Today I’m honored to present to you an epic career hack story and interview with a true veteran Asia expatriate professional, David Turberfield. We’ll ask him some questions about his life and career in Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Seoul, and see if he can’t help us out in our own extraordinary emerging market careers.
1. Please tell us briefly about your bio and background. Your career has been highly diverse in both scope and scale and we’d love to see what you’ve done and learn about your jobs in Asia.
Although my career has been largely technical, I seem to have found myself over the years getting regularly drawn in to setting businesses up or helping to turn them around. My first professional role in the early 90’s involved establishing an NGO in Kuala Lumpur, a sister organization to a well-known environmental institute in the UK. In the late 90’s I helped set up a branch office of ERM CVS in Bangkok and then in 2000, a certification business for URS based out of London. In 2005 I took on ERM’s Singapore office which had shrank from ten consultants to two and over four years brought it back up to over 20 before moving on to ERM’s office in Korea which needed to be opened up and more firmly connected to the ERM group.
I enjoy creating business and being able to see tangible results in terms of revenues, profits and head count. It’s very satisfying to have a vision of a business of a certain size and performance and then spend a few years bringing it into reality.
Technically, I have been fortunate enough to use my Masters degree in environmental impact assessment and work on some amazing EIA and EHSIA across South East Asia. I have also conducted hundreds of environmental and health and safety due diligence and compliance audits for manufacturing facilities in most industry sectors and probably my main technical specialism remains environmental management system implementation and assessment. I have been doing this kind of work for many years and never tire of seeing what, where and how things are made and the environmental health and safety implications of processes and systems.
2. What was the impetus behind making that original move abroad to look for jobs in Asia back in the ’90s? What is your “origin story?”
I grew up in small Shire town in the English Midlands and spent most of my youth wandering around the countryside, quietly developed a deep passion for the natural environment. There were very few ‘environment’ related courses to speak of back in the 80’s and when it came time to think about University, I found myself gravitating towards geography and managed to get myself into one of the most rural University I could find, National University of Wales, Aberystwtyh. I came out of Aber with a BA Hons in Geography in 1990 wondering what I was going to do with it.
Graduate unemployment was running pretty high back then and I went from job to job to pay the rent. I spent some time working in the local library, filling supermarket shelves and doing whatever factory work I could pick up through temping agencies. There was a period of half a year or so where I was working a supermarket at night and spending my days on voluntary work with the local Nature Conservation Trust. I was helping to take care of the nature reserves throughout the West Midlands – bramble bashing, hedge laying and supporting flora and fauna research. I was in my element, it didn’t pay the bills but it fueled my passion.
One evening, knee deep in plastic and cardboard feeding the bailer at the end of another shift at Sainsbury’s with an old school friend, he turned to me and said “F#@k this – let’s go to Thailand…”. A few months later we were on a very dodgy and cheap Romanian Airlines flight to Bangkok and my first taste of Southeast Asia. We backpacked around Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore and two things happened. First, I fell in love with the place and secondly, I realized I needed to go back to college and take a Masters degree in the environment.
When we got back, I managed to get a European grant and went back to Aberystwyth and took an MSc in Environmental Impact Assessment, the first course of it’s kind in the UK. Towards the end of the course, I caught sight of an opportunity from the Institute of Environmental Assessment, which is now the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, looking for students to conduct their Master research in Asia in conjunction with the international conferencing company, IBC. The successful applicant needed to buy their own flight to Singapore but would receive a basic honorarium from IBC to cover the living costs for the three months of the project. I applied, was interviewed by the Institute and by IBC in London and won the job.
My father was not keen on the idea, he could not see why I should have to pay for my own flight and “work for these people for free”, but I had a gut feeling that it would somehow be worth the cost. I knew I needed to get this experience on my CV, start developing some contacts and get out into the world to make something happen. I took a loan from the bank and went for it. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.
The project filled three purposes. First, it was my MSC research project, focusing on emerging environmental management systems and how they would impact business in SEA. It was also a feasibility study into the potential appetite within SEA for a sister Institute to the Institute of Environmental Assessment in the UK. Third, it developed a database of environmental contacts that IBC could use to develop environment related conferences, in conjunction with the Institute. I worked hard and we managed to achieve these three objectives very successfully.
