From scholar to employee

In this first of a two-part series, the writer gives a peek into his Petronas journey following his graduation in 1982. Part two will appear next week.

I was one of six law students from Sarawak in our batch of the law class of 1978/79-1981/82 at the University of Malaya. Upon graduation, I was immediately inducted into Petronas’ legal department in 1982.

In those days, Petronas scholars did not have to go through long and intensive interviews before joining the workforce, as is the normal procedure today. I recall a conversation with Tan Sri Mohd Hassan Marican about how tough it was for job interviewees who had to go through a two-tier interview process.

We had a good laugh when we agreed that “If we were to go through the process that the HRM has put in place now we would have likely failed and not be working for Petronas today!”

Back in those early days, in fact as soon as the last exams were done, I received a call from the HR department asking whether I have finished with my course. When I told him that I have just finished my last exam papers, he said, “Well, please come over and report to us, and by the way, you can start work immediately!”

Since the results of the examinations were not yet out, I was placed in the legal services department officially as a ‘trainee legal officer’. One year late, I was confirmed on the job as a legal officer.

After doing the rounds in the different sections in the legal department, I was appointed as the legal adviser for the Baram Delta operations when Petronas took over the ownership and operator-ship of the nine fields in the Baram Delta, offshore Miri, from Shell upon the expiry of the 1976 production sharing contract.

I was really happy to be able to work in Miri as it brought me closer to my home town in Bario. However, I had hardly warmed my seat there when, less than two years later, I was recalled back to Kuala Lumpur because Petronas has made the momentous and strategic decision to go overseas to explore for and to produce oil and gas outside of Malaysia.

Steady career progression

Back in Kuala Lumpur, I was posted to Petronas Carigali, the exploration and production arm of Petronas, and was handpicked as the lawyer cum quarter master to be in the pioneer team to initiate Petronas on its global quest.

That pioneer team was just a handful of highly motivated people of multidisciplinary backgrounds from technical, economics, finance and legal disciplines. I spent seven years there as senior legal counsel, looking after both the Malaysian operations and also a part of the team bringing Petronas overseas.

Later, I was promoted as general counsel for petroleum resources, a position that placed me as the overall head of the legal function in the whole of the exploration & production business division of Petronas, including in Petronas Carigali.

By the time I left the Group, Petronas was already in more than 30 countries worldwide. I count myself as being one of the fortunate few to have been given the opportunity to be at the forefront of the Petronas globalisation journey, an experience which was unforgettable and invaluable.

Management and strategic positions

The next move for me was to branch out into strategic and general management. I was later selected out of several potential candidates from across the Group, to be the executive assistant to the president/CEO of Petronas, who was then Tan Sri Mohd Hassan Marican.

From there, in August 2003, I assumed the position of senior general manager of the Group tenders and contracts division, responsible for managing the whole procurement functions of Petronas as well as the PS contractors in Malaysia.

Next move was being transferred back to Petronas Carigali as the senior general manager of the corporate services division, essentially the number two position, overall in charge of all the nontechnical functions in Petronas Carigali.

Bottom line responsibility

My next assignment came as a total surprise for me. I was the first lawyer in the Group to be given bottom line and business management responsibility at such a high level when I was promoted as the managing director/CEO of Malaysia LNG Group of Companies in 2007, based in Bintulu.

This was a significant and symbolic move as it was the first time that a local Sarawakian was given the trust to be the MD/CEO of the crown jewel in the Petronas stable.

I was the seventh MD/CEO since the founding of MLNG Group and at the welcoming and hand-over ceremony for me in Bintulu after the formalities were done, I was asked to make a short speech.

My predecessor in the position was a good friend since the early days of Petronas, Ahmad Nizam Salleh (now Tan Sri Dato Ahmad Nizam, who had just recently completed his tenure as the chairman of Petronas).

In my speech before all the staff, and Tan Sri Dato Ahmad Nizam, I said that I was very grateful to Petronas for giving the opportunity to helm such an important and strategic position in the Group and then continued as follows: “Please allow me to say this. I am sure that there were many Sarawakians who were both able and qualified to be appointed to this position before me, but I wonder why did it take six MD/CEOs before me for the first one is put on the job? I am sure those qualified Sarawakians before me were also as capable as others!”

