Laurence Mulliez: 'Good Decoding is Necessary'

Laurence Mulliez in conversation with Wim Eysink

Laurence Mulliez: 'Good Decoding is Necessary'
How do foreign supervisory directors experience their supervisory role at a Dutch company? Laurence Mulliez, supervisory director at SBM Offshore, points out the usefulness of an introduction to local governance mores during onboarding and advocates extra attention to team building. ‘Bridging cultural differences is not a problem.’

The location of SBM Offshore's head office has been strategically chosen: the Schiphol Airport terminal is a stone's throw away. This is convenient, as the majority (five out of eight) of the Supervisory Board comes from abroad, flies in regularly for meetings and can quickly take a flight elsewhere afterwards. If necessary, a quarter of an hour after the concluding executive session − in which the supervisory directors evaluate the supervisory board meeting among themselves – they can board a plane. SBM's Executive Board also includes various nationalities, including the Swiss-French CEO Bruno Chabas. Chief governance and compliance officer Erik Lagendijk is the only Dutchman in the quartet. The diverse composition of SBM's top management reflects the international character of the offshore, oil and gas business. The listed company is active worldwide in the design, construction and operation of floating storage and production platforms for the oil and gas industry.

Laurence Mulliez, who is in her second term as supervisory director of SBM Offshore, landed a day before the interview. We talk to her in the early morning, before the first meeting in her busy schedule. Mulliez is well versed in the oil and gas sector, having held top positions for two decades at US company Amoco, British BP (where she was responsible for a turnover volume of 1.5 billion euros, nine factories and 2,000 employees in 37 countries) and Eoxis, a start-up for the production of wind and solar energy active in Spain, Italy and India. Her international career turned Mulliez, who was born in France, into a cosmopolitan woman: as an executive she travelled 60 to 70 per cent of her time. She also lived in four countries. At the age of eight, she and her parents moved from France to the United States, where she later obtained her MBA. She also lived in Switzerland and has now been living in the United Kingdom for a long time. With her French and British passport, she has dual nationality. Does she still feel French? ‘No’, she laughs, ‘I feel like a world citizen.’

Dinner together for the meeting
‘In 2014, Mulliez made the transition from executive to full-time non-executive/professional supervisory director. Her supervisory portfolio is as international as her managerial career. Among other things, she waves the gavel at two energy producers: Voltalia in France and Globeleq in the UK, which is fully focused on the African market. In 2015, she added the supervisory directorship at SBM, the group that grew out of a number of traditional Dutch shipyards, to her portfolio. She took office four years after the Brazilian corruption scandal, which the company was still discussing until last year. Its aftermath led to three extra supervisory board meetings in 2018, on top of the regular seven: an intensive meeting schedule, especially for the foreign supervisory directors. And then there are the separate meetings of the various committees within the Supervisory Board. Mulliez is a member of the Audit Committee and the Technical and Commercial Committee. In order to set up SBM's supervision as efficiently as possible, the foreign supervisory directors fly in for two-day sessions: on the first day, the board meetings are held, and in the evening, there is a joint dinner and an update session. On the second day, the supervisory directors' meeting takes place. In addition, there are regular phone calls or Skyping in between.’ 

Why did you say yes to the question of becoming a supervisory director at the Dutch SBM Offshore? 
‘I do not see SBM as a Dutch company, but as an international company, just like the other companies in my portfolio. The head office is in Amsterdam, but the world is the working area. I always apply three criteria for whether or not to accept supervisory directorships. One: do I really have something to bring to this company? Two: do I like the people? That is an important condition, because only then do you feel free to challenge the board and enter into a difficult conversation, if necessary. A supervisory director must have the confidence that the board respects him or her and is open to him or her as soon as matters are raised. So in the preliminary talks, I see if it clicks. That is the time to explore the culture on the board. At SBM I have had talks with the chairman, the CEO and my potential fellow supervisory directors. For example, I asked them: why are you on this board? That's how you get an idea of each other. My third criterion: do the company's values and standards fit in with my personal value system? SBM ticked all the boxes.’

The Netherlands has the Rhineland model. It focuses on long-term value creation for a broad group of stakeholders, rather than just shareholders as in the Anglo-Saxon model. How do you experience that?
Laughing: ‘Perhaps the Netherlands has ignited the rest of Europe, as the British governance code now also states that the board must be at the service of all stakeholders. In addition, boards have a duty to keep their finger on the pulse when it comes to employee satisfaction and culture. Two years ago, France, too, laid down by law that the board must focus on stakeholders and sustainable value creation. In other European countries, awareness has therefore also spread that companies need to earn a licence to operate. This insight now forms the context for management and supervision throughout Europe. However, the United States is still primarily shareholder-driven and the Asian model is characterized by a lack of transparency and openness.’

In the Netherlands, the two-tier board is the dominant governance structure, with separate management and supervision. What differences do you experience with one-tier boards and the one-tier governance model?
‘France also has the two-tier board. So in my portfolio I have extensive experience with both models, but in practice I don't experience much difference. Whether you meet four times a year or eight to nine times, you have the same task as a supervisor: you monitor the board by asking the right questions, but you don't manage the company yourself. In the Dutch governance system, the role of the supervisory director is more codified than in the Anglo-American system, but the basis is the same: you have to rely on the board and challenge it, but you're not running the company.’ 