After the project, I moved to Lincoln in the UK and spent a year at the Institute completing my Masters thesis and helping to raise private sector funding to open a sister Institute in SEA. Once we had raised sufficient funds, I found myself on a plane to Kuala Lumpur tasked with establishing the Asia Pacific Institute of Environmental Assessment or APIEA.
At the age of 25, I was the Chief Executive of the APIEA, speaking on environmental management at professional conferences across the region and driving the UK Institutes activities into industry, government and academia across South East Asia. I did this for three years and then decided to move into environmental consulting, fearful of becoming institutionalized within an NGO, and joined Dames & Moore, which is now URS, and later ERM.
3. Why and how did you choose the environmental field as your calling? Do you feel that there exist strong opportunities in your industry for young expatriate professionals seeking work abroad? What would they have to do to seize these opportunities?
I was drawn into the environmental field, as I think were many of my colleagues, by a simple love for the countryside and feeling a need to protect it. As it turns out, my career has been spent stomping through oil refineries, chemical plants, industrial estates and all manner of factory, which is of course a far cry from the peaceful tranquility of the British countryside.
I continue to feel that overall, I am spending my time doing what I can to help organizations minimize their impact on the environment and protect the health and safety of their people. Of course, it’s not perfect and we see all manner of bad practice and nonsense but I continue to believe that overall it’s a good thing to be doing.
Opportunities in this field are huge and continue to grow. The social, political and cultural drivers behind the environmental business have created a huge momentum over the last thirty to forty years, which shows no sign of abating. The Environment Business Journal at the end of 2011 estimated the global environmental consulting and engineering market to be worth $53 billion. ERM is on track to become a $1 billon business within the next five years. There is a huge spend in this area although it continues to be a relatively low key business sector with much of the activity going on quietly behind the scenes. I know that within Asia, clients and consultancies are starved of skills and the key challenge across the board continues to be hiring.
Graduates looking to move into the environmental health and safety arena need to ensure that they acquire the necessary academic skills for their chosen discipline and should do whatever they can to gain relevant experience. When presented with two new graduates at interview with matching qualifications, I would always tend towards the one who had some kind of experience or knowledge of my business.
I believe a three or preferably six month internship hugely increases an individuals initial value and employment prospects. Being prepared to work for free or for a minimum amount should be regarded as an investment and not as exploitation. It worked for me when I was starting out. I have employed many of the interns I have had working for me over the years and I have seen many others rapidly going on to build their careers in the environment from this foundation. There is work available but it is an aggressively competitive market place. My advice would be to drop your initial expectations, focus on building your value and the rewards will come.
4. Can you tell us some of the most interesting projects you’ve worked on? How about the most challenging? In what ways did these experiences working abroad give you a unique competitive advantage as a manager and as an individual?
Probably one of my most interesting and challenging projects was an EHSIA for an oil and gas seismic survey in Ethiopia. The baseline study had us driving from Addis Ababa across the Riff Valley to Gambela with a team of Ethiopian specialists.
I was coordinating the social survey. This required trekking out into the grasslands on the Sudanese border seeking out the local tribes with a team of translators and an Ethiopian military escort. The area was extremely troubled, primitive, violent and lawless reeling from decades of regional conflict and famine. It was a fascinating study, heart wrenching and rife with security and health risks. Many of the key messages in the report did not make for positive reading. The client pushed hard for structural changes to the final report that we were professionally obliged to resist. It tested the team’s people, client and technical skills to the maximum and proved to be an un-paralleled learning experience for us all.
5. Your career spans the entire world, with Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and Korea as your main hubs. Why did you choose jobs in Asia in these spots? Is it more like these spots chose you?
I think it is fair to say that by and large these locations chose me. Opportunities arose in these places and I jumped on them. It was not a case of me specifically looking for opportunities in these locations to go after.
