The scale and the challenge

In the fourth of Tank Storage Magazine’s coverage of the ‘Women in Tanks’ series, Xiling ‘Tess’ Zhou talks about her affinity to the industry and the joy of an international community

It’s fair to say that Xiling ‘Tess’ Zhou loves the tank storage industry, and she is a bit of a newcomer. Having spent much of her career with technology companies in the US and Belgium, she found herself looking for a new challenge in early 2015 and began to seek out meetings with companies in various industries. It was LBC Tank Terminals that caught her attention.

‘I felt an immediate affinity to the industry, because of its scale, international nature and the infrastructure itself,’ she says. ‘At LBC Tank Terminals, as group director of global project control, I looked over and supported a portfolio of large capex brown field and green field projects, as well as merger and acquisition (M&A) and carve-out initiatives. To construct and operate complex assets at scale, with consistency, in a sustainable and predictable manner is an intriguing business challenge that I enjoyed immensely. Add to that the opportunity to work in diverse countries, with international teams, at a time when there were large changes, I was hooked right away.’

SCALE AND CHALLENGE

The scale of the industry, she says, creates really interesting business challenges. While building a single tank on spec is relatively simple, it isn’t so simple when the construction project involves several new tank pits, a jetty, truck, rail and pipeline infrastructure and connecting to existing infrastructure, not to mention management of diverse stakeholders and contractors, the need to meet speed, quality and budget requirements and (phew) all with a near-zero tolerance of safety incidents. And sometimes in a working terminal.

‘Similarly, in operations, doing something perfectly once is not difficult. Doing the same thing dozens of times a day, consistently and safely, every day for years, is an operational challenge that requires multi-dimensional design, ranging from training, education and skill development to how to design the infrastructure and imbedded technology in a way to facilitate and support the human action. I really enjoy solving these challenges with the team,’ Zhou adds.

She also loves the international nature of the tank storage industry, with terminals strategically located around the world.

‘I grew up in Beijing, China, spent 16 years in the US, two years in UK and for the past 10 years have called Belgium home. For the majority of career to date, I worked with international teams from different countries. Working with, and learning from, colleagues with diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures is not only a privilege and pleasure, but also creates an environment where the team can leverage the richness of knowledge and experience to create innovative solutions. It has always been an amazing experience,’ she says.

DAY TO DAY

Zhou is now a partner at Global PMI Partners, an international consulting firm that specialises in post-merger integration (PMI) services that help companies to optimise the result of
their M&A activities. She joined the company in September 2020.

‘What I currently do on a day-to-day role in supporting clients is actually not too much different from what I did before, albeit in a compressed manner. My team and I support clients during a time of large change, where realising a deal rational means a complex balancing act to address operational, technical, technological, legal, communication and culture challenges, with a multi-disciplined team who often reside in different countries, speak different languages and have their own unique way of working. There is a lot riding on success of M&A deals, and I have the pleasure to support clients to translate deal synergies to reality,’ Zhou explains.

Of course, starting a new role in the middle of a pandemic has meant that many of the most fun aspects of the position – travelling to different countries, meeting new people face-to-face and visiting the assets, such as tank terminals – have not been possible. Technology has meant that she has still met new colleagues and clients, but not everything is possible via screen.

‘I do miss my safety walks and climbing tanks,’ says Zhou.

TACKLING BIAS

Industry and big business as a whole, and not just the tank storage industry, is still male-dominated. In 2000, just two Fortune 500 companies were led by women. In 2020, that had risen to 37, but as Zhou points out, there is still a long way to go to parity. She has found throughout her career that women are treated differently.

‘In my experience, while the overt discrimination is becoming a rarity in the professional setting I work in, covert assumptions are present. For example, in meetings and conferences, men are still often assumed to be the decision makers. In a corporate setting, women are still more frequently assumed to be in business support functions, rather than in operational or technical functions. Some of these assumptions are simply out of lack of awareness, or historical roles, but things are changing,’ she says.

With the expectation of both promoting diversity and being a role model, women in leadership can face a big responsibility but Zhou says this also represents a
big opportunity.

‘Women can and should be more vocal of our views and opinions. The women I work with often have a different perspective on risk and risk trade-off. This is not to say that they avoid risk, but they seek to mitigate and treat risk from multiple and different angles. It is precisely this difference that make women valuable in a project or leadership team. Similar applies to conflict resolution, negotiation and change management. We should not be staying quiet just because what we are thinking is different from what everyone else is voicing around the table,’ she says.

‘We often build teams differently. We embrace diversity and flexibility, without losing sight of the end objective. We should embrace and champion that.’

The best way to bring about progress is simply to keep at it. By carrying on doing a good job, raising awareness of gender equality and diversity and staying in the workforce, women pave the way for the ones that come after them. Keeping women in the workforce has traditionally been one of the biggest challenges, as societal pressures and motherhood take them away. Women are still the primary carers for both children and the elderly. Improving parental leave, childcare and elderly care support are obvious approaches, but companies need to step up too, Zhou says, with one move top of her list.

‘Address the gender pay gap. Be proactive and create a transparent plan to close it systematically. Transparency creates awareness and encourages understanding and cooperation. Closing the gap provides the economic incentive, so that women are more financially equipped to make choice themselves,’ she says.

‘From a business perspective, I believe that this is an investment with attractive return. Commitment to diversity will incentivise employee engagement and increase employers’ competitiveness on the talent market – these translate into project and operational excellence,  Furthermore, the size and complexity of our industry means that project and operational blind spots can have substantial financial and ESG impact – a diverse and well-rounded team give us the best chance to reduce such risk.’

Flexible work patterns are also crucial, something Zhou believes has been particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘In addition to a global health crisis, the COVID-19 crisis can potentially interrupt years of gender parity progress given the impossible work/home choices. By continuing commitment to the digitalisation and flexible work arrangement, our industry can help to minimise long-term COVID impact on workforce diversity,’ she says.

INDUSTRY IN CHANGE

Zhou is optimistic for change, and thinks the wage gap will be closed within the next 20 years, with more and more female candidates for roles in operations and engineering. Though there is work to do, the return on the investment will be ‘tremendous’. The tank storage industry is also changing.

‘I see an industry that is more self-aware and is taking on more responsibilities not only to its direct customers, but also towards greater society in general. To compete successfully in this environment, the industry is opening up to diverse talents, not just gender, but also experience, background, race, and ethnicity,’ Zhou says, adding: ‘The companies I interact with are opening up to seize the opportunity.’

The next 20 years, however, will see more changes than just better diversity. Zhou is already excited by the digital transformation she is seeing in traditional industrial infrastructure, which uses technology, tools and methodologies once reserved for tech companies, such as the use of big data to support automation and extract business intelligence. The tank storage industry has an opportunity to make a real impact.

‘As a society, we are facing tremendous climate challenges, and I believe that to achieve our ambition, scaling the solutions to industrial size is key, and the tank storage industry has the responsibility and opportunity to make significant contribution in the coming years,’ Zhou says.

Zhou has a message for women aspiring to join the tank storage industry.

‘For women who are in the earlier part of their professional career: the industry is facing an incredibly exciting decade to realise our climate ambitions, you will be making a business impact as well as industry history. Tremendous challenges and opportunities await – it’s a great time to join and make your mark!’

 

Tess Zhou

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