Gina Fyffe is known for being a fierce promoter of diversity since the early days of her career in the 1980s. Her strong advocacy and leadership style are a large factor behind the success of Integra Petrochemicals, one of the world’s leading global petrochemical trading, distribution and shipping companies. But beyond diversity, Fyffe remains vocal on several issues affecting the petrochemical and shipping industries. Here, she talks to Fatima Sadouki, Senior Writer for HC Group, and shares key messages and learnings from her personal and professional journey.
Gina Fyffe doesn’t mind being different. In fact, this is what led her to be so successful in her career.
But being different was never an end in itself for Fyffe. The point is, “you have to be yourself”, and for this, “you have to be willing to do things differently,” she says after sharing her experience working in a highly male-dominated environment at the beginning of her career, a typical trait of the petrochemical and commodity industry at the time. Fyffe was a trailblazer: she was the second female graduate to be hired into chemical marketing by ExxonMobil in the late 1970s, the fifth woman to work on ExxonMobil’s UK petrochemical complex, and the only non-engineer.
Cultivating her difference as a woman is what enabled her to set boundaries in her own terms. She did it with a strong dose of mischief and humour.
Fyffe tells me how she dealt with colleagues picking on her as a young woman turning up in high heels and a skirt rather than in trousers to the office which happened to be based within a refinery site. “Why dress in a manner I was not used to?” she asks. It was not as if she had to climb towers or go on a ship, and when she did, she had a boiler suit in a cupboard by her desk. “One day, enough was enough,” she says. She “caused chaos at the refinery” when she decided to wear her white boiler suit to the office and match it with her sense of style... Fyffe turned up the collar, added a belt and some jewellery. She turned the front zip down, rolled up the sleeves and legs. “I rocked that boiler suit. This was the 80s, so it looked like something out of ABBA,” she laughs.
She got the message across. “Nobody ever complained after that because my ordinary skirt was certainly better than my boiler suit,” she goes on. “I was already different and an object of confusion because I was a woman. So I thought I might as well get on with it.”
Fyffe is eloquent and a natural storyteller. This is what makes her so approachable. There is no sense of vindication in her tone, nor does she sound self-important about any of her achievements considering the challenges she was facing at the time. There is a slightly amused sense of self-irony and certainly it is fun. I am left with some nagging questions: “What was driving you at the time? Was it survival? Was it that you needed a job?”
Fyffe’s short answer is that one should never be afraid of failing. “What have you got to lose?” she asks (this question came up several times during our exchange). It was probably helpful that she had no attachment to outcome because she didn’t have an end-goal, or anything that looked like a career plan. She never intended to stay with ExxonMobil and even less to become chairman of the company, she says half-jokingly.
But she ended up working for ten years for the US major, before joining another company where things didn’t turn out so well and ended up in court, as I’d read before this interview. “Ethics are important to me. I had a choice stay or leave, so I left!” she says.
Fyffe needed a job after that. She had several offers from her professional network to work as a trader. But the idea of setting up her own trading business was not taken seriously. “Nobody seemed to believe that as a young woman, I'd ever think of doing it myself. Women just didn't set up petrochemical companies on their own. And women in their early 30s didn't run trading companies. Some do now and they are doing just fine! Trading companies were big male organisations,” she says. “I don't know quite what everybody thought. But what it did was convince me that I should do it and do it differently, with my own agenda, my own compass. Why not?”
So, Fyffe founded Integra in 1989 based on this idea: she didn’t think it would survive longer than five years because of the fast-changing nature of the industry. Integra Petrochemicals started as a European olefin trader. It now handles a wide range of petrochemicals, gases and liquids, from bulk liquids, gases, and biofuels for a large portfolio of customers across the globe. The company is headquartered in Singapore and has offices in the USA, Europe, Saudi Arabia, India, China and Korea.
