Toyota’s Strength

Last week’s Economist carried a lengthy briefing on the troubles of Toyota, one of which is identified as a drop in quality and reliability as they pursued headlong growth at all costs.  Apparently, several polls and reviews in the US and elsewhere have placed other cars ahead of Toyota in several areas, one being where they were allegedly always king: reliability.

Me, I’m not so sure.  Without a doubt Toyotas are reliable enough, probably more so than most other cars and certainly no worse than any, but I don’t think that tells the whole story about where their reputation comes from.  I once owned a 1974 lightweight Land Rover, half of which I rebuilt myself using basic tools, a Haynes manual, and the back of the thing as a workshop as it lay parked on the street in Manchester.  Land Rover had, and for the older models still has, a reputation for being reliable.  This may come as somewhat of a surprise to anyone who has actually owned one, because the damned things leak oil from brand new (I’m talking about Series III and earlier here, I don’t know if the newer ones were plagued with the same issues) because of daft designs and the use of paper gaskets between roughly machined surfaces, and bits were corroding, coming loose, and falling off all over the place.  It took an entire tube of instant gasket to stop the oil leaking from beneath the distributor mount (the distributor runs off the oil pump).  The brake cylinders on one side had seized completely.  The synchromesh was shot through and the gear teeth so worn it kept leaping out of 1st and 2nd gear.  Everything was corroding from the chassis to the thermostat housing to the aluminium panels at the point where they were cleverly held in place with a steel bolt.  The door seals were non-existent, so you drove it in wellies and ignored the big pools of water on the floor (this was not a problem on the passenger side where the huge hole in the footwell served as a handy drain).  The windscreen wipers worked if you fiddled with the earthing wire a little bit.  Land Rover enthusiasts are well aware of the enormous shortcomings of the early Land Rover design, and they all add the fun of driving one.  In fact, stuff ceasing to work as you’re rattling along the road is the fun of driving an old Land Rover!

Where was I?  That’s right.  The reputation Land Rover had for reliability came not from their infrequency of breaking down but the fact that any problem you encounter can be fixed on the spot with a very basic toolkit and some gaffer tape.  All you need is a few ring spanners, a decent hammer, some WD-40, and a monster 12″ screwdriver and you can be on your way again no matter what happened.  Oh, and don’t forget a couple of adjustable spanners.  For some unknown reason, 49% of Land Rover threads are metric, 49% Imperial, and the remainder being some completely unknown type with a hexagonal head no socket will fit and you wonder who the hell owned it before you and botched the job in such a manner.  Or maybe it came like this from the factory?  It took me to a very small, old fashioned engineering supply shop near Salford where a lady caked in layers of grease rummaged through boxes of random fittings to find the pinch bolt on the main gear selection rod; the local Land Rover supply shop were themselves at an utter loss.  So reliability in the sense of a Land Rover is a case of reliability in completing your journey, not in not breaking down at all.

Now Toyotas are not as easy to fix as an old Land Rover should something go wrong, but they do have a similar advantage.  Consider that when I lived in Dubai and was as close as I’ll ever get to a wide-boy phase I bought an 8-year old Mercedes CLK 320.  It looked lovely, nice long bonnet, leather seats, 3.2l flat six engine which although not great off the mark could get you from 70-100mph in a few seconds with remarkable ease, and drove beautifully.  Unfortunately, it gave me as much of a headache as my Land Rover.  Firstly, stuff started going wrong which should not have gone wrong in a German car.  Small stuff.  The back windscreen sunshield motor failed.  The air conditioning pump seized.  One of the electric ventilation flaps jammed, meaning cold air couldn’t blow through the central vents.  Then one of the coolant pipes burst and left me somewhere in Furjeirah having to come back to Dubai in the cab of a breakdown truck, which was very uncool.  So I took it in for a service.

And there the fun began.  Every garage told me the same thing: they could only do half of the work, because they can’t work on Mercedes and don’t have the parts.  Better take it to the main dealer.  The first thing the main dealer did was remove my arm and leg for the privilege of talking to him.  Then he charged me a small fortune to look at the car and tell me what was wrong with it.  Everything, it seemed.  Engine mounts, bushes, clips, all these tiny items which added up to a list as long as an arm which would have been bad enough in itself, but there was more to come.  Half the items on the list “were not in stock and we need to order them from Germany”.  Yes, Mercedes main dealer in Dubai, which probably enjoyed greater revenue than any other Mercedes dealer anywhere, had to order stuff from Germany to fix things which a routine service has highlighted.  Jesus wept.  I did, especially when I got the bill.

