Ming the Merciless

King for a Day

Several years ago I found myself stuck in some far-flung oil town over Christmas.  As the holidays approached, one by one the company management flew home and handed over to a skeleton crew who would keep things running in their absence.  Due to no other reason that I was literally the only expat left in the office that particular day, on 28th December I was put in charge of an entire operational department.

I had two issues to deal with that day.  The first concerned a rather agitated local contractor (who somebody had let in the building unescorted, and when I found him he was wandering alone around our conference room), who wanted to discuss some urgent business with me.  The chap’s company was in the business of chartering vessels, and they’d had one chartered to us for the past couple of years but the contract was shortly coming to an end.

He opened the discussion by saying our company management was fully aware of the problem, discussions had been going on for a few weeks, and he was waiting for a favourable response from us.  Not having a clue what he was on about, I asked him to explain.

He said the vessel’s certification ran out on 3rd February, and for its renewal it needed to be taken to South Africa for dry docking.  A vessel cannot sail without certification, and it was a 6 day sail to South Africa, but before it could sail it needed to come into our supply base to unload all the equipment on board which would take a few days.  And he had been urgently trying to get us to commit to taking the vessel off the field and unloading the equipment at our supply base by 25th January.  He had met with the management several times and high-level meetings had been held, but nobody had committed to anything, no decision had been taken, and he was left in the dark.  This did not surprise me in the least, as this adequately described the situation on any issue on any given day in our company.

So I told him to sit tight while I went and got the vessel’s work schedule.  After pulling it off the server, I looked at it and found it was working on location right up until 30th January, after which it would go to the supply base, unload, and be handed back.  I went back to the chap in the conference room and showed him the schedule.

He took a look at it and said “That doesn’t work for us, we need the ship back by 27th January.”

With what I thought was impeccable logic, I asked “Well what does the contract say?”

He knew, which surprised me, but said “The contract says you need to hand the ship back on 3rd February, but that’s no good for us.”

“So” I said, “what you’re looking for here is a favour?”

To which he said in a voice used to giving instructions “We need the ship back on 27th January, so you need to change your schedule because we can’t sail it without its certification and…”

I interrupted him: “The contract lets us keep it until 3rd February.”

What this clown had done was rent a ship from its owner and then charter it out to us.  But his contract with the owner stipulated that he had to return the ship to the dry dock in South Africa, and he’d overlooked this when chartering it to us.  If they didn’t get the vessel back to its owner in time, they faced crippling penalties.  This mistake happened because he was not a genuine oilfield service provider, but the mate of somebody well-connected in the local government who had instructed my employer to use him.  Chalk that up to another triumph of local content legislation.

Situations arise occasionally when one party to a contract has made a potentially costly error and needs a favour from the other party to resolve it.  Without any legal obligation to do so, the party – in this case me – has to take into account such things as behaviour, attitude, and general helpfulness of the other in the execution of the contract works to date.  (This is why it is a very good idea for each party to ensure relations are amicable throughout the contract period, but this never happens.)  So before I made any decision I decided to call one of the guys in the supply base to see what kind of contractor they’d been.  Here’s what he said:

“They’ve been utter pricks.  They’ve been ripping us off on the hire rates right from the beginning, the vessel is unsafe, they don’t comply with anything we ask them to do, they are always complaining, and they treat us like we’re their contractor.  We’d never have used them, but we were instructed to by the government.”

Now these assholes were instructing us to change our schedule to suit them.  I gave him the good news:

“We’re sticking to our schedule, you’ll have the vessel back on 3rd February as per contract.”

The guy gave me a filthy look, and I went back to my office, leaving him sat there.  I assume he went home at some point.  When I got to my office I called one of the general managers, a senior local:

“I had this bloke come to see me today about that vessel that’s coming off charter.  I told him we’re gonna stick to the contract.  S’okay?”

“Yes” he replied, “I don’t know why this discussion has been going on so long.”

I was going to answer that in his entire management team there is neither a clue nor a set of balls, but thought the better of it.  But I was glad to help out.

The second issue I dealt with was a company director calling me up and asking me to send him – urgently – some updated schedule or other detailing minor activities which no director should be concerning himself with.  I sent him the one from the previous week and changed the date, and never heard anything back.

It was fun playing manager.

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One Response to King for a Day

  1. dearieme says:

    I was once put in charge of a university department for a week – a serious outfit with potentially dangerous labs and so forth. Training given: nil. Reason for appointment: better a sensible chap of thirty than a pompous ass of forty. Instructions received: “Try not to do anything irreversible”. Result: sweetness and light, no harm done, and a couple of niggles sorted out.

    I did change my working hours from my customary roll in at ten, leave at seven, return at eight, leave at ten. I rolled in about half eight and left at the back of six. Rank hath its privileges, eh?