Integra Petrochemicals employs people across the globe with a wide range of nationalities, ages, backgrounds and a broadly even gender split. Again, it comes down to promoting differences and the benefits of diversity. She takes it upon herself to set the example in her company. “You have to lead from the front. I don't ask anybody to do anything that I wouldn't do myself. I'm very lucky because there are lots of really clever people in this company who can do all sorts of things much better than I can. You’ve got to take your ego out of the equation and surround yourself with people better at things than yourself,” she says.
Over time, Fyffe and her husband expanded their activity to shipping with an Asian-centred business with 16 tankers, real estate, a construction company, shrimp and fish farming in South-East Asia and other soft commodity projects.
She puts Integra’s 30+-years of success down to its capacity to be versatile, anticipate trends and adapt to unforeseen events. In many respects, this is what allowed Integra to handle the effects of COVID-induced lockdowns in Asia in early 2020, before the virus spread to other hubs around the globe.
Integra was ahead of the curve, having witnessed the initial impact of COVID in Asia from its headquarters in Singapore. The company was able to prepare the entire staff in Europe and the USA, as the COVID outbreak was still perceived as an ‘Asia-only’ problem. “We were able to sit down and put in place adequate contingency plans for every ship that was held up, trying to see where else in the region or nearby port we could find replacements,” she says. “People were exhausted.”
But one thing the company managed to do was to communicate very well, Fyffe says, not just among traders, suppliers and shippers but also across the company. Integra’s culture lent itself to the situation, and it is easy to see that Fyffe’s foresight and pragmatic leadership played a huge part in this too. “Because we’re a global company, we tend to have different nationalities,” she continues. “Communication is therefore really important for us. We were fortunate because everybody knew who their colleagues in the other regions were. Everybody knew how that person behaved under stress. It was just a question of doubling down on communication.”
This approach remains necessary as markets are still suffering from the effects of the pandemic and logistical issues. Fyffe says the market should brace itself for continued confusion this year, even if it has become used to high prices and persisting supply tightness. High oil and feedstock prices, combined with shipping costs will make it difficult to capture margins. “Petchems is going to be difficult this year. We need to be a little more cautious,” she warns. “I don't think that all crackers are necessarily going to be running at full capacity. Of course, everyone would like to run their plants at full rates and more... So prices are going to be wobbling all over the place with the potential for a downward trend. But then, with feedstock being so expensive, people might cut back on production and push prices up again,” she predicts.
Today, Fyffe sits on several boards and councils advocating on various topics, not just diversity. She is part of the Brussels-based European Petrochemical Association (EPCA) Council for talent, training and diversity. She is also a founding member of the Woman in Shipping & Trading Association (WISTA), now a global training and advocacy group.
Her response when I mention her winning multiple awards is another sign of humility: “Did anybody notice?” In late 2021, Fyffe was included for the fifth consecutive year in the Most Influential 50 Individuals in the Middle East Refining and Petrochemicals industry by the Refinery & Petrochemicals magazine. Fyffe had previously been nominated and awarded 2nd place as the Most Influential Woman in Oil and Gas in the Middle East.
But there is still a lot to do to achieve greater diversity. I ask Fyffe what needs to change in today’s narrative on the subject. She reverts to a more fundamental question: “Why doesn't our industry attract a more diverse population? It's not just about women. But if you use women as an obvious example, in many countries, women going to university, studying science & engineering make up 40-50% of graduates and even more in some countries. As an industry, we have around 17% of the management staff who are women.”
She comes back to the statistical realities at the earliest stage of recruitment. “How many women do you have applying for jobs in the company? How many CVs do you get from each group?,” she asks. “Looking at application versus intake, if your CVs are 80% male and 20% women, based on the numbers applying,” she explains, “and then end up with a 50-50 gender ratio on recruitment, you’re risking not choosing the best people, or you have some pretty clever maths skills,” she adds. “Perhaps we have an issue attracting a wider range of applicants.”
