One-on-One with Andre Nothomb
Solvay is a Belgian science company whose technologies bring benefits to many aspects of daily life. Founded in 1863 by Ernest Solvay, the Group ranks among the world’s top three companies for the vast majority of its activities, operating 115 sites across 64 countries and employing around 24,000 people. The company’s purpose is to bond people, ideas and elements to reinvent progress. Solvay’s innovative solutions contribute to safer, cleaner, and more sustainable products found in homes, food and consumer goods, planes, cars, batteries, smart devices, health care applications, water and air purification systems. It seeks to create sustainable shared values for all through Solvay One Planet, an initiative crafted around three pillars: protecting the climate, preserving resources and fostering better life.
Hailing from Belgium, Andre Nothomb spent most of his life away from his country as his parents were diplomats with assignments in countries such as Japan, China and Thailand. Naturally, Nothomb was brought up with the local food and culture from a young age, instilling in him an appreciation for certain characteristics special to Asia. In the 1980s during his university years in Belgium, he realized that despite the lack of mutual knowledge between those in Asia and Europe, there were a few similarities between the two continents. For instance, the disparity between dozens of different cultures based on long lasting traditions spanning across both continents obliged everyone to be more understanding of differences to make progress in developing durable relationships, regardless of what the objectives were. He says that this still holds true today.
Nothomb joined Solvay after completing his military draft service, which placed him in South Korea early on in his career. Since then, he has been in various positions within the company, eventually spearheading the Korea office for many years.
Now, he is executive vice president and head of government and public affairs at Solvay APAC, and currently resides in Thailand.
Read on to find out more about Korea’s chemical industry and Andre Nothomb’s fascinating story about his time doing business here.
How did you become interested in Korea?
When I started working at Solvay in 1989, I was full of goodwill to make a good impression. I realized that many of my new colleagues looked at me with concern. “You are going to Korea? Did you put careful consideration and thought into this?” I realized that at the time, not much was known about Korea, which posed it as a challenging place to live. But it was too late to change my mind and I reminded myself that it might not be as much of an issue for me as I had lived in Asia for many years.
When I arrived in Seoul in early 1991, it was freezing cold and I had just one suitcase to survive for a few weeks until my young family would meet me there a few months later. It was quite a struggle to adjust to the different ways of living. Since then, Korea has made huge progress in terms of its economy and living standards, and now, I must say that living here for me is probably easier than it would be in Europe.
I’ve lived in Seoul for 21 years, making it the country where I’ve spent the majority of my life!
What made Solvay expand to Asia and establish a branch in Korea?
After developing the Group business all over Europe and the Americas, exports of our products to new developing countries in Asia grew during the 1960-70s, mostly in Japan, Taiwan, Korea, India and Southeast Asia. For the chemical industry, this paved the way for localizing production in these new markets to save logistic costs once the businesses became well established.
The first Solvay production site in Korea was built and established in 1975. It was among the pioneers of foreign investors at that time in the country, which was still rebuilding itself from the destruction caused by the Korean War. The factory built in Incheon produced synthetic silica which back then was mainly used to produce rubber shoe soles. Gradually, silica was used to produce tires, which is its main application today, requiring much more advanced technology along the way. Other production sites have been built since then in Onsan and more recently in Gunsan where we erected a brand new silica factory for which we were pleased and honored to receive a significant cash grant from the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE).
Another recent success story involves the establishment of a large corporate research center built within Ewha Womans University in downtown Seoul. I was one of the very first Solvay employees to move my office there, a unique experience in a vibrant setting. This became our HQ in Korea where besides hosting nearly 80 research scientists, we also moved in most of our Korean commercial activities, as well as the HQ of one of our Global Business Units: Special Chem, which covers many products mostly used in the electronics, automotive, and heavy industries as well as lithium batteries.
It would be very complicated to describe all that we do and sell in Korea, but our business here clearly reflects Korea’s industry, evolving from producing basic commodities to now, thriving in advanced technology. To remain competitive, we also had to constantly adapt to the demands of newly developing industries, while also localizing top management in Korea, which is the only way to really understand and closely follow the needs of an always challenging economy.
What are the advantages of doing business in Korea and in Asia?
First of all, for those who are still trying to decide on an Asian country to invest in, remember that Korea combines many features of other countries in Northeast Asia, so Korea could serve as a test market and provide a good reference for future developments within the region.
Besides, from here, you can easily supply your products to most countries regardless of distance. Our company definitely took advantage of all these assets. Solvay started out with joint venture partnerships in the 70s and 80s, as they were the only way to learn the specifics of doing business in Korea. We had long standing partnerships with OCI, Samsung and Hanwha, as well as smaller specialized Korean companies.
