COO Jacqueline van Lemmen Knows That Operations Is Where It Happens

COO Jacqueline van Lemmen Knows That Operations Is Where It Happens
Operations is the place where impact is made in terms of reducing scope emissions. That is the firm conviction of Jacqueline van Lemmen, COO of biotechnology company Corbion. She advocates using the available brainpower in operations. ‘Managing centrally from an ivory tower is not a good approach. Precisely in operations is a wealth of ideas.’

Jacqueline van Lemmen worked 25 years to the day for food technology concern DSM. It left her with ‘a lovely pendant’ and, above all, a cartload of experience that she has been utilizing for about six years now at biotechnology company Corbion. She learned what it means to sail a sustainable course when she first encountered DSM, she tells Remko de Bruijn, senior partner at Kearney. ‘In a distant past, I worked in Spain for the Dutch yeast and antibiotics manufacturer Gist Brocades. We always had hassles with our wastewater treatment there. There was no installation and no investment in it. It was too expensive, there was no payback. When DSM took over Gist Brocades in the late 1990s, it was addressed immediately. In one fell swoop, millions were invested in as many as ten wastewater treatment plants. Why? Because it was the right thing to do. Putting their money where their mouth was – that is what they were all about. And that is what we are trying to do now at Corbion as well.’

So why switch from DSM to Corbion after 25 years?
At a certain point in your career, you must make choices. I worked abroad for long periods in my life, but when my children turned 14, 15 I did not want to do that anymore. And at that moment there was no suitable position available for me at DSM in the Netherlands. That is, I had already done everything once. It was extremely difficult for me to make the decision back then. I was hooked on DSM and spent a year weighing the options. Finally, I decided to just do it and take the plunge. That was an interesting experience, because once you enter the door to operations as a woman, you are  under the spotlight within a week.’

Because everyone is looking for a woman?
‘Of course. There simply are not many women in operations. At DSM I was the first. Here at Corbion I could also sit on the Executive Committee. That made it extra attractive to me. I was also the first woman there. Now, six years later, there are three of us; a great development. I have never for a moment regretted my move to Corbion. This is a wonderful company.’

Let us zoom in on the sustainable part of your work. Corbion has set firm climate goals. I assume that as COO you have an important role to play in achieving those goals....
‘Certainly, ultimately it needs to happen in operations. The exco devises it, and we help implement it. You cannot just talk about sustainability and expound on worthwhile targets. You must also do it, and sometimes - just as DSM did at the time when it took over Gist Brocades - you must make choices for an investment that does not really have an immediate payback.’

Do you have an example of such a choice?
‘We are making such an investment, for example, at our site in Blair, in the United States. We are expanding our lactic acid production there significantly, but as a result we would also face a significant increase in CO2 emissions. We then immediately act on that and invest in technology that eliminates those emissions. That involves a lot of money. It is an investment that you do not recoup immediately in hard euros.’

Can you explain to us how such a process works at Corbion and what the role of operations in it is?
‘We have a small sustainability department at Corbion. Together with colleagues from research & development, they created a kind of digital twin of all our plants in terms of CO2 emissions. This allows us to monitor accurately how emissions are doing at the sites and we can quickly map out the consequences if we make changes, including if we build a new plant or expand an existing plant. This allows us to estimate well in advance what investments we need to make to reduce our footprint. Thanks to the data, we can make those decisions.’

Do you have a concrete example of what becomes insightful in this way?
‘In Brazil we have a large state of the art algae plant. That plant is almost completely green, with virtually no emissions. This is partly because the plant obtains electricity and steam from an adjacent sugar factory. The sugar factory, however, is shut down for two months a year for various reasons, while we want to keep running. Thanks to our digital twin, we can see what it means if we run our factory on ordinary electricity. We see that CO2 emissions skyrocket. We take that into account when making a decision.’

Are climate objectives considered in every investment decision at Corbion?
‘Yes, these are obviously considered. A company that takes sustainability seriously cannot do otherwise. We give considerable weight to it, but of course we do the same with the business arguments. We are not holier than the Pope. Our algae plant in Brazil did run production for a few weeks because we really needed some of the production. Then we stopped production until the sugar factory started up again. That was a well-considered decision, looking at emissions on the one hand and yields on the other.’

