With more than 40 years at FLSmidth, covering hundreds of major EP and EPC projects, Erik Bonde Pedersen has the sort of experience that is probably unmatched in the global cement industry.
The cement industry has seen unprecedented development in the last forty years. Urbanisation has grown unabatedly, new economies have emerged strongly, and the global financial markets have changed the way major infrastructure investments are structured. Amidst such rapid change, only the toughest survive, let alone thrive.
One person who has been at the bleeding edge of this development is Erik Bonde Pedersen. His career in the cement industry – all of it with FLSmidth – began in the early 1970s, long before the internet and at a time when no-one talked about key issues like sustainability that characterise the industry today.
Through the developments, however, Erik sees one constant: the need for responsibility and pragmatism on an individual level. But the reasons behind this need are now quite different.
“When I first started in the cement industry, it was in the days long before email. Communication happened via letter, and it was, needless to say, a bit slow. If you were working on a project overseas and sent a technical query via snail mail, getting a response after one month would be considered fast. It could take up to three. So sometimes you couldn’t wait for a response. You had to solve the problem yourself on the spot. Then you would write a letter afterwards explaining the problem and how you had solved it.”
Today, he says, at a time where remote collaboration is so much easier, there is still the need for responsibility and a proactive approach, but for different reasons. In a market that is much more competitive, this behaviour gives a competitive edge.
“I think a lot of it is because of technology and the speed of communication now. People are much more knowledgeable. Customers demand fast answers to problems, and what people don’t know, they can easily source.”
He believes that companies such as FLSmidth expect staff to take responsibility and that they provide the necessary opportunities. This is a key reason for FLSmidth remaining at the top of its game, not only as a supplier to the industry, but also as an employer.
“We have many talented colleagues, who know what they’re talking about and doing. It’s a company that gives you great freedom along with responsibility. You can do a lot, as long as you are accountable. That’s one of the great adventures of working here – no two days are the same.”
A global citizen
In a career starting in the early 1970s, he has covered an extraordinary amount of ground. Outside of his home country, Denmark, his cement construction pilgrimage has taken him through India and other parts of Asia to Spain, the Middle East and North Africa. Starting with a traineeship in South Africa, he moved to Indonesia soon after, where he gained his first experience in installing and commissioning a complete cement plant – the first of many to this day. He recalls a short stint in Dubai, constructing one of the city’s first cement plants, which is now within a stone’s throw of the giant Burj Khalifa and surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the ultra-modern city.
One of his most personally fulfilling experiences was being involved in the construction of a plant in India’s Rajasthan Desert.
“This had so much charm. You got to know the locals very well working in an environment like this, living in a camp near the plant site. I got friends for life.”
Although Erik’s career in the cement industry has offered up mainly positive experiences – which he looks back on with immense satisfaction – it hasn’t always been easy. He admits to nervous tension flying in and out of Iraq during a construction project in the midst of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. And perhaps his biggest early challenge was a project in Egypt in the 1980s. This was the first time he experienced a big gap in the approach to getting the work done.
“I had certain expectations about what it meant to be a decent contractor. To me, it’s about productivity, accuracy and reliability. But I found in this particular project that expectations in the local workforce were quite different. It was difficult to move them, which didn’t make the job easy. We had 800 people working on the construction site, and only 10 of the engineers spoke English.”
But in some way, this may have been the start of a new dawn.
Years later, when working on a project with an Egyptian consortium, he found it a totally different experience, as standards were on par with the highest global standards for a contractor.
Adapting to competition
In his time in the industry, Erik has seen critical changes. One of those was a new breed of cement plant owner that emerged as the global economy took some heavy hits.
“Previously, our customers were often plant managers and owners who were quite involved in day-to-day plant operations. They had a good understanding of the cement business. In the late 1990s, the market became a bit more turbulent and prices declined. There was less money in the market, and another type of person started to run the business – while the financiers became involved.
“They brought with them a different outlook and approach. Let’s call it a new type of professionalism. Suddenly, we found that customers had a technical and commercial education that was similar to ours. This meant we had to adapt, which I think was good for the industry, but it created more tension and far more competition, which we’re still seeing now.”
Contracts have become more important, too, he observes. Not only are they more comprehensive, but also a key part of successful project execution.
“Previously, a contract would be signed and then filed away probably not to see the light of day again. But that’s not the case now. The contract will be on the table and referred to in detail at any moment.”
He sees this as all part and parcel of the professionalism demanded by the industry.
EPC in 18 months
In a more competitive environment, one of the critical changes has been speed of project execution. He remembers the attitude towards project execution up until around the early 2000s as being relatively relaxed. Time was generally not a critical success factor. But those days are long gone. He describes the first project where things were different with more than a hint of satisfaction.
“2002 was the first time we undertook a short delivery time, when we committed to completing a full EPC project in 18 months. We did it. And we committed to producing clinker after 23 months. We did that too. Since then, we’ve used this 18/24 model quite successfully – it’s become a yardstick for our many EPC projects.”
A true professional
After years of globetrotting, Erik has been based at FLSmidth’s headquarters in Copenhagen for the last several years, where he is manager of FLSmidth’s project management department. After so many years in the industry and at the same company, you might wonder if he’d had enough. But there is no doubt about his drive for continued excellence.
“I’ve had a few opportunities over the years to try different things, but each time, I realised there was still plenty to achieve here,” he says with a wry smile.
For a man who’s seen a great many EP and EPC projects all over the world from start to finish, dealing with challenging circumstances, a changing world, and not-always-easy relationships, what’s his secret to success? A basic principle no matter what happens around you: timely communication and diligence.
“You have to follow up with everything and give clear instructions. Explain carefully what you want and when you want it – especially when – because time is of the essence. Do yesterday what was needed today, and if you do it correctly it won’t hurt you tomorrow.” - Erik Bonde Pedersen, Manager - Project Management, FLSmidth
Wise words from someone who’s seen it all, but is still ready for the unexpected.