The EPCA’s 38th Annual Meeting was held in Monte Carlo on September 25- 29, 2004. In his welcome address, EPCA President Dr Walter Thünker of BP Refining and Petrochemicals pointed out that the number of paying delegates attending the meeting, at 1,405, was the second highest ever. Including partners, there was over 1,600 people officially registered for the event.
Putting the theme of this year’s meeting - “Developing and Retaining the Right People” - in context, Dr Thünker said that the issue represented one of the four great challenges for the European petrochemical industry. The others are feedstock costs, the optimisation of logistics and environmental obligations.
The EPCA President told delegates that this year’s conference would focus on how the petrochemical industry can create and maintain a supportive culture which fosters the recruitment of the best possible candidates and offers stimulating career paths which ensure the retention of people who can help grow the industry and benefit it in other ways. In addition, the meeting would consider the latest developments in Europe as they relate to chemical industry prospects, the labour market and employment opportunities.
Dr Thünker handed over proceedings to Michael Buerk of the BBC who has now provided sterling service as moderator at EPCA meetings for 11 years in succession. In his own introductory comments, Michael Buerk pointed out that, based upon his experience with EPCA and petrochemicals, the 38th Annual Meeting conference should provide delegates with much food for thought. Despite the extent to which chemicals underpin modern lifestyles, the industry is globally more competitive than ever before and continues to underachieve when it comes to promoting a positive image. European chemical producers need to add value and to innovate just to keep up with their competitors, let alone get ahead.
“Paradoxically, although the chemical industry has traditionally relied on a highly skilled workforce to secure its many accomplishments, young people today do not find chemicals very sexy,” Michael Buerk told delegates. “There appears little to entice a new generation of technicians and scientists to take up a career in the industry. This represents a considerable challenge for you.”
THE INSIDER VIEW
The first speaker was Peter Huntsman, President and CEO of Huntsman Corporation in Houston, Texas, whose presentation was entitled, “Successive and Successful Mergers: Why and How to Establish a New Company Culture”. Peter Huntsman is ideally placed to comment on workforces, considering that over the past 20 years his company has expanded, through acquisitions and organic growth, at a rate of about 20 per cent per annum in turnover terms. During that period Huntsman made 23 acquisitions, all of which have been successful, and the workforce has grown from a few hundred to 15,000 today.
Throughout the company’s history, from the acquisition of a small Shell polystyrene plant by Peter’s father, John, in 1983 through to the current diversified chemical group with an annual turnover of US$10.5 billion, Huntsman has regarded its people as its top priority. More specifically, the No 1 objective for Huntsman is the safety of its people, followed by, in order, environmental protection, community outreach, job assurance, the fostering of creativity and customer care.
Getting people involved is a central plank of the Huntsman culture. Acquisitions are traumatic events for employees who usually view the development as a “failure” of the previous company. The Huntsman culture is focused on sharing its vision with its employees and on releasing the potential of its people. Experience has shown that this enfranchisement process has been successful in reincentivising individuals and winning approval and support for the company from its new employees following an acquisition. The process of getting people involved is focused on not only employees but also local communities, the latter being an important source of future employees. “In recognition of the way we value people, it is also important that we give people work of value,” Peter Huntsman told the EPCA delegates. “In addition, we need to to be open to change and not to be too rigid in our ways, especially as we are involved in so many different countries. We find this flexible approach tends to elicit a similar response from those we deal with, not least the unions. Another part of our culture which is valued is our open door policy. Our senior managers are accessible to their employees, whether to talk about problems, ideas or straightforward requests.”
Giving back to the community
A further essential element of the Huntsman philosophy is that the company is valued more than just the bottom line. In line with the importance the company affords to the need to return something to society, Huntsman gives about one-third of its profits back to the community.
Looking to the future, Peter Huntsman said that the global chemical industry will change over the next two or three years in ways that we will not recognise. There will be more consolidation, and independent manufacturers, not tied to the oil majors, will come more to the fore. The reason that chemical companies, in general, have not performed well in the recent past is due to lack of investment. This will change and people will need to be a central focus of future investments, as they are a key factor in the difference between success and failure.
Providing an indication of the way the industry in general can profit from adversity, Peter Huntsman asserted, “We have always regarded each step in our evolution as an opportunity rather than a challenge. And our people have been key to everything thatHuntsman has achieved.”