Juan Stopiello: the man behind the works
For over 38 years, Techint's Chief of General Services was both a teacher for new generations and an expert team builder. In this article, we revisit his time at the company, how his life has changed, and the communities with which he’s interacted over the years.
Despite temperatures at the construction site nudging 40°C, the local caterers had sent over a hot chicken stew for lunch.
As a good head of General Services at Techint E&C, Juan Stopiello is just like an orchestra conductor: he coordinates the teams so that they can set up everything required even in the most inhospitable places imaginable, shifting people from one place to another and solving problems. That includes everything from heavy-duty logistics to apparently small and insignificant details.
Faced with a hot stew in tropical temperatures, Juan did what he does best: he solved it.
"It's too hot to eat stew," he declared. The supplier riposted, “But that’s what people eat around here!”
The next day, a lighter, fresher meal arrived—only to be met by indignation from all quarters, as in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador, the basic midday meal is a chicken, rice and bean stew made with tender or hard grains.
"Quite literally, the workers at the construction site wanted to kill me," Juan recalls. But for him, this was a great apprenticeship. Something that seems as simple as what people have for lunch at the worksite can end up being key when it comes to successful project management. Juan explains that, “the works are built on the backs of the people working on the project and the culture they have in common.”
Originally from the city of San Andres de Giles, in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Juan joined Techint by chance—or perhaps it was destiny that beckoned. On a visit to the south of the country, he saw a poster advertising vacancies which read:
Personnel needed for heavy water plant with knowledge of operating 1 PC 286 XT IBM and basic programming.
He began work on April 18, 1983, first at the Techint warehouses, in Administration and from there made his way to Procurement and then to Services. As he pursued his career, he learned all about the company’s movements, from office removals, and what was necessary for each phase, to transportation.
Over the years, he has worked variously in departments specializing in high voltage power lines, gas, and mining pipelines, and industrial works where he learned from some great people who took the time to help him ‘even out’ his rough edges. “It was a matter of turning to other people and getting some inspiration for one thing from one person, another thing from another, and that's how it goes. That’s what makes you who you are,” he says.
And what Juan received from others, he returned in spades: anyone who knows him is quick to point out how many people he trained and that he excelled at putting together some very good workgroups.
“If you don't keep training young people, you lose track of what skills are required, and what it means to be a professional. You forget how to do things, the “what if” things… Those things you use all day at work and which are so very important,” he summarizes.
In the Andes mountain range, Juan had to work out how to load trucks with twenty-two tons of materials as well as send buses full of workers up steep and narrow winding mountain roads with a precipice drop on one side.
"We had to take these sharp curves around the outcrops, hugging the mountainside with the trucks in order to cross over to another side of the mountain, where there was the valley and the Veladero mine," he recalls.
Juan had already been to places such as the Straits of Magellan, the Punta Negra, and the Los Caracoles dams in San Juan, as well as a dozen of the company's most emblematic projects.
But, despite his myriad travel experiences, those trucks crawling along on the edge of the abyss presented quite a different challenge.
“It was all about trial and error, to see how to get over that mountain. I can honestly say that when we achieved this, the hardest thing I’d ever done in the company, it was a major achievement. We managed to get across and over,” he reminisces.
Once the convoy of trucks had scaled the heights, the biggest problem became how to survive at that altitude. There was the likelihood of freezing from the cold, a possibility that became all too real when they were hit by snowstorms that blocked the roads. For a whole week, the camp of 800 people was cut off from the rest of the world: nothing could go up or down. It was so cold that even the diesel in the electricity generators froze.
But thankfully, Juan had planned for this eventuality: having improvised firewood burners, he was able to ensure that people could keep warm in the shelter of a sufficiently heated camp.
When the road was finally cleared, he led a caravan of approximately 800 people down the mountain together with Carlos Welschen.
Juan has a 30-year-old daughter who is an English translator and a 31-year-old son who is a biologist. He always used to take his children with him to each destination until they finished elementary school. However, when they started high school, he had to leave them in San Andrés de Giles to avoid them constantly changing schools.
“It was a hard blow and I had to get used to it. Because I was doing this for them. Although at one point, I had my doubts about whether I should stay in the company. Then I took the decision to carry on,” he says, a little sadly.
In two years, he’ll be celebrating his 40th anniversary of work at Techint and will be retiring, although he says he is still way too young for this. Despite often having thought about what to do after he does hang up his hat, so far, he hasn’t come to any conclusions.
For the moment, it’s still about finishing a job and having the peace of mind of knowing that the task has been successfully accomplished, and then going for the next challenge. Now he is collaborating in person at Pendare in Colombia, and remotely in Ecuador, where he started work many years ago on two of the company’s largest projects in this country: the construction of the OCP in 2003 and the works currently underway in Auca. His role is principally about training people in the Logistics and Services area where at one point there was a significant need.
With his tact, savviness and professionalism, Juan has built a diverse team with people of diverse nationalities, creeds and conditions, including several from the local Colombian workforce, as local Amazon law requires at least 70% of personnel to be sourced locally. Juan is transmitting his experience, life stories and problem-solving expertise.
He adds that, “When you put together a unified workgroup, people lose their fear and gain confidence. So many times people are afraid to ask, so they make mistakes. If you put together a workgroup with everybody in the right role, from supervisor to foremen and officers, all the way down to grassroots level, you can be sure that the work they do will be safe. Because those working at the site, in the long run, are also your family.”
At one of the first projects he did —the Cordillerano Gas Pipeline, linking Junín de los Andes, San Martín and Bariloche with Cutral Có in Argentina— Pedro Duranti, known for his expertise in assembly, as well as a gifted leader and unconditional friend, confided a management problem in him. He had no idea what to do to get the workers to stop fighting amongst themselves all the time.
Juan suggested he do something very Argentine: an asado, or barbecue. They put out a trestle table, cut the freshly roasted meat and served it on some bread. The workers sat down, shared the food and the moment, socialized and integrated.
"You have to try to break through that barrier so you can bring a working group together," he says.
That success turned into a habit. Today, at all the works where it’s possible, the first thing he does when he arrives is to organize a barbecue.
But what he never did again is try to change people’s eating habits!
In Ecuador he got used to chicken stew, even on the hottest days. “I’d never eaten rice before. But there, there were a few months when I ate nothing but seco de pollo, until I got used to it,” he mentions. “Even when it came to that,” adds Juan, Techint changed his life.