It is very difficult to describe my decision making process. Sometimes great opportunities would arise and I would just not feel at all interested, perhaps because the time was not right, I wasn’t sure about the people or I was particularly enjoying what I was doing at the time. On other occasions, an opportunity would come up out of left field and would just feel right.
Our move from Singapore to Korea is a good example. I was enjoying significant success in Singapore but when Korea came up, I just felt the need to do it. I received an email in the car announcing that the Managing Director for Korea had resigned. I know that a replacement would be needed. My wife was driving, I said something like “they need an new MD for Korea, should we go for it?”, she said “yeah sure…”. I emailed the regional CEO from the car and by the time I reached the office he was on the phone. There was a process to go through but I knew I was in with a good chance. A few moths later, I was heading to Korea. I’m a great believer in gut feeling. Sometimes people or situations just feel right or not, for no obvious reason. I generally listen to this.
6. Language fluency is increasingly becoming a basic requirement for international professionals – regardless of their position within the company. Have you ever felt this hindered you from thriving in your jobs in Asia?
Clearly not being able to speak a language in a certain country will have a big influence on what you do at work on a day-to-day basis but I have never found it to be prohibitive.
My career has primarily been spent with large international consultancy firms working for multinationals. By their very nature, these firms need to interact seamlessly across multiple territories and the ability to speak English fluently is a prerequisite. The vast majority of outputs to multinational clients are required in English and most the people you interact with, certainly most decision makers, have a good level of English fluency.
From my experience trying to learn Mandarin, for most people learning a foreign language to any level of basic fluency requires a huge investment of time and effort. If you know that you are only likely to be in a particular country for two or three years, it is unlikely that you will be sufficiently motivated to put the time in.
Having said that, it is essential to get a teacher and learn the basics for survival. After all, you need to live in that country, get around and buy things and the importance of being able to show basic politeness in the local language in any society cannot be underestimated. Of course, the more of the local language you can learn, the better you can understand the local culture and the more effective you will be in business.
7. For those young expat professionals who don’t speak the local languages, how would you suggest they set themselves apart and secure those dream jobs in Asia?
One of the key challenges faced within an international environmental consultancy is reporting in English. Although the ability to speak English fluently is a prerequisite, it is very difficult for people with English as a second language to write adequate reports in English. As a result, I have spent my whole career editing reports.
When I first went into consultancy, one of my initial assignments was to head to Jakarta for a few months to help edit an EIA. In the process of working through the report page by page, often having to ask consultants what they were trying to say and why in order to rephrase it, I learned a huge amount about EIA and the reporting process. As a Managing Director fifteen years later, I found re-writing reports to be a very poor and inefficient use of my time and would look for junior staff with English as their first language to take up this role.
I guess that my point here is that you need to study the work place and look for activities where your specific language skills can add value and where you can gain valuable knowledge and experience.
8. Please share with us any particularly humorous or outrageous stories you may have in your arsenal of expatriate experience.
Our apartment in Hapjeong in Seoul was a very high tech affair. On the wall in each room was a small control panel with a larger centralized panel in the living room. These had display screens telling us what was going on with the heating system, hot water, TV, telephone, lighting, intercom and the like. They controlled the door for letting in guests down stairs, were linked to surveillance cameras and had all kinds of timing devises and alarms built into them. It was quite a sophisticated and important piece of equipment. Unfortunately, it was entirely in Korean.
We spent two years struggling to let people in, lights going on and off at random, heating in the summer, cold showers in the winter and the TV blaring into life in the middle of the night. We were regularly having to scramble to the control panel and randomly hit the touch pad until normality resumed; often a drawn out process the consequences of which could be experienced for days. It was like living with a poltergeist.
On one occasion, an industrial style fire alarm burst into life in the early hours of the morning and the control panel started shouting something repeatedly in Korean. We ended up stood in the living room staring at the panel wondering what the hell was going on when the intercom rang. In the process of trying to open the door, we had the lights flashing on and off and the TV blaring. Eventually, we end up with two very serious looking security guards on our doorstep peering into what must have looked like some kind of bizarre soju fueled disco frenzy.
