The Oil Experts From The Wild West

The Oil Experts From The Wild West

An interesting memory of the first MD of Cochin Refinery, American John W Loy, is of him trying to balance a basket full of gravel on his head, so intrigued and attracted was he by the expertise of women doing so on the work site at Ambalamugal. This memory is cited in an old issue of the company’s newsletter Jwala Dhwani.

When Prasad K Panicker, Executive Director, Kochi Refinery (KR) saw an old photograph of the Americans and the Indians who set up the refinery he sensed a “chemistry of friendship” between them.

It gave him an idea to document the life and times of KR in a book on the occasion of the refinery’s Golden Jubilee last year. Much as the book, The Midas Touch, captures the sweep of 50 years in an interesting narrative, beginning March 1964, after the Government of India inked a deal with Philips Petroleum Company head-quartered in the wild western state of Oklahoma, it celebrates the contribution of the Americans to Kochi Refinery. Old timers remember the Americans with fond nostalgia and newcomers admire the foreign founders for their technical expertise in setting up one of the country’s best oil refineries.

Professional group

A question that invariably crops up about them is how did the rough-tough cowboys, and their families, fare in a land so completely opposite in terrain and tenor to their country when they arrived in the early 60s?

Ninety-one year-old BK Nair, who joined KR in 1966 as Employer-Relations Officer after resigning from ESSO, Mumbai, recalls the Americans, “12-16 of them; good technical people.” “They were pretty good and used to mingle with Indians easily. They set up the refinery and supervised its initial management. I think they all left by the 1980s.”

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KP Philip, who retired as Executive Director, HR, agrees with Nair that the Americans were and are remembered for being a “professional group” who steered the refinery in its first phase. An important aspect they are credited with is of introducing multi-trade systems. “It means they trained people to handle different things.”

Nair concurs with the opinion, citing their reaction during the first 62-day worker’s strike. “The workers were resisting cleaning the refinery and wanted that to be done by another set of workers. The Americans were strict on that. They believed that everybody should do all kinds of related professional work. Finally the management succeeded.”

From handed-down stories it appears the expatriates adjusted well with the people and place. They stayed initially in rented places at Thevara and later in the quarters built inside the refinery premises.

Former defence personnel, Captain Vijayraghavan joined KR as Head Security Officer in 1967. He says that the Americans were in the company in its first phase and left in 1975. “They were here for 10 years beginning 1965, except Loy who came on a second tenure.

“I knew all the Americans and had good social contacts with them. They lived inside the premises and managed well with the bit of English the workers knew. Some had families. Loy had an American wife but in his second tenure he had married a Japanese lady. She came with him to the refinery and stayed there.”

Vijayaraghavan speaks with fondness of his American friend Glendale Betz who communicated with him until last year when he passed away. “Betz was the MD and a capable administrator,” he says.

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Of their social life he recalls that they never visited Indian homes and never used to drink too much, “a couple of pegs perhaps.” Vijayraghavan believes that Betz had a soft corner for him because they shared a defence background, Betz being a former Major in the Marine Corps. Of a little love affair, he says, Taylor Martin, second in command to Loy fell in love with the stenographer, Daphne, a lady from Cochin and married her.

Of how the Americans communicated with the workers is evident from an incident cited in The Midas Touch.

When Manufacturing Chief RD Umbach found the pressure to be low in a pipeline , he asked the operator to start the second pump. He received a nod and returned satisfied only to find the pressure reduced to zero. Realising that he hadn’t been understood, he then communicated with gestures and found his instructions carried out. At the next day’s meeting the incident was discussed. Umbach explained the gaffe, “the fault was ours. We speak American, but you guys speak English.”

When work commenced, Philips Petroleum Company delegated the construction of the refinery to Pacific Procon Limited, an American company with expertise in such engineering. Another US-based company, Chicago Bridges & Iron was roped in for construction of storage tanks.

Changing face of Ambalamugal

L Myers of Procon was project manager and is remembered as a strict task master. Philips had its three senior experts, talented engineers — CC Martini, Forman and Watkins who planned and oversaw the construction of the refinery.

A school and a hospital for the staff of the refinery were simultaneously built. KP Philip speaks about the Americans starting the Ambalamugal Medical Aid Society for the public outside the refinery. “They thought of helping the people around and outside the premises too,” he says.

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An interesting nugget on Loy’s passion for kite flying is mentioned in The Midas Touch. A brilliant engineer, Loy had to his name several US patents on different aspects of refining. In his second tenure, 1974-77, he seriously observed and studied kite flying. In 1979, he developed a hooded kite. It is no wonder that people remember and talk about Loy’s off-time spent flying kites in Kochi.

Vijayraghavan who remembers his colleagues vividly and has diligently kept in touch with them says, “All the Americans who worked here are now dead. No one is alive.”

But in memories and documents, in photos and tales told, the Americans of Kochi Refinery live on.


Source Link – The Hindu

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