When preparing for an interview with the chairman and managing director of the Australian and New Zealand arm of the world’s largest chemical producer, you don’t really expect the conversation to steer to gender equality. But that’s exactly what transpired when The CEO Magazine had the pleasure of speaking with the head of BASF ANZ, David Hawkins.

David Hawkins addresses gender imbalance

Having assumed the role in July last year, David has one eye on creating a sustainable future – through the continuing development of cutting-edge innovation in all of BASF’s markets – and the other trained on the gender imbalance within the industry. “We’re really looking to move away from being a traditionally male-dominated workforce,” he says. “We want to create a more diverse and engaged workforce, and we want to encourage more women in those professions to join our organisation.”

David, who joined BASF ANZ in 2000 to lead the IT, supply chain and procurement functions, is so determined to improve the company’s diversity that he has already formed a taskforce especially for it. “We’ve created a Diversity and Inclusion Council to consider these issues and to provide feedback to our senior leadership team on some of the approaches that they would suggest for us to help do that,” he says.

“Globally we have a focus on diversity, but the Diversity and Inclusion Council is something that we’ve adopted locally to tackle that global challenge. “I chair it, and we opened up nominations to anyone with a passion for the cause. As a result, we have a diverse group of eight members from varying levels of the organisation, with a good spread of age, gender and background.”

Making BASF ANZ a great place to work

While the council is still in its infancy, a clear approach has already been established. “For us, it’s about identifying why our traditional recruitment methods haven’t given us a sufficiently diverse candidate base, so we can then set about improving that system,” he explains. This is a critical element in fulfilling his overall vision for BASF ANZ, which is to “create a great place to work”.

We place a big focus on leadership behaviours, in the belief that it will drive culture and ultimately empower and engage our people.

“I see that in two ways,” he continues, “in how the business performs, focusing on parts of our global portfolio that we can be successful with here. Primarily, that’s looking at our local market sequence around agriculture, automotive coatings, construction, mining, and our manufacturing solutions portfolio. But, on top of that, I think it’s about creating an engaged workforce. We’re doing that by promoting a leadership style in which we’re open and honest, placing a big focus on leadership behaviours, with the belief that it will drive culture, and ultimately build the empowerment and engagement that we will need to achieve those growth challenges.”

A diverse business with agriculture at its core

With BASF ANZ servicing customers in a broad range of industries from agriculture, mining and energy, to nutrition and health and personal hygiene, David says he maintains the company’s consistency across the board by having each sector work towards a common goal. “It’s clearly a very diverse business operating in a huge number of industries, so what I am looking to do, with the help of my leadership team, is to create a unified culture across it,” he says. “By that I mean that we are utilising our experience and capabilities to help customers in those industries, but using a centralised functional engine to bring our expertise in different areas together and leverage it.

Fast facts:
BASF is present in 17 countries across Asia–Pacific.

“That functional engine includes finance, procurement, supply chain and operations, customer service, human resources, and corporate affairs. We are using all those levers to really drive excellence across all the things we do.” Of course, agriculture has been a core market for BASF ANZ since its relaunch in 2014. And with the department’s staff growing from 15 to 50 in just three years, and a suite of new crop-protection products soon to be released, it’s no wonder David is excited about the future of farming in Australia and New Zealand.

“We’ve got 25 products in the pipeline to launch over the next five years, and that sort of technology, at least in our history here, is unprecedented,” he enthuses. “We’re really looking forward to showing the Australian and New Zealand farmers these innovations, and explaining how they can help them. Back in 2014, we were managing this market through a big local distributor, but we made the commitment to go back into the market because we believed that we had a great set of products and innovations to come.”

Game-changing agricultural innovations

Moreover, the agriculture research farm in Tamworth, which opened in 2015, is beginning to bear fruit. “We are taking not just global innovations but also some local innovations to our agriculture research farm, where we are developing a wide range of cropping solutions in representative Australian conditions,” he reveals. “Our strong focus on agriculture is in response to our ever-increasing population, and the need to be creating more food and different types of food for a more urbanised and growing world.”

With more than 10,000 people globally working on the company’s R&D projects, of which a quarter are focused on agriculture solutions, BASF has produced no shortage of game-changing chemicals.

In fact, BASF ANZ has 120 products at present across broadacre farming, horticulture and pest control. Recently, the company worked with the New Zealand Department of Conservation and a local company to develop a protein-based wasp bait called Vespex that uses one of the company’s broad-spectrum insecticides. That product is helping to limit the devastation the insect is causing to the ecosystem of the Nelson–Tasman region of New Zealand.

Investing in the local community

As well as providing the active ingredient, BASF ANZ sponsored the ‘Wasp Wipeout’, chipping in NZ$22,000 to support the community initiative. “The protection of biodiversity is an important part of our commitment to sustainability, and we’re always looking for causes close to our hearts that we can really resonate with,” he says. “We saw a local group addressing the problem, and we thought we could help them. We have a strong investment in agriculture in New Zealand, so when we see causes like that, that we believe in, we are more than happy to support them.”

BASF has also been inspiring the next generation of chemists for the past 12 years, running a primary school program called Kids’ Lab. The program enables children to discover chemistry through fun and safe experiments that highlight how science affects us in our daily lives. “We take children aged eight to 12, and we give them a really positive experience in a laboratory by showing them the wonder and excitement of chemistry,” he adds.

With David advocating for greater female involvement in the industry, expanding the company’s presence in agriculture in the region, and investing in local community causes, a sustainable future appears to be in the pipeline too.