fixed price lump sum term contracts. Maybe easy to do in sunny Brisbane but a bit more challenging in deepest Kalimantan. So I set about the task by working out what it was costing, the average selling price of coal project over the next three years, discounted cash flows, capital investment, the normal run of the mill spreadsheet heaven.

I called a meeting of about 100 subcontractors, all locals. They turned up in pretty much the same uniform of shorts, ripped off tee shirts, and many with ubiquitous parangs (you call that a knife, a parang is a big bloody knife). So with my interpreter I commence my spiel, being ultra careful not to point, raise my feet to expose the soles etc etc. After about twenty minutes of extolling the virtues of the certainties of fixed price arrangements, the win win relationship plus all sorts of similar management speak, a small figure at the back stood up. Not only did the audience go quite, my Indonesian interpreter went visibly pail. The interlocutor spoke firmly for ten seconds and the room if it were possible went even quieter. My interpreter was reluctant to speak but after physically prodding him for the translation, he whispered to me, a feat in itself as I was two foot taller than him, that the firm spoken speaker had said, “The rivers are deep and the jungle is dense”.

I was baffled and asked him what does he mean. My diminutive friend responded in his best interpretation of my scouse accent, “Er keep this up mate and you won’t be going home in a box ‘cos they won’t find yer body pal”

I ditched fixed price negotiations immediately and from that point on we were all friends. The infrastructure was completed, the price of coal to China went up, the subbies made money, the client smiled (or was it wind) and I flew home a year later business class.

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