IN one corner of the spacious office on the 16th floor of the SapuraKenchana building near the government offices off Jalan Duta in Kuala Lumpur is a glass topped table supported by what looks like oil derricks on which is clearly embossed a world map.
Shahril Shamsuddin peers down at the map and begins placing models of tender rigs and pipe-laying barges on it. "This one is in Equatorial Guinea, these are in Brazil and that is off Borneo," he says, frequently checking a list for the ship's number against its current location in the world. "This one is off Trinidad and Tobago and this is now in Thai waters."
A picture soon emerges of ships clustered in South-east Asia, Africa, Australia and South America. "As you can see we are pretty much across the globe," Mr Shahril says, straightening up and smiling.
SapuraKenchana, the Malaysian firm that the fit-looking 53-year-old presides over, is just that. More precisely, it is the world's third largest integrated upstream services provider by market capitalisation after France's Technip and Italy's Saipen.
In a country that has mined petroleum since 1976, Mr Shahril's firm has become Malaysia's largest oil and gas company not including Petronas. It's also the 18th largest firm in the country by market capitalisation (RM25.3 billion or S$10 billion) with assets of RM31.5 billion and fairly heroic debt to match (RM15 billion).
It wasn't always like this. "I'd finished my Masters (in industrial engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and came back to join my father. As you know
he was in telecommunications which was getting crowded with too many players then," Mr Shahril recalls.
The businessman's father, Shamsuddin Kadir, had founded Sapura Telecommunications in 1975 and it had grown, adding an information technology and an energy division. "But as you know in 1997 and 1998, not many were doing well. So we switched directions; Malaysia is a resource-rich country. And at the time, there were hardly any local oil and gas service providers. That had to be the way to go."
Slowly the fledgling oil firm got larger. In 2003, the massive Renong conglomerate was being broken up after its nationalisation and some of its units were put up for sale. "We bid for and bought Crest Petroleum, an oil and gas player, and that became Sapura-Crest Petroleum. And it was listed and it was a vendor for Petronas. That purchase had the building blocks for what we eventually became - a global, full-fledged upstream provider," Mr Shahril says.
"Petronas has a fine policy," he continues. "It forces its vendors to adhere to international industry standards, global best practices. And its production-sharing contractors, the oil majors, they have their own standards too. That's the direction we took.
"We cultivated relationships. For example, our relationship with Seadrill (a London-based Norwegian world leader in offshore deepwater drilling) goes back almost 17 years to the extent that it now has an 8 per cent stake in Sapura Kenchana."
The first "gamechanger" that "gave us confidence", Mr Shahril says, came in 2011 when the pre-merger SapuraCrest Petroleum bid for an international job in Brazil, a US$1.4 billion contract involving the charter and operation of three pipe-laying barges.
That was the firm's breakthrough. "I called up my people," the businessman recalls. "And this guy from what we called the Bollywood division - they were all Indians there - was quite doubtful. I asked him to go to Brazil and he did. But when he got back he told me, 'I think it's very difficult, boss; there will be international bidders'.
"I said, 'try anyway', and they went back to build a cost model," Mr Shahril continues. "They went back to Brazil, they got the costs figured out and this time he came back and told me, 'Boss, I think we can pull this one off'. "
SapuraCrest won the bid against international bidders and, US dollar-denominated deal in hand, it added an edge to the firm. In fact it all came together to make Mr Shahril's second "game-changing" deal too attractive to resist.
He was looking to bulk the firm up, to give it a bigger balance sheet for more ambitious forays. It came in the shape of the 2012 merger of SapuraCrest with Kenchana Petroleum, then 32-per-cent controlled by Mokhzani Mahathir, a son of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. The nearly RM12 billion merger created Malaysia's largest oil and gas player, after Petronas.
"It made complete sense," says Mr Shahril. "We had gone overseas and won a big contract and they were strong locally, in offshore drilling facilities and fabrication. We'd been thinking of investing in fabrication as well but a merger would have solved that problem. In any case I've known him (Mr Mokhzani) for years, we were friends, and so it became easier to put together. What was important was that it gave us size and it gave us scale."
The Brazil deal also required SapuraKenchana to team up with another Brazilian firm to construct the three pipe-laying ships and the first was delivered this year three months ahead of schedule. To round it off, SapuraKenchana then won another US$2.7 billion deal in Brazil, this time in a 50:50 venture with its long time partner, Seadrill.
"Brazil has become our single largest market now comprising nearly half our total order book," Mr Shahril says. "Of the rest, another 27 or so per cent is from Malaysia, then Australia and Africa with around 5 per cent each, and the remainder would come from South-east Asia and other countries."
