Bayer's first female boss heralds new era

Economy January 06, 2012 00:00

By Pichaya Changsorn
The Nation

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Despite her career in legal affairs, the German giant has handed the reins of the company in six Asean countries to Celina Chew


When Celina Chew was appointed the new managing director of Bayer Thai last May, it was a big surprise for most people, both outside and inside the German chemical and pharmaceutical giant. 
The surprise was not only because the 45-year-old from China was the first Asian female to hold a country head position in Bayer worldwide, but also the fact that Chew had no previous background in the business, and came from a service background – legal affairs. This was also her first overseas job assignment in her 15 years experience with Bayer.
“Everything is unexpected. For me, it’s a new role. But I like learning new things,” said Chew in an exclusive interview to The Nation recently.
Some observers see the appointment of Chew as heralding winds of change at the 149-year-old firm, which is embracing a more open corporate culture and stepping up for more opportunities in Asia.
Besides being the boss at Bayer Thai, Chew also takes charge as the senior representative of Bayer’s North Asean Country Group that covers five Southeast Asian nations – Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.
Chew said that as the daughter of a female physician in Malaysia – a rare thing in the old days – being a woman “never come up in my head”.
“It’s never been an issue. I think I can [do things the same as men],” 
“In a law firm, if you can get the job done, you’re hired. They don’t care if you’re young or old, if you’re man or woman,” said the Bayer Thai chief, citing her previous career experience with a law firm in Hong Kong and China.
Joining Bayer in 1997, Chew was part of the very first team of three staff that helped Bayer re-enter the China mainland. The business has seen exponential growth after that and employs about 10,000 people at present.
Chew said her appointment partly reflected a change in policy at Bayer and also its strong intention to promote Asian talent. Following her appointment, Bayer also promoted many other female executives last year, including for the top post at its global crop science division, and as the head of its Russian subsidiary. 
Chew said the gender race was tough in China where she was one of three women sitting on the top management board of Bayer China with five men.
Prior to moving to work in Hong Kong, Chew spent 17 years in Australia from the age of 8 to 25. Wearing a big smile, speaking fast, and embracing openness, feedback and a less hierarchical approach, Chew represents the new corporate values of Bayer, which is aiming to promote a more open and collaborative culture. To her surprise, she finds Thai staff much more outspoken and expressing their ideas than she was briefed at a cross-cultural training class earlier.
Although as the chief executive, Chew has the duty to impart global strategies and values among her staff, but apart from that it is her job to “bring out” the ideas of her staff and making that happen, rather than telling them what to do, she said.
Despite the worst floods in more than 50 years in Thailand last year, Chew said Bayer had suffered little impact and had achieved the growth target for 2011.  The firm’s production sites in Bangpoo and Map Ta Phut were not affected by the flood. The firm also booked double-digit growth in the five north Asean countries under her responsibility.
Chew is optimistic for 2012. “The furniture, construction, automotive, and healthcare sectors will hopefully rebound because Thai people will clean up their houses,” she said.
As for her management style, Chew said she was not a believer in purely a process-driven way. She also likes to see real things, rather than merely sitting and reading reports from her CEO desk. “This [habit] perhaps comes from my lawyer background,” she said.
Thus, during the flood, she sat on a motorbike to see the real situation, to evaluate the causes and appraised personally if Bayer could continue its operations. She also learnt about the local people’s values, which explained to her why they refused to leave their inundated homes.  
Despite her formal appointment in May, Chew had to fly back and forth between China and Thailand for several months until Bayer could find her successor in the mainland. 
One of the very first questions she got from her Thai staff was not about work, though.
“My secretary told me: ‘they want to talk and ask you a question’. I was thinking they would ask about our strategies. ‘No, [the secretary responded] they would like to know why you’re still single,” said Chew, laughing.