Feike Sijbesma, chief of Dutch nutrition and chemicals DSM, wants to transform global manufacturing

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW

August 18, 2013 2:20 pm

Feike Sijbesma, chief of DSM

By Matt Steinglass

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For several months now, Feike Sijbesma has been doggedly promoting an idiosyncratic vision for transforming global capitalism.

The head of DSM, the Dutch nutrition and chemicals group, is one of the chemical industry’s strongest proponents of shifting from fossil fuels to processes that use biological materials, such as enzymes produced by algae. All manufacturing should be in the process of becoming 100 per cent renewable, he says. Furthermore, Mr Sijbesma thinks companies around the world should negotiate international metrics – similar to international accounting standards – for assessing their impact on the environment and on society. And those whose impact is more detrimental should pay more tax. He has aired this idea in public and more privately with other industrial leaders and leading thinkers at the World Economic Forum in Davos. With annual revenues of €9bn, his company is a heavyweight in nutrition – it is the world’s largest vitamins maker, among other things – but a small player in the chemicals industry compared with petrochemical titans such as DuPont and BASF.Other chief executives’ reactions to Mr Sijbesma’s grand vision have been mixed. “Many have been supportive, but of course I get some people who say, ‘come on, what the heck’,” Mr Sijbesma says at DSM’s headquarters in the southern Dutch town of Heerlen. “[They say], ‘Do you think that will change in the next five or 10 years? And in five or 10 years, you’ll be retired’.”

Mr Sijbesma is an imposing figure in a plain dark suit with the round, self-confident features of a Rembrandt burgher. His father was an insurance agent who, as a youth during the second world war was interned in a Japanese POW camp in Indonesia, and pushed his sons to achieve the higher education he had missed out on. Both ended up with degrees in molecular biology. The younger son, Hans, is now the head of the Dutch division of drug company AstraZeneca, though Mr Sijbesma waves away suggestions of sibling rivalry: despite DSM’s pharmaceuticals division, “our firms are not really competitors”.

His interest in biology was driven by an intellectual fascination with cellular mechanisms. “I was never an environmentalist, in the sense of an activist or radical,” he says. Even so, as he outlines his ideas on the future of capitalism and DSM’s role in it, Mr Sijbesma reveals something of the obstinacy, and the determination to shake things up, of an industry chief who has presided over the transformation of his company’s activities. DSM may have started out as “Dutch State Mines”, having begun its life over a century ago as the national coal mining corporation, but it became a petrochemicals group in the 1970s as the Netherlands shifted to gas.

The CV

● Born: 1959 in Nieuw-Loosdrecht, Netherlands
● Education: MSc medical biology, Utrecht University; MBA, Erasmus University, Rotterdam
● Career: 1987 Joins strategy and development in pharmaceuticals division of Netherlands biotechnology and food group Gist-Brocades
 1990-98 his roles include: head of marketing and sales at pharmaceuticals division; head of savoury foods; director of foods division.
 1998 Director of DSM food specialties group after DSM acquires Gist-Brocades.
 2000 Joins managing board of directors, as DSM starts shift to nutrition and biologics.
● 2007 DSM chief executive 
● 2010 DSM sells last petrochemical businesses
● 2011 Gives talks on transition to “circular economy”
 2013 Calls for “overhaul of our economic system”
 Family: Married, with two children
 Interests: Keeping up with climate research

After Mr Sijbesma joined the company in the late 1990s it had another reboot, pushed through at least in part by him. In 1998 he was head of marketing and sales at Gist-Brocades, a biotechnology group, when it was acquired by DSM. He soon joined the managing board. He worked on a strategy review that decided to shift the company towards biotech and nutrition, mainly because of intensifying competition in petrochemicals.

By the mid-2000s, Mr Sijbesma was chief executive and the company had divested itself of all its petrochemical plants. It was no coincidence that Mr Sijbesma, a trained biologist, drove the company’s shift towards nutrition. Coming from its biotechnology side, he was “seen as one of the new boys”, he says. And he credits his biology training with not only helping to form his views on how DSM should evolve but also his determination to force it to happen. “I always found it astonishing how cells adapt to changed environments, and DSM is obviously an example of a company that has adapted quite a bit,” he says.

Shifting the portfolio was not painless. A number of senior executives who believed the company’s future still lay in petrochemicals were gradually pushed out. For Mr Sijbesma, such decisions are a crucial test of resolve. “The easiest way [to make the decision] is to wait too long, until the business has almost lost its value,” he says. “When it is still contributing a large part of today’s profit it is very difficult to take it out. [But] that is the right moment, because then it still has a value that you can harvest and reinvest.”

Such transitions are even harder, he says, because top officers naturally tend to be good at a company’s existing mission: “The whole top of the organisation rose through the ranks because they had expertise in that part of the portfolio. That does not mean per se that they will work well in the new portfolio.”

DSM has been snapping up producers of vitamins and proteins, such as fish-oil makerOcean Nutrition Canada last year. It has also been developing biological methods for making plastics, fuels and chemicals. Last year, in Italy, DSM opened one of the world’s first commercial-scale biological factories for producing succinic acid, an ingredient that can be used to make many kinds of plastics. It has also launched a joint venture to produce biologically the plastic used for soft-drinks bottles, and has struck deals for using agricultural waste to make synthetic fuels in the US, targeting America’s huge market for ethanol in vehicle fuel – currently made mostly from corn, which drives up global food prices.

In other words, as Mr Sijbesma concedes, his advocacy of a transition by manufacturing in general to an all-biological economy partly reflects DSM’s corporate self-interest. But when he discusses climate change, it is clear his motivation is not just DSM’s bottom line.

“Some 97 per cent of climate scientists now say global warming is induced by mankind,” Mr Sijbesma says, reeling off a litany that could come from the blog of a climate activist. “And that will heat up the world towards a 2C increase . . . after 2C we don’t know what happens. It could automatically run up to 6C, because the Siberian ice areas are going to melt, methane is coming out, etc. And if it is a two to six degree increase then big parts of the globe will be unliveable .”

Mr Sijbesma’s big idea that “corporate responsibility” (a term he professes to hate) should be measured on a standardised basis, and used in assessing companies’ value and their tax bills, is not necessarily self-serving for DSM. But it is somewhat vague, his critics point out. He counters that international accounting standards, for example, are also complex and require positing many arbitrary concepts. But he provides few details on how he thinks companies could turn something as nebulous as their impact on society and the environment into binding metrics.

Nor does he respond to an invitation to outline a potential political coalition that could accomplish this. Indeed, Greenpeace criticised the DSM chief this year, together with Unilever’s Paul Polman, for failing to push for tougher renewable energy goals during government-industry negotiations over national Dutch energy policy. Critics say Mr Sijbesma would do more good through concrete commitments, such as a deadline for converting DSM entirely to renewable energy use, than with lofty visions for changing capitalism.

On balance, though, Greenpeace and other environmental advocates praise DSM’s environmentalism. And Mr Sijbesma says that with the tremendous power corporations wield, he feels a responsibility as the head of a fairly substantial company to address environmental problems on a global scale. “If you think about the kind of things that science is telling us, should I say, ‘I’ll wait for government’?” Mr Sijbesma says.

Waiting until he retires to become a policy advocate, like former Microsoft chief Bill Gates or ex-Procter and Gamble head John Pepper, is not an option either. “I want to express what I think while I’m still in charge of a company doing these things,” he says. “I do not want to wait until I’m retired and say how the world should be run, [even though] I’m not running anything any more.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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