Surely locals can lead our companies

Source: Todayonline 17Aug2011

Why are foreign MNCs better able than home-grown corporations to spot and appoint local talent to key posts?

By Conrad Raj

Let me begin by saying that I have nothing against foreign talent. In fact, some of my best friends are foreigners. And like most Singaporeans I do not suffer from xenophobia.

But it still pains me to find many companies here neglecting to nurture and groom local talent for top posts, preferring instead to hire from abroad.

So I was a little disappointed earlier this week to learn that my former classmate and good friend Koh Poh Tiong, 64, will in October be succeeded as chief executive of Fraser & Neave’s (F&N) food and beverage division by yet another foreign talent – Mr Pascal de Petrini, 51, formerly from the Danone Group.

When Mr Koh left F&N subsidiary Asia Pacific Breweries (APB), he was also succeeded by a foreigner, Belgian Roland Pirmez.

I have nothing against Mr de Petrini. He may be a great successor to Mr Koh, just as Mr Pirmez has done fabulously at APB, with the company recently reporting record net profits up 18 per cent to S$250.6 million on a 20-per-cent higher turnover of S$2.24 billion.

Could a local talent have done better or just as well? Perhaps yes, perhaps not, but then we will for the time being never know.

Mr Koh, however, is a true-blooded local talent and in his 26 years with the F&N group has, in the words of chairman Lee Hsien Yang, “served the group with distinction”.

Said APB chairman Simon Israel of Mr Koh when he relinquished his chief executive position: “As CEO he (Mr Koh) has built APB into a leading regional brewer with 30 breweries in 12 countries. Mr Koh steps down with APB well positioned for growth on strong fundamentals.”

And according to a company press release, in his three years as head of F&N’s food and beverage division, Mr Koh moved its dairy business “beyond Malaysia and built strong foundations in Thailand and extended its footprint into Indochina”.

In other words, the local boy did good.

To paraphrase the saying, a prophet is often better recognised outside of his own country. Why are foreign multinationals often able to spot local talent better and appoint them to head key positions in their respective companies?

Take Singaporean Michael Kok for example. Hong Kong-based Dairy Farm International appointed him as its first Asian head of the company in 2007.

In that position he runs a company that has 75,000 employees, nearly 5,000 stores, a turnover of over US$9 billion (S$10.8 billion) at the end of last year, and profits in excess of US$410 million.

His achievements gained recognition in 2009 when he was given the “Outstanding Chief/Senior Executive (Overseas) Award” by The Business Times and DHL.

Would he have achieved so much in a Singapore company?

The same question could have been asked of another Singaporean – Mr Phupinder S Gill, the president and chief operating officer of the CME Group (formed with the merger of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade), who was named the following year’s outstanding overseas chief/senior executive.

Mr Gill has served in that position since 2007 when the merger of the two commodities exchanges took place and created the world’s leading and most diverse derivatives marketplace. Last year his annual compensation was estimated at some US$3.9 million.

In contrast, the last five CEOs – beginning with American John Olds – at DBS, considered Singapore’s largest bank, have been foreigners.

In his National Day Rally speech on Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said: “At the top end, high-quality professionals and entrepreneurs have to be allowed in because they grow our businesses here and help Singapore compete internationally.”

I have no quarrel with that. I am all for welcoming entrepreneurs who bring in the capital or know-how, to establish new businesses here or to grow businesses here.

But is there really a dearth of Singaporeans able to lead its companies? If so, what efforts are being made by these companies and the country to nurture and train local talent for the top jobs?

I am sure there are enough Singaporeans in the top management in the F&N group and other companies to be nurtured for the top posts. They must be given the opportunity and the experience. We cannot always be depending on foreigners to plot our global strategy.

There are those who think the Government’s recruitment of most of the country’s top talent following their A-level results should be eased. Every year the country’s schools pass out scores of students with perfect A-level scores. What happens to them?

Far too many of our best and brightest end up in the civil service and in the armed forces. Perhaps the Government should release more of its scholars into the private sector so that there is enough talent to man the top jobs in our companies. Locals have a commitment here. Foreigners may not.

I am not advocating any sort of ban on foreign talent – not at all. It is just that they should be hired for the rare and unique talent that they possess, and not just because they are a tad better than the locals.

Conrad Raj is Today’s editor-at-large.