Non-stop from Sao Paulo to Ecuador: the international career of a young engineer
He landed his first job at Techint and his first assignment was none other than at the OCP, one of the company’s most emblematic projects. The first time he traveled outside of Brazil, also his first-ever plane trip, was to Ecuador. In this interview, the Operations Director of the Andean Area details the challenges he’s overcome during his career at the company.
Claudio Perillo is Brazilian. He joined Techint E&C following an admission process that took several months, after joining the first group dynamic in August 2001. However, it was only on March 7 the following year that he was assigned to a project, and in the midst of this process, he graduated as a civil engineer.
“When I arrived at the event, held in a hotel in Sao Paulo, most people were dressed casual smart, some were even wearing a suit and tie. I was in jeans and a shirt. My first feeling was that I didn’t fit in.” Claudio is from upcountry in the State of Sao Paulo, more precisely from Sao Jose do Rio Pardo, a city 300 km north of the Sao Paulo State Capital.
However, during the presentation at that first meeting, he learned in detail about some of the historic works carried out by Techint, such as the Zarate-Brazo Largo bridge linking Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Claudio was struck by the magnitude of this venture and realized that initiatives like these were what he wanted to work on at this juncture.
At the time, Techint E&C was looking to hire young professionals to work in Ecuador and Peru, as the company was in talks to develop two major projects, later to become landmark achievements in its history: the Heavy Crude Oil Pipeline (OCP) and the Camisea pipeline network.
A few months passed until the phone rang at the end of February, and then things started moving swiftly: in March, Claudio began working at the company, assigned to the OCP project in Ecuador.
With such short notice, there was barely any time to prepare properly and Claudio didn't speak Spanish: ten classes before traveling weren’t nearly enough, but at least it was a start. He also went to a talk organized by a consultant with a woman of Ecuadorian origin and got some tips about the country’s customs.
The OCP project was designed to cross the entire geography of Ecuador, running through the rainforest and over the mountains to the coast, traversing very varied terrain and many different climes. As Claudio hadn’t been told what sector of the project he was going to be working in, he didn’t even know what clothes to pack.
On March 10, he took a flight to Ecuador, leaving for a country he knew very little about. “I’d never traveled by plane before—I’d never even left Brazil. My dad worked in a bank and my mom’s a teacher, so the corporate world was completely alien to me. I was quite apprehensive as I knew I was in for a big culture shock," recalls Claudio.
He arrived in Quito and spent a few days getting to grips with the basics in the Pifo offices before being assigned to work at Papallacta, up in the mountains, at 3,800 meters above sea level. Later, he was sent to Mindo and subsequently, over time, worked at all the other locations through which the pipeline passed.
Extreme physical exertion
In Mindo, Claudio’s day started very early. He woke up at 4 a.m., had breakfast, sat on a bus for an hour, then trekked two hours on foot to the worksite. Once he got there, the actual work began and didn’t stop until sundown. Then he had to walk the two hours back, and spend another hour on the bus. “It was exhausting and incredibly demanding: one day it was sunny, another day it would rain, and it was almost always cloudy and humid. Clearly, one’s youth and spirit of adventure are a big help in overcoming such adversities,” he comments wryly.
Mindo is in the Mindo-Nambillo Ecological Reserve, a large area of some 22,000 hectares two hours north of Quito on the mountainside of the Guagua Pichincha volcano, whose lower slopes are lush with dense, humid jungle vegetation. These semi-tropical rainforests are home to more than 350 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and many kinds of butterflies as well as a wide variety of rare orchids.
As nine km of the OCP pipeline crosses a corner of this pristine reserve, the company was unable to bring in heavy machinery by land to work on the construction phase. To solve this problem, it employed an aerial tramway system slung between the Guarumos and Campanario hills to transport equipment through the air.
Claudio considers that the OCP was a really tough project, both in terms of the physical challenges involved and the mental ones.
“Looking back, I think that these difficulties helped to forge my character. I learned how to deal with challenging situations, I figured out how to make things work in a situation that was completely outside my comfort zone in every sense: cultural, idiomatic, and climatic. It was entirely different to anything I had experienced up to that point in my life.”
Today, he’s certain that learning to overcome those adversities, the first in a series of challenges he was to face over the next twenty years, is what made him so resilient. OCP was a project involving over 10,000 workers, including 900 expatriates, so it was to be expected that he would have to tackle and resolve difficulties.
