Fresh wind in the sails

January 5, 2022

Osbit has been a recognised player in the offshore wind sector for a good number of years, but its presence was catalysed late in 2021 when it became a founding member of the Venterra Group. With bosses of the latter promising significant investment to spearhead the global energy transition towards a greener future, Osbit stands ready to take great steps forward. Here, Steven Hugill speaks to joint managing directors Robbie Blakeman and Brendon Hayward about the business’ history, its place in the shifting energy landscape and why it will always be that little bit different.

What’s in a name?

Well, in the case of Northumberland offshore engineer Osbit, a great deal actually.

For the title is an acronym of its overarching mission statement: ‘On Spec, Budget and In Time’.

And those operational commitments stand as prominent as the pillars that guard the entrance to the firm’s grand Broomhaugh House headquarters, in Riding Mill.

Surrounded by rolling countryside and close to the passing waters of the River Tyne, its base presents a somewhat quintessentially British idyll.

Inside, the picture is no less serene, with drop lighting from high ceilings and elaborate coving and corbels complemented by the rich reds, blues and greens of a large stained-glass window that dominates the main wall of a turning staircase.

It’s a scene that, at first glance, belies the much harsher terrain of the offshore energy sector in which it operates.

But then Osbit – which designs and builds a range of systems for projects across the UK and beyond, from equipment that supports the installation of wind turbine foundations and the rolling out of subsea trenching and cable laying, to safety access apparatus and mammoth structures used to ensure former oil and gas well sites remain safe – does things a little differently.

Take its senior management team.

Where many companies have a figurehead, Osbit has two, with experienced engineers – and joint managing directors – Robbie Blakeman and Brendon Hayward overseeing its progress.

Both have been with the business for more than a decade and both are seasoned in their craft.

Prior to joining Osbit in 2011, Robbie led projects at IHC EB, with Brendon doing similarly at SMD and Pearson Engineering, before switching to Pipecoil Limited as engineering director.

And while pooling their resources, they also split their knowledge and experience for the business’ benefit, with Robbie taking more of a focus on the technology and engineering side, and Brendon using his insight to drive the culture and people side of the firm.

And it works.

Brendon says: “We’ve worked together pretty much across Osbit’s entire history, and our relationship comes from the values, culture and trust we’ve built up – what we have can’t be fabricated.

“We are a very high energy business and having someone to bounce off like Robbie is fantastic.

“We’ve always had a very flat company structure and neither of us have an ego; we have shared values and ambitions, and in that leadership role, having two of us keeps the energy high and the focus on doing what’s best for the business.”

A defined difference is evident too across operations, which include a manufacturing base at the Port of Blyth.

Rather than applying homogenous methods in the marketplace, Osbit – founded by the recently-retired Dr Tony Trapp – works with clients to tailor individual systems that meet projects’ ever-changing requirements.

“When we started, instead of trying to find a product and push it out, we took a different approach,” says Robbie.

“It meant we quickly started solving customers’ problems and it soon became our USP; it also nicely summed up the ‘On Spec, Budget and In Time’ phrase coined by Tony.

“All of our access systems are different; all of our trenching and cable laying systems are different.

“And, rather than product lines, we call them modular technology.”

He adds: “If a customer wants an access system, for example, it can come to us, and we can provide one to its exact specifications in the same lead time a competitor could provide a completely fixed product that can’t be tailored.

“Everything we deliver is on time because we are constantly testing and checking, and if something proves to be a challenge, we use our lightness and agility to re-jig our schedule and adapt.”

Brendon continues: “We use the phrase appropriate engineering.

“But that doesn’t just cover the technical side, it takes in the culture, the systems and the processes we employ too.

“Another big difference is our team ambition.

“Nobody is afraid of change, and we are always rethinking what the appropriate solution is, both externally and internally, and evolving how we need to operate.”

He adds: “The business model is simple, and we are entirely project focused.

“We have a project team, some of which goes out and sits with the supply chain, and some of which remains in the office.

“It’s all about ownership and empowerment of the team, and that flows out to the supply chain.

“They can see what a difference they are making, and that translates through to what we’re doing, which is seeking to enable the energy transition.”

Amid the fallout from the recent COP- 26 conference in Glasgow, Brendon’s last point is particularly topical.

It is also particularly apt, given the business’ own shift from predominantly offshore oil and gas work to the renewables sphere having, over the years, taken technology developed in the former, or indeed various marine applications, and applied it to greener means of power.

A pertinent example is ongoing work with partners that include Port Clarence- based Wilton Universal Group, on a 42-metre-high tower system for oil and gas well intervention work.

It may not be directly renewables-focused, say Robbie and Brendon, but it will nevertheless play a crucial component in the energy transition, since it will work on sites that are winding down – or have very recently ended operations – to provide maintenance and safety, rather than driving long-term fossil fuel extraction.

