A little over a decade ago, starting to work at Abengoa was a dream come true for any recently graduated engineering student from Andalusia. “Not only was it one of the leading companies in the sector, but we also had the benchmark of its CEO [Manuel Sánchez-Ortega] who had started as an intern. It was a guarantee of professional projection”, says a former employee, who prefers to remain anonymous. Three financial rescues and bankruptcy later, accompanied by innumerable restructurings, that pride remains in the workforce, but it is an insufficient asset to maintain the illusion of a project that is irretrievably languishing drowned in a debt of 6,000 million euros that does not diminish and a chaos in the management accelerated by the wars between shareholders.
The halo of its solar towers in Sanlúcar la Mayor, the clearest emblem of its strength, now illuminates an uncertain future, after the State Industrial Participation Company (SEPI) has rejected the latest request for aid in the form of 249 million euros. Clemente Fernández, the president of the parent company, Abengoa SA, believes that through the creditors’ agreement that must be presented on July 1, there is room to save the business units. Although the reality is that the liquidation of the company and its piecemeal sale is becoming more plausible if the creditors do not accept the agreement in September.
Abengoa has embodied the symbol of industrial and technological development in Andalusia. It was an anomaly in the business wasteland of the community. From being founded in 1941 to manufacture five-amp single-phase meters, which never reached the market in a post-war sunken Spain, it became a world reference in the renewables sector, deserving the praise of the US president, Barack Obama, which defined it as an example of the “green company” of the future. It was the first Andalusian firm to be listed on the Ibex and shortly before its downward slide began, it also debuted on the Nasdaq in 2013.
The company did not stop growing, reaching 653 companies in 80 countries, but at the cost of borrowing beyond its means to pay for its strong growth in renewables in the US, China and India. In 2014 the share collapsed almost 50% in two days and Abengoa recognized a debt of 9,022 million euros. That was the beginning of a downward slope that, in addition to three failed bailouts -2015, 2018 and 2020-, which have changed its traditional shareholding structure, and a creditor contest in its parent company, Abengoa SA, has taken over more half of the template.
Its workers, immersed in conformity in some of the most acute crises of the company, have begun to raise their voices to defend the stability of jobs that they consider to be the last thing that the different presidents who have been going through the company in its various restructurings. “Everyone talks about the bonuses, their shares and their benefits, but none of the jobs,” complains Laura Rodríguez, spokesperson for the works council and who has been locked up in the SEPI headquarters all week to try to force the last rescue for Abengoa.
She has been one of the most visible faces of the different demonstrations that the almost 2,000 workers who make up the Seville workforce – the largest in Spain, with around 3,000 employees – have staged in front of their different headquarters and in the streets of the capital of Seville since bankruptcy was declared, in February 2021, to make visible the situation of anguish and uncertainty in which they live. A protest that has been present in the electoral campaign, in which they have attended different acts of the political parties, the last one during the closing of the PSOE campaign, where several employees interrupted the speech of the President of the Government, Pedro Sánchez, shouting from: “Abengoa, solution”. Only the left-wing coalition, Por Andalucía, made reference to the company’s situation in its program.
It is surprising that the claims of a company that has played a leading role in the construction of this modern image of Seville and Andalusia, beyond the sun and the beach, have so little social or political support. “The worst thing is that it is penetrating the public that we are a bottomless pit of subsidies. It is not us, it has been the management, ”María Eugenia Alonso, director of the Logistics Department, told this newspaper. “As in recent years payrolls have been paid, projects have been won and employees have even been hired, it seemed that it could be traced back, perhaps for this reason it might seem that there has been detachment, and because it always ended up being saved, ”he explains. Manuel Ponce, head of the Andalusian UGT Federation of Industry.
Lack of social empathy
In addition to the rapid international expansion, this lack of empathy has to do with the draconian working conditions imposed by the company’s management, when it was taken over by Felipe and Javier Benjumea, the sons of the founder. The headquarters in Seville of Palmas Altas, its employees renamed it as Palmatraz, because they were not allowed to go out to eat, their shifts in and out, bridges and vacations were controlled, and it was almost compulsory to work overtime. Nor did Abengoa’s management at that time, attached to the elites of the city, do anything to win the sympathy of the Sevillians, despite promoting the Focus Foundation at the Hospital of the Venerables.
And despite the fact that former ministers of the PSOE and the PP, such as Josep Borrell or Josep Piqué, have been sitting on the company’s advisory councils, when it was directed by Felipe Benjumea, at the company’s most important moments, the regional and national governments They have also turned their backs on him, reproaching each other for not having fulfilled their commitments. The Board declined in 2020 to contribute the 20 million euros to which it had committed to the company to guarantee the viability of the group, alleging that it lacked legal instruments to guarantee the legal framework of that operation. A justification influenced by its similarity to aid to the ERE, one of the PP’s battle horses in Andalusia against the PSOE. In the Board they maintain that they are aware of the moral dilemma and although the undoubted impact on the business culture of Andalusia is recognized, there are precedents such as Santana Motor, maintained at the cost of huge injections of public money, which led the Andalusian Administration to put itself in profile in the company’s salvation plans, maintain sources close to the Ministry of Economy.
The Minister of Finance, María Jesús Montero, has alluded to this lack of commitment after the declaration of bankruptcy and when in the Andalusian electoral campaign she was asked about the rescue of Abengoa. And the Board Government itself has once again put the ball in its court by assuring that it is the State that has “the legal tool” to save Abengoa, a tool that the communities lack, she insisted.
New contest or liquidation
“In this process, there has been more talk about the back and forth of the partners, the demands for multiple aid and the declarations of the politicians, but what is substantial is missing, the projects that they are carrying out, where they are competitive, that is hardly speaks”, says Francisco Ferraro, president of the Economic Observatory of Andalusia. “We do not understand why governments have seen risks when workers were optimistic because of the workload,” explains Ponce.
Despite the dance of bailouts and figures, Abengoa continues to be a benchmark in its sector that lacks financial solvency, but maintains its technique, as evidenced by the projects completed and completed in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and South America. “Abengoa invoices more than 1,000 million euros per year, with positive operating profits (Ebitda) and more than 160 million”, recalls the president of Abengoa SA “Abengoa is going to be saved, that is better than any liquidation”, he explained to EL COUNTRY. Other directors of the company consulted believe that it is very difficult for creditors to reach an agreement in such a short period of time and see liquidation as the least of two evils.
Abengoa continues to be a strategic company that generates value and retains talent. “If I went on strike I wouldn’t find anything similar in Seville or Andalusia”, acknowledge all the employees interviewed and testify to those who abandoned ship when they saw that it was very difficult to stay afloat. One of its directors, who asks to remain anonymous, illustrates the situation with this image: “We are Rafa Nadal, but playing without shoes and with a broken racket.” After SEPI’s refusal to contribute the 249 million, it should be added to the simile that the tennis player also has injured arms or legs.