Agenda for progress

C&I Issue 23, 2007

The chemical company of the future will be an exhilarating place. Underpinned by cutting edge innovation, and driven by the desire to combine sustainable solutions with robust commercial performance, it will be the place to pursue one of the most coveted career options.

Fantasy? Not if today’s bright young things have their way.

At this year’s SCI chemical convention in Budapest, five young chemists came together to air their thoughts on the industry’s future. Selected by their bosses, and representing a diversity of national and corporate cultures, the five finalists from almost 30 candidates joined forces to provide fresh insights into some of the challenges industry faces.

Part of their brief was to be simultaneously provocative and realistic – a fine line for anyone planning career progression in the corporate world.

They chose the device of creating a company from scratch, becoming its leading light board members and then forecasting its first 20 years, from 2007 to 2027. That virtual company - SEEchem – is a reflection of the group’s ambitions for the chemical industry of the future. Its shared vision from the off was to be an international sustainability leader and to design a company that was fun to work for.

And, for the current crop of industry leaders and managers, it may well reveal the sort of company your own 20-to-30 year-olds would love to work for.

Many facets of the SEEchem organisation are familiar – for example, its structure and the role of shareholders, which stem from the evolution of the traditional private sector joint-stock company.

However, among its distinctive characteristics is a board that rotates executive positions. The five board roles of chief executive, financial officer, technical and innovation, sustainability and corporate affairs officers alternate every two years, allowing directors to maintain and develop a breadth of management acumen and interact directly with more staff members.

The board members also work very different hours, from 28 hours to 60 hours-a-week, depending on their role and family circumstances. In the world of SEEchem the lowest number of hours worked - 28 - would be those of the chief financial officer and the highest are those of the energetic corporate affairs officer.  Hanging on to more balance between work and home became an objective for all staff.

The company is also built to proactively encourage internal and external debate. Internal debate is encouraged to minimise the development of an institutionalised hierarchy.

Drawing on the Chinese character for leadership, the five founders committed to keep their ears, eyes and hearts open to the views of other staff members. This generation of potential leaders are eager to stay in tune with staff and avoid becoming as remote as many board members are today.

External debate is regarded as vital to expose and promote the company to other critical audiences. It is also viewed as a critical part of the company’s commitment to explain its role, its products and its value to a wider society. There is peril in this objective, but the five were adamant that critics should be faced however hostile they appeared. Every opportunity to present the company and/or the industry’s case should, according to the group, be grasped.

SEEchem’s logo – You feel we care. Feel easy. SEEchem – is intended to capture the trust the company strives to build with customers and conveys the explicit goal of reputation-based performance.

The SEEchem board set out to reverse a dismal trend. In the fight for talent and brain-power, the chemical industry straggles way behind the perceived A-list sectors of banking and finance, IT, consumer goods and retail. One method employed by the young group to attract talent and explain the operations was via internet social websites. By communicating directly to potential staff and ultimate consumers the aim of this type of campaign was to knock the stuffiness out of perceptions of the industry and put the ‘wow’ factor back in.

The board thought it important to establish loyalty programmes and secondments with non-industry partners, such as Google, Deutsche Bank, British Airways, WWF, Unilever, Toyota and the United Nations, which are offered to all employees. And to retain the brightest research scientists, their pay levels will often be equivalent to those of the board and more senior colleagues in other departments.

In their imagined company’s evolution, the fledgling SEEchem’s potential was spotted by Google within a few years of its start-up. Google became a long-term investor part of the 30% of traditional shareholders, the balance being split between sustainability funds (40%), state pensions (25%) and employees (5%).

Reviewing the present, the five were aware of futurologist Alvin Toffler - author of Futureshock, The Third Wave & Previews & Premises - and his observation that progression seldom occurs in a straight line but as a series of interruptions. Trends, no matter how powerful they may seem at the time, do not merely continue in a linear fashion – they stop, they start, they reverse direction. Occasionally they explode into new phenomena. Trends that appear immutable today may well not continue; contradictions, conflicts, turnabouts and breakpoints always make the future a continuing surprise.

Insofar as the future is ‘an open book’, the five each recognise that climate change is for real and their starting point was to develop a company designed to exploit the commercial opportunities this presents to the ever-enabling chemical industry.

One trend that the five reckoned was understated, from the perspective of 2007, was the role second generation biomass would come to play in the chemical industry’s raw material and energy requirements. Their anticipation is that coal and biomass will become the primary sources of energy by 2027, oil production having peaked in 2010 and natural gas output in 2015.

SEEchem is an energy chameleon – drawing from an array of raw materials and primary energy sources including biomass and waste, nuclear, solar, coal and oil and gas. In this respect it is pretty conventional. But its step-out pioneering idea – all five believing that climate change is evident − is the development of SEEhubs − offshore biomass generation and refineries, algaemy at work.  The company also developed double-backward integration (DBI) processes across all its’ energy sources, a means of extracting the greatest possible efficiencies from available energies.

And after 20 years, what sort of company had SEEchem become? The five founders are particularly proud of the ‘fact’ that SEEchem has been ranked number one in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for eight consecutive years (2020-2027) and its running rate of CO2 reduction is 1.2m t/year. It has 20 000 employees, generates a turnover of €28bn and EBIT of €2.6bn.  In 2010 SEEchem began its DBI strategy and in 2015 established its Innovation Centre for Climate Technologies.

C&I’s review of last year’s Youth Panel presentation appeared in December 2006 (23,21).

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