Few expatriates have left as deep a mark on the development of our Exploration and Procuction (E&P) sector in such a short period as my Hungarian friend Dr Gabor Vakarcs, who passed away in Budapest on 5 April 2023.
Gabor, Gaabi to many of his Hungarian colleagues, served as the Chief executive of MOL Pakistan, the operator of the most prolific producer of hydrocarbons in Pakistan i.e. Tal Block, from 2002 till 2006. I had the honour to serve under him during most of this period i.e. from July 2003 onward. When he took charge, the company had drilled only one gas well at Manzalai and it was seriously deliberating the option to divest and quit the country. However, he was soon not only able to convert the embryo into a pivotal energy asset of Pakistan, and even convince his senior management for MOL to continue operating in Pakistan.
A PhD in Sequence Stratigraphy from Rice University, he was excellence personified in his core expertise i.e. Geoscience. Tal Block may never have realised its true potential if Gabor would not have, been there at that stage and identified the opportunities and prospects it was laden with.
I still remember his lectures and presentations on his vision about the appraisal and development of Tal Block, which all the attendees in the Joint Venture meetings used to listen with rapt attention. However, in addition to being a geoscientist, he had immense capacity to take a holistic view of complex situations, remain calm under crisis and even keep his keen sense of humour intact, swiftly analyse information, draw inferences and reach to decisions, build up high performance teams and lead from the front.
If professionals like Gabor had been driving such boards, Pakistan would definitely have, by now, achieved self-sufficiency in energy; thereby, saving around 25 billion USD annually
Above everything, he was a kind human being and a considerate boss. I still remember my first day under his leadership, when he himself came to my office to check whether my chair was comfortable enough and then similarly went to check the car the company had arranged for me. As to his capacity to quickly comprehend complex ideas; I remember showing to him a very sketchy proposal for the development of a new oil and gas discovery. He comprehended the entire concept immediately, i.e. despite its rawness, got it approved in a day and proceeded with its implementation. We achieved many feats under his phenomenal leadership including the establishment of the first gas plant (capacity: 50 MMSCFD) of Tal Block, at a price of 11.7 million USD, at Gurguri – in merely 10 months from the award in April 2004 till commencement of sales on 29th January 2005 along with the construction of the associated 78-km-long gas transmission line in parallel.
As to his challenges; the 9/11 incidents and the subsequent US attack on Afghanistan had resulted into a spate of terrorism in Pakistan and especially in KP. Tal block, located in Kohat division not far away from Waziristan, was exposed to all the associated threats. Despite these, all the work program objectives were always met in the shortest possible time while following an effective community engagement strategy.
The other pivotal challenge was the configuration of the Tal joint venture with MOL, as the operator, having a working interest of only 8.5%, with the rest distributed among three large public sector enterprises (PSEs) and one large private group. Thus, MOL since its inception had per se no voting rights, while all the others had blocking votes. However, the apparent handicap only made him and his team to work harder and MOL under Gabor’s leadership within a short period successfully established its position as the leader of the venture by adopting a policy of candid communication and inclusivity. The professionalism and excellent peoples’ skills of Gabor served as the main catalyst in achieving that.
In August 2006, he was transferred to another station. After serving in various capacities in other countries, he came back to Pakistan in June 2018 as CEO of MOL Pakistan, which had now grown into a much larger venture contributing respectively around 25% oil, 22% LPG and 8% natural gas of the aggregate indigenous production. After successfully serving here till 2021 in this second stint, he took early retirement from MOL and left Pakistan to pursue his passion of teaching by assuming a few visiting faculty positions in Hungarian universities.
If we juxtapose the fast-track development of Tal Block, despite its multiple challenges, with our other exploration blocks and especially those operated by PSEs, we find MOL miles ahead. Particularly, not only lagging more and more in reserves’ replacement, the PSEs appear majorly struggling with respect to the development of some blocks even after the passage of extended periods of time and incurring tangibly higher development costs. I am aware of a case, in this category, where around 1 billion USD has already been spent over the development of a block over the past more than a decade and it is still producing hardly at 35% of its proven capacity.
The primary reason for the PSEs’ poor performance is their boards: badly stricken with poverty of required professional acumen and consequentially, generally, weak and subservient managements. On the other hand, it is only because of their professionalism that companies like MOL created success stories like Tal Block, thousands of miles away from their base countries; whereas all of our relevant PSEs’ overseas’ ventures, like their attempts at diversification, have so far invariably failed due to the above identified affliction.
The most alarming part in this regard is the fact that we are refusing to learn any lessons from the repeated failures and thus correct our path. If professionals like Gabor had been driving such boards, Pakistan would definitely have, by now, achieved self-sufficiency in energy; thereby, saving around 25 billion USD annually.
Any other nation would have rewarded a benefactor like him with medals and awards, while naming a few roads and buildings with his name and introducing courses on his performance and leadership model in business schools.
But how many in Pakistan have even any rudimentary idea of his services for our country?
It is high time that we learn to duly recognise sincere friends of the country like Dr Gabor at the state level. In addition, we should also request those amongst them who are still available to assist us for the development of our energy sector. If such measures are not taken on priority, then all signs are there that the E&P sector would surely die a premature death in Pakistan in the next few years.