The salesman who became president

With Asia's growth, international companies are looking to the region to establish bases and for talented people to lead them. The Economic Development Board has in place talent-grooming programmes so that Singaporeans can meet the demand for business leaders. In the final of a seven-part series, Arti Mulchand talks to three people involved in such programmes.

WHEN Russell Tham's housemate landed a job with Applied Materials in 1993, doing something with "chips", he thought they were of the edible kind.

"Chips to me meant food," says the 46-year-old, now president of Applied Materials South-east Asia.

The company, a player in the business-to-business space, was then relatively unknown and had only a small office in Singapore.

In 1994, the engineering graduate from the then Nanyang Technological Institute decided to try selling semiconductor-making equipment and joined Applied Materials himself.

For the next decade, his role grew as the company did and, in 2004, he took the reins as vice- president and general manager, overseeing a 350-strong team.

Today, the company is the world's largest chipmaking-equipment maker, serving the semiconductor, flat-panel display and solar photovoltaic industries.

Singapore is a strategic hub for the company, responsible for various global corporate functions, about half of its semiconductor equipment output, and its research and development efforts.

While its machines do not make chips that are good for eating, the chips they do make are essential to modern-day living.Its Centre for Excellence in Advanced Packaging is the most advanced laboratory of its kind in the world.

Holding up his iPhone, Mr Tham says: "Almost all the chips in this go through our machines at one stage or another."

The many hats he wears, including overseeing the company's ongoing merger with Tokyo Electron, another key player, means he travels a lot.

His wife of 17 years, a corporate lawyer, travels as much as he does, so they often have to meet on the road, he says, adding: "We have a hit rate of about a week a month. It's not ideal, but you just have to be deliberate in spending time together."

The alumnus of EDB's Singapore Business Leaders Programme is also an advocate for continual learning and, to pack it all in, starts his day early, after a 5am caffeine fix.

He focuses on various business matters until early evening, but that is not nearly when his day ends. He is also chairman of the Partnership Committee of the North East Community Development Council.

His task: to increase private sector participation in the district's causes, a commitment that keeps him busy after hours but which he finds worthwhile.

"Understanding what drives you is important. Not everyone knows that at 20, and, for me, this has crystallised only in the past five years or so.

"I want to make an impact on my surroundings," he says.

This article was first published on Nov 24, 2014.

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