Tech-driven Pinoy engineering services firm is going global
In this day and age, it’s possible for a Filipino engineer to help build a skyscraper in Japan, a shopping mall in China or a stadium in Australia without leaving the country. It’s a sweet deal for those who want to be part of landmark projects around the world but don’t relish uprooting or parting with their families.
Business process outsourcing is a $30-billion industry in the Philippines, but the aspiration is always to move up the value chain and capture more of those specialized, analytical and knowledge-based deals.
Having its skin in this game of knowledge-based outsourcing is ESCA Engineering, a homegrown engineering consultancy firm with four decades of track record in project and construction management, and structural and civil engineering solutions.
Founded by techie engineering veteran Ernesto de Castro, it was among the first engineering service firms in the country to introduce and provide services on the complex series of technologies, processes and platforms known as Building Information Modeling (BIM), which is now considered the technology standard for delivering world-class projects.
“It’s like virtual model design,” ESCA Engineering CEO Jean de Castro explains in an interview with Inquirer. “So this is where we transform everything from flat 2D into 3D, so then you can see the architectural, structural [form] and all the pipes, electrical wires come together to make sure that there’s less issue or conflict during construction.”
BIM enables developers to be more efficient with resources, thereby addressing sustainability and climate change challenges, says De Castro, who also chairs Urban Land Institute Philippines and is the first woman to lead this organization of real estate and land use experts.
“This helps you be more exact or accurate when it comes to the materials used and so, I think, that’s also very helpful for the building industry,” she adds.
Top-level BIM execution is touted as a core ESCA Engineering strength and is among its offerings to clients here and abroad.
ESCA Engineering recently announced the opening in Singapore of its new international arm, ESCA Engineering Pte. Ltd., joining the growing number of Filipino firms making their mark overseas.
“While ESCA Engineering’s domestic Philippine business remains robust and continues to expand, our new Singapore entity is designed to support the needs of the international marketplace,” explains De Castro.
The group also signed a multiyear renewal contract with Honolulu-based SSFM International, an engineering services company that has played a major role in changing the landscape of modern Hawaii, among other locations in the United States.
Although multiyear renewals are “the exception, not the rule, in today’s business climate,” SSFM president and CEO Michael Matsumoto says SSFM has been a satisfied client for more than 20 years now. “Over the years, ESCA Engineering has proven to be a valued contributor toward SSFM’s success, and we look forward to many more years of successful and profitable collaborations,” he says.
De Castro feels now is a good opportunity to grow the international business.
“Before, when we were doing engineering outsourcing, a lot of people were kind of close-minded. [They would say,] no, we need people here physically. But because of the pandemic, even their own people have been working everywhere,” she says.
As companies realize they can get talent elsewhere, the group’s engineering outsourcing business is in a good position to capture more deals with big foreign firms.
“It’s really leveraging Filipino engineering talent,” says De Castro. “What excites me about our engineering outsourcing service is that you get to work with international projects, but you’re still here with your family. It had been a challenge for us—losing talent. Now they are here with us, the level of projects abroad iba pa rin kasi (they are on a different level) from the local projects here, so we’re able to become a part of that.”
Separately, the group runs at home its ESCA Knowledge Academy that trains people, not just its own employees, specifically for BIM and digital project management. It is likewise working with schools to include these in their curriculum.
ESCA Engineering works with architects, engineers and contractors to accomplish both private and public projects. It was part of the upgrading of century-old Ayala Bridge and the building of various Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas satellite offices. Currently, it is working with the Department of Public Works and Highways for the structural investigation of all the public buildings, schools and hospitals, to make sure that they could withstand seismic activity.
The firm was the structural designer for SM Mall of Asia and has also worked with many of the country’s biggest corporate names. It executed BIM for the construction of IKEA and Grand Hyatt Residences, and did the structural design for One McKinley Place, once the tallest building in BGC.
ESCA Engineering was founded in 1982 by De Castro’s dad, Ernesto, who has a doctorate in engineering. From structural engineering, the firm expanded to different services such as civil works design and project management.
“His vision has always been to do things better and he’s always been a very techie guy so he’s driven by how do we use technology to make things better, more efficient in the building industry,” De Castro says. As such, the group has advocated for the use of BIM as early as 10 years ago, when this was still unheard of in the local market.
As most of the major foreign software were costly, the elder De Castro developed his own BIM-anchored digital enterprise platform called Project Information Management System 345D (PIM345D).
For her part, De Castro isn’t an engineer but a lawyer and a former TV anchor. A University of the Philippines alumna, she majored in political science, went to law school, passed the bar and joined Villaraza & Angangco Law Offices. One Christmas, her dad took her aside, asking whether she would be interested to join the family business, as he needed someone he could trust. The company, after all, was going through a lot of transition.
She isn’t the only child; she has two older brothers and a younger sister but all of her siblings were based overseas. She’s the “obedient” one, she says in jest.
Thus she joined ESCA Engineering in 2011, initially handling human resources and other backroom stuff. On the side, she anchored a Bloomberg TV Philippines morning show.
She became ESCA Engineering’s CEO in 2017, although her dad—still bursting with energy and excitement about the business—is far from retirement.
In the past, De Castro says the digitalization of engineering had been “taken for granted” because of availability of cheap labor in the country. But the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting mobility restrictions changed people’s mindset, she notes.
“People started to think more about efficiency, how can we do things better, how can we do with less resources. In managing costs, variation order was okay before. People had money to spend. But I think now, it’s really important to use it so that we can be more efficient,” she says.
“We always aim to be ahead of the curve by bringing digital innovations to transform the business and the industry, such as being the first to provide BIM engineering services into the Philippine market. We also provide our clients with access to top-tier engineering talent for them to scale up their business further and achieve even greater success. Our longstanding relationship with SSFM International has proven our commitment and service excellence in providing quality, effective and yet cost-effective engineering services to our clients. We are certainly delighted to be SSFM International’s partner for many years to come,” says ESCA founder and president Ernesto.
And his capable daughter, Jean, is ready to lead the company to the next level.
“Amid a challenging global economic climate, with headwinds that are already adversely impacting many of our fellow Filipinos at home, we wanted to share our modest story that homegrown Filipino firms such as ours can compete and win internationally,” she says.
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