Michelle Jou was appointed Covestro's head of polycarbonates in January. In this interview, she tells Plastics News Europe how the former Bayer MaterialScience is approaching the Asia-Pacific markets
Q: With 13 years at Bayer – and now Covestro – what changes have you seen in the polycarbonate market?
Jou: Lots of exciting changes indeed!
Covestro's independence since October last year marked a significant development for both Bayer and Covestro. This independence opens up great new opportunities and allows both to shape their future with distinct focuses. For Covestro, we are aiming for bringing more agility and flexibility that are needed for our industry while continuously embedding our innovation and sustainability culture.
We are building all these based on a strong history and true heritage as we are still benefiting from 150 years' expertise and invention history. Covestro continues to improve and we strive to be a high performing company by bringing best-in-class products, services, technology and innovation to our customers.
With regards to the polycarbonate market, the evolution and growth in the last 15 years has been amazing. Notably in the Asia Pacific and China market which has grown into the biggest market for the industry because of impressive economic developments. In addition to growth, there are also important changes in terms of innovation. China has evolved from a pure manufacturing country to an innovative country and we are experiencing more and more innovation coming out from this region. China itself is also the most complex market as we see most diverse applications here. The domestic development particularly fuelled the growth of our business in automotive, transportation, construction and consumers electronics areas. We have established a strong position in this key growth market and built on our strong position in EMEA and NAFTA regions. And we are able to serve our global customers in key regions where they have major operations and need our partnership.
Q: You became head of commercial operations in the Asia region for the Polycarbonates Business Unit in 2012. How long have you been personally involved in the polycarbonates market?
Jou: I joined Bayer MaterialScience in 2003 and have more than 20 years' working experience across marketing, commercial operations, supply chain and corporate management functions in the chemical industry. But I have been involved in the polycarbonates industry since I joined the company. I have served as vice president polycarbonates for China. Afterwards, I became head of strategic marketing for consumer & industrial solutions APAC, and in 2012, I joined the PCS leadership team as head of commercial operations APAC before I took over the current role in January 2016.
We have a long term commitment in Asia. We have just started up our new capacities in Caojing (outskirt of Shanghai) which soon will become the world's biggest polycarbonates production site. In addition to our Thailand manufacturing site, we have compounding facilities in India where we will serve very easily this booming market. We have also a big R&D hub in Shanghai with two other R&D centers in Korea and Japan where we support lots of OEM. We will continue to focus on customer needs, innovate in applications, product solutions and business models so that we can go on bringing values to our customers and contributing to their sustainable growth. Ultimately, we want to maintain our leading position in the polycarbonates market.
Q: Has the slowdown in the Chinese economy had an effect on the polycarbonate market?
Jou: First, I have to mention that we see the development of Chinese economy as the normalization of any development. We believe there is still a lot of untapped potential in this market despite the recent economic slowdown.
The current opportunities we see are notably linked to the fact that China is undergoing a structural reform of its economic growth together with its manufacturing industry. China's previous double-digit growth and rapid developments of its manufacturing industry relied heavily on a huge low-cost labor force. But in the future it will be driven by innovation and technology which leaves endless possibilities.
The potential also lies in the evolution of customers' needs in the APAC and China market. What we see is that Chinese customers' expectations are changing. They are no longer satisfied with universal products; they have higher expectations toward products' uniqueness, quality and flexibility. We are confident that if we manage to address these needs then demand will continue to grow.
Besides China, there are also a lot of opportunities in the ASEAN region and India. For instance countries in Southeast Asia are also key areas of focus because of young population and dynamic growth of these countries. We already have a good foothold there with a large-scale production base at Map Ta Phut, Thailand, which is not only a production hub for Covestro but a regional hub for the automotive as well as certain segments of the IT industry.
Q: What are Covestro's predictions for the polycarbonate market in the next few years?
Jou: Versatile properties make PC and its blended products ideal for a wide range of needs. Transparency, heat and impact resistance, dimensional stability, optical characteristics, and workability are crucial functions that different industries are looking for. Because of these properties, we are confident that the demand for this material will continue to grow in the world.
We work closely with our supply chain partners to develop innovative applications that fit the market and respond to specific customers' need. For the future we are focusing on a couple of products for specific sectors:
• Electronics/Electronic: Polycarbonate will be used more and more in the electrical/electronics segment for the housing and internal components of products such as computers, digital cameras, copiers, smartphones, tablets robotics and many more embryonic applications. PC is also seeing growing use for LED applications.
• Auto: PC has earned high marks for its lightweight mobility, transparency and impact and heat resistance, and is used in headlamps, dashboards, and various interior trimmings. One larger application in which Covestro's PC promises to deliver its advantages is glazing, where it is praised for its weight-reducing effect and workability into complex forms – and is gradually gaining a larger market hold.
• Medical applications where people need safer, reliable and durable materials.
Q: How was Covestro received at Chinaplas in April?
Jou: It was a truly amazing experience! We see this as a critical step for Covestro as a new company to show to our customers and partners the new Covestro.
On this occasion, we looked back on a very successful year in 2015 and shared details about the new brand and strategy in China. We explained how we managed to shape and streamline processes, culture and values to maintain a strong level of growth in the Chinese market. This was very well received by all types of stakeholders, including media, customers, shareholders, employees etc.
We also showcased some of our most innovative applications in various fields: for instance, Covestro is fully embracing the smart home trend by producing various products going from flexible designed TV sets to wearable materials that are functional, efficient, comfortable, durable and trend-setting. We also displayed Covestro's solutions on mobility used to increase the durability and overall design of charging stations to help foster the development of the electric vehicles market in China and partially overcome mobility issues. And Chinaplas attracts lots of customers not just from China or APAC, also global visitors.
Q: In an industry that is particularly male-dominated, what challenges have you faced?
Jou: First of all, I want to say that I am extremely proud to be part of Covestro's leadership. I am conscious that this is a great opportunity, since as you rightly mentioned there are not so many women executives in the industry. However, I believe this trend is changing and there are more and more women starting a career in the technical and normally heavily male dominated industries like the chemical industry.
I always believe being a woman in this industry is an asset. I believe my vision as an Asia woman brings benefits to the business of Polycarbonates and Covestro. Diversity is about bringing in different perspectives and facilitating better collaboration. Diversity also supports creativity and innovation. I work with amazing teams that are very diverse and I enjoy such kind of colorful combination. I want to encourage all my colleagues and young women not to think about limits and challenges but think about opportunities. Dare to dream, and be courageous and curious.