They came through the house, a few quick taps on the key pad and all was back to normal and they proceed to give us a Korean style stern telling off, of which we understood not one word. We later found out that our son had accidentally hit some kind of panic button in one of the bathrooms…
9. Things have changed a lot since you first decided to work abroad and seek jobs in Asia. What sorts of things are now easier for international professionals? What things are more difficult?
In the early 1990’s, the term expatriate was firmly associated with folks working in Asia for multinational companies with generous salary packages including hefty housing allowances, cars with drivers and international school fees. By and large this was the case for the majority of foreign professionals one came across. Over the years, however, these kinds of packages have dwindled and it is increasingly common to find foreign professionals working on the same packages as local professionals, especially in the more developed economies such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo. I believe it is now possibly for a much broader range of foreign professionals to apply their skills in Asia but more difficult to command the traditional expatriate packages.
I also have a sense in recent years that English may slowly start to lose it’s hold as the primarily language of business as China continues to grow in economic influence. English has been so ingrained for so long here that this is certainly not likely to be an issue for many years but I do feel a growing personal imperative to learning Mandarin. The writing is on the wall as they say…
10. Where would you recommend that aspiring international careerists head to for jobs in Asia?
My advice would be to keep an open mind in terms of location and look for the opportunities. Asia is a vast and incredibly diverse region. All manner of industry has established itself here over the last twenty years and the education systems in many of the Asia countries have had to scramble to produce the human capital required to keep it rolling. There are skills shortages across the board and I believe that the door is open to foreign talent in pretty well all sectors.
Some companies have developed great systems for identifying and attracting talent from around the world, usually multinationals that have been facing these challenging for decades. There are, however, an increasing number of smaller foreign firms and home grown Asian firms that have experienced huge growth and expansion but are struggling to find the right people. Those looking to move into the region need to develop effective strategies to unearth these opportunities.
Of course, China is the elephant in the room and remains a sensible place to focus but there are some other countries to keep in view. The Thai economy, despite a number of political and physical set backs over the last few years, has remained strong. Myanmar is slowly prizing open its doors to foreign investment and India is of course on the move. For the less adventurous adventurer, Singapore remains a comfortable launch pad into a career in Asia as does Hong Kong. Both have a strong colonial heritage, large and well established expatriate communities and diverse and open economies with the latter having the added advantage of being on China’s doorstep.
11. What opportunities and industries do you see having strong growth potential in the future for expat professionals seeking jobs in Asia, both junior and senior?
My expatriate friends in Asia work in a surprisingly broad range of industry and business sectors. Oil and gas, minerals and mining, telecommunications, medical services, high tech, tourism, architecture, pharmaceutical, hospitality and so on are all on the rise and it’s difficult to single out a particular one. We must remember that Asia represents about 30% of the worlds land area and with a population of almost 4 billion, is home to 60% of the world’s people. It’s emerging economies are creating huge and increasing demand for resources, services and skills which are not necessarily immediately to hand. Whatever sector an individual is skilled in in the West, those skills are likely to be required in Asia. All that remains is for the individual to have a real wish to move and then to know how and where to look.
David Turberfield’s Bio:
David Turberfield has twenty years experience providing practical and strategic EHS solutions to corporate and operational management for the private sector and Government, primarily in Asia. David has an MSc in Environmental Impact Assessment and extensive project experience in EHS Audit, EHS Management Systems, EHSS Impact Assessment, EHS Management Training and Development, CSR and Corporate Governance. David has lived and worked in the Asia Pacific Region for fifteen years having been based in Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore and has worked on a broad range of EHS projects in Australia, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Ethiopia, France, Georgia, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Philippines, Portugal, Taiwan, Vietnam, USA and the UK.
As a Partner and Managing Director for two ERM offices in Asia, David has had responsibility and accountability for financial performance, development strategy and implementation, recruitment and staff development, technical project management and delivery and development of client relationships. He is currently serving as the Asia Pacific Managing Partner – Performance & Assurance at ERM. The breadth and depth of David’s business and technical experience and geographical exposure provides him with an exceptional and uncommon set of business and technical skills in the EHS sector.