For Fyffe, this is because of an image problem that stretches beyond diversity. “Why don't people join the petrochemical industry? Let's face it, it's seen as a dirty, old industry. Today, sadly we are seen often as one of the bad guys. Until we can show how much value we have and how fun this industry is, we are going to have recruitment issues,” she states. “The petrochemical industry is actually doing quite a lot in the environmental and ESG space and policies,” she says. “I know many of the petrochemical companies which are investing in start-ups. They are doing all sorts of things to reduce their carbon footprint and waste, and taking an interest in the communities they work in,” she says.
I challenge Fyffe on the reasons why the petrochemicals industry can be perceived as so old-fashioned compared to other brownfield industries like oil and gas.
“At Integra, we believe in advocacy. So today, I am talking to you, challenging perceptions. I chair a board committee at EPCA. I am in my third term at the Gulf Petrochemical & Chemical Association, sitting on the International Trade Committee. I chaired the board of an international school. I try to lead by example. As a trader that is a role we can certainly play,” Fyffe replies. But the sector could do with rethinking and modernizing its communication style to appeal to mainstream audiences. “In most debates and platforms, the petrochemical industry is going to lose the argument before it even starts,” she says. “People are inspired not by Excel spreadsheets and data presentations but by visuals, narratives and stories.”
Similarly, the shipping sector suffers from perception issues and limited access to the mainstream to promote success stories. “Some ship-owners have managed to reduce their CO2 emissions remarkably in the last three to five years,” she says. If anything, the shipping sector has been the most exposed to new environmental rules. Fyffe tells me about the International Maritime Organization’s cap on sulphur emissions endorsed in January 2020 and the lessons learned since it has been in place – like the impact of retrofitting ships with scrubbers on conventional fuels, how to source low sulphur fuels, or the unexpected consequences of having to dispose of sulphur.
For its part, Integra itself has been busy tracking its scope 1, 2 and 3 carbon footprints. “We need to go to the shipowners and ask: What is the CO2 equivalent for this voyage? Where is the steel coming from? What was the feedstock? Sooner rather than later, our customers are going to ask us. We need to be ready and have the answers,” she explains. But it’s a mammoth task, not least because of the lack of actual data across the whole supply chain.
She calls on the need for more coordinated approaches across different regions. “What’s happening is that everybody is looking at their own little box and busy panicking, calculating their own CO2 emissions. Some companies are looking at the bigger picture. But more are going to have to do that, and it can't just be the Europeans.”
Fyffe is passionate about the shipping sector and there are many issues close to her heart. Crew welfare and mental health especially during COVID, with the inherent safety risks for sailors and ships, is a big one. “These sailors are exhausted,” she deplores. “Many have been on board ships for months and months, with their families at home. They're not in a good place,” she adds. “If it's a very dangerous cargo that you have on board that ship, with an exhausted and demotivated crew, it’s an accident waiting to happen. The industry, never mind the general public, really hasn't taken it on board,” Fyffe warns.
Her straight talk is refreshing. There is a lot to say. We end up digressing into other subjects, running over the allocated time.
I am confident that Fyffe will have more stories to tell in the future, partly because she never seems to take anything or herself for granted. In fact, her natural curiosity and thirst for learning new things seem to be a big motivation for her. She recently graduated from college in fine jewellery design and her children call her ‘Wiki’, after Wikipedia. “It’s faster to ask me than Google!” she says laughing.
She is extremely generous with her time, guidance and insights.
So, to close the interview off, I ask her about the past and what she would tell her younger self. It’s unlikely she would have done much differently, she says. She made a lot of mistakes along the way, she admits. But her mistakes have moulded her and gave her the drive to do things differently. “If I had to go back, I probably would have been just as outspoken, just as curious and experimental in my business and management style. And that remains the case today,” she ponders.
“But I would tell my younger self not to worry so much or to care as much about the personal criticism. You can look at personal criticism as a form of flattery especially when the people criticizing you are also trying to copy what you do,” she finishes with a giggle. - FS