Do supervisory directors from abroad need extra or specific onboarding?
‘At SBM, as a foreign supervisory director, I not only received an introduction about the company, but also about Dutch culture and governance mores and the importance of keeping the roles of executive director and supervisory director well separated. As a foreign supervisory director, it is also good to know how visible a company is in its own business community: for example, there is a lot of interest from the Dutch press in a listed company like SBM. It is useful to also pay attention to such aspects during onboarding.’

As a supervisory director from abroad, the physical distance to the supervisory organisation is greater. So how do you know what's going on in the company?
‘Every year, as SBM supervisory directors, we are invited to a strategy session with the top 40 managers; I went there two years ago. That's when you get to know the sub-top and hear what's going on. As SBM supervisory directors, we are also encouraged to visit assets. For example, I paid a working visit to Brazil and was on one of the ships. This year I'm going to a shipyard in Singapore, where Liza Unity is being built, a floating oil platform for ExxonMobil. During those kinds of visits, you talk to all kinds of people from the operation, you take a look at the working conditions, the safety measures... That provides valuable information.’

How does an international supervisory team build a relationship of trust with the Executive Board and with each other as supervisory directors?
‘During the dinner with the Executive Board and the Supervisory Board prior to each Supervisory Board meeting, you also get to know each other in a different way. Sometimes we have a drink with each other afterwards. In addition, we as supervisory directors have the executive session after every meeting, at which everyone can express their opinion freely, without the presence of the Executive Board. It is important that the Supervisory Board is a real team. That starts with the composition. In the past, when there was a vacancy, one of the members usually knew someone. Now you look at the right competencies, backgrounds and personalities within the collective, with the profile in hand. I notice this increased attention for team building on all my boards.’

How inconvenient is it that you are sitting at the table with many cultures and have to bridge the inevitable differences?
‘I’m used to working with and in different cultures and the same goes for the other board members. So that's not a problem. But I have to say that I’m talking about people who share the same, Western cultural heritage and often have the same background, namely the oil and gas industry. At SBM, all foreign executive directors and supervisory directors come from Europe and one from America. So we have a common history, we speak the same language. If we also had supervisory directors from China and India, that would probably change the dynamics. I'm not sure if I could hold a supervisory position at, for example, a Chinese medical company that has little international orientation. In Western culture and in this industry, I know the codes. When a British person says, “That was quite nice,” I know it means the opposite. Chinese or Japanese should be read very differently. An international supervisory director has to be able to decode well in order to work together.’ 

You've lived in four countries. What did you learn from that experience?
‘As an eight-year-old girl, I was taken out of math class at my American school for a game of basketball or doing a gymnastic exercise like the cartwheel. Apparently, that was considered more important there than doing sums. I learned from this that every culture has a different value system. Because you get to know so many cultures, you learn to be open to the differences. You are also more likely to think about your own value system: what do I actually find important, independent of the environment in which I find myself? That helps you to think autonomously.’ 

What do you see as the added value of a diverse board with foreign supervisory directors?
‘When I look at myself: I have worked in the global oil and gas industry for a long time and bring in the customer perspective. Moreover, I have an international network within the sector, which can be a big advantage for SBM. I have also gained a lot of knowledge, experience and contacts in renewable energy, which is in line with a trend such as sustainability, which SBM also has to deal with. If you are internationally active as a supervisory director, you can also contribute the most important global governance trends and share how other organizations deal with them.’

Suppose a crisis erupts, the board suddenly has to meet 25 times in a year and you, as a foreign supervisory director, have to fly in all the time...
‘If a crisis breaks out, supervisory directors must be on top of it. It is therefore important to ensure a breathable portfolio, which enables you to spend the necessary time on a supervisory directorship. That applies not only to supervisory directors who come from abroad, but to every supervisory director. At Globeleq, the CEO stepped down last year and we had to look for a replacement. So I was in London more often to interview potential successors. Important projects, too, sometimes take a lot of time. At Voltalia last year, we had a large share issue of almost 400 million euros. Then you have to talk to investors in Paris, in London ... I always try to operate as efficiently as possible, because time is the scarcest asset I have. So I use the phone and Skype as much as possible. But sometimes you just have to be physically present, to meet people in the flesh. Especially in a crisis. You have to make sure your portfolio allows it.’ 

At SBM, Supervisory Board Chairman Floris Deckers will be succeeded next spring by Roeland Baan. Again a Dutchman. In your opinion, can a foreign supervisory director be the chairperson of a Dutch company? 
‘The Dutch members of SBM's board felt that the chairperson of the Supervisory Board should be Dutch in order to act as an interface between the company and the market and the shareholders. Also because the CEO is not Dutch. If a Dutch CEO were appointed in five to ten years' time, then perhaps the chairperson could come from abroad.’

This interview was published in Management Scope 02 2020.

This article was last changed on 31-08-2021