Small town boy made good. Teacher-leader. Brutal but gracious. These would be fitting titles for a book on Zainal Abidin Jalil, if ever he wrote one.
Not that the chief executive officer of Malakoff Corp Bhd, which he has helmed for two years now, has time for memoirs.
These days, the 54-year-old engineer-turned-professional manager is busy steering Malakoff, Malaysia and South-East Asia’s largest independent power producer, to greater heights ahead of a listing on Bursa Malaysia, slated for the first half of next year.
Despite his schedule, the chatty Zainal sat down for an interview with StarBizWeek recently to talk about work, life and his return to Malaysia after three fruitful decades with oil and gas giant ExxonMobil.
If this was a book on Zainal’s life, it might begin like so.
Zainal was born in a small village in Kesang, Muar. His father worked first as a rubber tapper and then as a policeman.
“The only jobs available to us at the time were clerk, teacher, soldier, policeman, civil servant or Felda settler,” says Zainal, who’s grandfather was Chinese and a shopkeeper.
Despite his circumstances, Zainal got into the elite Mara Junior Science College. He narrowly missed out on the premier schools like Malay College Kuala Kangsar after scoring a “B” for English in his Standard Five exam.
Still, Zainal had a good time. He fondly remembers being taught physics and additional mathematics by educators from the United States.
“They were just learning to teach,” Zainal recalls. “But their passion was evident.”
Coming from a small town, Zainal had few role models. That, however, didn’t stop him from being the first in his family to pursue a university education.
“There weren’t a lot of choices,” he says. “The only subjects we talked about were medicine, dentistry and engineering.”
As a boy Zainal saw a future for himself as a jurutera daerah, or district officer. “They lived in government bungalows, drove old Volvo 144 and seemed to have a place in society,” he chuckles.
The only sure path to that career, an impressionable Zainal thought, was civil engineering, clueless though he was about the subject. So off he went to the University of Queensland in Australia on a Mara scholarship.
Zainal’s first posting upon graduation as a civil engineer was to Gua Musang, Kelantan. He worked on a road construction job for a government-linked company, but called it quits in less than a year because he felt stifled.
Then friends introduced him to ExxonMobil. Zainal was based in Malaysia during his first two decades at the oil major, starting out in the offshore division as a subsurface engineer. He was thrust into the heart of the action in Terengganu, where ExxonMobil was expanding its offshore platform network under a production sharing contract with Petroliam Nasional Bhd.
“It was a hive of activity then,” he recalls. “We were developing oilfields and gas fields, and building drilling wells and burning platforms.”
Zainal was the first Malaysian to serve as the multinational’s head of engineering, later becoming general manager of operations for ExxonMobil Malaysia.
His career with ExxonMobil ran the gamut from engineering and business analysis to operations and corporate planning. He switched positions a staggering 15 times – that’s an average of one new job every two years.
Coming back to Malaysia, Zainal says, was always on the agenda.
He bought one-way tickets home for the whole family after eight years in the Republic of Angola and Houston, Texas, where he held top management positions. TalentCorp facilitated his homecoming under the incentive-based Returning Experts Programme (REP).
Zainal had four children when he agreed to the overseas assignments, the youngest being only two. Their decision to return helped bring the family closer, he says.
He was aware of the REP before TalentCorp approached him. “It was a consideration when I was headhunted, but not the biggest factor,” he says, stressing that the most compelling reason for him to come home was, quite simply, to come home.
“And also the chance to join a Malaysian company and do something different,” he adds quickly.
A subject that keeps cropping up throughout the interview, mundane though it seems, is the importance of processes.
Zainal has good reasons for this. “At ExxonMobil we had a strong commitment to a work culture underpinned by process and structure,” he begins. “While it was important to achieve results, equally important was how we achieved that result.”
Malakoff, he asserts, already has a “strong foundation”.
“Our ability to operate is world-class. On a peer-to-peer comparison, we are better than the industry average. Even though Malakoff is a home-grown company, it is technically solid.