Contrast this with the experience of a Toyota owner in Dubai.  He has a problem.  He goes to any garage he likes, and a Romanian, Indian, or Armenian will tell him he’ll have a look, call him back the next day to say he needs x, y, and z which are all on the shelf behind him and he can fit the lot that afternoon.  No main dealer.  No specialist tools.  No hidden maintenance procedures.  No flying parts halfway round the world.  If you have a Toyota and something goes wrong, wherever you are in the world if there is a garage then they will be able to fix a Toyota and the parts will either be in stock or very close by.  And it is this as much as anything else from which Toyota’s reputation for reliability derives: it might break down, but you can get it back on the road quickly and cheaply.  Unless and until Toyota’s German and other competitors realise this, Toyota’s crown is not going to slip very far.

Needless to say, I have driven nothing but Toyotas since I arrived in Sakhalin.  What I drive now is a Surf, basically a car on a Hilux chassis, and it is the most popular 4×4 on the island (a place where few get accused of driving vehicles with unnecessary off-road capabilities).  Any problem, and it’s into the nearest garage where whoever comes out of the gloom and smoke takes one look and knows immediately what he’s dealing with.  This is Toyota’s real strength.

To Phuket, and beyond?

I expect some of you are wondering where I am, or indeed if I am still alive.  So first things first.  I am alive and well, and currently in Phuket, Thailand.  The resort town of Patong, to be exact.  I am here having taken the position of Project Manager on a $15bn development of the vast oil and gas reserves off the coast of Phuket.  Actually, I made the last bit up: I’m here on holiday.

My wife has been here for the past three months, we having reached a decision in August that she would go to Phuket to scope it out as a possible place to buy an apartment and use it as a base whilst I continue with a career gallivanting around daft locations in the oil and gas business.  I’d not been to Phuket before but had taken the opportunity to garner the opinions of the half of Sakhalin’s oil and gas workers who own property in and base themselves out of South East Asia. I discounted Malaysia and Indonesia on the grounds that they are Muslim countries, and frankly I had enough forced compliance with religious practices, internet censorship, and hypocritical moral codes of conduct when I was in the Middle East.  Besides, chicken sausages and turkey bacon is a poor substitute for the meat products of a well fed pig.  Bali could have been the exception, but my wife went there and found it packed full of Australian teenagers off their faces on drugs and everyone trying way too hard to be the coolest kid in school, and from her report it sounded like the Australian version of Magaluf.  No thanks.  I considered the Philippines, but only really knew Boracay which although a cracking place for a holiday is too small and underdeveloped to live on.  My first choice would have been Singapore, which I love despite the justified criticism that it is too sterile and organised (after 3 years in Sakhalin, bring it on!), but having checked my bank balance and found myself not to be a millionaire it was beyond my financial means. Vietnam I judged to be too underdeveloped, and besides, I need to get a visa every time I go there;  Cambodia and Laos were never a consideration despite the positive feedback from Gary Glitter, so Thailand was the country we went with.

Chang Mai in the north is a popular destination, mainly because it is cheap and nice, but it is nowhere near the sea and I wanted to be close to a beach.  Bangkok had certain appeal, mainly the abundance of good property, services, and job prospects for Yulia, but we didn’t want to be in a city all that much and again there is no decent beach nearby.  Pattaya (or nearby Jomtien) is hugely popular with expats and I’ve been there before, but in all honesty, although fun for a week or so, the place is a dump – think Blackpool in the tropics – and it seems to be a magnet for those on a sex holiday, a demand which is met by an abundant and obvious supply.  So we settled on Phuket which Yulia knew quite well having been there twice before, and came with the advantage of superb beaches, a reasonable level of development (Patong itself has a cinema and Carrefour, to name just two things, in a large centrally located shopping mall), and an international airport to which you can fly direct from Seoul, KL, Singapore, and a whole load of other places.  The drawbacks are that it is much more expensive than most of Thailand (although still miles cheaper than anywhere in the west) and the fact that it did get clobbered by the tsunami a few years back.  On balance, we decided this is the place to be and we are in the process of buying an apartment.

The grand plan is that Yulia will live here, for the intial six months learning Thai language in an extensive course which handily comes with an education visa eliminating the need for monthly visa runs.  After that, she’ll get a job either in real estate or hospitality where Russian speakers are in demand, the financial crisis seemingly only slowing and not stopping the stream of Russians turning up in various sunny resorts looking to offload cash.  I will stay in Sakhalin and possibly start rotating (i.e. 7 weeks on/3 weeks off) sometime  next year, and take my holidays in Phuket.

