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EDGAR CHUA: The Subtleties of Strength

There isn’t much force in the tone of his voice, nothing intimidating in his stance or his demeanor. Still, for all that is calm and low-key about Shell Philippines country chair Edgar “Ed” Chua, he commands your attention. Better yet, he wins your respect – and more.

By Jose Paolo S. Dela Cruz

People Asia, December 2013-January 2014

Photo of Edgar Chua - PeopleAsia

One look at Shell’s impressive portfolio in the Philippines and it’s easy to see that it takes a tough guy to run this corporation. And for 10 years now, Ed Chua has been that tough guy.

So “tough,” in fact, that the country chairman of one of the Philippines’ largest multinationals was deemed as the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) Management Man of the Year in 2013, for “his exemplary leadership in steering the Shell Companies in the Philippines (SCP) to a level of sustainable growth and profitability that is admired by other Shell companies around the world.” It is a prestigious accolade, indeed, one conferred — and coveted — by only the most successful businessmen in the country. But while thankful and appreciative of the award, accolades aren’t exactly what fuels Ed’s drive.     

“I’m not very comfortable under the spotlight, actually,” Ed admits with almost boyish humility. It is a refreshing kind of shyness, a deviance from the power suits we usually see in fiction, or revere in real life for their business acumen. Not that he lacks said acumen.

Ed Chua, after all, is tasked with overseeing the entire operations, helping the businesses look for opportunities to grow, ensuring good reputation and developing talent. And he has the numbers to show for it. 

Shell Philippines has grown to employ more than 4,200 employees, within Ed’s tenure as country chair. In addition, he also heads 3,000 employees in the largest BPO contingent of the company, in the world. Under his leadership, Shell has also become the only active operator and producer for upstream business, through Malampaya in Palawan (which supplies around 30 percent of the country’s fuel for power). Last, but certainly not least, Shell enjoys the reputation of being the most preferred fuel brand among consumers, based on a number of consumer studies by independent bodies. 

Despite all these achievements, the man that steers the wheel for Shell Philippines has remained grounded – as grounded as on the first day he set foot into the company.

The perfect match

Ed’s partnership with Shell is a story of finding – and being found by – the right match.

Prior to this, he worked as a van salesman for Procter & Gamble, where he sold Dairy Creme for three weeks; and as a technical management trainee for Unilever, where he dabbled into shampoos and soaps for 11 months.

But upon joining Shell as a sales representative, he knew that he had made the right choice. It was a position he held for five years, until the company challenged him by assigning him to the finance department. Later, he made the rounds in audits, trading, operations and others.

“I thought I’d stay for a few years, but I really enjoyed what I was doing. I enjoyed the work, the company, the people I was working with.  Many multinationals tried to pirate me through the years, some even offering double my salary; but in the end, I always decided to stay,” Ed says.

He has also perfected his brand of management within his decades with Shell. This country chair is known for giving his people a lot of space and encouraging them not to be afraid of committing mistakes. “I believe in getting the best people, training them, motivating them, and then making sure that they are allowed to make their own decisions. What’s the point of getting these experts if you’re bent on simply dictating upon them? I’m a light touch, in terms of that division, I think,” he says with a smile. 

And almost 35 years later, the magic still continues. 

Perhaps part of that magic springs from the fact that it was when he was in Shell that he met his wife of 25 years now, Veronica. (Incidentally, Ed and his wife were celebrating their silver anniversary on the day of this interview.) “Back then, she was engaged in supply trading with another petroleum firm,” he recalls fondly. “There’s a lot of cooperation that goes on between supply traders. Outside, we’re competition, but we also work hard together to ensure the overall quality of petroleum supply and strengthen our industry.”

Photo of Edgar Chua - PeopleAsia

Building futures

Despite what many oil-watchers and critics might presume, there’s more to Ed’s job than keeping his company in the green. Advocacy is actually one of the most pivotal points of Ed’s job, and it is a responsibility he takes very close to heart.

Shell puts a premium on capacity-building and equipping beneficiaries of its programs with skills and education that may lead them to sustainable growth and progress. It is for this reason that they set up the Pilipinas Shell Foundation, and pursue partnerships with reputable non-government organizations (NGOs) from all over the nation.

Education is at front and center of Shell’s advocacies. This year alone, Shell has set aside P100 million worth of college scholarships, to be handed out in cooperation with the PhilDev Foundation. The company is also committed to fund P3 million worth of Professorial Chair scholarships for the University of the Philippines, in the next 25 years. 

“Whenever I go to UP, I feel sad because the facilities are behind and so many good professors are on their way out. We believe the professors need to be motivated to stay, so we must augment the financial aspects of getting a professorial chair,” he explains. 

Gas Mo, Bukas Ko is yet another clever and meaningful advocacy program offered by Shell to its gas attendants. Under this scheme, an exemplary performance by a gasoline boy would entitle him to a vocational course at the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), courtesy of Shell. There, he can choose his specialization as an auto-mechanic, bookkeeper or others. “The best part is they can leave. There’s no binding clause. In fact, we encourage them to leave, no strings attached, so that they can pursue greater things ahead,” Ed explains. 

For Ed, there’s nothing more rewarding than knowing that the shots they take with their scholars hit the bull’s eye. He speaks of a particular graduate of the Gas Mo, Bukas Ko program with much pride. “We had one scholar who started out with vocational training. He is now a very senior executive in one of the semiconductor companies; he’s second-in-command! Today, he is very happy, inspiring people in our classes, showing them that there is a purpose to studying and learning new skills.”

Prodded on why he’s very passionate about education, Ed is blatantly honest. “Hindi kasi kami mayaman. I lived in a small fishing village in Cavite, where everyone had very simple houses. My grandfather was a salt vendor and a band musician. We were ordinary – not even middle class. Everything I am, I owe to education.  Those who I grew up with, they never made it because they didn’t have the opportunity to study.”

 

For Ed, the opportunity came by way of his relatives, who helped him obtain a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemical Engineering from the De La Salle University, when his father got very sick in the course of his education.“Education is the great equalizer. It gives everyone a shot to a fairly brighter future,” he says.

More importantly, Ed believes in the people Shell helps – in their ability to make good decisions with the opportunities they are presented with. “Give them an opportunity and they will rise. Only very few would choose to waste an opportunity given to them, and those few should never be an excuse for you to stop helping,” he posits.

Shell has also been active in their relief operations, whenever natural calamities wreak havoc in the lives of our countrymen. After Typhoon Yolanda hit Tacloban, for instance, the company raised P130 million; the biggest sum to be raised by any Shell company in the world, for relief. 

This year, Shell celebrates its centennial anniversary in the Philippines, carrying on in its creed of providing quality fuel and petroleum products to consumers, and helping the underprivileged in the communities they serve.“For our 100th year, we are celebrating the legacy of Shell in the Philippines, with special focus on our contribution to nation building and national development through our multibillion dollar investments and social investment projects in health, education and livelihood, among others,” he says. 

What’s more, this country chairman’s advocacies are not limited to the confines of his title. His family also provides financial support to various organizations on children’s welfare. These are Hospicio de San Jose, Elsie Gaches, Haven for Children, Copa of St. James and Tuloy sa Don Bosco.  

In Ed Chua’s story, we glean a truth usually forgotten in a world of jaded corporate practices: that leadership is as much about the head, as it is about heart. For while pure, unadulterated strength can move mountains, only inspiration can move lives.

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