Symbion is an international power developer that takes a unique approach to delivering electrical infrastructure projects. With a deep commitment to empowering local communities, the company takes great pride in possessing the knowledge and operational know-how to succeed in some of the world’s most challenging construction environments.
Founded in 2005 by Paul Hinks and Lord Richard Westbury, Symbion’s first project was in Iraq. Hinks had been working in the region for two years as a consultant when he observed that many American corporations were leaving the country due to the security risks associated with the conflict there. “Many large American companies were hightailing it out of the region due to escalating security issues, making business extremely problematic,” explains Hinks.
During his time as a consultant, Hinks had successfully completed six large transmission contracts in Iraq. He had developed ‘a formula’ for working under such difficult security conditions. “When the big companies started leaving I saw a gap in the market so I established a business that combined engineering and security,” he says. The business was built on a foundation of partnership and cooperation and sought to conduct business by working with and improving the lives of local communities. Even its name – a derivative of the word symbiosis – reflects the basis of the relationship it strives to develop with suppliers, local partners and subcontractors.
A winning formula
Despite the volatile situation in Iraq, Symbion began bidding for contracts in some of the areas most affected by the conflict. As a company, Symbion’s aim was to build electricity infrastructure that was so desperately needed by working with the government, businesses and people on the ground. “All of a sudden we found ourselves in a fairly significant position in Iraq. We had been contracted to build some of the most difficult projects that had been left behind by other major companies,” Hinks explains.
One of the projects taken on by Symbion was a 400-kilovolt transmission line that ran from Baiji to Haditha and then to the Syrian border, through Al Anbar Province, which today is occupied by the Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS. In order to successfully complete the work, Hinks partnered with local businesses and made agreements with Sheiks. “They supplied us with the resources we needed to complete the project including the labour, materials and equipment,” says Hinks. “We trained local recruits at a purpose-built engineering school, which was very positively received. This helped us form a bond with the community and it enabled the successful completion of the project.”
Symbion worked in Iraq from 2005 to 2010 where it executed nine large-scale power contracts. “Our work in Iraq truly formed a foundation for our entire business,” says Hinks. “During that time, we were the only American company working in Al Anbar province and in Sadr City, Baghdad and as such we built a strong relationship with our client, the US government.”
A steep learning curve
Due to the success of the business in Iraq, the company expanded its operations to Afghanistan. Symbion was the winner of three contracts in the region, one of which was as a sub-contractor for a major American construction joint venture. Aiming to replicate the success of its operation in Iraq, Hinks and Symbion formed a professional partnership with the highly regarded Idaho-based Northwest Lineman College to offer a comprehensive training program to its local Afghan employees.
The experience in Afghanistan was a very steep learning curve for Hinks. Despite the resounding success of the Northwest Lineman College partnership, Symbion faced extraordinary challenges associated with working as a fixed-price subcontractor to a large American JV, which had a cost plus contract with the U.S. government. While Symbion exceeded all expectations in managing a major power construction project in one of the world’s most hostile and corrupt environments -- on Transparency International’s World Corruption Index of 174 countries, Afghanistan shares last place with North Korea and Somalia as the most corrupt -- the company faced obstacles that would have destroyed many businesses. But with the support of its majority owners, it came out the other side stronger and wiser. “Of course, like any organization we have to make money, but we also want to do good. We achieved this in Iraq and proved at the same time we could build critical infrastructure in very difficult circumstances. In Afghanistan, I saw first-hand what can happen when bringing employment, skills and new capacities to less developed countries is made impossible by a business environment where the dominating objective is maximizing profits, and I pledged never to work under such circumstances again,” says Hinks.
A new chapter
Armed with this knowledge and experience, Hinks decided to move the company forward in a positive way and by focusing this time on Africa. In 2009, Symbion bid for a project for the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) - a sister organisation to USAID - and they were awarded two large contracts in Tanzania to build 2,000 kilometers of distribution lines and 26 transmission and distribution substations
Once again community outreach was top of the agenda at Symbion. “In Iraq and Afghanistan we distributed toys and clothes, including soccer kits for the kids, to local communities and we had a great relationship with the indigenous population. We decided to mirror this approach in Tanzania,” says Hinks. The company developed its own training school in the region, once again working with Northwest Lineman College. “We selected three Tanzanians who had some basic line training, to travel to Idaho and receive training that enabled them to teach to U.S. standards. They learned about management and how to be trainers, while they translated training manuals and presentations into Swahili. They worked alongside the U.S. training staff of Northwest Lineman College.”
It was while working in Tanzania that Hinks decided he wanted to diversify the business. “Instead of being a contractor that gets paid to build electricity infrastructure, I wanted to develop, design, build and operate it and then sell the electricity we generate and transmit it to the government and in turn to the people,” Hinks says.
In East Africa there is a huge reliance on hydropower, but climate change has driven down rainfall levels. Lower rainfall resulted in power outages across the region, often for up to 18 hours per day. “This has a profound impact on economies, and of course on the living quality of the people,” says Hinks. “ In Tanzania there was a power plant in good condition that was the subject of a dispute. It wasn’t operating and yet people all over the country were suffering. I was determined to take over it and help solve Tanzania’s power problems.”
Looking to the future
In May 2011, Symbion bought the disputed power plant and entered the world of independent power production. Within six months, Symbion owned and operated three power plants in Tanzania, generating 217 megawatts. Hinks chalks that period up as one of his greatest accomplishments.
Building on its success in Tanzania, Symbion started to expand across the continent. In 2013, alongside the Nigerian firm Transcorp and other partners, Symbion participated in an international bidding process to acquire a power plant as part of the Nigerian privatization of the electricity sector. “We bid, we won, and we took the title of being the only U.S. firm to participate in the privatization, and then as part of a consortium, to operate a power plant in Nigeria. When we took the plant operations over it was generating just 160-megawatts; today it is producing 600-megawatts and by the end of the year capacity is expected to reach almost 1,000 megawatts,” says Hinks.
And Symbion shows no sign of slowing down; it was recently awarded a contract in Rwanda to produce electricity from methane gas found at the bottom of Lake Kivu. The company has also taken on a large project in southern Tanzania to build a transmission line and a 600MW power plant to harness huge gas reserves discovered in the region. “The Mtwara project will take gas from the gas fields, convert them into electricity and then dispatch the electricity into the national grid. Once it is completed, the project will supply the entire south of Tanzania and possibly its neighbors with electricity. It is a huge project with an investment value of $1.3 billion U.S. dollars. The largest investment ever by a U.S. company in Tanzania.
Symbion’s portfolio is growing by the day, along with its reputation as a world-class energy and engineering firm. Alongside his ‘day job’ as the CEO at Symbion Power, Hinks is also the Chairman of the Corporate Council on Africa. “I represent the U.S. private sector and their ambitions to invest in Africa. As part of this, I have also been involved in the genesis of the Power Africa initiative, which President Obama launched in July 2013. I work very closely with private-sector businesses, the US government and with local government and local communities to ensure the initiative is a success,” he says. “Power Africa is ground breaking and it will see the United States supporting Africa on a grand scale.”
Hinks is still the powerhouse behind Symbion, driving it forward and seeking new opportunities for the business and for the communities in which it operates. Its point of difference comes not from its power-engineering prowess, but from its local engagement and its dedication to give back in the regions where it works. “Symbion will always be motivated by the desire to help the people in the places it works. Our staff enjoys this as much as I do and it makes what we do so much more enjoyable and interesting.”