“Now, we just need to anchor the company to the right processes. Processes are important. If you follow the right processes, and are consistent in doing so, your odds of achieving the desired results are higher.”
Rather like a management guru, he adds: “Malaysian culture is such that while you want to be brutal in achieving results, you must always be gracious with people. I’m trying to embrace this for myself. Malaysian values are centred on themes like harmony and gotong royong. With the right processes and technical competency, this can be a powerful combination.”
Even so, Zainal admits that there are some stark differences between multinationals and Malaysian firms. For one, relationships are key to working here.
“While that is good, it has to have other anchors as well,” he explains. “Like consistency and transparency of processes, roadmaps and an established way of doing things. These will hold the company together. Work should not be person-driven, but person and process-driven.”
The chance to put Malakoff back on the stock exchange marks the first time Zainal is seeing an initial public offering (IPO) through. The firm was privatised in 2006 by its parent MMC Corp Bhd in an RM9.3bil exercise, which now owns 51% of Malakoff.
“The listing was part of the reason I was brought back,” he reveals. The IPO, originally scheduled for this year, has been put off till 2014 due to maintenance works at its power plants and potential positive outcomes of “certain growth opportunities the company was currently pursuing”, MMC had said in May.
Nonetheless, Malakoff’s long-term plans remain intact. Zainal says the company aims to double its total generation capacity to 10,000MW by 2020, of which 30% is expected from overseas sources. Its current non-domestic power generation contributes to 9% of total capacity.
The utility also aspires to grow its renewable energy (RE) capacity from zero to 300MW, as well as double its water desalination business from the current 360,000 cubic m per day.
“For RE, we want to pursue opportunities of scale. We have the technical competency to start a new line of RE business. It is a natural extension of our engineering expertise. RE is just a different kind of fuel. Wind, biomass, waste-to-energy, solar, hydro – we can pursue these opportunities anywhere in the world. RE does not have geographical limitations.”
Malakoff, via MMC, recently announced the acquisition of a 50% stake in an Australian wind farm for A$130mil (RM382mil). The wind farm in Victoria is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere with total generation capacity of 420MW.
Besides looking after the company, Zainal is a keen believer in looking after its people.
In fact, nurturing Malakoff’s talent pool is right up there on his to-do list. Zainal is well-known for his employee coaching sessions where he talks about what he calls “teachable moments”.
“Malakoff is full of young, talented managers,” he says. “Leaders are everywhere. If you are a husband, you are already a leader in your home or community. But when we come to the office, somehow our leadership gets cramped. I want to make sure that my people stand up and be counted as leaders.”
To Zainal, failing to failing is a recipe for failure. “If you don’t fail, you haven’t stepped up,” he says.
“In ExxonMobil for instance, a 100% success rate in exploration drilling – meaning we found hydrocarbons in every well we drilled – shows that we didn’t push the envelope. It is better for you to have dug 20 wells and found two that were bad than to have dug 10 wells and found oil in all 10. People fear failure. But it is not the end of the world.”
Asked to relate a standout teachable moment, Zainal gives the example of his daughter. “Most people will find it difficult to stick to the speed limit on the highway. So I taught my young daughter about the speed-o-meter. I told her that ayah should not exceed 110 kmp/h, and if I did, she should tell me. So when I go over the speed limit she says, ‘Ayah, you’re driving too fast’. As people, we need checks and balances.”
Zainal is clearly excited to be home. “The best part about this job is the opportunity to build a global company,” he quips.
“I’m humbled by it. Having moved jobs 15 times I’m constantly humbled by new experiences. As long as you’re anchored to your true north, you’ll be alright.”
BORN: January 22, 1959
PERSONAL: Married with four children, two boys and two girls
HIGHEST QUALIFICATION: Bachelor of Engineering in Civil Engineering, University of Queensland
FAVOURITE FOOD: Asam pedas
FAVOURITE PLACE: Home
HOBBY: Stamp collecting, travelling
VALUES: Humility, integrity, respect for people
INSPIRATION: Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Nelson Mandela