“Perhaps you have been given the answer, but you’re not reading it”

“You cannot and should not change, but you should adapt.” Suerd Polderdijk, General Manager Asia Pacific for Frames in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is talking about doing business in Asia Pacific. “You are different, and that is part of your added value”.

Polderdijk, 32, raised in Zoeterwoude (Netherlands), looks back on the two years he has worked in the Southeast part of our globe. The urge to explore the world led him to the Southeast-Asian metropolis.

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Suerd Polderdijk, General Manager of Frames in Asia Pacific: "Malaysia struck me as an accessible and easy going country."

After obtaining his master’s degree in Civil Engineering, Suerd started working for the Dutch Ministry of Transport: “I had a very interesting job integrating traffic management systems in the Amsterdam region. However, I was missing one thing: I was still young and nothing was binding me to Holland yet, and I wanted to experience what it was like to work and live in another country with a different culture.
 
So I was deliberately looking for an opportunity to work abroad, together with my wife Merel. Merel’s brother worked for Frames, and he always spoke very enthusiastically about the company, especially about its culture. Frames delivers solutions for the international oil and gas industry. He told me Frames was expanding internationally and looking for people willing to go abroad.”

Taking the step

“That’s how things started. Five interviews later, I was an employee of Frames. It was important to line up the expectations on both sides. Considerable attention was paid to the role of Merel as my partner and how she could find a fulfilling job or occupation in our new place of residence. The role of the partner is actually key in making an expat assignment a success.”
 
Suerd’s first impression of his new home was certainly positive: “Malaysia struck me as an accessible and easy-going country. From a business perspective, it made sense to set up our hub for the Southeast Asia region in Kuala Lumpur (‘KL’). The ease of doing business is relatively high, yet the costs remain comparatively low.
 
“The first time I stepped out of the train at KL Sentral Railway Station, I found the atmosphere to be gentle and calm,” the general manager says, remembering his very first acquaintance with Kuala Lumpur. “Whereas at Amsterdam Central Station, people are noisy and in a hurry, KL Sentral is just as crowded, but feels very calm and laid-back. Kuala Lumpur is a big metropolis, yet at heart seems to remain a big ‘kampung', as they say over here – not as hectic as Singapore or Hong Kong.”

A is not always A

Malaysia is an open and modern country. Nevertheless, there are definitely some cultural differences between the Netherlands and Malaysia that need to be taken into account. For example, the Dutch directness contrasts with the more indirect communication that is common in Malaysia. 
 
 “In The Netherlands, we are very accustomed to the adage ‘rules are rules’. In Malaysia, as one of my Malaysian colleagues quoted, ‘A is not always A; it can also be B’. In Malaysia, people are perfectly fine with gray instead of black and white. This is not a bad thing; it’s just different. It is a challenge, however, for our team in Malaysia to explain this to colleagues in the Netherlands. And also to myself sometimes, I must admit.”
 
Now, feeling increasingly at home in Malaysia, Suerd remembers the pitfalls he ran into and the lessons he learned. The Malaysian mind remains hard to fathom for the “blunt” Dutch, and vice versa. Suerd smiles: “We tell our Dutch colleagues, ‘You may have been given the answer, but you’re not reading it.’ Answers can sometimes be given through indirect communication or body language. We Dutch on the other hand tend to look only at what is being said. This is a challenge for us, but also for our Malaysian colleagues. For them, it means being more direct in their verbal communication with Dutch colleagues.”

To enhance cooperation and understanding between its Dutch and Malaysian employees, Frames provided them with cross-cultural training. Several workshops were held simultaneously on both sides of the globe, with the aim of defining a set of ground rules for cooperation between Frames’ teams. This empowers the multicultural Kuala Lumpur team to act as a “link” between the Netherlands and Malaysia. “A very interesting, motivating, useful process – and fun, too,” says Suerd.

People work on the N'Goma project
 
Furthermore, Frames has appointed two advisory partners. Suerd: “The advice and dedicated support of these senior C-level Malaysian oil and gas industry partners is simply invaluable when it comes to understanding regional markets and business culture.”
 
Substantiating this strategy, Suerd adds: “Malaysians are very willing to talk about their culture. They are patient, and are open and understanding about cultural differences. So I try to ‘just ask.’” As well as through colleagues and other companies, Suerd meets people through the Malaysian Dutch Business Council (MDBC), in which he is member of the Board of Directors. He also meets people through the Netherlands Embassy, the Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA) and social and networking events: “Ultimately, you need to do things your own way, but I have received a lot of advice from others along the way. I’m definitely not an expert, but I am starting to see and understand patterns.”

At home

Suerd pauses. Then an amusing thought enters his mind, and he laughs: “Malaysians will drive for three hours to go to a good restaurant. They are that crazy about food. Asking ‘Where is the best saté?’ can be a dangerous question. You might be in the car for a few hours. Dutch people have an obsession about the weather that people here don’t quite understand. If you start talking about food, on the other hand…”
 
Today, Suerd and Merel feel comfortable and at home in this part of the world. For the general manager and his wife, it is almost uncanny how unfamiliar things become familiar. However, Suerd and Merel’s Malaysian adventure will eventually come to an end.
 
“The assignment from Frames is for two more years,” Suerd explains. “From the perspective of Frames, I believe change is a good thing. Over time, it can take the office to the next level in terms of fresh thoughts and ideas. So when our time here comes to an end, we will move back to the Netherlands and start settling back in, which will again be strange and perhaps difficult.”

Added value

Suerd sees a positive future for Frames in Asia: “Malaysia and its surrounding countries are growing steadily in terms of their economy. They will need to keep developing their energy sectors to meet demand. Furthermore, a large part of the worldwide offshore fabrication is already centered in Asia, in particular for floating production, a specialism of Frames. Frames will be able to capture a stable market if it can bring its added value to it.”

Suerd pauses for a second, before reflecting on the past few years: “We have attempted to identify where our added value could best be provided and how we can arrange this. Initially, we strived to build an independent entity as quickly as possible, with its own engineering, own sales and own execution. But we then realized that it would be hard to transfer our added value in this way – the know-how that we have acquired in the Netherlands over more than 30 years. Today, therefore, we play the role of a middleman – the link to Asia. We connect Frames’ know-how with clients.  And we connect our SE Asian supply chain partners with Frames. We still have a long road ahead of us and plenty of opportunity to grow. We have been operating in Southeast Asia since the early 2000s, and have had an office here since 2008. Over the past three years, there has been a significant growth in our cooperation with suppliers and clients in Southeast Asia. I truly believe this is just the tip of the iceberg compared to what we will be able to achieve in the future.”