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“No pending items left on my to do list!”

Published 19.12.2023

With almost 30 years of experience at Techint E&C, Juan Carlos Pais, Project QHSE Manager, shares his stories of adventure and growth in the company, including a period spent at Camisea in Peru, as well as his most recent experiences working on the development of the President Néstor Kirchner Gas Pipeline in Argentina.

 

In the vast, desolate expanse of the Patagonian desert, where the flat steppes stretch out to meet the horizon in an unbroken line, Juan Carlos Pais strikes a flamboyant figure. His gray locks flying in the wind, wearing his characteristic safety helmet adorned with myriad stickers, clad in regulation vest and dusty work shoes, his is an unmistakable presence, driving his truck along the route of the President Néstor Kirchner Gas Pipeline (GPNK in Spanish) between La Pampa, Río Negro and Neuquén.

Although the clock still marks the early hours, Juan Carlos has been on the go for some time, driving to work through the pre-dawn silence of the desert, a sharp chill in the air. On the way, he looks out the window to greet the timid rays of the sun rising gradually over the horizon, its light warming the dust, rocks and scattered patches of scrub so typical of these natural surroundings. Nature begins to awaken slowly from its nocturnal slumber as he drives into the morning.

It’s at this precise moment that Juan Carlos knows, instinctively, that it’s time for his morning radio message to his colleagues. This isn’t just a courtesy call, but a reminder of the importance of working safely in such a challenging environment.

The road, one long ribbon disappearing far into the distance, plays silent witness to this daily ritual, as the hues of the sky above morph from dark blue to blush orange, lighting up the dry arid land on either side of the road.

Juanca, as he’s known, welcomes us with a smile and a mate in his office at the GPNK workshop in General Acha, La Pampa, a large yard full of white containers, arranged in a perfect Tetris formation where it’s clear that everyone fully understands concepts such as safety, order and cleanliness.

Inside, his room is decorated with flags from different countries, photos posing with colleagues and (many) references displaying his fervent and passionate adoration for the Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro football team. Outside, the incessant whine of the cold winds remind us of that we are in Patagonia.

Running his hand through his hair, which he wears long in the style of Argentine footie manager Rubén Darío Insúa, a gesture he repeats often during our talk, he pours the first mate, smiles at us and asks, “Where do we start?”

 

Right at the start

Juan Carlos Pais began his professional career after graduating with a degree in Electromechanical Engineering. While he was studying, he worked as a production manager for a textile company to earn money, and this was when he decided to incorporate the concepts of Health and Safety into his studies, to shore up his professional skills.

As he neared the end of his training, the company he worked for ran into financial difficulties, which is why Pais, a restless chap at heart, began to look for other job opportunities.

As fate would have it, an acquaintance who at that time was working for Central Puerto suggested he apply for a job at the Techint Group. Without thinking twice about it, Juanca took his advice, and in 1994 joined Techint Engineering & Construction.

As he recalls the first steps he took at the company, he remembers his first project on Route 210 to build a road in Argentina, one of the company’s achievements that is still recognized today, nearly 30 years later.

After that initial project, new challenges arose that led to Pais touring the Techint Group’s operations not only in Argentina, but also in other parts of the world.

Our chat is interrupted by someone knocking at the door. Juanca opens and looks out with a cheery smile to say good morning. We suspect (correctly) that this won’t be the last time someone drops in to say hello.

San Martín and his liberation campaign

We return to our conversation. Juanca apologizes and, in a matter of seconds, pours a mate, takes a sip and picks up the thread again.

First, he was assigned to work at the company’s offices in the city of San Nicolás, in the province of Buenos Aires, where he moved with his family. But shortly after, he was sent to a new project in the remote province of Catamarca, at the lithium salt flats called the Salar del Hombre Muerto. This was his first experience at a crew camp “far from home.”

“As we were in the same country, I was able to take my family with me and, although things weren’t always easy, they accompanied me at all times,” says Pais, who adds that during those years, he had the opportunity to visit the industrial plants in San Nicolás, Florencio Varela, and Haedo, as well as the Siderca facilities.

