By Glenda Foo and Pang Ler Yng
Andrew Ng is a Global Marketing Manager with SABIC Asia Pacific. In this article, Andrew shares his career journey in the petrochemical industry, his thoughts on the future of the industry, and what it takes for others to join his profession.
I have been working in the petrochemical industry with ExxonMobil and then SABIC for about 13 years now and I joined the industry right after graduating from university. While working at ExxonMobil, I had the opportunity to rotate through multiple divisions in the company. My experience in the industry has been split into roughly 40% within the manufacturing divisions and 60% in the commercial divisions. Therefore, I do think I have a fair share of exposure across both parts of the petrochemical business, which is critical as I continue to cement my experience in the industry.
It is a very dynamic business as it trends the price of crude oil which is the main building block to many finished products and is also a commodity affected by multiple geopolitical events that can impact the way our products are priced, sourced and manufactured. Every step of the value chain is very challenging, from well to the finished product. Hence, when we speak to customers and explain the challenges we face, we have to put them in layman’s terms for customers to comprehend why things happen as they do and why prices are charged as they are.
For me, I enjoy the challenge of helping customers understand the process of how the raw materials they are procuring is affected through different cost drivers from the various parts of the value chain. The petrochemical industry is not a cheap business that we are running; rather a capital intensive one.
The energy industry has always been a very strong industry to be in as there will always be global demand for it. It should be able to weather the different economic cycles because regardless of how good or bad the times are, there will always be a demand for energy. Therefore, I was looking at the industry from a very long-term perspective and decided to take the plunge into the industry.
Even in the short span of ten years, we can already see how the industry goes through cycles, such as times of oversupply when there is more supply than demand in the market. The question is always about how we can beat our competitors and lead in the industry. That is the constant challenge that we are facing because new competitors will always find ways to compete and gain some market share. Hence, we need to find new novel ways to create products and or solutions through technological advancements and innovation with our customers to continue strengthening and solidifying our market share.
Both companies where I have worked with adopt a very open and transparent work culture. The open door policy enables open discussions. Work is generally based a lot on team effort and collaboration with cross-functional teams. You need to have the best of brains from all different functions, such as product management, sales and marketing, and technology, who come together and work collaboratively so that the company continues to thrive in this very competitive market.
Most of the people in the sector do come from a chemical engineering background because we work with molecules and all that. Interestingly, I myself came from an electrical engineering background. Although ExxonMobil does develop your knowledge through job training, the onus is also on the individual to take steps to get yourself acquainted as soon as possible. This is a career after all and we need to be motivated and driven, particularly in the first five years of our careers, to get ourselves to where our peers and leaders are.
I also have colleagues who are business degree holders, but they do not have that affinity to start out in manufacturing. I think this is the key difference between those from engineering and those from business backgrounds.
Having an engineering background allows me to switch between the manufacturing and commercial job roles. Those who are more business centric are more specialised within the commercial side, which has its fair share of pros and cons. Having the knowledge of the manufacturing process from crude oil to finished products does give you an advantage when you engage with your customers. Therefore, it is not necessary to have an engineering background, although preferable as it is also dependent on the type of positions available.
It does take time to initially assimilate yourself to the different rigours of the commercial role, such as financial analysis and understanding financial jargons, Excel spreadsheets, and formulas. However, with the help of supportive colleagues, the transition time for me was shortened to around two months. These initial challenges also apply vice versa to colleagues from business backgrounds going into manufacturing roles.
As the energy industry is currently undergoing many challenges and changes, one needs to have an open mind and be adaptable to change. Many companies in the industry are looking to streamline their businesses and optimise operations to manage costs and also respond to the dynamics of the external environment. This is quite challenging and hence one would need grit to stay in the industry for the long run. Looking from a long-term perspective, the world’s demand for energy will continue to grow in line with the growing world population. This is expected to be a very defensive industry. Graduates will have the unique opportunity to participate in an interesting time of energy transition where companies are looking at more efficient ways of producing energy and setting net zero targets as part of COP26 commitments towards a carbon neutral economy.
Immediate challenges facing energy producers include going carbon neutral, setting net zero targets and innovating to participate in the circular economy. Many activities still rely on crude oil as the main source of energy and other products. Some of these examples include household cleaning products, plastic containers, cars and even clothes which are derived from petrochemical products. As the technology to produce entirely sustainable raw materials are still undergoing development, it will take time for these sustainably produced raw materials to transition to economical scale of production. Petrochemical products are still a key building block for many things that we use in our everyday lives, and therefore, the demand for chemical products will still remain.
In the next few decades, the energy industry will continue to be the backbone of the challenges we are facing now. The industry is already innovating with the government’s support to explore different technologies to get Singapore to a carbon neutral position.
Some key skills include having an innovative mindset, creativity, cultural sensitivity to be able to connect with individuals from different cultural backgrounds, as well as a consultative mindset in order to have an open discussion with value chain partners which can include business partners, customers and suppliers. One should not be afraid to ask questions as these will enable us to understand more on what the market is looking for. Instead of having the focus of trying to sell a product to a customer, one can try to ask more open-ended questions to understand the issues customers are facing and then try to work out a solution for them, and it is perfectly fine even if it is a solution that your company might not have. This showcases your expertise and also builds your market credibility.