Indeed, we immediately recognized the merits well-educated and hard-working Korean employees although we had to go through quite some time of getting to know each other better, challenging all parties to be open minded and accepting of our respective differences.
Obviously the decision to build an ambitious research center in Seoul rested on our positive experiences in budding R&D activities since the early 2000s in the country, developing new technologies such as LCD and Plasma displays, thereby working and even acquiring some very innovative startups, as well as successfully collaborating with local universities and technology institutes.
And should I mention the ever-improving infrastructure? I went from taking the Saemaeul train to get from Seoul to Busan in eight hours, to now, taking the KTX for just 2.5 hours! I saw most of the Seoul subway lines being dug out in less than 20 years. I marveled at the new expressways built to reach almost every corner of the country, a countless succession of high bridges and long, brightly-lit tunnels. These advancements allowed my family’s regular weekend activities be planned around discovering picturesque sites in newly accessible areas like Gangwon-do and Geoje-do.
Were there any specific strategies that Solvay established to better adapt to the Korean and APAC markets?
When we invested early on in Korea, we replicated productions from Europe, mostly commodities in high demand in the local Korean industry, which our technology at that time could easily satisfy. But when China started to develop rapidly in the early 2000s, many of our customers moved there and our Korean industrial base which had done pretty well especially after the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis suddenly suffered. Exporting to China became uncompetitive while Korean demand rapidly moved on with new businesses.
For instance, we faced a real crisis when our CRT television glass materials production in Ulsan was made obsolete within less than three years as traditional TV technology suddenly gave way to LCD and Plasma display glass, for which our existing products were no longer adapted. We had to rapidly team up with smart Korean SMEs who had developed new materials appropriate for new displays. This taught us that local R&D efforts could pay off, bring quick results and allow us to diversify our products. This experience was observed with great interest from our European HQ, and paved the way for our decision to raise our game in Korea by localizing more top management as well as corporate research capability in the country.
Based on your extensive experience doing business in Korea, what advice would you give Belgian investors/companies seeking to enter the Korean market?
Once a company/investor decides to explore the Korean market and finds its first favorable contact, they must focus all effort on immediately following up on their new Korean venture. Once there is an interest for their products and services, potential partners in Korea will expect daily progress check-ups and responses.
As soon as your early developments seem to become more promising, it will be time to establish a small local structure to keep up with the day-to-day business activities on real time basis, while at the same time building more trust with the Korean prospect(s). This means hiring a few suitable Korean employees with the required expertise. The need for excellent English or other language skills is not a priority. Remember that the employee will have to mostly address Korean counterparts and what you really need is to hire the go-getter with the drive and self-confidence.
How can Korea become a more ideal business environment for foreign companies like Solvay?
I’d say be more welcoming not only to large investors but more SMEs who can develop a more diversified ecosystem, and allowing for more creativity and flexibility to satisfy the needs of everyone and thereby improving the social wellbeing of the Korean population.
Another focus should be to expand support for rational and scientifically based analysis of the various environmental challenges we are faced with, so that companies like Solvay, who are convinced about the merits of scientific progress, can sooner act to improve the situation rather than limiting ourselves to endless debates based on opinion.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way your company is conducting business here?
Well, since travel restrictions due to the pandemic is preventing from visiting Korea while we have ongoing projects here, I found it very comforting that organizing online video conferences from my home in Thailand with my colleagues and counterparts in Korea was easy and efficient. This has allowed us to make progress on the projects without any delays.
To be fair, I was able to do the same with a few other Asian countries as well (not all!), but doing it repeatedly with my Korean partners has turned out to be an excellent experience and good learnings for the future. However, I'm really hoping to travel back to Seoul as soon as possible, as once in a while, we absolutely need to meet on a real face-to-face basis to preserve the human touch.
What are some future plans/goals that Solvay has in terms of doing business in Korea?
After having been in Korea and witnessing the country’s industrial transformation since 1975, we continuously consider Korea for most of our investment projects, especially those where our products have a role to play in the supply chain involving Korean conglomerates and other innovative companies.
Our ambition here remains very high, especially as we are fed by the achievements provided by our Solvay-Ewha R&I center which is very active in new energy domains and are at the forefront of the ever-increasing needs of sustainable development. Besides, we also develop many applications impacting agriculture, fishery and other economic activities, which might not lead to new production facilities in Korea, but could on the other hand lead to significant improvement in the ways these activities are operated in Korea and other advanced countries. In some ways, these developments to which I can personally contribute are even more exciting than investing in new production facilities, as they can improve the daily lives of the general population, and are in line with the fundamental purpose of our company.
By Grace Park
Investment Public Relations Team / Invest Korea
Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA)