From an industrial era to the businesses of the future: Göran Seifert

Mr Göran Seifert, MD at Anda Pacific, a consultancy firm, is a long-term resident of Singapore. Sitting on a wealth of experiences over the course of his 40-year career, he is today a sought-after advisor to various businesses, serves on a number of boards, and enjoys sharing his knowledge with the younger generation through guest lectures at Singapore’s top universities.

He represents the generation that worked for multinational corporations born out of the second industrial revolution. As an executive and country manager, Göran built up corporate presences in countries around the world, and witnessed first hand how companies underwent dramatic restructuring as they grew into larger multinationals. That era, now being replaced by the new ‘smart industry’ industrialization, means businesses may never look the same again on operational and management levels.

ScandAsia talks to Göran Seifert, who shares his corporate journey and how he has found his way to advising boards, companies and universities.

The Philips years
A large part of Göran Seifert’s career took place at Philips where he started off in Holland in 1980, working in public telecommunications. A Dutch company founded in Eindhoven in 1891, Philips represents the industrial era during which the modern world developed, although today it has evolved into a technology-oriented business focusing on health.

“What attracted me when I started was that there was an enormous diversity of businesses. Philips had everything back then, from home electronics to professional equipment: telecom, data, medical systems, defense, and so on,” begins the Swedish executive. He moved on to building the telecom infrastructure in Peru, and then came back to Europe to be in charge of the white goods division, based in Italy.

Göran’s role grew and he was then appointed Country Manager for Philips Thailand.
“That was a fantastic job because we sold nearly all products that Philips was producing back then. I managed 3,000 employees, a semiconductor assembly plant, lighting and TV plants, a large sales organisation, and some 30 service centres countrywide. This was exactly when Thailand was beginning to take off,” he reflects, “and GDP was growing with 13-14 per cent per year. Those were incredibly exciting times.”

World’s first autonomous indoor drone developed by Blue Jay, which navigates using technology from Philips Lighting. Photo: Philips Lighting

Next, the Swede was appointed President for Philips Lighting in Asia, assigned to grow the unit out of Hong Kong. “Lighting is where it all started for Philips so that was, based on tradition, an especially favoured unit of Philips. And that was also an incredibly interesting time when we acquired companies in Japan and China, and built several joint ventures. We grew 25 to 30 per cent per year, with between 10,000 – 11,000 employees in our lighting business in Asia.”

For Philips, however, change was inevitable: after strong decades following the Second World War, Japanese competition began to make things much more difficult. Göran experienced this and saw how things evolved first-hand.

“Back then Philips was a typical matrix organisation, which came from the two brothers who started it; one was responsible for manufacturing and the other for selling. Philips had nine product divisions that each amounted to a couple of billion Euro in turnover, and each product division had sub-units, adding up to a total of almost 150 separate business units. Nobody really looked in detail at the various business units, at profit and loss; there was always money around which meant that some projects that were less profitable continued.”

And so, as Göran explains, “We started questioning the matrix with the country vis-à-vis production divisions and started tilting the responsibility more towards the product divisions to be responsible for profit and loss. The countries would function as sales organisations, but under the regime of the product divisions.” Philips then recruited some new top executives from the outside, which, says Göran, was unprecedented up until then. One of them, earmarked to become the next President, was appointed in the Philips management Board for the Global Lighting Division as well as the Asia Pacific region, and became Göran’s boss.

“Since Philips was an extremely complex organisation, and so large that one needed to understand people and organisational issues in order to really grasp what was happening and why. He asked me to come back to the Netherlands and help restructure and run Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Essentially, he needed someone with some grey hair and Philips experience.”

The new boss told Göran: “Philips is like a plate of spaghetti, you look at it, take hold of one pasta piece and have no idea what will move on the other side, because everything is entangled. I want to turn Philips into a plate of asparagus. Each asparagus should be placed nice and straight so one can see that this represents Lighting, and here we have Consumer & Electronics etc.”

In order to improve efficiency, regional headquarters were set up around the world, and Göran was one of the senior managers who recommended Singapore as the Asia headquarters. He was also appointed head of the Philips Corporate Regional Operations for Asia, based in Singapore. Concurrently a semiconductor plant was set up there, strongly supported by EDB, the Singapore Economic Development Board.

“We had many managers in their fifties who had been on the country organisation side in the matrix their whole career. They were autonomous, with great power and connections to the local government and business community. There weren’t many checks and balances concerning whether local strategy and execution were beneficial for the company – all country managers, around 70 of us, reported directly to the board. When I was the Thailand country head I met my “real” boss only a couple of times per year.”

With the new “tilting of the matrix” in place, the local CEO’s were transformed to a sort of hotel manager, meaning that they no longer had any bottom line responsibility. But they still had to “fly the Philips flag” – making sure relations with governments, local business communities, and unions were running smoothly. Many of them could however not adapt to the new structures, which lead to several of them retiring early.

“When I started in 1980, we numbered almost 400,000 employees worldwide and today, what is left of the ‘old’ Philips is down to about a third of that number, mainly in the medical systems division, whilst Philips Lighting was spun off and listed separately.”

The time for change had also come for Göran, who left the multinational in 1998.

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Settling down in Singapore
“I had worked for Philips for 18 years and been given some offers from competitors throughout the years. Philips wanted to relocate me again, to a very interesting top position in Holland, running Philips Worldwide Combined Projects. But our children were becoming teenagers and wanted stability, and we all wanted to stay Singapore.”

At that point in time Göran and his wife decided staying in Singapore was the priority for the sake of the family. After living in nine countries they were deeply impressed with Singapore’s rule of law, transparency, professionalism and governance, all of which made the Seifert’s big supporters of the city-state. “We have lived here now for 21 years and love it. Our two children are back home in Singapore, both working here in the communication sectors.”

After a two-year stint with Williams PLC, an erstwhile world leader in security and fire systems, which was then de-merged and sold, he joined the Italcementi Group. At the time this was a listed, family-controlled cement company, one of the world’s largest five groups.

“I joined in 2000 and was responsible for Asia in the Group Management Committee, still based in Singapore. We bought, built and expanded businesses in China, India and Thailand. I was really given great support to build up the business in Asia, and I must say it was an extremely rewarding fifteen years with them, although very different from Philips.”

After Göran retired from Italcementi he was requested to remain on the Asia subsidiary boards that he had built up. Their competitor Heidelberg Cement bought and incorporated Italcementi in 2016, so it no longer exists as a separate company today.

Beyond corporate life
Based on all his experiences, Göran Seifert today runs a boutique business consultancy, advising Western mid-caps on their Asia strategy. He also serves as Chairman and board member in listed and non-listed companies (both in Singapore and internationally) in diverse business sectors, such as technology, law, risk management consulting and furniture sourcing and distribution.

He also sits on the Wharton Business school executive education board in the USA, and it is clear that he does not want to retire from an active business life.

“It’s interesting to note the varied reactions I got to continuing work after retirement,” he chuckles. Swedish friends were incredulous that he wanted to keep working after retirement age. “Meanwhile, my Asian friends said: ‘What? Retire? What foolishness is that! Why are you retiring?’ I replied that I have so many other things to do; family, own investments and other assignments. They just shook their heads in disbelief.”

This, he says, “is one of the things I bring up when teaching at the universities as a key difference between Asians and Europeans. In Asia it never ends – if you have a family business, you never retire. In Europe, however, one often lives for an early retirement. I have seen with friends that it’s not always a good decision: some studies actually show it is actually not good for your health, physically or mentally.”

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Göran is happy to share his wealth of insights, especially concerning cross cultural communication: “I have seen so many mistakes that were made, due to wrong persons sent to the wrong countries and behaving insensitively, so that’s one of my favourite topics to discuss with students. And that concerns not only westerners coming to Asia – today you have outgoing investments to the West where Asians need to understand the do’s and don’ts there.”

He also is a regular speaker at conferences, panels and universities, finding this to be extremely rewarding. He especially enjoys discussing the experiences of businesses he led in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and North and South America with students. He was also invited at the round table discussion on the subject of income inequality, held by the Nobel Prize organisation in Singapore.

His advisory and consultancy firm Anda Pacific works with medium-sized Western companies in need of advice or introductions to businesses in Asia and Singapore in particular. “Since I have been lucky to work within large corporations in most countries in Asia, I still have a broad network of contacts and good friends here. I am fortunate to be in a position where I can advise businesses on where to start in Asia.”

LightLab Sweden, in which he is also a Non Executive Director, is one such company. He introduced this technology company to Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU), which led to a joint research collaboration. LightLab’s unique proprietary technology based on field emissions uses UV light for disinfection of water, air and surfaces. Together with NTU, they have applied for joint patents and have miniaturised the LightLab technology. “We are developing this chip-scale lamp here in Singapore together with NTU, and it is an extremely positive and fruitful co-operation,” says Göran. “Their resources and support are invaluable.”

Among its advantages are low cost mass production, small size, low energy consumption and the lack of poisonous substances, such as mercury, which is normally inherent in UV lamps. “Currently up to half the patients warded in hospitals worldwide are being treated due to waterborne bacteria, so the market is huge, and several large firms are very interested in this product, says Göran.”

He is also, since July 2017 Chairman, in the board of another company in Singapore with Scandinavian roots, SourceByNet, which are specialists in large-scale custom designed furniture sourcing and distribution. “I am lucky to serve on boards and businesses in very diverse sectors, which means I am constantly learning.”

Looking ahead, he agrees that the fast-paced technology development, lead by digitalisation and disruption, is already causing dramatic changes.

“When it comes to corporate governance I believe that virtually all companies must have skilled ‘digital directors’, although there are relatively few of those today.” He adds that he is also a big advocate of the increased participation of women in business, especially on boards and in senior leadership positions.

“But I also support diversification beyond gender, and looking at nationality and background, as well as knowledge and experience. I think we have a lot to learn from the younger generation. There is a substantial need for qualified people that can adapt to the new realities of artificial intelligence, internet of things, big data, and so on. All these are gigantic wave formations flooding old conservative companies that I think will face difficulties in surviving — unless they evolve with the times.” He also believes the method for managing and steering companies will change. “The old way of doing business, with quarterly reports, obsolete business models: all that is unwieldy.”

Göran anticipates some mix between old and new business models: “There are exciting times ahead for us all, and especially for people like myself who are a bit older, it is vital to adapt quickly. Now more than ever, the name of the game is to be fast and flexible.”

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