ExxonMobil Continues Investing in People in Hungary

Power

Jeroen Kirschbaum (left) and Byung Kim.

A change in leadership always brings with it a degree of uncertainty. U.S. energy giant ExxonMobil has sought to emphasize continuity at the leadership handover in its Hungarian operation.

The fact that the outgoing country manager, Jeroen Kirschbaum, will maintain some work connections with teams based in Budapest and that the new manager, Byung Kim, worked in Hungary for four years, 10 years ago, helps. The two have also been able to attend several events in person together, making the transition visibly clear.

By Kirschbaum’s own admission, the change in leadership has come quicker than he expected. Postings typically last three years, and he has completed two. Indeed, our first interview with him was in July 2020 (see “Dealing With Uncertainty, Investing in the Future” online). So, how much notice did he get?

“Not much. I guess the best opportunities often come somewhat unexpectedly, and this was no different.” It was a similar story for Kim. “However, I didn’t have to think twice about accepting the job,” he says.

How did Kirschbaum process the sudden promotion? “I had very mixed emotions,” he admits. “I didn’t feel like I was done here. Since May 1, Byung and I have been talking. And now I feel, honestly, that I can leave things in really good hands,” he says.

“We spent a lot of time discussing why I felt I wasn’t done yet as part of the transition. We think very much alike; we lead very much alike. So, I have full trust in that continuity of what maybe I had as a vision, which was partially started by my predecessors here in Budapest; that will help with continuity in the organization.”

We’ll get Kim’s take on that in a moment, but first, we should understand what is taking Kirschbaum back across the Atlantic to ExxonMobil’s HQ in Houston.

Corporate Restructuring

“We’re restructuring as a corporation and have formed a new company called Product Solutions. That business combines our fuels and lubricants and all of our chemical businesses into one company, the largest independent petrochemical company in the world.” Product Solutions has roughly 30,000 employees. Kirschbaum will be the assistant controller, a new position.

“I’ll have controller oversight over our trading businesses, global marine and pipelines, merger and acquisitions, portfolio management, and ExxonMobil’s Product Solutions activities in the Americas in general,” he says. There is, as the Dutch national puts it, “a lot of exciting new parts of the business that I’m looking forward to.”

With a current headcount of around 2,000, ExxonMobil Hungary has more than 1,000 employees directly or indirectly supporting Product Solutions. That includes roles linked to projects supporting the energy transition, such as biofuels (where ExxonMobil recently acquired a company in Norway that uses wood waste to produce biofuels), or advanced chemical recycling and sustainable aviation fuels.

“ExxonMobil has taken a position that we want to be a leader in the energy transition, and with that, the whole dynamic of the corporation has changed. So, I’m excited to be part of that from a headquarters perspective, but also in knowing how big Budapest’s role is within Product Solutions.”

For Kim, the new business represents both change and continuity in action. “One of the benefits of having a global company that’s integrated like ours is you’re always connected. […] Today, we have interactions with the business, headquarters, and affiliates, and that’s not going to change. How things get run may change as the business evolves. And that will be determined by how the market and society demand it evolves. But the interaction really doesn’t change; I think it just grows,” Kim says.

“The integration of those companies makes us really efficient; it helps us meet some of those customer needs a lot more effectively. […] In terms of how we [Budapest] interact today, we’re constantly engaged,” he adds.

With migrations of around 100 new jobs to Hungary progressing in support of the Product Solutions business, finding new colleagues is high on Kim’s agenda.

“What we’re very happy about is that these are going to be higher complexity roles that require a higher skill set and experience. We’re really excited about the opportunity that brings to Budapest associated with the Product Solutions business.”

Circular Investments

On the various challenges surrounding human resources, be that finding people, retaining them, upskilling, providing clearly defined career paths, giving Hungarians experience abroad, and bringing them back for senior managerial roles, Kirschbaum and Kim agree that many of the factors are interrelated and, in fact, circular: being good in one of those areas helps in another.

The week of our interview coincided with the official opening of the new purpose-built Budapest HQ in the Pillar office building. The presumption is that staff will spend “the majority” of their time in the office.

With its recycled rainwater and recycled fishing net carpets, the office is an obvious statement of the U.S.-based firm’s engagement with Budapest. Even more important than building bricks and mortar, however, is developing all aspects of human resources. Growing partly from the COVID lockdowns, much more emphasis is placed on mental wellbeing, for example. Letting staff know, “It’s OK not to be OK,” as Kim says. There’s also a focus on providing equal opportunities for women and general development into leadership roles; inclusivity and engagement are the watchwords.

“I always recognized the importance of human connections. But I don’t think I fully internalized how important it is for people to feel seen and heard, and to be truly seen and heard,” Kirschbaum says.

Kim agrees. “This is the largest organization I’ve ever led, working 20 years at the company. And I think that sitting down with Jeroen has helped, and I can tell you that he dedicates a lot of time to make sure messages are clear and that the people receiving them will interpret them in the way he wants. That to me is key; when you say something, you need to be able to show and demonstrate that’s what you mean.”

It is time for final thoughts. How does Kirschbaum think he leaves ExxonMobil Hungary? “We’re seeing that we have broken the glass ceiling of the traditional shared services center. And I’m really proud of the organization that they were able to do that.”

The most significant change Kim sees since he last worked in Budapest is “how much the organization has matured. The talent has grown into being able to fill some of these more senior coordination, project management, and advisory roles that didn’t exist 10 years ago in the business services sector. I think the biggest thing when you’re leading a large organization is to invest in people.”

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of July 1, 2022.

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