Scope 2 - which deals with our own indirect CO2 emissions, about energy supplies - is relatively straightforward. Scope 3, about the emissions of other organizations in the process, is far more complex. It goes further down the chain. I saw a graph in your sustainability report in which your scope 3 curve even  went up first for a while, before it eventually dropped...
‘That has everything to do with the fact that you cannot arrange things overnight. Here at our location in Gorinchem, for example, we would like to replace our gas boilers with e-boilers. The technology is available, so it is an excellent idea, with great implications for the curve you describe. Only, those boilers require huge high-voltage electricity cables, in this case a cable no less than five kilometers long. That is not simply there. You need to consult with a wide range of parties: the government, the grid operator, fellow companies here along the Merwede. That all takes time. First there are long procedures, then the cable itself must be laid and only then the e-boilers can be installed. I already know that this process will take another five years. Only after that will the impact become clear.’

Is it not difficult to monitor progress in such complex processes? Delays lurk on all sides and other priorities present themselves ... How do you safeguard that?
‘These kinds of processes are monitored accurately at our company. We agree on something and carry it out. In between, we keep each other informed of the situation. We also secured the targets distinctly in the exco. We have annual targets and long-term targets, and these are all translated into personal targets. We are also evaluated on these.’

In many industries, the scope 3 reduction targets make up more than three-quarters of the total reduction. In Corbion’s documentation, I came across a percentage of 83 percent until 2030. The biggest climate challenge is further down the chain, both upstream and downstream. How do you deal with that?
‘One way we are trying to do that is by focusing on our raw materials. In Thailand we are currently building a large new plant with a different technology. In order to produce lactic acid, we use calcium hydroxide, or lime, as raw material. Lime is a product of a CO2 intensive mining procedure. We are now in the process of building a new factory in Thailand that requires no lime additives. That factory will be virtually circular. Commissioning this site will enable us to take a big step towards our scope-3 reduction target.
We are also in the process of negotiating terms with our suppliers. We are one of the largest consumers for raw sugar in Thailand, giving us buying power in the country. We are in consultation with the suppliers there. We try to agree on targets with them: on the use of pesticides, on the route to regenerative agriculture. That actually works quite well.’

And the really hard decisions? Closing factories? Discontinuing of products?
‘We are looking at that too; we have a target that 85% of our products must contribute to the United Nations’ sustainable development goals by 2030. In general: I think that some components will soon no longer be a fit for our biobased portfolio. And we will certainly act on that.’

Are you optimistic about the future?
‘Yes certainly. I think we are going to help determine the future with our techniques. Everything we do in future will be biobased. We use green technology. Take fermentation. I love fermentation, fermentation technology. You use bacteria and fungi to do the work for you - how beautiful is that? We plan to make big strides with this technology. For example, I have long been involved in the development of second-generation sugar - sugar based on glucose from biomass. Everyone is talking about that. When we master that technology, the world will change. That moment will come, we will certainly crack that nut, we just need to be realistic: it will take at least another ten years, because that technology needs to be cheaper than oil-based processes. That too is a long-term process. Taxing the negative impact of using fossil fuels would help with that, though.’

Is it difficult to translate sustainability targets to the workforce?
‘That, of course, always remains the challenge. But we have made great strides, for example by now agreeing separate KPIs for each location. We had a lot of internal discussion about that recently. I think it is very important not to steer centrally from an ivory tower. There is a wealth of ideas in operations. I have noticed in the operations - and this is the crux of the matter - that the people at the locations really enjoy being involved in sustainability.  People like sustainability. They want to work on it and have ideas about it. If you keep steering everything centrally, you do not take all that potential, all that brainpower, with you. Utilizing this potential, on the other hand, creates a kind of flywheel’.

What seems difficult to me is that you must deal with different countries and cultures. Do people in Europe not think very differently about sustainability than people in Thailand or Brazil?
‘I think all the people who work at Corbion work with us because we take this subject seriously. Our purpose is preserving what matters and I notice that this resonates with everyone. Everyone feels something about it. I also notice that people in all layers of the company are proud of what we make and how we make it. They believe in the potential of our technology. Believe me: there are few people here who switch from Corbion to an oil company. That simply does not happen. The other way around it does. I regularly speak to people who come to work for us because they no longer feel like building yet another cracker.’

To what extent does leadership matter in sustainability?
‘The CEO is an incredibly important driver. If the CEO does not carry this story, does not live it,  things will go wrong. Our CEO, Olivier Rigaud, sets a high priority on achieving the sustainability agenda. He wants to do it. Without an inspired CEO, it will not work. You cannot make progress; then everything must make financial sense. And that is a losing battle. So, it starts at the top. You must also try to translate that drive into all layers of the company, from the Boardroom to the operations. Olivier is a huge believer, my colleagues in exco and R&D are huge believers, I am a huge believer. Sustainability really is at our core here.’

This article was published in Management Scope 05 2023.

This article was last changed on 23-05-2023