The Budapest Business Journal sat down (virtually, observing social distancing norms) with Romke Noordhuis, ExxonMobil’s lead country manager and head of its Global Business Center Hungary, to discuss his management philosophy, being a runner up in the BBJ Expat CEO of the Year awards and, of course, COVID-19.
BBJ: Congratulations on being a runner up at the BBJ Expat CEO of the Year awards. In your introductory video, you talked a lot about your colleagues at ExxonMobil. Would you say this is, at least in part, recognition for them too?
Romke Noordhuis: It was an honor to be nominated for this prestigious award and yes, I definitely see this as recognition for our team in Budapest. We have grown to be a high quality organization of more than 1,800 people and it is impressive to see what we have achieved together. I am proud of the fact that we have managed to create an environment where people can have an attractive career in a global organization, where we value everybody’s contributions and maintain an inclusive work environment.
BBJ: Since we held the gala at the end of January, the world has changed. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected ExxonMobil, how are you combating that, and what has the company done to support the local community?
RN: These are indeed unprecedented times and it is incredible how quickly the virus has changed the way we live. A situation like this brings out the best in people and I’m really impressed with how we have responded. We have formed an emergency support group, which is tasked with supporting our organization during this situation and to keep our operations running as best as possible. Almost all our people have been working from home since the middle of March and, generally, we have been able to keep our operations running effectively.
Although the oil and gas business is heavily impacted by the reduced demand, our key focus right now is on the safety of our people. This includes programs to help our employees with their home setup and to provide mental health support. In every country where ExxonMobil operates, we have introduced donation and support campaigns.
Globally, ExxonMobil is the largest producer of isopropyl alcohol and in the countries where we produce this, donations have been made for the production of hand sanitizer. Our chemical company has also increased the production of raw materials that are used for the production of masks, gowns and gloves for medical professionals.
In Hungary, we have launched a matched donation program with our employees to purchase life-saving equipment for three hospitals heavily involved in the COVID-19 pandemic (the Dél-Pesti Centrum, Miskolc, and Kiskunhalas hospitals) and we have also donated furniture to Dél-Pesti Centrum to fit out its patient screening facility. Currently, we have a laptop loan program to help the kids of employees with home education. Also, employees can donate personal laptops to children’s homes and we will be launching our annual laptop donation program for schools later this year.
BBJ: ExxonMobil has a much longer history in Hungary than many realize. How long has it been here, what brought the company to the country initially, and what keeps it here?
RN: Predecessor companies of ExxonMobil were actually active in Hungary in the first half of the 20th century, but in more recent times, ExxonMobil opened a marketing office in Hungary in 1993 and started selling Esso fuels and Mobil1 lubricants. This business was divested in 2006. In 2009, ExxonMobil and MOL partnered on a gas exploration project in the south of Hungary but this was abandoned as no commercial quantities were found.
The Business Support Center was established in 2004 and has grown over the years to an organization of more than 1,800 people now. Last year, we renamed it a “Global Business Center” to reflect the strong reputation and integration with our businesses world-wide and we expect ongoing success in future years.
BBJ: What would you say characterizes your leadership philosophy?
RN: My leadership focus is to create a work environment that provides everybody in the organization with an opportunity to excel. I believe in continuous development and want to make sure everybody reaches their full potential in a long-term career. I try to be very approachable and flexible, listening to people and letting them share their ideas and suggestions. I love to work with highly motivated and hard-working people.
BBJ: You are Dutch, ExxonMobil is American, your business support center is based in Budapest. How do these different international backgrounds blend together?
RN: The oil and gas business is obviously global and I very much enjoy working in such an international environment. I see myself as a global citizen and love to work with people from different backgrounds and cultures. I joined the company in the Netherlands almost 25 years ago and have had assignments in six different countries and been on business trips to more than 30 different locations. Our Hungarian employees often speak several foreign languages and many have studied or worked abroad. We currently have more than 60 Hungarian employees out on expatriate assignments around the world. In our Budapest office we also employ quite a few foreign nationals, over 80 nationalities are represented in total. We have a strong company culture where inclusion is highly valued. And somehow, Dutch directness seems to combine well with the Hungarian culture!
BBJ: What would you change about doing business in Hungary?
RN: Over the last 16 years, Hungary has been a good host for our Global Business Center and the Hungarian government’s business-friendly policies make a real difference. We signed a strategic partnership agreement with the government in 2018 and the collaboration with the Hungarian Investment Promotion Agency has been excellent. A key focus for an organization like ours is to have direct access to highly educated talent and keeping the Hungarian universities competitive internationally will be very important in the future. Fiscal and macroeconomic stability and remaining well-embedded in the European Union will be an important basis for further success.
BBJ: What is next for ExxonMobil in Hungary?
RN: The reputation of our Global Business Center is strong and we expect our organization to play an important role supporting ExxonMobil’s businesses in the future. We still expect some additional growth and most of our functions continue to hire, also during the current situation. We have signed a lease on a new building with our current landlord GTC and expect to move in by 2022, creating the necessary space to grow to well over 2,000 people. However, more important than the number of employees is the ongoing value that our organization is adding to ExxonMobil globally, which is especially critical in the current business climate.
BBJ: Is there anything else you would like to add?
RN: My family and I have been in Budapest for four years now and really love living here. I’m proud of what we have been able to achieve in our organization, including significant growth, strong partnership with governments and universities, strengthening external communication and employer branding, and it was great to celebrate the 15-year anniversary as a major milestone in this journey.