With the advent of new projects came greater complexity in their requirements. “Perhaps one of the toughest challenges for me was when I was asked to work at the Camisea project to build the pipelines running from deep in the Amazon jungle across the Andes to finally reach Peru. The logistics of this type of work are incredibly complex and you learn a lot about risk prevention. If you draw a parallel, it was basically like taking the same route that San Martín did when he was leading the campaign to liberate South America from colonial rule. It was like reliving history, but as part of an industrial project.”

In the heart of dense tropical rainforests, featuring deep winding rivers and inhospitable terrain, this project is a testament to the determination to conquer one of the most inaccessible areas on earth, plagued by mosquitoes, humidity, heat and endless rains. The magnitude of this geographical feat cannot be underestimated, as Techint E&C had to overcome unprecedented logistical, climatic and environmental obstacles to carry out natural gas extraction in this corner of the planet.

The Camisea project was an opportunity for Pais not only to specialize in Health & Safety, but also to learn to work alongside teams from other companies and countries. “I don't remember exactly how many nationalities took part in the project, but they were from all over the place: Peruvians, Brazilians, Ecuadorians, Argentines, etc. That's why I always tell young people who start working with us that each large-scale project is like a postgraduate degree, because there you can learn everything. At university you learn all the theory about safety, risk analysis, preventive actions, etc., but it’s in the field where you really learn what it means,” he adds.

All this knowledge and experience came gradually, with each new adventure bringing different or unexpected learnings, such as ensuring people are properly vaccinated for diseases that could be present in the region, and how to keep an eye on these aspects in unusual environments on a daily basis.

“Once, I remember that I went to get vaccinated before going to work in the jungle. They gave me about four shots in each arm! Later, at the construction site, we really liked playing soccer, but we had to do it wearing long pants and doused in insect repellent. Obviously, at first you’re quite nervous about everything, but over time you get used to it and, thank God, no one got malaria!”

The GPNK, one of a kind!

After his time in the rainforest, Pais continued to add new experiences to his portfolio, sometimes holding operational positions and other times working in the field. “On balance, I’d say that I participated in at least 30 Techint E&C projects, which took me to more than ten different countries,” he says.

However, he personally believes that professional maturity was something he achieved following his recent participation in the construction of the GPNK in Argentina, linking the gas fields lying in the depths of Vaca Muerta, in desolate Patagonia, with the distribution centers closer to the main networks.

“Each project has its own thing, but I have to say that at the GPNK I felt very happy. I'm not saying that I wasn’t happy in other projects. Just that this was where people who saw me work and interact in such a complex and stressful context affirmed that I took it very calmly, bringing my knowledge and experience to bear on each situation,” Pais emphasizes.

“We were able to work with total freedom, always in the interests of people’s safety, health and progress. Today, there are people who went on to work on other projects and when they see me, they say 'hi.' I feel like I gained a lot of recognition within the organization.”

Juanca highlights that, although all the teams are equipped with the necessary machinery and personnel resources in the camps, their motto is to strengthen training throughout the regions where Techint E&C operates.

“For many colleagues, the GPNK was their first experience of this type of work. Some had no knowledge of what a pipeline was, or what the machinery was for. In many cases, we had to teach them from scratch. To do this, we got great support from the Production team, along with supervisors with many years of experience. The thing that stands out the most is that this training is a legacy, giving people skills they can later put to good use in new jobs. We train people to adopt a new lifestyle. The GPNK is a hugely important milestone, as, although each project feels like your baby when you’re working there, I must admit that this project has awakened intense feelings in me.”

Suddenly, he pauses. The wind continues to batter the windows. He looks up at the ceiling for a moment, crosses his arms, a twinkle in his eye, and says: “There’s a very interesting story about Father Luis, the town priest in Acha, La Pampa, who became a good friend. He invited me to the City's anniversary celebrations, but unfortunately, I couldn’t go as I had to return to Buenos Aires. Father Luis asked me if I could provide them with something related to our work at the GPNK for the celebration. I told him: 'Father Luis, the only thing we have is the model that I used to demonstrate how energy was released during splicing.' His eyes lit up and he happily accepted. So, we painted the model to make it look nice and it took pride of place at the town mass. In the end, the model became a museum piece featured at the Acha Cultural Center, as a souvenir of the passage of the gas pipeline.”

Again, our conversation is cut short, confirming our theory that there would be several interruptions for people dropping in to request advice. Half a cup of coffee later, with some issues resolved, we resume.