So what of Sakhalin and our life there?  Well, and this is related to Yulia’s move to Phuket, the place has changed.  When we arrived it was slap in the middle of the construction phase of two of the biggest and most complex oil and gas projects ever attempted, coming in at a total cost of over $30bn for the both of them.  The place was utter chaos, thousands upon thousands of foreigners of over 30 nationalities tripping over each other and the ever-changing Russian laws in their attempt to get the facilities built and the oil and gas flowing.  Money was flowing fast and free, established procedures as yet unwritten, and managers charged only with getting the job done come hell or high water.  And somehow we all got it done: oil and gas has been flowing from both projects for almost a year now, with few hiccups.  Sakhalin has transitioned from the chaotic construction phase to the more organised, orderly production and operations phase.  Gone are the amusing stories of 3km of 36″ pipeline “going missing” from a laydown area; expensive intelligent pigs smashing into a blind flange somebody has inadvertently left in a pipeline; people charging about in panic as a flare shoots up to 60ft in a tremendous roar because another part of the project blew down a section of pipeline without bothering to tell the chaps at the other end; a huge firewater tank being installed by a contractor who somewhat  implausibly thought nobody would notice the enormous dent in the side; construction contractors disappearing in the night (along with their advance payments) never to be seen again; tons upon tons of gravel and sand “going missing” on its way from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk by train to the northern sites; designs being amended even as construction nears completion; tales of drunkeness and womanising amongst the workforce; and a feeling that you’ve entered an Alice in Wonderland world and none of it is quite real.

Which of course it wasn’t, and financial and operational reality had to arrive eventually, and after a few false alarms through 2007 and 2008, in spring 2009 it did.  With construction finished there was no need for thousands of men who could get a job done under ridiculous circumstances, because those circumstances were no longer the case.  It was no longer necessary to pay $1,000 per day and upwards to mercenary contractors, because their skills and numbers were not required any more.  Production and operations requires thoughtful, risk-averse, and somewhat plodding characters in stark contrast to the “lead me, follow me, or get out of my way” attitude which is essential for a complex construction job.  (Incidentally, for those in the know, I’m quoting Patton here not David Greer.  Silly though his email was for quoting Patton without attribution, the applicability of the words was sound enough.)  Making snap decisions on limited information, essentially judgement calls, are demanded of a construction manager; a manager in operations must first discuss at length and achieve a concensus before proceeding.

Of course, none of this is new to those who have been kicking around in the oil and gas business for years, but for me it is a distinction I have only recently come to appreciate.  And perhaps unsurprisingly for somebody whose hobby is spouting off on a public website, I have realised that I am far more suited to, and far more useful in, a greenfield construction environment than in operations and maintenance.  I suppose it all comes down to character, but whereas certain personal attributes served me well in unorthodox, challenging situations (e.g. plonked on a Russian ship at very short notice and expected to figure out a way of keeping semi-suicidal Russians alive whilst making sure  an ROV could be retrieved from beneath an ice sheet), they tend to get me into trouble in the more conventional areas of the industry.  Versatile and reliable I most certainly am, able to play a smart diplomatic game and keep my mouth shut I am not.  Incidentally, the bollockings I get in adult life are identical to the ones I got in school from the age of 5.  I can’t see that much is going to change, can you?

So as the construction teams left the island in 2008-09, so too did the wonderful array of characters that accompanied them, and a lot of my friends were amongst them.  To somebody who came here in the middle of the construction boom, Sakhalin is a shadow of its former self.  It’s not necessarily worse, but it is different in a way which I don’t prefer.  I have perhaps 6 or 7 good friends left here, most of whom will likely be leaving in 2010.  The project I am currently involved in is a good one, and I have a position which is as much as I could have hoped for under any circumstances, but over 3 years on Sakhalin and the changes that have gone on has made me tired, both physically and emotionally (which, incidentally, is the reason for the lack of blogging).  I have potentially another 1-2 years work on this project, but it is open to question how long I can stay without either going a bit bananas or getting myself sacked.  With a bit of luck, the regular holidays in Phuket will make things a lot easier and I can carry on until the project’s completion (or at least until they don’t need me any more and it’s a good point to hand over and back out with smiles all round).  My experience on Sakhalin, that I speak quite a bit of Russian these days, and my being resident on the island all mean I still have quite a bit to offer the project but I have made it clear to everybody that this will be my last job in Sakhalin.  To stay any longer would be a big mistake.

Hence the apartment in Phuket.  Even supposing I find myself jobless next year, sitting about applying for jobs in our own apartment in Phuket is something which can be done remarkably cheaply, thus taking away any pressure to find another position quickly.  The longer term plan is to get on board one of the huge Australian construction projects which are just kicking off, and are generating fears of enormous skills shortages as oil companies realise that playing good cricket and rugby and having barbecues a lot doesn’t translate into enhanced capabilities of project delivery.  Whether I take a rotational job in one of the remote sites or a residential position in an Australian city I don’t know, but even if we decide on the latter – assuming such an offer is made – another advantage of Phuket is that it is very popular and hence apartments easy to rent out both long or short term.

I’ll keep you informed.  Meanwhile, there is a deckchair on Patong beach which I intend to go and lie on.