The pipeline family
Back in the early aughts, there were no cell phones, so employees used to buy phone cards and call home once a week. This was one of the reasons why the work context was imbued with an overriding sense of family. People were united by a bond forged as much by coexistence as by the moments of shared relief and achievement after overcoming one difficulty after another. This was a very special bond, one difficult to put into words. A sense of comradeship and closeness often springs up in pipeline-building projects where camps are located next to the course, usually far from towns or other communities.
Luckily for Claudio, he never had any difficulties relating to people and has an open and friendly nature. He also considers that Latin American cultures are naturally spontaneous and place value on close relationships. "I always started from a base of respect, as that for me is fundamental."
“But the food issue is another matter. It was really difficult to get used to it,” he admits. In Ecuador or Colombia, breakfast is usually rice, meat and soup, which is what Brazilians or Argentines have for lunch. "I felt that it was something deeply organic, my body just would not accept it."
Returning to Brazil
In August 2003, when the OCP works were at the hydraulic testing stage, Claudio returned to Brazil and began working in the Commercial area with Ricardo Ourique, who at the time was Director of Infrastructure.
Claudio took part in all kinds of meetings, from closing budgets to analyzing project execution strategies. "This was a stage dedicated to professional growth and training about how to run a company, how to work through a business deal, how to manage different kinds of variables."
Then Ricardo told him, “Claudinho, now you have to go back to the worksite, as a commercial guy needs to have hands-on experience in order to sit down and discuss project management.” This was highly useful advice that prompted him to change tack. This time, he headed for Pontal do Parana in Brazil, to work on the contract administration process at the PRA-1 project (Plataforma de Rebombeio Autônoma).
This was his first experience in the world of offshore exploration, one which opened the door to a new set of opportunities. “I went to negotiations with Petrobras, I took part in meetings with people twice my age and seniority. All that exposure was critical to my development.” This is why Claudio maintains young professionals shouldn’t be limited to working as assistants, as they need to play relevant roles and take on responsibilities to help them develop their true potential.
While at the PRA-1, he started working on the budget for the RPBC (President Bernandes de Cubatao Refinery), and when the company was awarded the contract in 2007, the entire team moved to Santos, and stayed there for the next four years, until the project was completed in September 2011.
Thanks to his involvement in a mega pipeline project, an offshore platform and a refinery, Claudio was building an interesting and broad-based technical profile.
No limits on growth
In tandem with his expanding portfolio of know-how, great opportunities were opening up for Claudio in other countries. In October 2013, he took over as Country Manager in Colombia, joining the team working under Oscar Scarpari, Director of the Andean Area. “At the Bogota office, I knew almost everyone from my time at the OCP, so it was very easy to fit in, and as I consider Colombians to be pretty similar to Brazilians, my professional integration went very smoothly.”
However, the adaptation process wasn’t so easy for his family, as his wife and children spoke neither Spanish nor English. His daughter Clara, at the time in 2nd grade in primary school, went from a local school in Brazil to a British one in Colombia. “It was really chaotic: the teacher would ask her questions, she didn't understand, and I would have to come and translate. My wife had to get the services connected at our apartment, they would call her by phone and she would automatically call me. I had to stay close to my family at all times just to resolve things and make sure they worked,” remembers Claudio.
“I think what my family had to deal with in Colombia was very similar to what I went through on my first trip to Ecuador. After a few months, and with a lot of effort on their part, they managed to adapt and ended up doing really well.”
However, at the beginning of 2015, the oil crisis hit the country hard and Claudio was reassigned, again with his family, this time to Ecuador. “I was going back as Country Manager to where I started out as a young professional. It was like closing the cycle.”
He remembers a psychologist from his kids’ school in Ecuador saying, “Your children are from a third culture as they were born in Brazil, lived in Colombia, and are now in Ecuador. However, due to the interactions and experiences they are acquiring, they are going to be from a third culture, they’re neither from their original culture nor from where they’re living at the moment. That means they’ll have a different vision of the world, a mindset that other children don’t have.”
However, Claudio considers that his children also need to put down roots. Each time they move, he wants them to be able to build their space, to stamp their personalities on their rooms, for example, which is their little world.
He explains that “I don't expect my children to follow us forever. We raise them to be ready to make their way in the world and, at the right moment, they will choose their path, just as I left my city when the time was right, to create my own story.”