 

Motivation, recognition and leadership

When talking and delving deeper into his personality, a distinctive aspect emerges as a common denominator. Juanca has a unique ability to assume diverse and challenging roles in field projects, with a strong leadership style, where the tools normally to be found in a plant environment aren’t always available.

“To those who talk about my ability to connect with people, I tell them that it was my father who taught me that you should always have at least five minutes for each colleague. That gesture, over time, is what helps you become a leader. These little aspects make up the kind of leadership that people truly appreciate.”

This recognition also translates to social networks, where Pais is highly active, especially on  LinkedIn. “Here, lots of people have asked me for advice on how to get a job, how to manage their careers, where they can continue training. I think it’s really important to take the time to nurture these bonds, whether friendships or work relationships.”

Between anecdotes and reminiscence, he also admits that he was lucky to work with great leaders, especially Leonardo Ionfrida, the Pipeline Advisor at the Techint Group. “Leo was one of my great teachers and we’re still very much in contact. For me, it was inevitable that, after meeting a strong figure with such a marked leadership style, I would wonder how I could become a leader as good as him. And the answer lies in motivation, which is something that varies from one person to another. I found this motivation in myself, when I thought about how I could help people train and learn to do their job well.”

He also highlights the importance of the relationships he has with his work team. “A concept that I learned thanks to a former Head of Services, Miguel Cavicchia, who is like a brother to me, is that in projects like these, your colleagues are your family, and they are your emotional support when you need it most.”

 

Safety, a byword for lifestyle

If there is a word that defines Juan Carlos Pais, it’s safety. He emphasizes that it is a philosophical value that underpins every aspect of camp life and workshop activity at Techint E&C’s projects. For him, it’s not simply a priority, but a core principle guiding every action and decision.

According to this approach, everyone must commit to creating an environment where each person can return home safe and sound at the end of the day. This translates into the implementation of rigorous safety policies and procedures, ongoing training, and a culture of shared responsibility. This overarching dedication to safety is not only an ethical obligation, but also an essential component for the sustainable success of the projects and the well-being of the community where Techint E&C operates.

Juanca is aware that clear and frank communication is essential to modify or consolidate people’s attitudes to prevention. “A healthy work culture enables you to consolidate the principles of safety, prevention, risk analysis, procedures, etc. When working on a project, you have to be clear and concise when communicating.”

In this sense, Pais fervently emphasizes that the safety is far more than an industrial ideology: “Every initiative must be based on a concept of discipline. To do this, you need to identify three instances: first, train personnel and give them all the elements they need to do their job properly. Second, perform constant monitoring. And third, if unsafe attitudes continue to be repeated, it’s imperative to go back to the start and rethink the activities.”

Added to this challenge is that, at Techint E&C, the projects only last a few months or years, which is why “staff turnover is high and our insistence on safety, more important than ever. We have to make this an intrinsic part of our industrial culture, a lifestyle value, even if this is only for a short time.”

We take another pause. Work at the GPNK never stops and neither does his head. Juanca's office has a “turnstile door” where people are continually dropping in to ask him questions, briefly discuss a topic, or simply stop by to say hello. He dedicates a brief, but intense, moment of his time to them, with the same patience and emphasis he employed to describe these leadership concepts to us.

 

A rising trajectory

Looking to the future, Pais is adamant that, “I deeply believe in the value of young professionals. Many of our current leaders started out on the Young Professionals Program. I believe that each of us must contribute from our position to encourage growth in each one. We’re working together with the Human Resources team to organize a series of talks about the experiences of being on this Program. I suggest to young people that, whenever they have the opportunity, they should visit the projects so that they can see the entire process first hand.”

Before we leave, Pais makes a point of expressing his gratitude for a fundamental aspect of his professional development.

“Actually, everything I’ve achieved has been thanks to the support of my family. My children have always understood that the sacrifices that I made were for everyone’s benefit. And, of course, my wife has always been by my side. I believe that her support has been essential for me to be able to do my work properly.”

“I want to take this opportunity to thank the great mentors I have had throughout my career and for having been fortunate enough to earn the affection and respect of my people. I don’t think there are any pending items left on my to do list!” he concludes with satisfaction.

Without saying another word, he sets out on his way to the world of containers, his hair fluttering in the breeze, his silhouette gradually losing itself in the labyrinthine Tetris formation in the middle of the Patagonian desert.

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