My appointment kind of opened up the way for other Sarawakians to follow, with the appointment of Pau Kiew Huai a few years after I left and now with the current incumbent, Syazwan Abdullah @ Laga Jenggi, both of them being the other two Sarawakians to be given the honour to helm the management of this very strategic national asset.

In 2010, after a change of the top leadership at Petronas, I was recalled back to Kuala Lumpur to take up yet another and different role, namely as “the new public face of Petronas”, as Tan Sri Shamsul Azhar put it to me, and reporting directly to him as the president/CEO.

In fact, I refused to accept the role and tried to negotiate for other roles in the Group but Tan Sri Shamsul was insistent that I should take the job.

In hindsight, it gave a new and added dimension to my experience profile, giving me a useful opportunity to sharpen my skills on media handling, strategic communication, stakeholder management, ESG, and branding.

The significance of MLNG Group can be seen from the following context. In 2007, the Petronas Group contributed 35.4 percent of the government’s income, equivalent to RM48.3 billion, in the form of taxes, dividends, royalties and export duties.

LNG was Malaysia’s fourth-largest export earner in 2007, contributing RM26.2 billion, or 4.3 percent of total Malaysian exports. So, I was given the role and responsibility of managing almost 5 percent of the Malaysian GDP then. Not bad for a jungle boy!

According to Petronas’ 2007 Annual Report, liquefied natural gas (LNG) continued to be the Group’s third-largest revenue contributor. Sales volume increased by 2.1 percent from 23.6 million tonnes to 24.1 million tonnes on the back of higher volume produced from the Group’s Egyptian LNG (ELNG) plant.

As a pioneer in the business, MLNG’s customers in Japan then were Tokyo Electric Power; Tokyo Gas; Toho Gas; Osaka Gas; Kansai Electric Power; Shizuoka Gas; Tohoku Electric Power; Gas Bureau, City of Sendai; Hiroshima Gas; Japan Petroleum Exploration (JAPEX); Shikoku Electric Power, and Chubu Electric Power.

Meanwhile, in Korea the customer was Korea Gas Corporation, and in Taiwan, it was the CPC Corporation. The MLNG Group also made an early breakthrough into the increasingly important Chinese LNG market with the signing of a long-term contract with Shanghai LNG Company.

I was privilege to be the MD/CEO who oversaw the delivery of the first cargo of LNG into Shanghai and the timing was perfect because that winter, there was a shortage of pipeline gas in northern China and Shanghai was in danger of not having any gas for the incoming winter.

In fact, the headlines in local papers the next day after we successfully delivered the first cargo was “Malaysian gas to the rescue!” How’s that for branding and timing?

Since 2003, and for a long while until the Australia LNG came into the picture, MLNG has been the world’s second-largest exporter of LNG, supplying some 12.9 percent, or 22.4 million tonnes of world volume. The Petronas Group’s global integrated LNG business continues to deliver strong results to this day and the Petronas LNG Complex, is still one of the world’s largest LNG production facility at a single location.

As the Group CEO of Bintulu Port Group, I am still closely interlinked with the LNG business, this time around handling the daily export of LNG from Malaysia’s premium LNG port.

In March 2007, the Financial Times named Petronas as one of the new ‘Seven Sisters’. I remember emphatically telling my staff in MLNG that: “This is an honour for Malaysia.”

At the same time, I also reminded that, “yes the company has been doing very well, but remember that to improve on a company that is performing very well is like the last mile in a marathon — it is the toughest part.”

Today, I’m still at it — observing performance and trying to effectively engage people, to change their mindsets and to make them realise that they can “improve in doing what they are doing.” Admittedly, to improve that last 10 percent is a great challenge. Yet I firmly believe that despite its excellent performance, any business can still eke out and trade yet more value. We just need to put our mind to it.

The writer is the chief executive officer of Bintulu Port Holdings Berhad (Bintulu Port).