And, in the future, they say the technology will be rolled out to deliver wide-scale well decommissioning, thus reducing further the reliance on oil and gas.

“The amount of commitment to
offshore wind right now from multiple countries around the world shows it is happening,” says Robbie.

“There was a phrase used recently that said this is the largest infrastructure commitment for at least a generation and, if you zoom in a little from the wider energy transition, you can see wind power is going to be a major part of the mix.

“But to do wind at the scale needed, we have to do things better and differently, we have to keep growing and evolving, and that, for us, is our sweet spot.

“As technology shifts, we find solutions and ways of responding better. “Equipment is our thing; we don’t make turbines, we make the kit that puts the turbines in place faster, or does it better, or does it more cost effectively.”

Brendon continues: “The industry has matured and there is a lot more focus now on where energy comes from.

“And in many ways, that means a perfect storm for the North East.

“Certainly, from our point of view, and that of the wider North East supply chain – which has huge capability in the UK market and across the export market too – it is a great time.”

The feel-good factor to which Brendon refers was catalysed by a deal late last year, which he says will “supercharge” Osbit’s progress in the domestic and global offshore wind markets.

The firm is a founding member of the UK-based Venterra Group, which has pledged to drive the world’s energy transition through wind power.

Unveiling plans to spend £250 million to boost the sector by the middle of
this year, Venterra includes a number of industry experts and has a blueprint to make more acquisitions and form further industry partnerships to realise its goals.

For Osbit, it means new impetus, new market opportunities and new employment.

Indeed, Robbie and Brendon reveal the company has already created 15 jobs since the ink dried on the Venterra contract, appointed existing staff to senior roles and begun to lay out a strategy to further strengthen its team across this year and beyond.

“The deal was pretty perfectly timed with everything that’s happening around energy transition,” says Robbie, who adds Osbit recently secured offshore wind contracts in Taiwan and the US.

He continues: “We’ve always been very visible in the market and punched above our weight, and we’ve always been a business that has looked to the future.

“But being part of Venterra Group very much means we can now lift our heads up and say, for example, ‘OK, they want a three-to-five-year success trajectory, and we need to invest to make that happen – that’s fine’.

“The ability to think like that really does remove all barriers to growth; it almost feels a little bit now like, ‘how fast can we run?’

“We’re ambitiously looking at what projects we can win.”

Brendon concurs and reveals Osbit’s partnership will also allow the business to further strengthen an area that has long been an important focus – skills.

With a history of working with universities in Newcastle and Edinburgh to attract fresh talent (the firm was due to welcome another seven students this month for half-year placements) he says its Venterra partnership will provide new momentum in its perpetual quest to source the workers of tomorrow.

It will also deliver scope to extend work across STEM learning to the youngest of students.

Brendon says: “In terms of financial might and capability, the deal has transformed us because of what stands behind us; it’s allowing us to discuss how we need to be investing in people over the next three to five years, as well as the development of technology.

“Our thoughts are now all around the evolution of every part of the business and how we can supercharge it all.

“As Robbie says, we have no limiting factors.

“Prior to the sale, we were bumping right up against growth inhibitors, such as balance sheet bonds, but they’ve all now been removed – and being able to view the world through that different lens is phenomenally exciting for us and the whole team.

“And that excitement is augmented by the developments they can see in offshore wind, which are manifesting every day, meaning the number of opportunities are vast.

“But we must maintain the quality of our business and our people.

“We’ve done that really well by taking on lots of graduates in the past, and we are seeking to do a lot more on STEM with the universities right down to the local junior schools to continue doing so.”

Ultimately, it comes back to Osbit’s USP, and that commitment to making a difference.

Brendon says: “In the offshore wind sector, every farm carries different problems that need solving.”

“And it’s a hugely rewarding process to solve those problems,” adds Robbie.

“And we want people to realise what a creative industry engineering is.

“Unfortunately, we still find ourselves fighting people’s vision of it simply being a mechanic or a technician.

“It isn’t – our office walls are covered by what we call our art; amazing systems and developments that didn’t exist six months previously.

“Yet in that six-month period, they were created on a computer, came into being and were sent out for use in the field.

“That is engineering.”

And, say the duo, inspiring the next generation will be crucial as Osbit – fuelled by its Venterra partnership – bids to take further steps in the domestic and international marketplaces.

It will, they add, also enable the business to retain its identity and its treasured North East roots, as well as the mission statement its name so neatly bounds.

“Our export opportunities are vast, but we cannot do that on our own, and our supply chain partners will remain absolutely key to our future successes,” says Brendon.

Robbie adds: “We’ll have a flexible supply chain that suits what our customers need, but we’ll always be looking for those trusted partners in our region.

“We are very passionate about who we are, and we want to be a global success story that is centred in the North East of England.”

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