Gabriel Ruhan, CEO of Global Marine Systems
Global Marine is a marine technology and engineering company that specialises in the maintenance of submarine telecom cables and works in four distinct markets - telecoms; renewable energy; the oil and gas industry; and defence.
Backgrounder: Global Marine is a marine technology and engineering company that specialises in the maintenance of submarine telecom cables and works in four distinct markets - telecoms; renewable energy; the oil and gas industry; and defence.
The company's beginnings can be traced back to 1850 when the ship Goliath laid the first international submarine telegraph cable to link Britain to France. Over the next 150 years the use of submarine telegraph and then telecommunications cables grew rapidly and a number of businesses emerged from the original companies involved with the Goliath.
The Chelmsford-based firm's expertise has also proved crucial to the resurrection of communications networks in areas prone to earthquakes - such as offshore Taiwan last year - and in the implementation of tsunami warning systems.
1) GMS has been around in one form or another for 150 years. How has its long history helped shape the business that exists today? For most of our long history we were part of one telephone company or another, responsible for installing and maintaining their submarine cables. Although the technology certainly changed over the decades, the business model was fairly constant until the internet arrived on the scene as a commercial communications tool.
The internet, of course, has dramatically transformed all types of communication and in recent years has opened up a number of new markets to us. Today we find ourselves an independent company with customers from all types of industries; oil & gas, defence, renewable energy and, of course, telecommunications. 2) GMS appears to be going very well at the moment, yet only three years ago it was in administration. Why? When the telecommunications industry went into a steep downturn in the late nineties many many companies disappeared. We were no different as much of our business disappeared literally overnight and we were required to restructure in order to survive.
In the years since we have made what I think are very prudent and practical strategic decisions to return the business to a solid footing, ensuring that our costs are in line with our revenue and that we have an increasingly diversified customer base, which we believe, will help us weather future downturns in particular industries. 3) How have you managed to reverse the situation? I don't think it was as much about reversing the situation as recovering from it. We have always had excellent people, specialists who really know their craft. Similarly our vessels, equipment and resulting products and services have always been known for the quality of delivery and workmanship.
Our goal was to survive the downturn in the telecommunications market through a conservative approach to cost, a realistic view of short term market potential, a diversification of customers into other industries and, perhaps most importantly, a belief that if given enough time, the markets would return to something resembling normal and stable. 4) How far can the recovery take you? Looking into 2007 and beyond, we believe that indeed this is the case. The market for our services will never return to the crazy inflated projections of the Internet boom years, but rather we do expect a return to an increasingly rational global growth in quality communications networks, parts of which must, by their very nature, run under the sea. 5) How do the constant technological advances that are made in the telecommunications and power industries affect GMS's work and its approach? I will go with experience over technology any day. Each project calls for a unique response. You just never know from day to day what the various projects will throw at you. We recently announced an alliance with Huawei Technologies, one of the largest optical networking manufacturers in the world.
We are working with them to develop regional networking products which will reduce the cost and greatly simplify the required electronics for these types of systems. In this case our longstanding underwater experience with communications networks is one of the main ingredients we bring to this cutting edge solution.
In another case we have recently upgraded two of our vessels so that they are certified as able to work very close to oil rigs, a common requirement in that industry. Yet despite all the advances in technology, we are currently employing century-old grappling techniques as we work to repair the damage done to telecommunications cables off the coast of Taiwan, which were heavily damaged by the December 26 earthquake.
Due to the extreme depth of the water we cannot use our remotely operated submersibles, which are a modern tool. Instead we are relying heavily on the long experience of our officers and crew and decidedly low-tech, but highly effective methods to facilitate repairs. As I said, you just never know from day to day. 6) Is the growth of satellite communication a threat? Remember, despite common perceptions, most all of the world's communications travel not over satellite, but through cable, under the sea or on the land.
This is not a temporary situation but a fact of business for the foreseeable future and Global Marine sees itself as continuing to play an important role in the installing and maintaining of those cables. 7) Which industry sectors hold the most promise for GMS in the future? Currently we are seeing a slow but steady recovery in telecommunications. Asia in particular continues to be an area of real growth for us. We are also increasingly doing all types of Oil and Gas work such as trenching, mattressing, touch-down monitoring, post-lay inspection burial, and laying telecommunications and power cables between rigs and from rigs to shore as well. We are seeing growth in and around the North Sea, in the Gulf of Mexico and throughout Asia.
Beyond that we continue to be involved with the installation of alternative energy technology such as off-shore wind farms as interest in this technology continues to increase around the world. 8) Much of GMS's business is based overseas. What are the pros and cons of running the company from Chelmsford? By its nature this is a global business and as such we never have all employees at one place at one time. Working to improve communications across the business is a constant priority; however, I expect that the types of people who are drawn to this business are those comfortable working in a very decentralised environment.Like businesses many times our size, we have Global Marine people doing work at any time of day or night, so the need to be aware of what is happening in the world and flexible in our response as situations and opportunities arise is a major characteristic of our business.
The fact that the head office is in Chelmsford and therefore on GMT is actually quite useful as our work day straddles both the time zones in Asia and those in North and South America, making good daily communications, during working hours quite useful. No matter where we were based, it is important that our management team makes every effort to be in the field working closely with both customers and staff to ensure that we are really in touch with our business. 9) You have just appointed three senior executives to your board with a "vision for the future", what is this vision and their role within it? As you correctly point out, we recently elected three new members to our Board of Directors. Larry Schwartz, one of the owners of Bridgehouse Marine, our parent company, Ian Douglas who runs our Asian businesses and Steve Scott, our Commercial Director.
Each of the three brings a wealth of knowledge which is highly relevant to the current business at hand. For example, Larry has been involved in many aspects of the networking industry for many years and also has deep experience in successful business turn-arounds.
Both Ian and Steve are responsible for the growth of the business and given the importance of our desire to diversify revenue and the success of our business interests throughout Asia, these two Senior Executives in particular have a very clear understanding of current market conditions.
In short, our vision for the business is one of realistic growth through revenue diversification, and an expected continuation in the improvement in the global telecommunications and networking industries, all three of these individuals have proven themselves successful time and time again in similar circumstances and we are very glad to welcome them to our Board. 10) Where do you wish to see GMS in two, five and ten years from now? As I have mentioned earlier, our goal was to put Global Marine back on a sound footing, similar, quite honestly to the footing it had been on for well over a century. We believe we are well into doing that and my future goals for the business would be to continue to excel in what we do best and that is Marine Engineering with a specialty in laying and maintaining all types of cable. We expect that is a specialty skill which will be in constant demand across all types of industry as business dependence on high quality communications continues to increase.