In the last three years, SapuraKenchana's growth has been through acquisitions. In 2012, the firm paid RM2.9 billion for Seadrill's global tender rig business. "It gave us something like half the world's capacity," Mr Shahril notes. "And most of these assets were earning ones. Even now, over 94 per cent is being utilised."
The following year, the firm outbid other international oil firms such as ExxonMobil and Talisman to acquire the Malaysian oil and gas assets of Texas-based Newfield International Holdings for nearly RM3 billion. It immediately gave the company control over eight production sharing contracts and leapfrogged the firm into the exploration and production aspects of the industry.
"We bought eight production sharing contracts and one alliance sharing contract," says Mr Shahril. "Four are producing - about 50,000 barrels per day - while the rest are in various stages of exploration and development."
The expansion has been fuelled by the use of credit. Isn't he concerned about his gearing levels?
"On the surface, I suppose RM15 billion appears big," he concedes. "But that must be placed in the context of a RM30 billion order book. That is the core of our strategy and it explains our appetite; to have a regular income stream, a predictable Ebitda (earnings before income, taxes, depreciation and amortisation). And with that, you can expect a predictable after-tax profit. And let's not forget that we have retained earnings of over RM1.6 billion.
"You must also realise that most of the assets we purchase come with instant revenue streams," the businessman continues. "When we bought those 21 tender rigs, they came with contracts. In any case, our gearing is only around 1.2 times equity. We'll bring that down considerably in three to four years and then I suspect people will start accusing me of having a lazy balance sheet."
Debt notwithstanding, the firm more than doubled its profit for the year to end-January 2014 to RM1.1 billion. But its share price has languished below that potential, hovering around RM4.20 apiece. Mr Shahril seems unperturbed. "Nineteen out of 20 research houses have a buy call on us," he shrugs. "It's the market, what can you say?"
Still, the average "target" price affixed to the firm is between RM5.70 (Credit Suisse) and RM7 (CIMB Bank).
With 17 per cent of SapuraKenchana's equity, Mr Shahril and his younger brother Shahriman are the controlling shareholders of the firm. That makes him worth RM4.3 billion and one of the country's richest men.
How does it feel to be a billionaire?
"You are the one who reminded me just a minute ago that I was also one of the most indebted," he laughs. "But it wasn't something conscious. We started as a team committed to doing things the right way. What you are seeing now is an outcome of that process."
That outcome is a global group that provides end-to-end solutions and services to the upstream petroleum industry - anything from the installation of offshore pipelines to undersea drilling; from hook-up and commissioning to project management. "We can do most things that the big boys can," he says. "Our competence and depth of ability are underestimated. And we are pretty much internationalised. We have 21 nationalities among our 12,600 employees."
The entrepreneur doesn't do anything by halves. "If you want to make money in this business, you have to own the asset," he says. "That's why we did not want to bid for (US oil firm) Murphy's Malaysian assets when they opened it up. They didn't want to sell outright. They just wanted passive investors. That's not my style. If you don't own the whole value chain, there's no point, you don't have the speed to execute the contract."
He doesn't rule out more acquisitions. "We will consider Petronas' assets in Vietnam which it had said it was thinking of divesting." But, he adds: "We don't know what's up for grabs. What I mean is, we don't rule out anything. It's a big world out there."
For the last five years, Malaysia has been riding an oil and gas boom fuelled by enormous capital expenditure by Petronas. Does he think this will last?
Mr Shahril considers this carefully. "You know when I first got into this business, they said that Malaysia's oil reserves would last for another 15 years," he replies. "Now, 17 years later, it's like we've got another 18 years of oil left. Who knows, but so far so good?"
Despite being a vice-chairman of the group, Mr Mokhzani has no executive powers. And with 73 per cent of the firm's income coming from outside Malaysia, hardly anyone would accuse SapuraKenchana of being a "crony company" these days.
Yet it seems to bother Mr Shahril slightly. "You know, we got over US$4 billion worth of work in Brazil but you didn't hear any Brazilian firms complaining," he muses. "Here we get a RM200 million contract and people start talking. Still, I'm not complaining. As an entrepreneur I know that the lay of the land is the lay of the land. Don't try and change what you can't. If you can't get work here, you have to go overseas. And we've done that. You have to be nimble enough to move your assets right to where the work is. There will be ups and downs, but so long as you keep your eye on the ball, manage the risks, you will prevail. That's the bottom line."
Does he have any regrets? "Well, I suppose I would have liked to have had more time with my children, to have spent more time with my family," says Mr Shahril, who has three sons and three daughters, and whose pursuits include cycling, golf, diving and skiing. "Time goes by so fast and I am a grandfather now. Can you believe that?"