Mason Wallick on leading by example in Developing Asia

Singapore-based Mason Wallick is the founder and Managing Director of Infunde Development which is delivering InfraCo Asia’s South East Asia Developer Services Program.With almost 20 years’ experience working on energy and infrastructure projects in Asia alone, Mason is a veteran of the regional infrastructure sector. Bringing a multi-disciplinary approach to infrastructure development, Mason reflects on the way forward to closing Asia’s growing infrastructure funding ‘gap’.

Mason Wallick was just six years old when he started traveling to developing countries around the world, and it didn’t take him long to notice some stark discrepancies with the way his life had been in America.

“From a very young age, I was exposed to living in many emerging markets where the impacts of poverty and poor health conditions left a lasting impression. This provided a foundation for understanding that we are all human and that the world should be a better place for much more of the population than it is today,” Mason says.

With immediate family living and travelling overseas, he spent time throughout Latin America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and South East Asia, becoming intrigued by the dynamics at play “when you have fragile economies.”

“My childhood experiences shaped my decision to become an engineer and through this to help people have a better life,” he says.

Determined to learn his craft from the bottom-up, Mason began working throughout his undergraduate and postgraduate studies. It was in this fledgling phase of his career that Mason was propelled feet-first into a landscape reeling from the fallout of the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s.
“It was eye-opening to work on a variety of land-mark energy and infrastructure projects that were robustly structured, yet became distressed when power purchasers were unable to pay debt service obligations as a result of the crisis,” Mason says.
“From that perspective, I gained an appreciation for what could happen when projects become distressed, and that it is crucial for all stakeholders to work together to resolve issues.”
After working for an engineering consultancy firm providing lenders’ due diligence, Mason returned to study for a Masters in Mineral and Energy Economics, to round-out his technical background.
Value of team work
Mason attributes the lessons from his early work roles towards the importance of team work.
“Some of the best advice I received came after I had made a mistake on a report,” he recounts.
“My boss explained that important stakeholders rely on the information and opinions provided, and the results must be accurate. In that regard, the performance of the entire team depends on everyone meeting that high standard,” Mason says.
When Mason joined the American firm, R.W. Beck, he was providing lenders’ due diligence services and energy risk management services for a range of energy and infrastructure clients, largely in Asia.
He supported several landmark greenfield project financings in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines that involved international lenders and export credit agencies.
As a result of this experience, Mason solidified his growing understanding of what it takes to make a project succeed.
“All the organisations I have worked in have followed a relatively flat model. Infunde follows a similar organisation structure whereby the leadership team is spread throughout South East Asia in order to benefit from a local presence,” he says.
“Developing infrastructure projects also requires a significant amount of team work incorporating various disciplines including technical, legal, commercial, financial and environmental safeguards. Our leadership team includes recognised industry veterans. Together as a team we aim to achieve a shared success as part of providing Developer Services on behalf of InfraCo Asia,” he says.
A growing gap
“It’s becoming more apparent now, in my view, than 10 or 20 years ago, that the infrastructure gap in Asia is growing.” Mason says.
“Without early stage development funding and development expertise we will continue to see gaps in infrastructure delivery. InfraCo Asia helps to solve this fundamental issue through its various programmes, including Developer Services.”
“Infrastructure gaps are particularly apparent to us at the early development stage as there are so many infrastructure projects that are underfunded and under-resourced. As a result, they are not able to be developed in accordance with best practices and are as a result often prone to delay or failure.
Beyond this, Mason says a lack of understanding of the requirements of lenders to greenfield projects is a serious issue.
“We think this is an area that InfraCo Asia—and Infunde—can add a lot of value to,” he says.
Model pipeline
Since Infunde Development was appointed to deliver InfraCo Asia’s South East Asia Developer Services program in April 2016, solid progress has been made pursuing quality, viable projects.
Two projects that Infunde are actively pursuing include a world-class project to solve an important waste problem, and a wind power project.
“The waste-related project could prove transformational through using best-in-class commercially proven technology that we do not believe has been used in Asia before,” Mason says.
“The wind power project could also be a unique breakthrough that has not-yet-been achieved in-country. We believe it could potentially be delivered without the use of a feed-in-tariff and compete with conventional power sources from an economic perspective, which could play a game-changing role in meeting the requirements of emerging markets that can’t afford to pay a high cost for power.”
Replicability of project developments is a core part of InfraCo Asia’s work, and an important cornerstone for Infunde Development.
“We do look at how our involvement in a development can stimulate the private sector to subsequently invest much further in a particular market sector,” he says.
“We are also pursuing a number of water projects, agriculture processing projects, renewable energy projects, including solar and solar hybrid projects, as well as wind and run-of-river hydroelectric power.”
Fostering buy-in
For the Infunde team, finding a viable project opportunity in the right location promising the necessary sustainable outcomes is just the tip of the iceberg.
“At times the host government where we wish to work may not have the appropriate regulatory framework for us to develop a project in the first place,” Mason explains.
Through patient, transparent and respectful communications with host governments, Mason says win-win outcomes can be achieved.
“Excellent local community relations” are also a must for Infunde.
“We are mindful that we are working in communities where people have historic ties, families, and homes. We work to accommodate these communities and put in place programs on the ground that will ensure success for our projects and for the communities around us,” Mason says.
Transformation takes time
While replicability and thorough engagement is critical to Infunde and InfraCo Asia’s work, Mason says he recognises that the model will take time to spread.
“In emerging markets not yet considered ‘investment grade’ such as Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, there is a large role for InfraCo Asia to help increase access to infrastructure and alleviate poverty,” Mason says.
Delivering InfraCo Asia’s South East Asia Developer Services Program is also an opportunity to assist local co-development partners to understand the various requirements and the risk management skill sets required to develop projects to international standards that can be project financed.
“It is a positive impact when we are able to work with our local co-development partners to recognise and embrace developing projects to international standards in order to create a better development. We believe it would be a great outcome if the co-development partner’s future projects move forward with substantially more private sector support,” Mason says.
“The vast majority of potential partners we have spoken to throughout South East Asia agree with our approach towards developing projects to an international standard.”
Another element to the satisfaction Mason finds in his work is even simpler.
“The most rewarding part of my work is what I say to my family and friends regarding what I do and why I do it,” he says.
“I say I’m part of the solution to help poorer communities in emerging markets have a better life through access to infrastructure that we sometimes take for granted. That’s what keeps me going every day.”