From The Straits Times archives

Shell V-P leads with a hard head and soft heart

Ms Goh Swee Chen, a vice-president at Shell, was born in Batu Pahat, Johor, and saved up in her teens to study overseas. She became a Singaporean in 2007. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Ms Goh Swee Chen, a vice-president at Shell, was born in Batu Pahat, Johor, and saved up in her teens to study overseas. She became a Singaporean in 2007. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

The mother of three puts people at centre of her work

SINGAPORE - Ms Goh Swee Chen has been appointed the first female country head of Royal Dutch Shell to succeed Lee Tzu Yang, who will retire at the end of October.

Goh Swee Chen its first female country head to succeed Lee Tzu Yang, who will retire at the end of October after 35 years of service in the company. - See more at: http://stprdstaff.straitstimes.com/news/business/companies/story/shell-a...

Ms Goh, who was vice-president for commercial fuels and lubricants for the Asia Pacific, will take charge of Shell companies in Singapore from today.

We reproduce here an interview with her that was first published in The Straits Times on April 24, 2011.

It was 5.45am on Jan 17, 1995, in the port city of Kobe, Japan.

Ms Goh Swee Chen – then working in the country as a section manager for a multinational corporation – was rudely awakened from her slumber by the cacophony of objects breaking and her bed violently shaking.

It was an earthquake, measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale.

“I was all alone, and five months pregnant with my second child,” says the mother of three whose businessman husband was in Kuala Lumpur with their eldest daughter at the time.

The tremors, she recalls, lasted barely a minute although it felt like a lifetime. “All I could think about was the things I had not done. And who was going to make sure my eldest daughter was going to grow up and become a good person,” says Ms Goh, 50, now the vice-president for bulk fuels and lubricants at oil and gas giant Shell.

She emerged traumatised but unscathed from the earthquake which claimed more than 6,000 lives. The experience, however, has made her realise that mortality is as fragile as a porcelain plate; one strong tremor is all it takes for it to end up in shattered pieces.

“When you understand you are mortal, certain things don’t matter that much,” she says.

And that includes the jibes and nay-saying which sometimes dog corporate high-fliers, especially female ones. “Carly Fiorina once said that a woman in a senior position is perceived to be incompetent until she proves herself otherwise,” she says, referring to the former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard, and the first woman to head a Fortune 20 company.

But Ms Goh – who has worked in Australia, Japan and the US – treats tongue-wagging as noise.

“It doesn’t warrant attention. It’s how you do the job that matters.”

And she has done hers very well, thank you very much.

The information science graduate joined Shell in 2003 as chief information officer (CIO) after spending 14 years in various management positions with US multinational corporation Procter & Gamble (P&G).

Between 2005 and 2008 when she was Shell’s vice-president for global IT services, she successfully oversaw a massive US$4 billion, three-year IT outsourcing exercise which affected the jobs of more than 3,500 people.

The multi-sourcing arrangement – which involved deals with EDS, AT&T and T-Systems – was one of the biggest exercises of that kind in the energy sector.

Not surprisingly, she says it is also her greatest achievement, even though it involved sleepless nights, tears and a lot of sweat and faith.

“But it was very clear to me right from the very start that people had to be at the centre of our consideration. My principle was: If you took care of people’s needs, they would be professional.”

Although it had its critics and detractors when news of the exercise first broke, Shell has since won many plaudits for displayingmulti-sourcing leadership.

“The fact that we were able to drive this through and be viewed as a thought leader in the industry is a nice achievement,” says Ms Goh, adding that she is very proud of the fact that more than 95 per cent of Shell staff were successfully transferred to the suppliers.

Her go-getting personality was evident early on in her life.

She was born in Batu Pahat in Johor, the third of six children of a mechanic and a seamstress.

“Because I was the third consecutive baby girl for my folks, my maternal grandma arranged for me to be adopted. Luckily my parents had the good sense not to agree to it,” says Ms Goh, who became a Singapore citizen in 2007.

She started planning for her exit from Batu Pahat in her early teens, wrapping coloured wafers and working in supermarkets in her free time to save up for an overseas education.

After completing the Malaysian equivalent of the O levels, she successfully applied to study in New Zealand.

But there was one hurdle. Although she had saved up nearly $1,500, she was still a couple of hundred ringgit short for an air ticket to Kiwiland.

She turned to her parents – who strongly objected to her going overseas – for help.

