Solvay, which began building and operating major industrial plants in Thailand in 1987, has quietly developed a successful cohort of expatriate Thai executives that are operating all over the world.
Over the past several years, Solvay, a Belgium-headquartered company listed on the Paris Exchange and part of the CAC 40 Index, has invested more than Bt18 billion in the Kingdom.
Most interestingly, many senior executives of Solvay Peroxythai and its local Solvay affiliate Vinythai are expatriate Thais who have spent up to 11 years working in senior positions overseas.
Siriporn Wutthilaohapan, Solvay Peroxythai’s managing director, began as an engineering graduate from a Thai university and after 17 years at Vinythai, a listed company, was posted to Solvay headquarters in Brussels.
“I spent two years on assignment to the Support Group CFO on special projects and another six months in the Peroxides Strategic Business Unit, preparing to return to Thailand,” she said.
Today, Siriporn is country general manager of Solvay as well as MD of Solvay Peroxythai, which includes operating the world’s largest hydrogen-peroxide plant located in Rayong.
Solvay’s four Thai group industrial chemical plants produce 365,000 tonnes of hydrogen peroxide and other chemical products per year.
Siriporn said that for decades, Solvay has conducted extensive local and overseas training for its highly skilled engineering staff. Although overseas training is primarily for short periods, some missions can last for as long as two years. These programmes, however, are not considered expatriate postings.
In 2012, the company sent more than 159 people overseas on various training missions. “Regular overseas training is an important part of Solvay continuing employees’ skills development,” she said.
A Solvay senior-management expatriate posting is an important career option that opens up global learning experiences and opportunities for up-and-coming leaders from the company’s 111 major industrial sites and 13 research and development centres in 55 countries.
Expatriation at Solvay, Siriporn said, normally involves an initial three years plus two contracts that can be extended.
The company’s chemical products are used for manufacturing consumer goods (28 per cent of sales) including solutions and applications for cleaning, personal care, nutrition and health products, textiles and sports equipment.
Solvay’s chemical products also support automobile manufacturing (15 per cent of sales), including silica, which makes tyres more energy-efficient, while the company’s engineering plastics and speciality polymers lighten vehicle weights.
The construction industry (14 per cent of sales) is also a large user of Solvay products, including chemicals for paints and coatings, thermal insulation, window frames, electrical wiring, cabling and pipes and fittings for heating and cooling systems, as well as blowing agents and flame retardants.
With extensive global operations, Siriporn said Solvay has expatriate managers from all over the world, including Thailand, operating everywhere.
“Solvay has been successful because its strong systems and culture encourage and motivate top up-and-coming leaders to leave their home countries and accept career path-enhancing expatriate positions,” she explained.
Developing mobile expatriate senior executives from many countries has also been a critical part of Solvay’s overall strategy.
After 17 years as an engineer in various management positions in Thailand, the company offered Siriporn a career-enhancing challenge to broaden her knowledge and experience with an expatriate overseas posting.
Similar to most senior management officials anywhere, she seriously weighed how any long-term move to Europe would affect her immediate family, including her husband and two young children who were attending Thai schools in Bangkok.
It was a very difficult decision, but the opportunity Solvay offered for her career development won them over. “My husband stayed behind because we wanted him to continue his career, while my two young children went with me to Brussels,” she said.
To ensure senior executives can adapt more easily to new foreign environments, Solvay has instituted numerous policies that makes moves more comfortable. “They supported my mother’s stay with us while we were in Brussels,” she said.
In addition, Solvay offered two annual return airline tickets per family member per year, she said, adding, “My husband also had the option of travelling to Brussels at Solvay’s expense.”
Siriporn said the first three to six months were the most difficult. While it was fairly easy to adapt to the new work environment, adjusting to a foreign country’s customs and culture was more difficult.
“In Brussels, all shops close at 6pm. It was very quiet and we had to acclimatise ourselves to the relatively quiet environment compared to Bangkok,” she recalled.
During her three-year stay in B0elgium, the children attended an international school and they were able to adapt quickly. Today, back in Thailand, they are also attending an international school. “We think their experience in Belgium has really benefited their development,” said the executive.
Siriporn also said most senior Solvay management employees accept expatriate positions when offered because they believe overseas postings will benefit their long-term career-development. “Very few senior Thai Solvay managers have refused overseas expatriate postings,” she added.
The Solvay group has posted 21 Thais overseas, and many of them have returned to Thailand to more senior positions, while about 15 still serve abroad.