“I staked out my father’s workshop and sat there until he said yes. In the end, my parents came through for me,” says Ms Goh, who took on various part-time jobs to help fund her studies at Victoria University in Wellington.

She started work as an IT analyst for Standard Chartered Bank in Kuala Lumpur upon her return to Malaysia in the mid-1980s. A couple of years later, she uprooted herself to Melbourne where she found a job with IBM.

Not long after, she was sent to IBM in Austin, Texas, for a year.

“It was really exciting because all the technical brains of IBM were there; these were people developing operating systems,” she says.

She went back to Malaysia after three years in Australia to get married. Her husband, a former architect who now runs a marine business, was not keen on life Down Under.

The next stop in her corporate career was with P&G, where she stayed for 14 years.

These include three years in Japan, which was P&G’s Asian headquarters, in the mid-1990s.

It was a “tough” posting, and not just because of the Kobe earthquake.

Getting childcare support was extremely difficult for Ms Goh whose first two children were mere infants then. Her application to bring in a maid was turned down.“Japan was good for my figure; life was so tough that I became really skinny,” jokes the articulate woman, adding that she was lucky she finally found a live-in Japanese nanny.

She left Japan for Singapore in 1996 to establish a global technical centre for P&G.

Shell headhunted her in 2003, getting her on board as its CIO of oil products. Barely a year later, she was promoted to be V-P of its global IT services, the first Asian woman to hold such a senior position.

“A leader has to be someone people want to follow. And to be that, you have to demonstrate skills to work and engage with people, to put them at the centre of things that you do,” she says.

In her book, a leader also has “a hard head and a soft heart” as well as a “good nose to sniff out opportunities and the stomach to take them on”.Convinced that she has the ability to return “good P&L”, referring to the profit and loss statement, the self-confessed “restless” soul asked for a business role after the outsourcing exercise.

She was appointed to her current position – which requires her to lead Shell’s growth strategy in bulk fuels and lubricants across the Asian region – in January this year.It is not an easy job.

Fuel is essential, she says, to so many trades and in so many ways.

“We are in a business that matters. A lot of businesses will not move without fuel; mines, for instance, will have to shut down,” she says, adding that her job requires her to, among other things, ensure there is supply security.

Since taking over the job, “anything that could have happened, has happened”.

“There’s wet weather, earthquakes, Libya,” says Ms Goh, adding all these can affect the ability to move products.

“You just got to learn how to manage the volatility and stay calm. I sometimes wish there’s a good news channel,” she quips.

Like many people holding fast-paced jobs, she sometimes wonders why she pushes herself so hard.

“There are times when you’re really tired, and in a hotel room with hundreds of e-mails, and your children are at home and you’re thinking of them and you ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’

“But,” she rationalises with a hearty laugh, “if I were to stay at home, I’d just drive everyone mad.”

Bringing up three children aged between 13 and 17 is a lot tougher than managing several thousand people at work.

“At least at work, you can pull seniority. At home, at that age, my children don’t care if you run amulti-billion-dollar business.”

Still, she thinks she hasn’t done too bad a job of bringing them up.

“Although they must be sick of me always travelling, they’re always there to send me off, or pick me up. That signals to me that we have good kids and we enjoy a good relationship.”

kimhoh@sph.com.sg

Q&A

You spearheaded Shell’s massive outsourcing exercise, a deal which took three years and affected the jobs of more than 3,500 staff. How did you do it?The first thing was to build a team of really good people to run this project. It was quite clear to us that the people impact was going to be big, and the impact on the business huge too.

So it was very clear to me right from the very start that people had to be at the centre of our consideration... I wanted to be very open and very transparent because we needed their trust. So a lot of effort went into understanding their needs, taking them through the change and putting in place what was important, like landing workers in the organisations of our proposed partners.

I’m really proud of that... We have a survey which we do every year and despite all that we were going through, we were consistently getting one of the highest people satisfaction results. We were doing something right.

What are you like as a mother?I’m not a “tiger mum”. I don’t need my children to give me the best results but I need them to have tried their best.

And how do you juggle work-life balance?At some stage, it’s no longer about balance but about integration. So knowing I have a demanding job and children, how do I integrate them into my work?

When I was VP (vice-president) of global IT services, I had to travel to The Hague every month. During the summer, when the children are on holiday, they would come up with me for two months. It’s a fantastic opportunity for them to relax, cycle around.

You just have to turn a bad situation into a good one and I’m always looking for opportunities to do that.